by Katie Pavid
The St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest surviving European book, has been acquired by the British Library following a £9 million fundraising campaign and will be displayed in Durham’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and London.
The Gospel was found in St Cuthbert’s coffin at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and its acquisition by the British Library involved a formal partnership with Durham University and Durham Cathedral, and an agreement that the book will be displayed to the public on an equal basis in London and Durham.
The first display in Durham is anticipated to be in July 2013, in the University’s Palace Green Library. The Lindisfarne Gospels will also be exhibited on a three-month loan.
The book is a manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, and was produced in the North East of England in the late 7th century and placed in the saint’s coffin on Lindisfarne in c. 698.
It is the only surviving high-status manuscript from this period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out. It represents a significant addition to the British Library’s world-class collections relating to the early history and culture of Britain.
The £9 million price for the Gospel was secured following the largest fundraising campaign in the British Library’s history.
The largest contribution to the campaign was a £4.5 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), set up to save the most outstanding parts of our national heritage, together with major gifts from the Art Fund, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation.
Now in public ownership, the St Cuthbert Gospel is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery in the British Library’s flagship building at St Pancras. It has also been digitised in full, allowing it to be made freely available online for the first time via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts webpage at http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/.
Professor Chris Higgins, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “This is a rare gem and an extraordinarily precious piece of heritage for the nation. I am delighted that the fundraising campaign has been so successful.
“Durham University is proud to partner with the British Library and Durham Cathedral in the conservation, display and interpretation of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest and one of the most important of all western manuscripts, and we look forward to it being displayed on our UNESCO World Heritage Site for the public and for scholarly study and interpretation.
“The University and Cathedral house some of the most important collections of early books and manuscripts, visited by researchers and scholars from around the world.
“Partnerships such as the one we have with the British Library will enable us to enhance scholarship and the wider appreciation of the important role that Durham and the region have in the development of England’s remarkable written heritage”.
The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, said: “It is the best possible news to know that the Cuthbert Gospel has been saved for the nation.
“For the people of Durham and North East England, this is a most treasured book. Buried with Cuthbert and retrieved from his coffin, it held a place of great honour in Durham Cathedral Priory. The place in the Cathedral where it was kept in the Middle Ages is still the home of our unique manuscript collection”.
St Cuthbert was a monk and bishop, celebrated for his piety, austere practices, and the miracles attributed to him during his lifetime and posthumously. His life and work came to be a large factor in the definition of local identity for the people of the Liberty of Durham, and his shrine became a major pilgrimage centre in the Middle Ages.
Announcing the acquisition of the Gospel buried with him, the Chief Executive of the British Library, Dame Lynne Brindley, said: “To look at this small and intensely beautiful treasure from the Anglo-Saxon period is to see it exactly as those who created it in the 7th century would have seen it. The exquisite binding, the pages, even the sewing structure survive intact, offering us a direct connection with our forebears 1300 years ago.
“Its importance in the history of the book and its association with one of Britain’s foremost saints make it unique”.
The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation. A public event to celebrate this acquisition will take place there on 15th May. For details, see: www.bl.uk/whatson/events/may12/index.html.