REVIEW: Chroniclers of History - medieval wonders in St Albans, Herts

Medieval manuscript showing a scribe at work, from The Bodleian Libraries collection, University of Oxford

A scribe at work, from The Bodleian Libraries collection, University of Oxford - Credit: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Creating one of the greatest libraries in the medieval world, the monks of St Albans Abbey were chroniclers of the age. A new exhibition brings their precious works back to the city, writes Gillian Thornton. 

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in 13th century St Albans.   The Benedictine monastery here is the most important in England, with nine cells ranging from nearby Redbourn to distant Northumbria. It manages two nunneries at Sopwell and St Mary de Pré. And its great stables have space for 300 horses, their visiting owners ranging from humble tradesmen to royalty.   
Tucked away inside the Scriptorium, a medieval monk is painstakingly working on his chronicle. An account not just of local and monastic life, but of events far beyond the confines of the town. A talented teller of tales, he is also no mean artist. So what do you expect to see?  Pictures of Biblical figures, for sure.  Perhaps some local people and places too. But an elephant? 

Matthew Paris’ illustration of an elephant from his Chronica Maiora or Greater History.

Matthew Paris’ illustration of an elephant from his Chronica Maiora or Greater History. The animal was kept at the Tower of London and Matthew appears to have made a special visit to view it. It doesn’t have any specific relevance to the history of England but was included, like many details, because Mathew found them interesting - Credit: Parker Library, Corpus Christi Cambridge

Welcome to the world of Matthew Paris, monk, chronicler, and friend to the movers and shakers of the age. Which is why this medieval celebrity was one of just a few people privileged to have seen the royal elephant. And now, 800 years later, visitors to St Albans can see the illustration that Paris drew of the huge beast gifted to Henry III by the King of France for his menagerie at the Tower of London. Paris even sketched in the keeper for scale. 
This extraordinary image is one of many gems on show at St Albans Museum + Gallery until the end of October as part of the Chroniclers of History exhibition. Almost all the manuscripts on display were produced in the Scriptorium of St Albans Abbey between the 13th and 15th centuries, but have been scattered in libraries and institutions across the country for centuries. Now, for a few weeks only, they are on loan from the National Archives and The British Library, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Parker Library in Cambridge. And admission is free. 

Chroniclers of History exhibition at St Albans Museum and Gallery

The exhibition brings back works that have not been together for centuries - Credit: St Albans Museums/Cecelina Tornberg

The survival of these precious books and documents is, in itself, something of a miracle. Many were lost during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, although, ironically, several ended up in his own collection. An exhibition of manuscripts may not sound particularly enthralling, elephant or no, but the information panels displayed beside them brings this turbulent period of history vividly to life. And many of the books are beautifully illustrated, coloured and gilded - windows on a remarkable time.   
‘The monks of St Albans were creating, copying and preserving historic, scientific and philosophical texts that helped to define their world,’ says David Thorold, curator of Verulamium Museum, and curator of Chroniclers of History. 

Medieval manuscript at Chroniclers of History exhibition, St Albans Museum and Gallery, Hertfordshire

One of the medieval manuscripts on display - Credit: St Albans Museums/Cecelina Tornberg

‘At a time when writing was unusual and books were rare, Matthew Paris, Thomas Walsingham, Richard Wallingford, and their fellow scribes preserved a record not just of the medieval world, but also its mindset. Without them, our knowledge of our own history would be significantly poorer.’ 
Normally, only professional researchers are able to see these books close up. So the opportunity to see them together now, beautifully presented in one room in the city in which they were created, is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. 
 ‘St Albans possessed one of the great libraries of the medieval world,’ adds Professor James Clark of the University of Exeter, consultant to the exhibition and author of the exhibition catalogue. ‘This exhibition brings some of its books back together for the first time since 1539.’ 
And not just books. Among significant documents on display is the Deed of Surrender of St Albans Abbey, from December 5, 1539. Handed over to King Henry's commissioners, it is just 18 lines long, written in Latin on parchment and sealed in red wax. 
The first chronicler to be identified at St Albans Abbey was Roger of Wendover who died in 1236, his job passing to his trainee, Matthew Paris. Everyone wanted to be immortalised in his lively and wide-reaching chronicles, even though Paris took no prisoners and you could never be sure what he would write about you.   
Through the exhibition, visitors can enjoy some of Paris’s original work and – thanks to large-scale projections on the wall – facsimile pages from his Life of St Alban in all their graphic detail. Not for the squeamish is the illustration of Alban’s executioner whose eyes supposedly fell out as he struck the fatal blow! 

King Offa and his gift of the monastery of St Albans from The Golden Book of St Albans

King Offa and his gift of the monastery of St Albans from the Book of Benefactors, otherwise known as The Golden Book of St Albans - Credit: The British Library

As you work your way round the room, you meet John of Wheathampstead who resigned as Abbott after 20 years, only to be persuaded back into office during the Wars of the Roses. It’s a humbling experience to gaze on the only surviving copy of his history of England. Then there’s Christina of Markyate, a young nun endowed with a priory at Markyate. The St Albans Psalter was made in the Abbey scriptorium during the 1130s and images of the lavish illustrations that inspired her can be enjoyed via an interactive screen.  
Other screens display videos of calligraphy and chronicling by professional scribe and illuminator Patricia Lovett who will be leading a one-day masterclass at the museum entitled Glittering Gilders on Sunday October 24 (£80 including tools and materials). 
The medieval chronicles on display here describe visitors and benefactors; reveal the extent of medieval scientific knowledge; and include national events that were to inspire writers like Shakespeare. Each one is unique, but viewed together, they underline the importance of St Albans Monastery, not just in contemporary medieval life, but also in our own understanding of those who went before.   

Chroniclers of History: The Medieval Monks of St Albans and their Books is on at St Albans Museum + Gallery until October 31. For full details of the exhibition and related events, visit