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Manuscripts: Recent acquisitions

Information about major new manuscript and archive acquisitions. Recent acquisitions include the St Cuthbert Gospel and the J.G. Ballard, Mervyn Peake and John Berger archives.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The British Library has acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel after the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Following a detailed conservation assessment, the manuscript has recently been fully digitised and you can now see it on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The manuscript has been added to the Library's collections as Additional MS 89000.

The Gospel, which is a manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, is the earliest intact European book and is intimately associated with Cuthbert, one of Britain's foremost saints. It was created in the late 7th century in the north-east of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin, apparently in 698. It was discovered when the coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral in 1104 on the occasion of the removal of Cuthbert's body to a new shrine. The Gospel has a beautifully-worked, original, red leather binding in excellent condition, and is the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out.

The fundraising campaign to acquire the St Cuthbert Gospel was the biggest that the Library has ever run. The single largest donation to the fundraising campaign was a £4.5m grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Other major donors included the Art Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation. There were many other donations from charitable trusts, foundations and hundreds of individuals and we are extremely grateful for every single donation which has enabled us to save this wonderful manuscript for the nation.

Henry VIII’s prayer roll

Prayer roll

Prayer roll

The British Library has acquired a unique medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII and contains one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession in 1509.

Produced in England in the late fifteenth century, the prayer roll consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end and measures some four metres long when fully unrolled. The roll contains thirteen illuminations - images of Christ, focusing on the Passion, its Instruments and the Sacred Blood, as well as depictions of various saints and their martyrdoms. Accompanying these is a two-column text, with prayers in Latin and rubrics (religious instructions) in English. The rubrics promise that the recital of certain of the prayers will offer safety from physical danger, sickness or disease; others will shorten, by specified amounts, the agony of Purgatory, while the placing of the roll on the belly of a woman in labour will ensure a safe childbirth.

The prayer roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), as evidenced by the inclusion of Henry’s royal badges at the head of the roll. These include two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather, as well as Katherine of Aragon’s emblem of a sheaf of arrows. At some point prior to 1509 Henry presented the roll to William Thomas, a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, and added an inscription at the top of the second membrane, under the central image of Christ’s Passion: ‘Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry’.

The prayer roll provides unique evidence of Henry VIII’s early religious beliefs. It demonstrates that, as a young man, Henry practised the devotions characteristic of the late medieval popular piety that just twenty-five years later he would destroy as the Reformation King.

The British Library purchased Henry VIII’s prayer roll from Sotheby's for £485,000. This acquisition complements the British Library's existing collections of Henry VIII’s library which forms a key part of the Library’s Royal Collection. The prayer roll is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.

J.G. Ballard Archive

Page from J G Ballard's archive

Page from a draft of Empire of the Sun. Copyright: the J.G.Ballard Estate

The archive of J.G. Ballard, one of the most strikingly original British writers of the twentieth century, has been acquired by the nation through the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme and allocated to the British Library.

Ballard’s fiction, always challenging and provocative, is famed for its dystopian visions of modernity and its portrayal of the physical, spiritual and psychological effects, both on the individual and on society, of an obsession with technology. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in his 1973 novel Crash, which was later adapted by film director David Cronenberg. Repeatedly able to redefine himself as a writer, Ballard’s 1984 novel, Empire of the Sun, a fictionalised account of his childhood years in the internment camp in Shanghai during World War Two, brought his work to a wider audience. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and becoming a bestseller, it was made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1987.

As a writer, Ballard was so distinctive and influential that – like his contemporary Harold Pinter, whose archive the British Library also holds – his name has become an adjective in its own right and has entered the English language.

Following Ballard’s death in April 2009, the executors of his will were determined that Ballard’s archive should remain in the U.K. and should be offered to the nation. The 15 large storage boxes which currently house the archive contain manuscripts, notebooks, letters, photographs and ephemera spanning 50 years and cover the full range of Ballard’s output from The Drowned World (1962) to Miracles of Life (2008).

Mervyn Peake Archive

The Mad Hatter's tea-party

The Mad Hatter's tea-party © the Mervyn Peake Estate

The British Library has just acquired the archive of the writer and artist, Mervyn Peake (1911-1968). The archive includes 39 autograph Notebooks for the Gormenghast novels, along with the complete set of original drawings for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. Also contained within the collection are further notebooks, manuscript and typescript drafts of Peake's poems, plays, short stories and lesser-known novels, as well as Peake's correspondence with figures including Graham Greene, Laurie Lee and C.S. Lewis.

Further details can be found on our press release and the Facebook Gallery at

The Guilford Papers: the Archive of Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford

In 2006 the correspondence and papers amassed by Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (1766-1827) were accepted by H. M. Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the British Library. A full catalogue has now been completed.

Guilford was the third and youngest son of the Prime Minister, Lord North. Much of his life and career was spent out of England, in southern Europe as well as the Near and Middle East, but his most enduring interest was in Greek history and culture. Having been received into the Greek Orthodox church on Corfu, he played a key role in founding the Ionian University, which educated a generation of Greek-speaking lawyers, doctors and civil servants. At its inauguration in 1824, he became its first chancellor and remained its generous patron until his death. He also amassed a notable collection of Greek and Italian books and manuscripts. After his death this was broken up, but a substantial part, both printed and manuscript, was afterwards acquired by the British Library and has been the focus of an earlier successful project.

While some his own countrymen tended to view Guilford as an eccentric who had abandoned the norms of his patrician class to adopt foreign ways, the records of his career, now they are fully catalogued, reveal the full extent of his European commitment and networks. By far the largest sequence of papers is that relating to Corfu and the Ionian Academy. These contain many hundreds of letters from European scholars and professionals with a common interest in Greek culture and education. They wrote to Guilford with specialist advice on the subjects to be taught at the Academy, or simply to express admiration and support for his enterprise: a broad spectrum of professionals active in the 1810s and 1820s, including chemists, naturalists and geologists, clergy, doctors, lawyers, teachers and librarians, historians and archaeologists, architects and painters.

The archive will also benefit anyone with an interest in this period of Greek history. The correspondence includes letters commenting on the progress of the War of Independence from activists and statesmen such as Ioannis Kapodistrias, Alexandros Mavrokordatos and Spyridon Trikoupis. The last, a friend of Lord Byron, refers to his death and funeral in 1824. There are also letters from private individuals directly affected by the war.

This cataloguing project has been made possible with the aid of generous grants from the J. F. Coustopolis and the Hellenic Foundations.

John Berger archive

The eminent writer, critic, and thinker John Berger has announced the donation of his archive to the British Library.

The archive includes drafts of some of Berger’s most famous works – including the 1972 Booker Prize winning novel G, the Into their Labours trilogy, and the recent Booker-nominated novel From A to X – as well as scripts, correspondence, and articles.

Read more here

Graham Swift archive

The British Library has acquired 75 files boxes comprising the complete extant archive of acclaimed novelist Graham Swift. The collection contains manuscripts, notes, revisions and proofs relating to all eight of his novels – including Waterland and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders – his short story collection Learning to Swim and his recently published non-fiction collection Making an Elephant.

In addition to the literary drafts (which date back to essays written by Swift as an under-graduate, and even a school-boy), the archive includes professional correspondence with friends and colleagues including Andrew Motion, Kazuo Ishiguro, Pat Barker, Michael Ondaatje, Ted Hughes and Caryl Phillips. The Hughes letters include tips for fishing the River Torridge in Devon, together with Hughes’s handwritten sketches marking ‘fish traps’ along the river, and complement the fishing diaries in the recently acquired Ted Hughes archive (see below). Among the more unusual items in the archive is a tape recording of the answer phone messages he received on the night he won the Booker Prize, including messages from fellow authors congratulating him on his win.

The archive has been purchased for £110,000, with £10,000 of the cost of the acquisition generously funded by the Friends of the British Library. The cost includes funding to fully conserve and catalogue the collection, which is expected to be available to researchers by early 2010.


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