Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Alfred J. Church

Of the Abbey of St. Alban, of Offa, of Matthew of Paris

The third day of June, 1468.

I have dwelt in this Abbey for the space of five years with fair report, as I trust, from them that bear rule therein, and not wholly barren, of good works done for the glory of God and for the honour of this pious foundation. And because this Abbey was for many generations renowned as a seat of learning and letters, in which, if I may be suffered to speak in a Pagan fashion, while all the Muses have been worshipped, special honour bath been had to the Muse of history, I purpose to write down certain things which they that shall come after me shall think it not lost labour to read. But I shall be content to write only the things which I have myself seen, or wherein I have taken a part. Of the history of this realm or of the other kingdoms of Christendom I do not presume to speak, not counting myself equal to them who in this place have dealt with such things, such as were Roger of Wendover, Matthew Paris, Thomas Rishanger, and Thomas Walsingham. But though these matters are too high for me, and, indeed, at least in these present days, are best treated by one that doth live, not in the cloister, but in the world, of lesser things I do not fear to write. For that which seemeth of small account in the present doth often become exceeding precious by mere passage of time. Even as we do count the silver cups which Abbot Warren, in the days of King Richard the First, gave to the house, though they be both small and thin, as of more value than the great bowl of silver gilt which was bought but last year, so we do love to read of little things, so they be of times long past, rather than of great things which are present with us.


Offa, King of Mercia.

First, then, I will write, but that very briefly, of this Abbey of St. Alban wherein He who ordereth the affairs of men hath cast my lot. 'Tis a house of the Benedictines, which Offa, King of Mercia, second of the name, did found about the year of our Lord seven hundred and ninety and three. This Offa was warned of God in a dream that he should search out the relics of St. Alban—that was Christ's first martyr in this realm—and lay them in a suitable place. Then the King, desiring to obey the heavenly vision, communicated the thing to Humbert, Archbishop of Lichfield, and, by his counsel, journeyed to the town of Verulam, the same that is now called St. Alban's, a great company of men, women, and children following him. Nor had he need to search long time for that which he sought, for he saw (as may be read in the Greater Chronicle of Matthew Paris) a ray of light, like unto a great torch, come forth from the sky, and fall, as might a flash of lightning, upon the burial-place of the martyr. (This Alban, I should say, was a Roman soldier in the camp that was in old time in the town of Verulamium, and made confession of his faith, even unto death, in the days of Diocletian the Emperor.) Now there had been a church of stone built in this same place by St. German, Bishop of Auxerre, in the year of our Lord four-hundred-and-thirty, of which Baeda, surnamed the Venerable, writes that it was of a marvellous beauty; which church had been wholly destroyed by the Saxons, so that not one stone of it was left. Hence it had come to pass that a place before known of all was now known of none. But now King Offa being, as I have shown, divinely led, found a coffin of wood, and in the coffin the bones of the Saint, and with these, relics of all the apostles and of other martyrs which St. German had caused to be placed therein. And all the people wept for joy when they saw this thing. Afterward the archbishop and bishops carried the bones very reverently to a certain church without the town, and laid them in a shrine made of gold and silver and precious stones. After this, King Offa journeyed to Rome, where, when he had visited all the holy places, he made his petition to Adrian I., being at that time Pope, for help and favour in the building of a house for monks in honour of St. Alban. This the Pope willingly promised, saying that he should take counsel with his bishops and nobles as to the possessions and privileges which he was minded to give to the said house, and that he, the Pope, would confirm all such gifts, and would adopt it for a daughter of the Roman Church, and subject it to his own jurisdiction, exempting it from all other.

So the King, having returned to his realm of England, called together a council of his bishops and nobles at Verulam, and, with their consent, founded this house, bestowing upon it many possessions, both of lands and benefices, and also many privileges, of which the chief was this—that it should have power to collect from the whole county of Hertford all the moneys commonly called Peter's pence, and to divert them to its own use.

So much having been said of the foundation of this house, it followeth to speak very shortly of its outward aspect. On the north side is the great church, with which for length none in this realm can compare, and for magnificence but few only. Of the first building of this church, of that which hath been added thereto or changed therein, there is no need to speak; for it is, as I suppose, known to every man. On the south side of the church are the cloisters, and to the east of these the chapter-house where the brethren meet daily for counsel and edification, and to choose to vacant places, when there chance to be such. And next to the chapter-house is the great dormitory, and under this the chamber of those that have been bled (for every monk must lose blood twice in the year, except the leech forbid for his health's sake). On the one side of the dormitory is a chapel, and on the other the refectory. Eastward, near to the Holywell Gate, is the infirmary, with a cloister of wood and a fair garden, wherein the sick may walk for their health. And to the south of the refectory is the kitchen, with other offices, among which is the sartory, or tailor's shop. (For it is a rule of St. Benedict, who established our order, that every house should suffice for itself, having within itself all necessary trades, so that there should be no occasion for the service of strangers.) Besides these there is a great square with cloisters all about it, and a conduit of water in the middle, and a place for washing. And there are many other buildings, of which there is no need to speak, save only to mention the Abbot's lodging and his guest-house, very fine and stately, as it must needs be, since it hath ever been the custom of the house to entertain many great and noble guests.

But I must not forget to note the great court of the Abbey, which lieth to the westward and the southward of the church. This is girt about with a wall very high and strong, being four square in shape, and of four hundred feet every way. On the north side is a gateway, and over the gate a tower very strongly fortified, wherein the Abbot is wont to keep prisoners such as offend in his jurisdiction.

Our daily manner of life is this. Soon after midnight the little bells are rung by the keeper of the church, and we assemble together for that service of God which is called matins. Matins being ended, we go back to our sleeping chamber. At six of the clock cometh the service of prime, to which we are called by the ringing of the smallest bell, time being given that we may put on our day habit and cleanse ourselves in the lavatory. And after prime is high mass without interval (this is a particular custom of the house, that the brethren may have the more time without interruption for study, or such work as may be laid upon them). Mass ended, there is given us a breakfast of bread and wine. Then follow study and work. And at eleven of the clock the cymbal is sounded that the brethren may wash their faces and hands at the conduit, and so make themselves ready for dinner. After this we go into the choir for sexts, where we sing together the Fifty-first Psalm and the Sixty-seventh, and thence to the burial-place, where we stand among the graves, our heads bare, that we may have them that are departed in perpetual recollection. After this, if it be the summer season, there is time allowed for sleep; and in winter they that will may walk. At three of the clock are nones, with study both before and after, and at five of the clock supper is served. After supper come vespers; and then, if the weather be fair, it is permitted to walk in the garden, or to play at bowls upon the green set apart and made smooth for that purpose. There are certain days of recreation when we may talk together, but on others such speech only is permitted as is needful. And four times in the year are the bathing days, and once in each month a day for shaving and clipping the hair.

Our habit is a black tunic, furred in winter; and over it an upper frock with great sleeves. On our heads we have a cowl, split, with pointed ends in front. In the winter season we have also a pelisse. Our boots are round toed, and not after the fashion commonly used, which maketh them long and pointed out of all reason, so that I have seen a gallant whose boot-ends did curl well-nigh up to his knees. Beneath we have for clothing a shirt of linsey-woolsey; our hosen are of white cloth, and our breeches tied with laces. Each man hath also a pouch wherein are a knife, a comb, a bodkin, needle and thread, and a writing tablet.

But the thing of which I am chiefly concerned to write is the scriptorium, which may be rendered the chamber for the writing and making of books; and herein I am constrained, by the love and honour which I do bear to his name, to make mention of one who did use this chamber in time past, to wit Matthew Paris, who, though he attained not to higher dignity than to be plain monk of this house, yet hath a name above that of any abbot that bath ruled it from the beginning until now.


A Drawing of Matthew Paris.

This Matthew, then, surnamed of Paris, either because he was born in that city, or, as I rather think, because he was sometime a scholar of the University that is therein, took the monk's habit in the year of our Lord, 1217, being then seventeen years of age. King Henry, the third of the name, had him in great esteem, and commanded his presence on certain great occasions of state, to the end that these might find in him a worthy chronicler. Thus in the month of October, in the year 1247, he sent for him to be present at the feast of King Edward the Confessor, that was held at Westminster, and himself desired him to write an account of what had been done thereat. And when, in the space of three years afterwards, the king's daughter was married to Alexander of Scotland, Matthew of Paris was present at the marriage. And in the year 1257 the King came to the monastery and tarried there as a guest for a whole week, during which time he bade Matthew sit as a guest at his table, and held much talk with him in his chamber, telling him many things out of his own knowledge and experience wherewith he might enrich and enlarge his history. And when the University of Oxford was in danger to suffer from the encroachment of the Bishop of Lincoln, in whose diocese the said university is locally situate, the said Matthew prevailed with the King that the Bishop should not have his way. Nor was he held in less regard by them that bare rule in the house. So, when the House of the Benedictines at Drontheim in Norway, had fallen into no small trouble and confusion by reason of the ill-management of its abbots, this Matthew was sent thither that he might order things for the better, being held to be a prudent man and well skilled in affairs. But his fame chiefly resteth in the books that he wrote; that is to say, the Greater Chronicles, in which he recordeth the history of the world, from the Creation to the year of our Lord 1259 (in which same year he died); also the History of the English, which is, indeed, the said Chronicles writ short, and the Lives of the Abbots of St. Alban's. A very great and notable writer was he, a lover of his country, and one that set himself against all wrongdoing and tyranny, by whomsoever it might have been committed. And he was so skilful with his pen that he could not only write most eloquently therewith, but could also pourtray that concerning which he wrote, drawing faces of men, and battles, and councils, and divers other things, as may be seen to this day in sundry volumes yet preserved in this house.

This Matthew died, as I have said, in the year 1259, worn out by infirmity, though he had not attained to a great age. But he had laboured in his calling with diligence too great, not verily for his fame, but for his health and life. And, indeed, he had been constrained for some years before his death to use the help of others in the writing of his histories. There is yet to be seen the likeness of this Matthew, drawn after his decease, as he lay upon his bed in the infirmary, in the habit of a monk.