Weekly Witter: Lost libraries- from Wakefield to LA to Lacock

Several weeks ago I had a tip off about an exciting find in the US. On a recent visit to the Los Angeles Public Library the British manuscript scholar Peter Kidd was examining a thirteenth-century manuscript when he spotted the ownership inscription of the Augustinian priory at Nostell, near Wakefield. One of the great benefits of hyper links is that I can simply link LAPL’s own blog as well as Peter’s, without having to tell the full story. But at any event it’s a significant find.

“It seems extraordinary that books… made of bits of paper and leather stitched together, should still exist when the stone buildings which once housed them have vanished.”

All this set my mind working, because I have been thinking a lot about medieval libraries recently. Today’s visitors to Nostell see a magnificent eighteenth-century house, but of course the history goes back much further than that. Trust archaeologist Mark Newman has established that some of the monastic buildings were still standing in the eighteenth century. Remarkably at least two printed books (moveable type printing = 1455; dissolution of priory = 1540) from the medieval library at Nostell have also survived. One is now at Lampeter University, and the other at the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. It seems extraordinary that books, apparently very fragile creations of made of bits of paper and leather stitched together, should still exist when the stone buildings which once housed them have vanished. But in fact the pattern is not so very unusual.

A page from an early, 15th century version of Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES at Petworth House, West Sussex

The Petworth Chaucer

Historians have long been aware of the problem of ‘periodisation’. We’re certainly all guilty of breaking down history by date in a completely arbitrary way, making understanding more, rather than less difficult. When it comes to public monuments the problem is not just one of time, but of pigeon-holing them based on their current state of repair, and even of who now owns them. Without really thinking about it we neatly categorise places like Raglan (CADW) and Kenilworth (English Heritage) as Castles and Ruins, because that’s what we think CADW and EH do. Hardwick Hall (NT) is a Country House, because that’s what the NT does. Of course things are never really that simple. Deep down we know that, and we also know that just as the National Trust looks after countryside, so too EH has fully furnished houses. Nevertheless, I think it may come as a shock if I reveal that Raglan and Kenilworth almost certainly had libraries in Elizabethan times, though we – or least I – do not know what happened to them when the two castles were wrecked in the Civil War.

“…he described with delight a study called ‘Paradise’, which housed books in a complicated infrastructure of grilles and moveable desks.”

We do not know too much about these lost castle libraries, but when the antiquarian John Leland visited Wressle Castle in Yorkshire in 1540, he described with delight a study called ‘Paradise’, which housed books in a complicated infrastructure of grilles and moveable desks. It gives some idea of how precious books and manuscripts may have been stowed in great medieval houses, and reminds us that manuscripts were not the exclusive preserve of monks and nuns. Wressle was once the Yorkshire seat of the Percys, Dukes and Earls of Northumberland. Their southern house, Petworth (NT), still has a spectacular Chaucer manuscript. It is generally on public display, but it has also recently digitised in partnership with the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. We know that medieval aristocratic households were constantly on the move from one house to another, and there is also evidence for books being moved around in coffers and chests. So it is even possible that the Petworth Chaucer may have passed through the Wressle Paradise at one time or another.

This leads me back quite nicely to where we started. Lacock Abbey is one of the Trust’s most spectacular country houses, but it began life as a very grand Augustinian nunnery. When the nuns were expelled by Henry VIII, their magnificent buildings were granted to the Tudor courtier Sir William Sharington. Sharington demolished the church, but large parts of the complex survived, and can still be seen today. Sharington clearly owned a library of his own, but some of the convent’s possessions seem to have survived as well, including a giant fifteenth-century bronze cauldron, a copy of the 1225 Magna Carta, and at least one manuscript from their library. The Magna Carta was donated to the British Museum Library (now the British Library) in 1944, but the manuscript remained on site into modern times, apparently the only abbey manuscript to do so. It was purchased at auction by the National Trust in November 2011, and will shortly go on display at Lacock.

  • Mark Purcell is Libraries Curator for the National Trust. A specialist in early printed books and manuscripts he is responsible for maintaining an overview of the 168 historic libraries in the Trust’s properties, steering an on-line cataloguing programme, research, publications, advice on acquisitions, access, exhibitions, interpretation and public enquiries.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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