Christian Works : Life of St Edward the Confessor

'Matthew Paris'

Christian Works

The only copy of an illustrated Anglo-Norman verse Life of St Edward the Confessor, written in England probably in the later 1230s or early 1240s and, as preserved in this manuscript, executed c. 1250-60.

A masterpiece of mid thirteenth-century English illumination, the present manuscript preserves vital evidence for the study of the hagiographical writings about St Edward sponsored by Henry III (1216-72), and also for the complexity and sophistication of English pen and wash narrative art in this period. The text, entitled in the first rubric La estoire de seint aedward le rei translatee de latin, is based upon Aelred of Rievaulx's twelfth-century Latin Life, written around the time of the saint's canonisation in 1161. The Life tells how Edward was exiled as a boy during the Danish occupation, and how his rule proved of benefit to the English people; it describes his visions and miracles, his patronage of Westminster Abbey and the manner of his death, before covering the downfall of his successor, Harold, and the eventual opening of the king's tomb.

The present translation into verse was composed by someone either at Westminster, where the shrine of the saint lay, or more probably at St Albans. Numerous correspondences between the text and the historical works of Matthew Paris (d. 1259) suggest very strongly that Matthew was in fact the author. The text opens with a form of dedication to Queen Eleanor of Provence, and was thus composed after 1236, when Eleanor married Henry III, but probably before the birth of Prince Edward, later Edward I, in 1239, and certainly before the start of work on the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey by Henry III in 1245, which the passages in the poem about St Edward's own refoundation of the Abbey appear to anticipate.

Consisting of thirty-seven folios and a total of sixty-four pictures, the present manuscript is a slightly later copy of the original. The script and illustrations demonstrate numerous points of contact with a number of stylistically and codicologically similar manuscripts produced not at St Albans but in London, or at Westminster itself: these include the Getty (formerly Dyson Perrins) Apocalypse, the Morgan Apocalypse and the Tanner Apocalypse. A similarly delicate hand was employed on now fragmentary wall paintings in the Dean's Cloister at Windsor Castle, made for Henry III in the 1250s. The Life of St Edward is probably the latest of the series, since some of its illustrations are in the French-influenced 'broad-fold' style common from the later 1250s; these, and some of the pen and wash marginalia, also include naturalistic foliage common only from the 1250s. This indicates that the present copy was probably made on the basis of Matthew Paris's original by court illuminators working around 1255, possibly for the use of Eleanor of Castile, who married Prince Edward in 1254, and who later owned a manuscript Life of St Edward.

The format of the manuscript, with framed illustrations at the head of the page, resembles such autograph works of Matthew Paris as his Life of St Alban in Dublin, and also the stylistically related Apocalypses. Here, however, the form of the poem, in octo-syllabic rhymed couplets which yield a short line and thus three columns of text per page, has shaped the appearance of each opening. As a rule the illustrations, accompanied by rubrics, cover all three columns, but occasionally occupy fewer. The marginalia are notable: that on the first opening (fo. 3) shows a semi-erased image of a man and woman kissing, perhaps a subversive reference to the substance of the main text, which stresses Edward's chastity.

Paul Binski
Professor of the History of Medieval Art
University of Cambridge

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