Every great hero of English history needs a zealous and over-enthusiastic biographer, and Matthew Parker is no exception. His champion was the English clergyman and historian John Strype (1643-1737), whose biography, The Life and Acts of Matthew Parker, published in 1711, represents the first proper, full length biographical study of Parker.  The work is not without its faults: Strype’s prose is, to say the least, colourful, his style is effusive, and his tone reverential, and yet there is something irresistible about the passion and sincerity that fills Strype’s near-hagiographical study of Matthew Parker (the Man, the Myth, the Legend).
Strype also offers invaluable insight into how Parker’s accomplishments and legacy had come to be viewed within the 150 years following his death:
“His Learning, though it were universal, yet it ran chiefly upon Antiquity, In so much that he was one of the greatest Antiquarians of the Age, And the World is for ever beholden to him for two things: Viz., for retrieving many antient Authors, Saxon and British, as well as Norman, and for restoring and enlightening a great deal of the antient History of this noble Island. … Indeed he was the chief Retriever of that our ancient Native Language, the Saxon I mean, and encouraged heartily the study of it.” (Strype 1711: 528, 535).
Thus we find Parker’s many noteworthy accomplishments, as a conserver of History and a preserver of Learning, and as a retriever of ancient Language and an advocate for its study, celebrated as emanating from his merit and abilities as a historian and an antiquarian, the significance of whose legacy is neatly summarised in Strype’s memorably-phrased celebration of Parker as “A mighty Collector of Books, [who] preserved as much as could be, the antient Monuments of the learned, Men of our Nation from perishing.” (Strype 1711: 535).
In his quest for documentary evidence of the unbroken continuity of the English Church from the earliest times, Parker particularly sought out chronicles and histories, especially those concerned with the early Church in England. These were texts greatly valued by the Elizabethan antiquarians, alarmed that recorded knowledge of Britain’s past risked being swept away with the closure of the monasteries and the dispersal of their libraries. Parker gathered together a remarkably rich range of works by a number of the best-known historians and chroniclers of England from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.
Parker collected together many of the standard primary sources of early English history, including Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, in Latin (MS 264) and in Old English (MS 41), the earliest copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS 173), Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (MS 139) and copies of the works of Eadmer (MSS 371, 452 and 457). His library included copies of the historical writings of Matthew Paris (his Chronica Maiora, in MSS 26 & 16, and a 16th-century transcript of his Historia Minor, MS 56), together with works by Henry of Huntingdon (MS 280), William of Malmesbury (MS 43), Geoffrey of Monmouth (MSS 281, 292 and 414), Simeon of Durham (MS 139), John of Tynemouth (MSS 5–6), Nicholas Trivet (MS 152), and Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, both in Latin (MSS 21, 164 and 259), and in Trevisa’s English translation (MS 354). Parker also assembled a remarkably rich range of works by minor premodern chroniclers and local antiquaries of England, including Florence of Worcester (MS 92), William of Newburgh (MS 262), Richard of Devizes (MS 129), Gervase of Tilbury (MS 414), Gervase of Canterbury (MS 438), Radulfus Niger (MS 343) and Roger of Wendover (MS 264).
Furthermore, Parker gathered books which emphasized the role of the English kings in promoting or protecting the Church. For this reason the library contains manuscripts owned by or associated with an impressive variety of English monarchs, including Alfred (MS 12), Aethelstan (MS 183), Edward II (MS 20), Richard I (MS 339), Richard II (MS 61), Henry V (MS 213), Henry VIII (MS 432) and Elizabeth I (MS 114A), not to mention Parker’s manuscript showing the wedding feast in 1114 of Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, and the German Emperor Henry V featuring one of, if not the earliest, known illustrations of a pretzel in Western art (MS 373).
Scala Mundi (MS 194)
early fourteenth century, England
The Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, is a diagrammatical chronicle of universal history from the Creation to the early fourteenth century, when this manuscript was made. It includes the earliest known depiction of Stonehenge, shown here, which is described as having been built by Merlin the magician who brought the huge stones magically from Ireland. This copy is part of an anthology of historical texts which belonged to the Hospital of St. Mary without Bishopsgate in London.
The Venerable Bede, Vita Cuthberti (MS 183)
This is one of the oldest English royal manuscripts, made for King Æthelstan (927-39), grandson of Alfred the Great. It is a copy of the life of Saint Cuthbert, bishop of the island community of Lindisfarne written by Bede. When the monastery was sacked by the Vikings in 875, the monks dug up the saint’s body and carried it with other sacred relics in a journey lasting several centuries to Chester-le-Street, Ripon, and eventually to Durham (1104), when Cuthbert was finally interred. Æthelstan probably presented the monks from Lindisfarne with this magnificent copy of the life of their patron saint in or soon after 934, when he stayed with the exiled community, then at Chester-le-Street between Durham and Newcastle, on his journey northwards to fight the Scots. Here, the dedicatory frontispiece shows Æthelstan standing in the presence of Saint Cuthbert.
The Parker Chronicle (MS 173)
ninth – twelfth centuries, Winchester & Christ Church, Canterbury
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of the most famous historical texts from Anglo-Saxon England. This copy, known as the ‘Parker’ Chronicle, is the oldest version of the text and one of the earliest manuscripts in the Old English language. It was probably mostly written at the court of King Alfred in Wessex, perhaps in Winchester, in the late ninth century. It describes historical events by the years in which they took place. The opening here shows the entry for 1066, recording the burning of Christ Church, a comet in the sky (as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry) and the Battle of Hastings: ‘In this year King Edward passed away, and Earl Harold came to the throne and ruled for 40 weeks and a day; in this year came William and conquered England; and in this year Christ Church was burned, and a comet appeared on 18 April’.
MATTHEW PARIS, CHRONICA MAIORA (MS 16.I) [fols. i v-ii r]
mid-thirteenth century (c.1250s, before 1259), England, St. Albans
The Chronica Maiora, or ‘Greater History’ is the two-volume history of the world compiled by Matthew Paris (c.1189-1259), artist monk of St. Albans. This is the author’s own copy, with corrections and beautiful illustrations throughout in his own hand. It is one of the major sources for the history of the Crusades. The opening here shows the earliest depiction of the first elephant in England, which was sent to King Henry III as a diplomatic present from King Louis IX of France in 1255. The illustration is remarkably accurate, and for good reason, for it was drawn from life. Upon learning of its arrival in London, the ever-curious Matthew Paris promptly dashed off to London to see and study this strange new animal at the Tower of London. Paris records detailed descriptions of particularly noteworthy features of its appearance and behaviour. He notes that the elephant was ten feet high, was grey-black in colour and had small eyes in the upper part of its head. He also notes that its hide was not furry but rather very hard and rough, and that it used its trunk to obtain food and drink. Paris also illustrated the elephant’s keeper, named “Henry de Flor’”, who is described as “magister bestie”, or ‘the master of the beast’, and whose figure offers the viewer a useful comparison of scale in illustrating the elephant’s size. Unfortunately this spectacular beast’s life on English shores was short and likely unhappy, since, unsurprisingly, its captors had neither the knowledge nor the skills to properly care for it. They fed it on meat and wine and thus the poor creature died in 1257 and was buried at the Tower.
 John Strype, THE LIFE AND ACTS OF MATTHEW PARKER, The First Archbishop of CANTERBURY in the Reign of Queen ELIZABETH. Under whose Primacy and Influence the Reformation of Religion was happily Effected; And the Church of England Restored, and Established upon the PRINCIPLES whereon it stands to this Day (London: John Wyat, 1711).