British Library acquires the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book

  • £9 million purchase price secured through largest fundraising campaign in the British Library’s history

The British Library has announced that it has successfully acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel, a miraculously well-preserved 7th century manuscript that is the oldest European book to survive fully intact and therefore one of the world’s most important books.

The £9 million purchase price for the Gospel has been secured following the largest and most successful fundraising campaign in the British Library’s history.

The single largest contribution to the campaign was a £4.5 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) together with major gifts from the Art Fund, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation. In addition, the campaign received a number of significant donations from charitable trusts, foundations and major individual donors, along with gifts from members of the public.

A manuscript copy of the Gospel of St John, the St Cuthbert Gospel was produced in the North East of England in the late 7th century and was placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin on Lindisfarne, apparently in 698. The Gospel was found in the saint’s coffin at Durham Cathedral in 1104. It has a beautifully worked original red leather binding in excellent condition, and it is the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out. As such, it represents a major addition to the Library’s world-class collections relating to the early history and culture of Britain, and its unrivalled collection of texts associated with the world’s great faiths.

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. Following a conservation review led by the British Library and involving leading international conservation and curatorial experts, the Gospel will be displayed open for the first time in this building.

To celebrate the successful acquisition, the Library has opened a special display exploring the creation, travels and near-miraculous survival of the Gospel across 13 centuries. Access is free to both the display and the Treasures Gallery where the Gospel is on show.

In addition, the manuscript has been digitised in full, allowing it to be made freely available online for the first time via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts webpage.

Announcing the acquisition, 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, so I am delighted to announce the successful acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel by the British Library. This precious item will remain in public hands so that present and future generations can learn from it.

“I would like to pay tribute to the donors who have made this acquisition possible – and particularly the NHMF, who recognised the crucial importance of the St Cuthbert Gospel to our nation’s heritage, and who granted a remarkable £4.5 million – the largest single grant for an acquisition that the Library has ever received,” Dame Lynne added. “We are similarly grateful to the other major donors, and the many hundreds of people who made individual donations. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure the Gospel for the nation and we were both grateful and touched that so many people felt moved to support our campaign.”

Having acquired the Gospel, the British Library is now able to invest in its long-term preservation, as well as transforming the possibilities for improved access to the item through digitisation and display.

The acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel by the British Library involved a formal partnership between the Library, Durham University and Durham Cathedral and an agreement that the book will be displayed to the public equally in London and the North East. The first display in Durham is anticipated to be in July 2013 in Durham University’s Palace Green Library on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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.

“I want to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the British Library in achieving this wonderful outcome. It has been a privilege to be associated with this fundraising campaign. I am pleased that the Friends of Durham Cathedral have supported it with a generous gift, and that one of the fund's donors has chosen to channel a major gift through the Cathedral.

“As part of the plan agreed between the World Heritage Site and the British Library for its display, we look forward from time to time to welcoming this precious book back to the peninsula where Cuthbert's remains are honoured. It will be always be loved and cherished here. I am sure Cuthbert shares our delight."

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 fund-raising 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.”

A public event to celebrate the acquisition will take place at the British Library on May 15 – for details, see:


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St Cuthbert was a 7th-century, English Christian leader, renowned for his ascetic practices and the miracles attributed to him during his lifetime and posthumously. Born in Northumbria around 635, he entered the monastery of Melrose in 651, and later became guest-master at the newly founded monastery at Ripon. Cuthbert subsequently became prior of Melrose, then prior of Lindisfarne, and went on to live as a hermit on the island of Inner Farne, off the coast of Northumberland. He was consecrated as bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 but died at his Inner Farne hermitage on 20 March 687. He was elevated to sainthood in 698 when his body was reinterred in a new wooden coffin. This coffin was subsequently removed from Lindisfarne by the community of St Cuthbert and was carried with them as they travelled around the North East in the wake of Viking raids in the 9th and 10th centuries. At the end of the 10th century, the community took Cuthbert's coffin with them to Durham and settled there. In 1104, Cuthbert's coffin was opened and the gospel was discovered inside with the saint's body, which was reburied at the East end of the new Norman cathedral. He was one of England's most popular and widely venerated saints both in the Anglo-Saxon period and after the Norman Conquest, and his shrine was a major medieval pilgrimage centre.

The St Cuthbert Gospel formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, has been on long-term loan to the British Library since 1979 and regularly on-view in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The Library was approached in 2010 by Christie’s, acting on behalf of the Society of Jesus (British Province), and was given first option to acquire the Gospel for the UK public - a unique opportunity to make the Gospel a permanent part of the national collection. Having sought opinions from a range of independent experts as well as the Library’s own curatorial specialists, a price of £9 million was agreed. Fundraising commenced at the beginning of last year and the campaign was publicly announced on July 13, 2011.

National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF)
The National Heritage Memorial Fund was set up in 1980 to save the most outstanding parts of our national heritage, in memory of those who have given their lives for the UK. The Cuthbert Gospel joins a diverse range of over 1,200 iconic objects and places which have been safeguarded by the NHMF to the tune of over £300million including the Mappa Mundi, the Staffordshire Hoard and the personal archive of Siegfried Sasson, WWI soldier, author and poet.

University - Durham University is a world top-100 university with a global reputation and performance in research and education. The most recent UK league tables place Durham in the top echelon of British universities academically. Durham is ranked in the top 3 UK universities in the influential Sunday Times University Guide 2012; is 26th in the world for the impact of its research (THE citations ratings) and 15th in the world for the employability of its students by blue-chip companies world wide. We are a residential Collegiate University: England’s third oldest university and at our heart is a medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site, jointly owned with Durham Cathedral. Durham has accepted an invitation to join the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK universities.

Durham Cathedral - The building of Durham Cathedral commenced in 1093 and took around 40 years to complete. It replaced a Saxon cathedral built by the Community of St Cuthbert after it arrived in Durham in 995 following its flight from the ‘Holy Island’ of Lindisfarne 80 miles north of Durham. The body of St Cuthbert is enshrined in the Feretory at Durham Cathedral and the Tomb of the Venerable Bede is in the Galilee Chapel. The Cathedral existed as a Benedictine Monastery until 1539 when it became one of the Church of England’s major Cathedrals. It continues to be a focus for pilgrimage and attracts over 600,000 visitors each year from all over the world. The Cathedral has internationally important collections of artefacts, manuscripts and books that include St Cuthbert’s Saxon coffin and his pectoral cross, a superb example of Saxon craftsmanship. Durham Cathedral is often referred to as the best example of Romanesque architecture in Europe, or as American writer Bill Bryson put it, ‘the best Cathedral on planet earth.’

Since construction of the Cathedral, Durham has been alive with people and a centre for community activity. The Cathedral is home to a vibrant worshipping community and continues to celebrate the English Choral Tradition with sung services by its highly acclaimed Choir. As a new century unfolds Durham Cathedral aspires to enrich the many different ways in which it engages with people and organisations. It is cherished equally by those who live, work and study in the region and by those who come to visit.

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The British Library
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