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Matthew Paris’ map of Great Britain

Image from Matthew Paris’ map of Great Britain

Matthew Paris' map of Great Britain
British Library Cotton MS Claudius D.vi, f.12v
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This is the most comprehensive and artistically successful of four maps of Great Britain drawn by the 13th-century historian Matthew Paris, who was a monk at St Alban’s Abbey. Many geographical features are recognisable. His are the earliest surviving maps with such a high level of detail. They stand out in the history of medieval mapmaking as the first attempts to portray the actual physical appearance of the country rather than represent the relationship between places in simple schematic diagrams.

What’s known about Matthew Paris?

He entered the Abbey of St Alban as a monk on 12 January 1217, and was probably born some 17 years earlier. Matthew spent the rest of his life there, apart from visits to the royal court in London, and a year-long mission that took him to an abbey in Norway. As his map shows, St Alban’s was the first stop on the journey north from London, a resting place for travellers who, no doubt, carried the latest news and gossip.

Matthew Paris produced the most important historical writings of the 13th century. His chief work, the ‘Chronica Major’, chronicled events from the creation of the world until 1259, the year he died. For its greater part, the ‘Chronica Major’ is a revision and expansion of an existing chronicle by an earlier St Alban’s monk, called Roger of Wendover. From 1235 onwards, however, it’s the first-hand record of events the author heard about or witnessed for himself.

Paris is one of the most engaging of medieval chroniclers. His accounts are detailed and well informed, with lively descriptions of people involved and analysis of the causes and significance of the events recorded. Matthew’s connections made him a well-placed observer of contemporary affairs. He was on personal terms both with the king, Henry III, and his influential brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. At their courts he must have gained many insights into domestic and foreign politics.

His writings reveal a man of strong opinions who was not afraid to speak his mind. Being befriended and publicly honoured by Henry III on several occasions did not prevent him from being as critical of the king’s lack of prudence in political matters as he was praising of his piety in religion.

Paris was also an accomplished artist, providing many expert drawings in the margins of his manuscripts to illustrate the events he described. Among these are the first known views and plans of London. This map of Great Britain was intended as a complement to his shorter chronicle of English history.

What does his map show?

The map is mainly delineated by its rivers and coastlines on either side of a north-south axis. It’s particularly rich in the number of named cities, towns, hills and rivers – over 250 of them. Panels around the margins of the map identify the nearest land in each direction.

The boundary between England and Scotland is clearly marked by Hadrian’s Wall, 73 miles long and built between 122 and 130 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to protect the Empire’s most northerly border. Further north is the Antonine Wall constructed by Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius. Both are shown schematically as battlemented features: the Antonine Wall was, in fact, a ditch and turf-wall structure.

London is acknowledged as the country’s largest city by having the most elaborate towered and battlemented frame surrounding its name. Windsor Castle is shown upstream on the banks of the River Thames. The Isle of Thanet appears off the south coast, not yet joined to the mainland by silting and land reclamation. In north-west Wales, the peaks of Mount Snowdon are roughly indicated and labelled, ‘Snaudun’.

Why is the map strangely shaped?

The map was drawn some 300 years before precise surveying was made possible by the invention of triangulation in the 16th century, followed by the development of more accurate surveying instruments in the Low Countries. Given these limitations, Matthew Paris’ map is remarkable.

He must have drawn upon existing information gathered by travellers and possibly an earlier map based on a Roman model and now lost. The Romans made the first strides in discovering the true shape of the British Isles. When he served as Governor of Britain between 78 and 85 AD, Agricola sailed far enough north to locate the Orkney islands in their proper place.

The way in which Scotland veers to the east in Paris’ map may suggest that it owes something to the depiction of Britain by Ptolemy, the famous second-century geographer and astronomer. Ptolemy lived in Alexandria, where he produced a seven-volume work on the geography of the known world around 150 AD.

He devotes a chapter entitled ‘Albion island of Britannia’ to England, Wales and Scotland. Since travel was by sea, Ptolemy concentrates on listing prominent coastal features and river estuaries, naming each and giving its coordinates of latitude and longitude. His also notes the names of the British tribes and their main settlements.

None of Ptolemy’s maps survive, but they can be reconstructed by plotting his coordinates. The first reconstructions were made at the end of the 15th century. His depiction of Scotland has a marked slant to the east.

Matthew Paris’ map also distorts the lower part of the country. This is the consequence of his using the main north-south route between Berwick and Dover as the backbone of the map. The road to Dover actually runs south-east from London, not due south as the map shows. This straightening of the route forces the River Thames to open its estuary on the south coast and makes Essex, rather than Kent, the south-east corner of the country.

How did the map come to the British Library?

It was a part of the collection begun in the 17th century by Sir Robert Cotton, a keen antiquarian. In his library, a series of busts of the Roman emperors sat on top of the bookshelves. The shelfmark of this manuscript, Cotton Claudius D vi, records its position as the sixth book on shelf D beneath the bust of Emperor Claudius.

The collection was presented to the nation by Robert Cotton’s grandson in 1700. However, the dilapidated state of Cotton’s house gave cause for concern over the collection’s safety. The library was moved first to Essex House in the Strand, then to Ashburnham House in Westminster. In 1753, the Cotton collection found a home in the newly founded British Museum. The collection was transferred to the British Library on its foundation in 1973.

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