In spite of his surname, and of his knowledge of the French language, he was of English birth but may have studied at Paris in his youth. The first we know of him (from his own writings) is that he was admitted as a monk at St Albans in 1217. His life was mainly spent in this religious house. In 1248, however, he was sent to Norway as the bearer of a message from Louis IX of France to Haakon VI; he made himself so agreeable to the Norwegian sovereign that he was invited, a little later, to superintend the reformation of the Benedictine monastery of St Benet Holme at Trondheim.
Apart from these missions, his activities were devoted to the composition of history, a pursuit for which the monks of St Albans had long been famous. Having been admitted to the order in 1217, he inherited the mantle of Roger of Wendover, the abbey's official recorder of events, in 1236. Paris revised Roger's work, and that of Abbot John de Celia, adding new material to cover his own tenure, and this Chronica Majora is an important historical source document. Equally interesting and innovative are the illustrations Paris used in his work. From 1235, the point at which Wendover dropped his pen, Matthew continued the history on the plan which his predecessors had followed. He derived much of his information from the letters of important people, which he sometimes inserts, but much more from conversation with the eye-witnesses of events. Among his informants were Richard, Earl of Cornwall and King Henry III himself, with whom he appears to have been on intimate terms.
The king knew that Matthew was writing a history, and wanted it to be as exact as possible. In 1257, in the course of a week's visit to St Albans, Henry kept the chronicler beside him night and day, "and guided my pen," says Paris, "with much good will and diligence." It is therefore curious that the Chronica majora should give so unfavourable an account of the king's policy. Henry Reynolds Luard supposes that Matthew never intended his work to see the light in its present form, and many passages of the autograph have against them the note offendiculum, which shows that the writer understood the danger which he ran. On the other hand, unexpurgated copies were made in Matthew's lifetime; though the offending passages are duly omitted or softened in his abridgment of his longer work, the Historia Anglorum (written about 1253), the real sentiments of the author must have been an open secret. In any case there is no ground for the old theory that he was an official historiographer.
Matthew Paris lived at a time when English politics were peculiarly involved and tedious. His talent is for narrative and description. Though he took a keen interest in the personal side of politics, his portraits of his contemporaries throw more light on his own prejudices than on their aims and ideas. Like most "historians" of the period, he never pauses to weigh the evidence or to take a comprehensive view of the situation. He admires strength of character, even when it goes along with a policy of which he disapproves. Thus he praises Robert Grosseteste, while denouncing Grosseteste's scheme of monastic reform. Matthew is a vehement supporter of the monastic orders against their rivals, the secular clergy and the mendicant friars. He is violently opposed to the court and the foreign favourites. He despises the king as a statesman, though for the man he has some kindly feeling.
The frankness with which he attacks the court of Rome is remarkable; so, too, is the intense nationalism which he displays in dealing with this topic. His faults are often due to carelessness and narrow views, but he sometimes invents rhetorical speeches which are misleading as an account of the speaker's sentiments. In other cases he tampers with the documents which he inserts (as, for instance, with the text of Magna Carta). His chronology is, for a contemporary, inexact; and he occasionally inserts duplicate versions of the same incident in different places. Hence he must always be rigorously checked when other authorities exist and used with caution where he is our sole informant. None the less, he gives a more vivid impression of his age than any other English chronicler; and it is a matter for regret that his great history breaks off in 1259, on the eve of the crowning struggle between Henry III and the baronage.
The relation of Matthew Paris's work to those of John de Celia and Roger of Wendover may best be studied in Henry Reynolds Luard's edition of the Chronica majora (7 vols., Rolls series. 1872- 1881), which contains valuable prefaces. The Historia Anglorum sive historia minor (1067- 1253) has been edited by Frederic Madden (3 vols., Rolls series, 1866- 1869).
Matthew Paris is often confused with "Matthew of Westminster," the reputed author of the Flares historiarum edited by Henry Reynolds Luard(3 vols., Rolls series, 1890). This work, compiled by various hands, is an edition of Matthew Paris, with continuations extending to 1326. Matthew Paris also wrote a life of Edmund Rich, which is probably the work printed in W Wallace's St Edmund of Canterbury (London, 1893) pp. 543-588, though this is attributed by the editor to the monk Eustace; Vitae abbatum S Albani (up to 1225) which have been edited by W Watts (1640, etc.); and (possibly) the Abbreviatio chronicorum (1000- 1255), edited by Frederic Madden , in the third volume of the Historia Anglorum. On the value of Matthew as an historian. See F Liebermann in Georg Heinrich Pertz's Scriptores xxviii. pp. 74-106; Augustus Jessopp's Studies by a Recluse (London, 1893).