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.
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.