Heritage United Kingdom

British Library to buy oldest original-bound book from Jesuits

St Cuthbert Gospel, regarded as a sacred relic, was not offered to Durham Cathedral, its former home

St Cuthbert’s gospel (left) and tomb at Durham Cathedral. The cathedral still plans to display the gospel for part of the year

Durham Cathedral was not given an opportunity to buy the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is regarded by Durham Cathedral as a sacred relic. The Jesuits, who have owned the manuscript for nearly 250 years, are instead selling it to the British Library (BL) for £9m. Dating from the 7th century, it was discovered in the saint’s coffin in the cathedral and is the world’s oldest surviving book in its original binding.

Cathedral dean Michael Sadgrove told The Art News­paper: “We did not know that the St Cuthbert Gospel was on the market until the British Library approached us in confidence about six months or so ago, but by that time the process was well underway. It was all kept very quiet. I am sorry that we were not consulted.”

Nevertheless, Sadgrove is pleased that a tripartite agreement has been reached between the library, Durham University and the cathedral. The British Library has promised that the Gospel will be displayed in the north-east of England for alternating 18-month periods with London.

On 14 July the library announced that it had been offered the chance to buy the St Cuthbert Gospel from the British Province of the Society of Jesus. The National Heritage Mem­orial Fund has pledged £4.5m. A further £1.75m has been raised, including £250,000 from the Art Fund and £250,000 from the Garfield Weston Foundation. This leaves a remainder of £2.75m to be found before the 31 March 2012 deadline.

Jesuit Father Kevin Fox points out that the St Cuthbert Gospel has been on loan to the library since 1979, so this “made it natural to offer it to them first”. This was done by Christie’s, the Jesuits’ agent, in late 2009. Agreeing a valuation took nearly a year, and last December the BL informed Durham Cathedral about the sale and offered a loan arrangement. The Jesuits and Christie’s made no direct contact with Durham Cathedral.

The Gospel became separated from the other St Cuthbert relics during the Reformation, and the remainder are still at Durham Cathedral, including a pectoral cross and portable altar. Sad­grove said that the gospel was “used in funeral rites and visiting dignitaries were honoured by having it hung around their neck in procession”.

By coincidence, the cathedral has plans to move its own St Cuthbert relics from the present display in the former monastic dormitory to a new treasury in the 14th-century vaulted great kitchen. Permissions for the necessary alterations are now being sought and a £6m fundraising campaign for the work is to be launched this autumn.

The new treasury, with up-to-date climate control, is scheduled for completion in summer 2013, when the BL has agreed to send the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham University on a three-month loan. Dating from 715, the Lindisfarne Gospels were transcribed to celebrate the life of St Cuthbert. The cathedral hopes that it may also be possible to borrow the St Cuthbert Gospel which would be the first time that it has returned to Durham since the Reformation. If the new treasury is not ready, then both manu­scripts are likely to be exhibited in Durham University’s Palace Green Library, which lies very close to the cathedral.

Lindisfarne to London in 1,300 years

Cuthbert died as a hermit on the remote island of Inner Farne in 687 and was buried at the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast. In 698, on elevation to the sainthood, his body was reinterred in a new coffin—and he was buried with the Gospel of St John.

British Library curator Scot McKendrick believes that the Gospel was probably transcribed for this occasion, although it is possible that it was the volume which had been used by the saint during his lifetime. The Latin text was transcribed in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Bound in red leather, it is small enough to fit into the palm of the hand.

With the threat of Viking raids, St Cuthbert’s coffin was evacuated from Lindisfarne in the ninth century and taken first to Chester-le-Street and later to Durham in 995. In 1104 the coffin was opened before being placed in a shrine behind the cathedral’s altar, and it was then that the relics were removed.

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10 Sep 11
21:32 CET


Selling to the British Library, a secular institution, avoids the multiple ironies of a religious body, which acquired the manuscript as a gift only as recently as 1769, selling a Gospel Book and relic back to the shrine originally constructed by the Monks of Lindisfarne as a secure place to hold it and other of Cuthbert’s relics. I suspect also Chrisite's may have been unaware of the Dean and Chapter of Durham's relative prosperity: unlike many other English cathedral chapters which have been in poor financial condition for much of the period post WWI, Durham did not commute the entirety of its lands, and other sources of income, for either a capital sum or fixed income under the various Ecclesiastical Commissioners Acts of 1836-66.

9 Sep 11
16:37 CET


The Jesuits have operating expenses the same as all organizations. Its my understanding that charitable contributions are way down. Alas, it has also become far more difficult to plunder from other civilizations, thus the need to cannibalize your own treasure to survive.

9 Sep 11
15:5 CET


Pity the Jesuits sold it -- seems cheap and I bet at auction it would have sold for twice that. Here in SF the Jesuits sold many treasures from the USF library to a storm of disapproval. All sold too cheaply and are irreplaceable. What is it they don't get about a mess of pottage?

7 Sep 11
22:25 CET


It's shocking that Durham Cathedral was not approached for the purchase. But at least it will be displayed in the NE of England "for alternating 18-month periods with London." Presumably, 'The Reformation' is the factor here.

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