Visit to Canterbury Cathedral Library and Archives 15.05.2015

We began our tour of the Cathedral Archives and Library in the Reckitt Reading Room. Researchers come here from all over the world to use the Archival material held at Canterbury Cathedral. The Archives includes the records of the Dean and Chapter (dating back to the late 8th century), the records for the city, parish records, and much more.

Heading up to the Conservation area which overlooks the Reading Room, we were treated to a close-up view of the Accord of Winchester, an eleventh-century document that establishes the primacy of the Archibishop of Canterbury over the Archbishop of York, and bears the signatures of William the Conqueror, Queen Matilda, and Archbishop Lanfranc. The Accord of Winchester was an agreement that ultimately led to the complete reform of the English Church, and the refashioning of great Cathedrals from Anglo-Saxon architecture to Norman. It was Archbishop Lanfranc who rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral over the course of just 7 years!


We also saw some work in progress on a project to rehouse the Cathedral’s collection of charters and seals. A charter was a written command, request, or grant from one person to another. They are often our best, and sometimes our only means of access to the realities of power, landholding, and administration. Signatures were not common during medieval times. Charters were authenticated by having a seal attached to the lower edge of the parchment (this is where the phrase “to seal the deal” derives). The charter was then folded around the seal and often put in a medieval pigeonhole. The seal is the most vulnerable part of any medieval charter. It is heavy and attached to the charter by a cord. Charters survive in great numbers but many are damaged, or have become separated from their original seal. We were able to see examples of King John seals that were having individual supportive storage cases made to ensure the charters and seals could remain intact and in their original pairing.


Archbishop Lanfranc made the creation of an adequate library one of his priorities at Canterbury Cathedral, and a number of his books survive in the library’s collection today. Entering the library we walked through the grand doorway from the Water Tower into the Bibliotheca Howleiana, known as the Howley-Harrison Library, named after Archbishop William Howley and his Chaplain, the Revd. Dr Benjamin Harrison. Refurbished from 1993 to 1995, the Howley Library is an impressive space. We were greeted by a stunning exhibition of some of the library’s treasures, including some manuscript and printed Books of Hours; early printed books from Caxton’s press by Wynkyn de Worde showing the black-letter text and woodcuts; and some natural history texts and illustrations, including one by Maria Sibylla Merian.


We also saw some early library catalogues produced by Lee Warly, one of which was annotated with the very apt phrase “Good thoughts, and good books, are very good Company”, and another which included an index for the catalogue! Lee Warly was an attorney. He annotated all of his books and used to record family events in his books, providing us with a fascinating historical record. IMG_1293

There was a beautiful nineteenth-century seascape that had been painted on the fore-edge of a Greek New Testament. This kind of technique is not unusual but not often displayed, and the Cathedral’s example is very fine. These decorations began as abstract designs, added to the edges of books once the pages were trimmed. Gradually the technique developed and invisible designs were created by clamping the pages when slightly spread. The design would then be applied and gilded over. This provided an invisible design that could only been seen when the pages were splayed at the correct angle.

And if that wasn’t enough, we were treated to none other than one of the largest and oldest books in the Cathedral’s collection. The Nuremberg Chronicle was printed in 1493 and was one of the most extensively illustrated books of the fifteenth century. Using over 1,800 woodcuts, and drawing on many medieval and Renaissance sources, the Chronicle presents a history of the world in seven ages. This particular copy is not coloured but some copies could be purchased ready-painted, or painted by an under of the buyer’s choosing.


Last but not least, we were shown a rather unusual bookcase, painted grey, with handles on the side for carrying the case when travelling. It was Dr Bray’s Parochial Library. Dr Thomas Bray was the founder of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and he devised a scheme for founding parochial libraries to be provided for missionaries in the late-seventeenth century. These were ready-made, easily transportable libraries to support the missionaries in their work. The Cathedral’s example comes complete with the books, a shelf list, a list of the cost of the books, and other fascinating documents pertaining to its use in the seventeenth century.

What a fantastic and fascinating visit!

Write-up by Philippa Rose, CILIPinKent

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