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Matthew Paris map of Britain

The finest of the four maps drawn by a 13th-century monk at St Alban's, which are the earliest surviving maps of Britain with such detail and accuracy. This one, made about 1250, raises questions about the home nations: Scotland, Wales... and Devonia?

Matthew Paris map of Britain, 1250

Matthew Paris map of Britain, c.1250
Cotton Claudius D.VI.f.12
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

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Who was 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.

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, Antoninus Pius. Both are shown schematically as battlemented features: the Antonine Wall was, in fact, a ditch and turf-wall structure.

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's map is remarkable.

How independent was Wales at this time?

When the map was made around 1250, Wales was composed of a number of small kingdoms, of variable power. Llywelyn the Great gained sufficient authority to rule all of Wales from 1210 to 1240, but only by acknowledging the English king as his overlord. After Llywelyn's death, power in Wales crumbled. His grandsons, Llywelyn and Dafydd, were the last independent rulers of Wales and their rebellion against Edward failed. In March 1284, the Statute of Rhuddlan brought Wales under English control. Most of the Welsh princes were dispossessed and their lands passed to English barons. In 1301, Edward made his eldest son Prince of Wales and the title has remained with the heir to the English throne ever since, despite stout resistance by Owain Glyn Dwr in the early 1400s.

For more details see the Pennal Letter.

What about Scotland?

Scotland was strongly independent when Matthew made his map, and maintained its separation for far longer than Wales - until the early 1700s - though it nearly fell to Edward I in the decades following Matthew's death.

For more details see the Declaration of Arbroath.

And Ireland?

England's involvement with Ireland had began in earnest with Henry II's victories there in 1171, and in 1254 Henry III passed the Lordship of Ireland to his son with the stipulation that the country should not be separated from the English crown. An Irish parliament in Dublin was established in 1297, though it consisted solely of Anglo-Irish, with no native Irish. Norman lords fought the local Irish for possession of land, and the native population sought the help of Robert Bruce in 1315 after his victory at Bannockburn, and his brother Edward was inaugurated as king of Ireland in 1315. The Irish wrote to the Pope in 1317 expressing their views in no uncertain terms about English occupation with the Irish Remonstrance. There were to be many centuries of strife yet.

For more details see the Home Rule notes by Gladstone.

Why is 'Devonia' written in the same colour as Scotland?

Matthew left us no 'key', so we don't know the exact significance of the colours (and final colon) he uses to name Scotland ('Scocia:') and 'Devonia:'. The names of Wales and Norfolk are given equal prominence, too; nobody knows what Matthew had in mind.

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