Matthew of Paris’ Royal Portraits

Four kings of Britain from Matthew of Paris


[Update 8/27/07: The British Library is now blocking links to their photos. If you go to their website directly and register, you can find this folio by searching for King Oswald.]

Four kings of Britain from the Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae (1250-1259) by Matthew of Paris, a monk of St. Albans. All of these graphics are available via British Library Images Online.

This is one of my favorite portrait folios. Matthew of Paris’ Abbreviato chronicorum Angliae has at least 16 royal portraits including all of the Norman kings. The portraits on this page are particularly interesting because he is choosing only four kings to represent nearly 350 years. All of these kings were carefully chosen. The next portrait page holds Edmund martyr, Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. From William I all of the kings of England are illustrated in order up to Matthew of Paris’ time.

In the top row we have Uther Pendragon compared to Æthelberht (of Kent). Uther Pendragon is portrayed as the last Roman, clean shaven and red cloak with his sword drawn. The dragon head makes his identity obvious. (Why Uther rather than Ambrosius?) Æthelberht of Kent is portrayed as the lawgiver, holding the first written Saxon laws, after the Roman manner, according to Bede. Although Æthelberht was the first Christian English king, there are no symbols of his conversion. His robes are brown and rustic. He is the only king shown in brown with his cloak thrown back, rather than draped over his lap.

There is a direct comparison between Arthur and Oswald as well.

King Arthur

Like his father, Arthur is shown in a war posture on a military camp chair holding the five crowns representing his empire.


Picture of 'St Oswald'

This is perhaps the best medieval portrait of King Oswald, here specifically called St. Oswaldus. Oswald stands out as the Christian king among all of these portraits. Some of the later kings hold a church or a book, but Oswald is the only king holding a cross. This is not just a cross but a huge cross. It is as big as it could be to fit in the page frame. Oswald’s book does not refer to laws or his scholarship. It is a direct reference to evangelism. Oswald is a promoter of this gospel book.

Now look at the feet of Oswald and Arthur. Here is the best comparison between the two. They both rest their feet on another king. Oswald has his foot on the neck of a rather bored looking king, his footstool. Arthur rests his feet on a severed head. Oswald the paramount Christian king dominates — by the grace of God — but he does not kill to do so. Arthur holds nothing back. He holds his five crowns and rest his feet on a dead rival. This is Arthur the Red Ravager of Welsh lore (not that Matthew necessarily knew of the Welsh triads). This is highlighted by Arthur’s red background; Oswald has a cool royal blue. This does fit into a pattern of alternating red and blue backgrounds to the portraits, but as the first page of portraits, this page sets the standard.

Both kings have an obvious imperial stature. Resting their foot on another king makes this clear, and they are the only kings among the 16 shown by the British Library with their feet on another king. Oswald’s portrait reminds me particularly of Psalm 110.

The Lord says to my lord,
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.’

With so many early kings to choose from in both Bede’s History and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, Matthew’s choices fascinate me.

Uther Pendragon vs Æthelberht of Kent : they both have obvious Roman links, the last Roman vs the first English king to welcome the return of Rome. It would be interesting to know what Matthew’s text says on both, but I haven’t been able to find a translation of it.

Arthur vs St. Oswald: this is the most interesting comparison. Both were credited as being emperors. Matthew clearly rejects Geoffrey’s version of Oswald. Both are heroes of Northern Britain and noted warriors. Arthur’s first mention in Y Gododdin is the same territory of Oswald’s Bernicia! Both are credited with exceptional swords — Arthur’s Excaliber and Oswald White Blade (Historia Brittonum). Neither produced a successful dynasty; both had sons who were traitors. Both had a noted romance with father issues. Bede doesn’t develop Oswald’s marriage to the Wessex princess but this is the basis of the romance Oswald that was very popular in Germany (the source of the Raven and the Ring legend). Is it really any wonder that I like them both so much?





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