700-year-old Bible returns to Canterbury Cathedral, five centuries after its removal

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A rare medieval Bible has been returned to Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, some 500 years after it was removed. The Lyghfield Bible—named after the 16th-century monk who once owned it—was among a number of items removed from the cathedral’s monastic library at the time of the Reformation. The monastic community at Canterbury was one of many that were dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII as he attempted to assert his authority over the newly independent church and plunder its assets.

The 690-leaf volume was purchased in July from a private seller at a specialist sale of manuscripts in London. The purchase was funded in part through a £96,000 (equivalent of C$162,300) grant from Britain’s National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and further funding from the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral and a private donation.

The purchase of the Lyghfield Bible and its return to Canterbury Cathedral means that the rare manuscript will remain in the U.K.

“The Lyghfield Bible was written in the latter 13th century on high quality parchment or vellum which is almost tissue-like in quality,” Canterbury Cathedral said. “The fine Latin script and extensive and very fine illumination [decoration] was probably produced in Paris, one of the medieval centres for this type of work.

“The Bible is pocket-sized and as such was designed for personal use, possibly whilst travelling. The volume formed part of the collection of the medieval monastery of the Cathedral in the 16th century, but may well have been in Canterbury well before that time.”

The cathedral’s library and book collection were dispersed following the disbanding of the monastic community, with many volumes destroyed or taken apart for the reuse of their materials. Only 30 volumes of the original library remain at the cathedral.

The Lyghfield Bible is the only complete Bible from the medieval book collection, which is now at the cathedral, and is part of a collection that is inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. It is said to be the finest example of a complete illuminated book from that collection.

The Lyghfield Bible returns to Canterbury Cathedral, much to the delight of (left to right) the Rev. Tim Naish, Canon Librarian; Mrs. Cressida Williams, head of Archives and Library; and the Very Rev. Robert Willis, dean of Canterbury.
Photo: Canterbury Cathedral

The head of Archives and Library at the cathedral, Cressida Williams, commented: “We are very grateful to the support from funders. It is of the utmost significance to us to have here in our collections a copy of the core Christian text which was owned by one of the last monks of the medieval monastic community.

“The Bible bears witness to the upheavals of the reformation, a time which defined what the Cathedral is today, and will have a key role in telling visitors our story.”

Sir Peter Luff, a former government minister who now serves as chair of the NHMF, said: “Not only an incredibly rare book directly linked to one the most turbulent periods of British history, the Lyghfield Bible is also exquisitely beautiful. We at the National Heritage Memorial Fund agreed it was imperative it should be saved for the nation and returned home to Canterbury where its important story can be told to future generations of visitors, pilgrims and students.”

The cathedral plans to display the Bible in a new exhibition area being developed at the cathedral as part of The Canterbury Journey project.

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