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 fa├žade 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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (132) 7 October 2023

For almost a century Saint Michael’s was the Roman Catholic parish church in New Ross, Co Wexford … today it is a theatre, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVIII, 8 October 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrated Saint Michael and All Angels last week (29 September). So my reflections each morning during Michaelmas this week and last week have taken this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A plaque at the gates recalls the theatre’s previous life as a parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church, now, Saint Michael’s Theatre, New Ross, Co Wexford:

Saint Michael’s Theatre is the venue of the New Ross Theatre Festival each year, but it was the parish church of the Co Wexford town for almost a century, from 1806 until 1902.

The site for a new church was donated by Nicholas Loftus Tottenham (1745-1823), MP successively for Bannow and Clonmines, Co Wexford, and a grandson of Charles Tottenham (1685-1758), known as ‘Tottenham in his Boots.’ This prominent town centre site is often offered as evidence of religious tolerance in Co Wexford in the years immediately after the 1798 Rising and before Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

However, the Tottenham papers show the lease of the site created family discord, and Charles Tottenham (1743-1823), former MP for New Ross, who lived in Delare House across the street, expressed his opposition to his brother’s decision.

The church was built by Dean William Chapman, who was parish priest of New Ross from 1786 to 1818, and the Roman Catholic Dean of Ferns from 1801.

The church was built in 1806 with a compact rectilinear or engaged half-octagonal plan, and it was aligned along an inverted liturgically-correct axis, from east to west rather than west to east, to provide immediate access from South Street.

The neo-Classical frontage has a central pillared portico showing good quality workmanship in a honey-coloured granite, and a pedimented roofline. These details show the continued development or improvements of the chapel in the later 19th century.

The building is an eight-bay, double-height former chapel, with a seven-bay, double-height nave opening into a single-bay double-height chancel at the west (liturgical east) end. The five-bay two-storey entrance front at the east (liturgical west) is centred on a three-bay, two-storey pedimented breakfront with a single-storey, prostyle tetrastyle portico at the ground floor.

The former chapel has a replacement flat corrugated-iron roof behind the parapet. The granite ashlar walls at the front have been repointed. There is a cut-granite plinth with cut-granite ‘Cyma Recta’ or ‘Cyma Reversa’ detailed cornice on a blind frieze that is centred on pediment topped with a ball finial.

There is a roughcast surface finish on the remainder of the front, with a rendered base that has roughcast stepped piers with rendered coping.

On the first floor there are grouped round-headed central windows with cut-granite sills, and granite ashlar voussoirs framing the replacement fixed-pane windows replacing 12-over-12 timber sash windows without horns having fanlights. The two square-headed flanking windows have inscribed cut-limestone panels with cut-granite sills, and cut-granite lintels framing the replacement 6-over-9 timber sash windows. There are round-headed blind openings in square-headed recesses with cut-granite sills, and concealed dressings framing a cement-rendered infill.

Samuel Lewis described the church in 1837 as ‘a spacious and elegant structure with large pointed windows and faced with granite.’

Meanwhile, the Tottenham family gave Delare House on a long lease and at a moderate rent to the Sisters of Mercy in 1854. Delare House was adapted for use as a convent by 1856, and the Sisters of Mercy opened their school.

Saint Michael’s Chapel was ‘improved’ in 1884-1888, producing the present composition. These works were paid for with money diverted by the parish priest, Canon John Kirwan, from an ad hoc fundraising campaign for building a new parish church. These later developments or improvements are attributed to the Cavan-born architect William Hague (1836-1899).

Hague was trained by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), who is best known for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster. Hague spent four years in Barry’s office in London, and he returned to Ireland to develop a flourishing practice based at 175 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, where he opened an office in 1861.

He became a prolific designer of Catholic churches, designing or altering 40 to 50 churches throughout Ireland. His works include Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, Saint Martin’s Church, Culmullen, Co Meath, Saint Brigid’s Church, Ardagh, Co Longford, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, and the completion of both Ashlin and Coleman’s church at John’s Lane, Dublin, and the chapel at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. He also designed town halls in Carlow, Monaghan and Sligo.

With the opening of the Gothic Revival Church of Saint Mary and Saint Michael as the new parish church in New Ross in 1902, Saint Michael’s closed as a chapel and was handed over to the people of New Ross to use as a theatre. Over the next half century, the building had many uses, including a town hall and from the 1930s a cinema.

An exhibition on the stairs in the theatre displays correspondence in March and April 1945 between Bridget Mary Lalor of New Ross and the playwright Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), by then living in Totnes in Devon. Bridget Lalor sought permission to produce one of O’Casey’s lesser-known plays, A Pound on Demand, in a drama competition in association with a local feis.

She initially contacted O’Casey through the offices of the Daily Worker in London. In this correspondence, he asks Brigid Lalor to convey his regards to Alderman Richard Corish, and recalls speaking at a rally with Corish at a rally in Dublin ‘when we were organising the agricultural labourers, and the Alderman was in the van of the fight. This was the memorable year of 1913.’

In the course of this conversation, Brigid Lalor told O’Casey: ‘I would pass on your greetings to Alderman Corish but relations are strained. He suspects me of being one of those awful Reds who are the curse of the country, and if I mentioned your name he might suspect you also. Wouldn’t that be terrible?’

Richard Corish (1886-1945), who was Labour TD for Wexford (1921-1945) and Mayor of Wexford (1920-1945), died three months later on 19 July 1945.

Brigid Lalor stood for election to New Ross Urban District Councillor in 1942 and topped the poll. She chaired the council in 1948-1949 and again in 1949-1950. Her granddaughter, Niamh FitzGibbon of the Green Party, was Mayor of New Ross in 2013.

Meanwhile, by 1957, the Savoy Cinema was in a sad state of neglect and there was a debate in New Ross about whether to bulldoze it or spend money on refurbishing it. With public support for a major refurbishment of the theatre, Monsignor ‘Doc’ Brown travelled to London in the late 1950s to look at the lighting in West End theatres.

The theatre reopened on 28 February 1960 with a performance by the Abbey Players of The Country Boy. The old Pantomime Society was revived, a Musical and Choral Society was formed, and two drama groups were active in the town. The New Ross Drama Festival and the John Player Tops of the Town played to enthusiastic audiences down the years, and the AIMS Choral Festival moved to New Ross in the 1980s.

After 35 years of constant use, the theatre started showing signs of wear and tear in the mid-1990s, and, yet again, there was talk of the bulldozers. The people of New Ross rallied once more, public meetings were called, and a capital grant from the Department of the Arts was secured.

The theatre closed in May 1997 and rebuilding work began. Two major finds during the renovation work included the original altar steps and a grave believed to be that of a priest. The theatre reopened on 3 May 1999 with the Abbey Theatre’s production of Love in the Title by Hugh Leonard.

A significant expansion of the theatre took place in 2002 with the opening of the Visual Art Gallery Saint Michael’s, and a cinema was added in 2003.

Today, Saint Michael’s is a theatre, a cultural centre and a community based arts centre serving New Ross and the surrounding district. It boasts a 300-seat theatre, a 50-seat studio venue, an art gallery, a cinema, two visual arts spaces, a coffee shop and a bar, and it is now a fully-fledged arts centre with a staff of 12.

There are about 300 events a year, from drama and film to ballet and rock concerts, and there is successful youth arts programme. It is home to three amateur community based theatre companies – New Ross Musical Society, New Ross Drama Workshop and New Ross Pantomime Society – and has its own in-house musical society, Saint Michael’s Theatre Musical Society, which hosts productions each November.

The is set back from street, and the granite ashlar piers outside have ‘Cavetto’ stringcourses below truncated pyramidal capping, and there the wrought-iron double gates have arrow head-detailing.

The composition of this former chapel retains its architectural value and continues as an important component of the early 19th-century church heritage and architecture of Co Wexford.

An exhibition on the theatre stairs reveals a correspondence with Sean O’Casey in the 1940s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 10: 17-24 (NRSVA):

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ 18 He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

21 At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

Delare House seen from Saint Michael’s Theatre … it was built in 1790 as the townhouse of the Tottenham family, who donated the site for Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Supporting Justice for Women in Zambia.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for women throughout the world. May they be free from oppression and know dignity, equality and the fullness of life.

The Collect:

Lord, give to your people grace to hear and keep your word
that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale,
we may not only profess your gospel
but also be ready to suffer and die for it,
to the honour of your name;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr William Tyndale:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Tottenham family and the Sisters of Mercy remembered at Delare House in New Ross, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org