Description

One of the most significant works by Matthew Paris (1200–59), author, illuminator and monk of St Albans Abbey, is the Historia Anglorum, a chronicle of English history from the Norman Conquest to the year 1253. This copy of that text is prefaced by a gallery of eight Norman and Plantagenet kings of England, from William the Conqueror (r. 1066–87) to Henry III (r. 1216–72). Each king is shown seated on a throne, holding a representation of a building of which he was a patron. Most of these buildings are monastic: King John, for example, holds the Cistercian abbey at Beaulieu, Hampshire.

The benign depiction of John in this miniature is in sharp contrast with the hostile treatment he receives within the pages of Paris’s chronicle. Paris based his text on an earlier work by another St Albans author, Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), significantly expanding and amending it in the light of events through which he himself had lived. Shaken by the Interdict crisis of 1208–13 and its aftermath, Paris denounces King John as a traitor to the English Church, an oppressive force and a ‘tyrant rather than a king’.

This portrayal continues in Paris’s chronicling of the events surrounding the granting of Magna Carta. Although his account of those turbulent years is occasionally confused, he is steadfast both in his strong criticism of the king and in his support for the barons. Paris uses a report of a conversation among the barons in 1216 to insert his own characterisation of the king, one that was to be echoed by centuries of subsequent historians: ‘John, last of kings, principal abomination of the English, disgrace to the English nobility’.

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