Matthew Prior

On the wall behind Shakespeare's memorial in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey is a large marble monument to poet and diplomat Matthew Prior which was in place by 1726.  He was buried at the foot of the grave of Edmund Spenser but the actual grave is not marked. The memorial was designed by James Gibbs and executed by J.M. Rysbrack and incorporates a bust by Antoine Coysevox. The bust had been presented to Prior in his lifetime by the King of France. On the base at the ends of the sarcophagus are life size figures of Poetry and History. The Latin inscription was written by Robert Freind, as Prior had requested, and can be translated:

Matthew Prior Esq. A fever, gradually creeping up on him, as he meditated upon the history of his times, broke together the thread of his life and of his labours on Sept.18th A.D.1721 in the 57th year of his age.
Here lies buried Matthew Prior Esq. a great man, who, under our most gracious Majesties King William and Queen Mary acted as Secretary to the Embassy at The Hague in 1690, and then as Secretary to the parties who in 1697 concluded the Peace of Ryswick, then in the following years to the French Legation, and also in that same year 1697 in Ireland. He was also Commissioner at the trade congress of 1700 and the taxation congress of 1711. Lastly, he was despatched by Queen Anne of blessed memory to Louis XIV of France in 1711 as Legate and Plenipotentiary in the peace negotiations, (peace being now well established and likely to endure, according to the hopes of all good men and true).
But all these titles with which he was adorned were as nothing to the praise accorded him for his philanthropy, intellect and learning. The kindly Muses smiled on him at birth, this royal school embellished him in boyhood, in youth St John's College, Cambridge, provided the most excellent education; and finally in manhood, he was matured and perfected by the society of the leading men of his time.
By circumstance of birth and upbringing, therefore, he could never be torn away from the company of poets, but was frequently used to season the burden of civil affairs with pleasanter literary studies, and as he essayed all manner of poetic works with great felicity, so did this admirable craftsman have no peer in the art of elegant and witty belles-lettres. These amusements of a noble mind, which cost him no toil, were readily perused by his circle of friends. In their company, and full of pleasantries and humour, he would discourse in jests appropriately, diversely and eloquently, upon whatever circumstance might have arisen, but to no far-fetched or forced effect; every word seemd to flow naturally and luxuriantly as though from a perennial spring. He leaves his acquaintance, therefore, uncertain as to whether he were more elegant as a writer of poetry, or more delightful as a companion in conversation.

He was born in Westminster in July 1664, the son of George Prior and his wife Elizabeth. He had to leave Westminster School when his father died and work in his uncle's tavern. The Earl of Dorset was a regular there and was impressed by Matthew and paid to send him back to school where he became a King's Scholar. After university he was a tutor and wrote poetry while on his diplomatic postings and stayed with Louis XIV. He published Poems on Several Occasions. In 1715 he was arrested on a charge of treason relating to the treaty of Utrecht but was released the following year. He had several mistresses but never married. His coffin lay overnight in Jerusalem Chamber before his funeral.

His secretary Adrian Drift is buried near him.

Further reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

History of Parliament online


18th September 1721


Poet; diplomat


South Transept; Poets' Corner

Memorial Type

Grave; bust

Material Type


Matthew Prior
Matthew Prior

© National Portrait Gallery, London [Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

Matthew Prior
Matthew Prior memorial

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2022 Dean and Chapter of Westminster