15 Jul 2011

Stonyhurst Gospel Sold to British Library

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St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

The British Province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is clearly determined to raise a great deal of money. The Jesuits have arranged to sell to the British Library for £9m ($14.3m) the oldest surviving European book, the Stonyhurst Gospel, St. Cuthbert‘s own copy of the Gospel of St. John, a 7th century manuscript originally buried with the saint on the island of Lindisfarne in 687.

Lindisfarne was depopulated of its monks when the Danes sacked the island in 875. The saint’s relics were carried away and moved from one location in the north of England to another over the course of the next century. St. Cuthbert was finally reburied in the “White Church” built in 995 as the predecessor to Durham Cathedral.

The manuscript was discovered in 1104 when St. Cuthbert’s coffin was opened in the course of transporting his remains to a shrine behind the altar of the newly built cathedral.

St. Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed in the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and the gospel manuscript at that point passed into private hands. George Lee, the third Earl of Lichfield (d. 1772) is the first recorded modern owner. Lichfield gave the manuscript to Reverend Thomas Phillips (d. 1774) who donated it to the English Jesuit College at Liège on 20 June 1769. The manuscript has been owned since 1769 by the Society of Jesus (British Province) and was formerly in the library of Stonyhurst College. The manuscript has been on loan to the British Library since the 1970s.

Christie’s negotiated the sale, as a result of which the manuscript will continue to be displayed half the time at the British Library and the other half at Durham Cathedral, referred to in the news articles as (God help us!) a UNESCO world heritage site in Durham.

BBC story and 1:22 video.


Twelfth century painting of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.

St. Cuthbert (feast day: March 20) is the patron saint of the North of England and was England’s most popular saint in the period before the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170. His banner was carried into battle against the Scots up to the time of the Reformation, and in the Middle Ages the inhabitants of the Palatinate of Durham were referred to as haliwerfolc “the saint’s people.”

One Feedback on "Stonyhurst Gospel Sold to British Library"

john chidley

I like your cynical tone (re the jesuits) ! Thank goodness this has at last finished up where it ought to be, although when I last saw it, it was badly displayed in the BM Library (it was open on a stand to display the beautiful calligraphy, and, sure enough, with a mirror to reflect the binding, but the lighting and angle was so bad it was impossible to see this latter). It requires its own case with quality photographs of pages and binding alongside. You don’t say who it was made the purchase possible: but I’d bet it wasn’t the government. Puts another spotlight on the new Cameron bright idea on charitable giving. Unlike all other European governments, the UK’s is the only one which never bothers about these things (all Parties: remember how Heath refused to cough up for the extraordinary Velazquez ‘Juan de Paja’, now in the Sates). I live in Spain where nothing like this can leave the country. Every time I come over I encounter a desperate appeal to the public for some painting or whatever. I don’t think the (presumably) Jesuitical condition of sharing it with Durham a good idea – did they threaten, if not, a Christie auction, and a public panic appeal…?


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