07 October 2023

Two libraries link
York Minster
with Alcuin and
Coverdale’s Bible

York Minster Library has been housed in the 13th-century Archbishops’ Chapel since 1810 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

York Minster Library has stood at the north of the Minster Gardens since 1810. But, of course, York has been known for books since the eighth century: Alcuin had anrenowned collection that was destroyed by the Vikings who invaded York in 866.

It was to be more than 500 years before the Minster again had its own ‘librarie’, begun with 40 volumes bequeathed by Canon John Newton, the Minster treasurer, in 1414. In his will, Neuton, bequeathed a large collection of books to the Minster towards the creation of a library. Neuton may have used his position as canon treasurer to arrange the finances and perhaps approve the designs of the library building before he died.

The first major setback for the library came at the Tudor Reformation. By 1536, the library had 193 books, and some volumes were allowed to be borrowed by readers. However, the Reformation meant that all ‘Catholic’ books and decorated manuscripts had to be removed.

The library survived and almost a century later, in 1628, it was transformed with a bequest of 3,000 volumes by Archbishop Tobie Matthew’s widow. This collection still forms the core of the Old Library.

During the Civil Wars, York fell to the Parliamentary army after the siege of 1644. Again the library survived, this time thanks to the orders of the Parliamentary commander, Lord Fairfax.

The library continued to make acquisitions throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. By 1800, the original 40 volumes had become over 6,000. Meanwhile, thanks notably to a previous precentor, Thomas Comber, the library became more efficient.

The books were re-housed in 1810 in the 13th-century Archbishops’ Chapel. Important donations in the 19th century included 10,000 volumes from the Hailstone Collection in 1890.

A controversial decision was taken in 1930 to sell valuable historical books to fund repairs of the Minster. Ironically, the repairs did not take place and the funds raised by the sale were set aside to start a new library fund in 1945.

Thanks to the hard work of Dean Eric Milner-White and others, the library was put on a more stable footing and renewed its scholarly use. An extension was built in 1960. The University of York opened in 1963 and began a continuous and happy relationship with the Minster Library. The addition of the Alcuin wing in 1998 improved the resources.

Today the library at York Minister contains about 120,000 books and its collections include a prayer book that belonged to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and the 1,000-year old Anglo-Saxon ‘York Gospels’. The library is regarded by many as the most important cathedral library in Britain.

The old library at York Minster now houses the gift shop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The old library now houses the cathedral gift shop and is one of York Minster’s forgotten treasures. It remains one of the earliest surviving examples of a building specifically designed to house a library, built 600 years ago at a time when it was just becoming fashionable for cathedrals to have their own libraries.

Cathedrals such as Salisbury, Lincoln and Durham, which had cloisters, created library spaces within the complex of cloister buildings. But there was no cloister at York, and so a separate library was built.

The old library stands on the south side of the Minster nave, attached to the west side of the south transept. Unlike the vestries and other service buildings east of the crossing that are built up against the choir aisles, the library building stands clear of the nave, with windows on three sides.

The building is set at an angle to the Minster, parallel with modern Deangate, which probably perpetuates the line of a path that ran through the mediaeval cemetery from the south-west tower, past Saint-Michael-le-Belfrey, to the south transept entrance. The library was housed on the first floor, with the chorister room beneath.

Originally, there were no external doors on the ground floor. Instead, the building was reached through a plain doorway cut through the west wall of the southernmost bay of the south transept.

The structure of the building seems to have remained largely unaltered until the library was moved to the restored chapel of the archbishops' palace in 1810. In the succeeding 200 years, the Minster shop eventually took over the ground floor, and the camera cantorum or choir practice room on the first floor accommodated the girls’ choir.

A plaque at the original library is a reminder that Miles Coverdale was probably born in York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No traces remain of the original library furniture, but the façade bears an interesting reminder that the Reformer Miles Coverdale was probably born in York. A plaque on the former library states:

‘Miles Coverdale c. 1488-1569, Bishop of Exeter and believed to be a native of York. He translated and published the first complete printed English Bible (1535) and revised the Great Bible of 1539, sponsored by Thomas Cromwell.

‘He was a major figure of the English Reformation and the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) and the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) depend heavily on his work. Copies of his translations were long kept in this building which, from its erection c. 1420 until 1810, housed the York Minster Library.’

Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) began his clerical career, like Luther, as an Augustinian friar. He is remembered chiefly as a Bible translator, preacher and, briefly, Bishop of Exeter (1551-1553). He produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English in 1535. By the time of his death, he had become an early Puritan, affiliated to Calvin, yet still advocating the teachings of Augustine.

The evidence for Coverdale’s birth in York comes from his contemporary John Bale (1495-1563), a controversial Bishop of Ossory known as ‘bilious Bale,’ who wrote that Coverdale was born in Yorkshire. Bale lasted as Bishop of Ossory for less than a year; Coverdale was never reinstated as Bishop of Exeter when Elizabeth acceded to the throne, and from 1564 to 1566 he was the Rector of Saint Magnus the Martyr near London Bridge.

Coverdale was involved with in producing the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Matthew Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557, 1560) and the Bishops’ Bible (1568), long before the publication of the Authorised or King James Bible (1611). His translation of the Psalms, based on Luther’s version and the Latin Vulgate, is still used in the Book of Common Prayer, and remains familiar to many in the Anglican Communion worldwide, particularly in college chapels and cathedral churches.

Although Coverdale does not appear in the Common Worship Calendar of the Church of England, Coverdale and William Tyndale are remembered together on 6 October in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. There is a Coverdale Road and a Miles Coverdale Primary School in London. Coverdale Hall is a fictional college in Durham in Catherine Fox’s first novel, Angels and Men (1996).

The library at York Minister is regarded by many as the most important cathedral library in Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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