Celebrating milestones (3): the 150th anniversary of a stained glass trailblazer

~ In memory of Charles Winston (1814-1864), stained glass expert ~

This is the third feature in our blog series Celebrating Milestones; here we extend its scope to highlight a publishing milestone – that of a fascinating book from our collections…

‘To… Charles Winston, is due what may justly be called the renaissance of English stained glass…’1

In 1865 an important book was published, Charles Winston’s Memoirs illustrative of the art of glass-painting (London: John Murray, Abermarle Street)

A century and a half later, it graces our Chapter Library collections.  This blog explores Winston’s life and work, and delves into this special book (all images are taken from the Memoirs, with plate and page numbers given).

Glorious Gothic reborn

Winston was arguably in the vanguard of the Gothic Revival in England, alongside such influential figures as author and architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) and art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900).  From around 1830, there was a flowering of enthusiasm for the art of the Mediaeval era, and a nostalgic wish to recreate some of the romance of chivalric times.  Stained glass was a hallmark of these stirring times; however coloured glass was no longer in vogue, and so British workshops’ output was limited, and often of inferior quality.

As the Gothic Revival crescendoed, demand for restored antique glass, and for freshly-crafted glass for churches in the Neo-Gothic style, outstripped supply.  Indeed, as Winston wrote to an associate, art administrator and educationalist Charles Heath Wilson (1809–1882): ‘If you could manage to found a school of art in glass, you would indeed supply a desideratum.  You will have no competitors…’2   He was as passionate about glass painting being respected as an art form, and therefore requiring the endeavour of a specialist artisan, as he was about the quality of the recipes and processes for glass manufacture.

Tragic luminary: an engraving (opposite page 1) of Charles Winston (1814–1864) by William Holl, after a photograph by Philip H. Delamotte (1821–1889), renowned photographer and book–illustrator. Winston seems to radiate a pensive brilliance (© Durham Cathedral Library)

So, it took Winston to satisfy this dearth and to enrich public understanding of Mediaeval principles of design: in 1847, his An inquiry into the difference of style observable in ancient glass painting especially in England: with hints on glass–painting was published.  The movement gained momentum: fourteen years later, William Morris (1834–1896) established a decorative arts workshop, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., near Bloomsbury, which focused on hand–crafted homewares, including stained glass.

A little legal lustre…

Born in the Hampshire seaside town of Lymington on 10th March 1814, Winston’s origins were prosperous: his father was a clergyman and his mother a baronet’s daughter, whilst his great grandfather was formerly the attorney–general of Dominica.  Sadly his mother died when he was young – so his paternal grandmother

Mrs Sandford helped to bring him up.  Winston was home–educated in Farningham, Kent, where his father was incumbent, and was later taught by the Revd. Weeden Butler; learning nurtured Winston’s great integrity, modesty, and an enquiring mind.  He went on to study law, entering London’s Inner Temple c. 1835; for a time a special pleader, he developed a thriving practice centred on arbitrations and specifications for patents and, being a member of the home circuit, frequently officiated as deputy judge at various county courts.

Marriage came late for Winston, only five months before his tragically early death; he resigned from practice after his wedding.  He chose for his wife Maria (1823–1900), daughter of Philip Raoul Lemprière of Rozel Manor – a prominent Jersey family – who befriended the Pre–Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829–1896).

Never the dilettante: Winston’s versatile mind

Despite his noteworthy legal career, Winston is generally more celebrated for his enthusiasm for archaeology and his love of stained glass; he became a distinguished experimenter on glass of Mediaeval origins, undertaking assiduous research on its chemical composition.  He joined the Archaeological Institute soon after its foundation.  His interest in glass was longstanding: curiously, it seems that, aged sixteen, he was fortunate enough to handle some glass fragments from the late Middle Ages at home, his father having some renovations made to Farningham church: the drawings he was inspired to create symbolised his growing love of this art form.

Geometrical glory: examples from Salisbury Cathedral of ornamental designs in the precise Early English style, including foliaged scroll–work (plate I, opposite p. 109) – some of which came from the Chapter House. Reproduced by Philip Delamotte, from Winston’s original drawing (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Leaves of a luminary: Winston’s first book

In 1847 Oxford publisher John Henry Parker brought into print Winston’s book, An inquiry into the difference of style observable in ancient glass paintings especially in England: with hints on glass painting, by an amateur.  It was prominent as the first English publication on this art form: indeed, Raguin calls it ‘his most influential work’3 and ‘a remarkably even-handed evaluation’4 of the various eras of glass-painting design.  His modesty, evident in the title, and in his remark that he had ‘not ventured to do more than throw out a few hints for the consideration of artists…’5 is misplaced, as the book was praised as insightful and authoritative.

A stained glass swansong…

Memoirs illustrative of the art of glass painting was published posthumously, as declared in the Preface:

‘The present collection of Memoirs by the late Mr. Winston is published by some of his friends out of regard to his memory…’6

It offered a short biography of Winston, and various articles he produced during his career for the Archaeological journal.  There is also much heartfelt, persuasive correspondence between Winston and his friends and associates in the field.  Winston’s artistic conviction, and his deep knowledge of, and affinity with, his subject, shines through.  He identified a ‘halcyon’ decade of glass painting, from 1525–1535 – yet he ran the gamut of styles and periods in his writings.

There are some contradictions in others’ views of him…  Whilst it is stated in the preface that ‘To applications of this kind [giving advice on building projects] he seldom or never failed to give his cheerful and active assistance…’7, renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811–1878) apparently found him – though very knowledgeable – sometimes brusque and inflexible.  The author of the ‘Biographical memoir’ at the beginning of the book is arguably somewhat scornful of

of Winston’s achievements, since his life was not coloured by particular glamour, extraordinary happenings, or notoriety.  However he does bestow praise, even if veiled:

‘Connection with the art from whose future history his name will never be separated is the only circumstance which can attract any public interest to his life…’8

And, through moving in increasingly exalted artistic circles, Winston succeeded in securing the friendship of that giant of the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882).

‘German glass: from the collection of the late Lord Herbert of Lea’: depicting The Last Supper (plate 10, opposite p. 190). The Leighton Brothers are credited – presumably the Holborn printing firm – apparently trailblazers in ‘chromatic’ [colour] printing (© Durham Cathedral Library)

A tragic talent for the technical

Winston journeyed around southern England and Western Europe, visiting churches with the most significant examples of ancient glass and drawing, with great thoroughness, specimens favoured for quality.  He had observed a decline in the quality of glass since the Middle Ages: he felt that the varying thickness – and so varying tone and texture – of Mediaeval glass was far superior to modern formulas. He writes with eloquence of the delicacy of detail he finds, describing for instance the ‘walls of glass’9 that windows in the expansive Perpendicular style seemed to suggest, with their generous proportions and slenderer stone mullions.

He strove to educate and enthuse the public in his books, writing, for instance, that fourteenth century glass can be identified especially by its texture, which is frequently nearly opaque and sometimes pockmarked.  He also observes that plain glass is often of a deep sea–green colour.  In explaining the crafting of stained glass at this time, he writes that the process usually involved red and ruby glass being placed as a coating over a layer of white glass, creating an uneven texture.  A technique occasionally used to produce purple glass was sandwiching a layer of blue glass between two of ruby colour.

He studied European sources and influences, especially Venetian and Byzantine glass from antiquity, and communicated his visions of how best to restore glass to C. H. Wilson in lively terms:

‘I want no copying of the antique… no gods and goddesses… but I want to see the antique used as Raphael used it; as a means of representing the true Christian sentiment, in the most beautiful manner, and – because in the most beautiful – in the most winning and popular manner.’10

Winston never seemed to allow his engrossment in the details of craftsmanship cloud his overall spiritual belief in God and the sublime.

Colourful experiments…

In the autumn of 1849, in collaboration with Mr. (subsequently Dr.) Medlock of the Royal College of Chemistry, Winston undertook experiments focussing on the blue glass of the twelfth century.  The colouring was found to be of cobalt.  He devoted sterling effort to discovering how to synthesise glass to a recipe typically used in the Middle Ages.  Winston also studied ruby glass, defined as ‘Coated Red glass’11, and observed that ‘The red colour is clearly ascertained to be producible by copper in a high state of oxidation.’12

Messrs.  James Powell and Sons of Whitefriars (also known as Whitefriars Glass) also worked with Winston, who built a furnace especially and succeeded in producing genuine antique glass, in diverse colours common in the twelfth century.  This artistically distinguished glass manufacturer produced tableware and scientific glass, before immersing itself in the Arts and Crafts Movement from around the 1880s onwards.

In 1853, a new ‘antique’ glass was being manufactured by Powell and Sons for glass artists to work with; its quality arguably eclipsed any attempts of the last 200 to 300 years.  Indeed, Winston had rediscovered methods and recipes which had lain in obscurity for centuries.  To celebrate, Winston designed stained glass for four windows (sadly no longer extant) in London’s church of the Inner and Middle Temple, the Temple church.

The new ‘antique’ glass was also employed around the same time for restoration at Bristol Cathedral, as well as Gloucester Cathedral’s east window, c. 1860; and Lincoln’s north rose window in 1855.

‘Lincoln Cathedral: inserted in the North Rose Window’: one of a series of panels from this Early English window, with a distinctively shaped border (plate IX, opposite p. 77), and an elegance and vibrancy of design. A lithograph by Philip Delamotte, from Winston’s original drawing; Vincent Brooks is also credited, presumably the London lithographic printer (1815–1885) (© Durham Cathedral Library)

These projects brought Winston further into the limelight: William Burges (1827–1881), the Gothic architect and designer, apparently enquired as to whether Winston’s recipes might be vouchsafed to glass artisans to enhance the quality of glass production more generally.  Apparently ‘The coloured glass made for mosaic windows was for long known as ‘“Winston’s” glass’13, an affectionate tribute to his industry.  As his acclaim grew in the 1850s, Winston’s advice was sought for various ecclesiastical window projects, including the cathedrals of Norwich and Glasgow; and he also designed windows for the church at Bushbury, Staffordshire14.

Painstaking patternings

In the fourteenth century fashionable designs for glass–painting tended to be a ‘running scroll, formed by a tendril’15 with foliage – ivy, maple, vine or oak leaves.  Geometrical styles were also common in Gothic stained glass.  However, Winston favoured pictorial stained glass – including German creations, notably from Munich – and was of the opinion that fresh styles were appropriate for any current commissions.

A glowing legacy

The fruits of Winston’s outstanding flair and knowledge endure today; although his pioneering work met with some resistance from the Victorian artistic establishment, his prolific collection of published papers has stood the test of time.  The imaginative richness of the High Victorian epoch – notably the artistry of William Morris and his contemporaries – is all the greater through Winston’s work.  He also influenced other, allied crafts, such as the making of vases and table–glass.

Sadly, Winston did not live long enough to gain further fulfilment from his research: on 3rd October 1864, whilst alone in his chambers in the Inner Temple, he died of a heart attack.

A weekly newspaper, The Era, reported that the attending surgeon thought the cause of death was a ‘disease of the heart, produced by over–work and prolonged abstinence from food’16.

Following his death, over 700 of his watercolours were exhibited at London’s Arundel Society, an organisation formed to foster a heightened appreciation of painting and sculpture.

The preface of Memoirs… pays glowing tribute to this good–hearted, remarkably gifted man:

‘Few have passed a more blameless life, and few have united more of the qualities which can win confidence and affection, and command respect.’17

Footnote references

1 Wood, Henry Trueman. (1903) ‘Proceedings of the Society: Applied Art section’, The    journal of the Society of Arts, 51(2638), p. 640

2 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs illustrative of the art of glass painting, p. 18

3 Raguin, Virginia Chieffo. (1990) ‘Revivals, revivalists, and architectural stained glass’, Journal of  the Society of Architectural Historians, 49(3), p. 320

Raguin, Virginia Chieffo. (1990), p. 321

 5 Winston Charles (1847).  An inquiry into the difference of style observable in ancient glass paintings especially in England: with hints on glass painting, by an amateur, p. v  

Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. iii

7 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 13

Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 1

9 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 286

10 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 20

11 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 81

12 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 81, note 2

13 Wood, Henry Trueman. (1903) ‘Proceedings…’, p. 640

14 Chatwin, A. H. (2000) Bushbury Church.  Available at: http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/articles/bushbury/churchglass.htm (Accessed: 9 November 2015)

15 Graves, James. (1850) ‘Ancient Irish stained glass’, Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1(2), p. 213

16 The Era (1864) ‘Accidents and offences’, 9 October, issue 1359

17 Winston, Charles (1865).  Memoirs…, p. 17

Further reading…

~ Winston’s work ~

  • Allen, Jasmine (2009) Panel of the month: Adam digging and Eve spinning. Available at: http://vidimus.org/issues/issue-28/panel-of-the-month/ (Accessed: 9 November 2015)
  • Winston Charles (1847).  An inquiry into the difference of style observable in ancient glass paintings especially in England: with hints on glass painting, by an amateur. Oxford: John Henry Parker

~ Winston’s family ~

~ The glass–making industry ~

  • Marsh, Madeleine (2003) ‘A World of Glass at Whitefriars’, BBC Homes & antiques, August 2003

~ Stained glass: trends & styles ~

  • Cheshire, Jim. (2004)  Stained Glass and the Victorian Gothic Revival.  Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Raguin, Virginia Chieffo. (1990) ‘Revivals, revivalists, and architectural stained glass’, Journal of  the Society of Architectural Historians, 49(3), pp. 310–329
  • Sewter, A. C. (1961) ‘The place of Charles Winston in the Victorian revival of the art of stained glass’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 3(24), pp. 80–91
  • Shields, Daniel (1952) ‘Design in stained glass’, Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review, 41(162), pp. 209–218
  • Wood, Henry Trueman. (1903) ‘Proceedings of the Society: Applied Art section’, The    journal of the Society of Arts, 51(2638), pp. 637–646

~ Stained glass: general history ~

~ The Gothic Revival ~

~ Colour printing & book production ~

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Celebrating Milestones (2): the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, 18th June 1815

~ The life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French.                            With a preliminary view of the French Revolution by the author of “Waverley”, & c. ~

Edinburgh: printed by Ballantyne & Co.: for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, London; and Cadell & Co., Edinburgh, 1827 (2nd edition)

This is the second feature in our new blog series, Celebrating Milestones…  However this time there is a departure from key happenings in the life and history of the Cathedral, or of ecclesiastical history in general, to a devastating conflict on the international stage – the Battle of Waterloo.  Drawing again upon the Cathedral’s stunning Collections, here we explore an early 19th century book inspired by this fight – a fight for the freedoms of the common citizen, and against despotic rule – by a great Scottish writer and poet, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).

European strife: remembered two centuries on

On 18 June 1815, in open countryside just south of Brussels, Napoleon Buonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French, lost to the might of half a dozen nations…  For rich detail on the Battle, its themes, context and personalities, please see the National Army Museum’s Waterloo 200 website and the suggested items for further reading at the end of this blog.

Napoleon enshrined: the book’s genesis

Walter Scott began The life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1825, only four years after Buonaparte’s death.  Interestingly, he chose to write about the vanquished French tyrant, rather than the British victor, of the notorious Battle of Waterloo.  One cannot help wondering how Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), viewed this arguably unpatriotic gesture…  The book’s genesis sprung from Scott’s close acquaintance with Archibald Constable (1774-1827), a local bookseller, stationer and pioneering publisher[1]: in May 1825 Constable mooted the idea of a four-volume study of the French dictator… and four months later the creative endeavour was underway.  Sadly, their association ended acrimoniously in 1826, when financial calamity struck.  Also, Scott had a domestic connection with France: his wife Charlotte (1770-1826), formerly Charpentier, was French-born – with a somewhat shadowy family history – and spoke with a slightly French accent; she eventually became a British citizen[2].

Scott writes that ‘It was at first intended merely as a brief and popular abstract of the life of the most wonderful man, and the most extraordinary events, of the last thirty years…’ (volume 1, p. i); however, later he was obliged for independent reasons to declare his purpose…  His illustrious standing gained him privileged access to documents, and the book mushroomed into a nine-volume work – despite having been advertised several times in The Edinburgh Weekly Journal, with a gradual rise in quantity of volumes (from five to nine)![3] – published on 28 June 1827.

This ‘most wonderful man’ was a consummate despot, a ruthless empire-builder whose territory spanned Europe from Portugal to Moscow; his zestful leadership ensured him conquest after conquest[4].  However, the human cost was devastating – Napoleon’s men showed him great fidelity, and yet they were wantonly sent to their deaths, in battle or through winter starvation, in scores.  Yet Scott evidently nourished a great interest in, and had some respect for, ‘Bony’ and thus wrote of himself, ‘He will be found no enemy to the person of Napoleon’ (volume 1, p. iv).

Bound for posterity: delicate gold, floral tooling adorns the spine of Scott’s epic nine-volume ‘Life of Napoleon Buonaparte’ (© Durham Cathedral Library)

The vicissitudes of creating a masterpiece…

The life of Napoleon was written in Scott’s splendid, galleried study at Abbotsford, near Melrose.  Overlooking the river Tweed, this attractive residence in the Scottish Baronial style was built for Scott on the site of farmhouse; the study was completed in 1824 and complemented his specially designed library, both rooms accommodating his colossal book collections.[5]

However, Scott needed empirical material to bring his biography alive, and in October and November of 1826 he journeyed to London and Paris to gather information.  In the French capital he gleaned eye-witness accounts, consulting Napoleon’s friends and enemies, including erstwhile colleagues.  He also corresponded with the Duke of Wellington regarding Napoleon’s Russian campaign; what a colourful exchange of letters must have unfolded!

Owing to his celebrity Scott enjoyed free access to government records – for instance the correspondence housed in the Foreign Office pertaining to Napoleon’s time on St. Helena, the isolated Atlantic island where he was sequestered by the victorious British, until his death on 5th May 1821.

Constable diligently sourced the sundry works which Scott needed at Abbotsford to inform his writing, for instance seventy-seven volumes of Le Moniteur universel (the official journal of the French administration, 1789-1869).

Ballantyne assumed the mantle of editor, but unfortunately deemed much of Scott’s manuscript riddled with repetitions of phrase and errors of fact.  These were owing, it appears, to Scott’s feverish composition (despite deteriorating health); the fact that some primary sources were necessarily not to hand; and Scott’s turbulent life, as regards both his circumstances and his emotional state – not least the death of his wife, Lady Charlotte Scott, on 15th May 1826.

Laudable intentions: p. i of the first volume, where Scott states his grand biographical and historical purpose (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Scott’s penchant for history

Scott seemed fascinated in the rawness of history, and engaged in an early form of battlefield tourism: he visited Waterloo only a few weeks after the conflict, eager to glean mementoes.  He succeeded in gleaning many, including bullets, banners (‘enemy’ and ‘home’)[6] and buttons[7].  Also, he later managed to procure a couple of the Emperor’s personal possessions: a blotter book and, intriguingly, a lock of his hair.  The curl had passed from Lieutenant Colonel Elphinstone (1782-1842) – one of Wellington’s men – to a Mr. Dalton, who indulged Scott’s acclaimed collecting zeal and sent it to him[8].

The author also wove his knowledge of French history – spanning the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis XIV – into the fourth series of his Tales of a grandfather, created in 1830 for the pleasure of, and dedicated to, his grandson, John Hugh Lockhart (1821-1831).  Scott had already achieved international acclaim in Europe, with his works found in translations galore, including French, Polish, Russian and Spanish.  Writing seems to have been second nature to him: he found it greatly satisfying, and was enviably prolific.

However it proved a time-consuming project, leaving Scott little scope for letter-writing and for his more imaginative work.  He always endeavoured to distance himself from his public, insomuch as he realised fretting about readers’ views on his next opus was rather fruitless.

The Durham connection: the engraved stone plaque which graces the late 18th century Prebends’ Bridge in Durham, taken from Scott’s Icelandic epic poem, ‘Harold the Dauntless’ (1817). Scott, with the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), enjoyed the Bishop’s hospitality at a Durham Castle banquet in 1827 (© Durham Cathedral Library)


The Ballantyne boon…

The life of Napoleon was printed by the Ballantyne brothers, James (1772-1833) and John (1774-1821).  Scott enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the siblings, James attending school in Kelso with Scott.  James later became a solicitor and newspaper printer in the town, printing some of Scott’s work (The minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1802); the author lent him £500 and encouraged him to establish a press in Edinburgh, in the precincts of Holyrood House.  This enterprise thrived and Scott doubled his investment, then having a stake in one third of the company in 1805 (this was a confidential arrangement); John Ballantyne & Co. booksellers prospered (from 1806-1839, in major premises at Paul’s Work, Canongate, peaking at twenty-three presses in 1823) with Scott’s patronage and the printing-house’s high class productions[9].  Archibald Constable procured the copyright for all his works from 1819 into the 1820s[10]; James Ballantyne also had trade and personal dealings with him.

The Constable catastrophe

However, disaster struck in January 1826 with the failure of the heretofore thriving Constable & Co. – perhaps owing to the fatal blend of, firstly, the crash of Constable’s London agents (Hurst, Robinson and Co.); secondly to, in the winter of 1825-26, a national economic crisis with banks’ major retrenchment.  Scott, owing to his benevolence, and Ballantyne, also suffered bankruptcy[11].  The next six years saw Scott overtax himself in working to repay not solely his own crippling debts, but also those of his associates[12]; at his death he had recouped £51,128[13].

Scott continued to collaborate with Constable’s business partner, Robert Cadell (1788-1849), whom he viewed as a good friend.  Scott’s trustees came into ownership of The life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1827; between 1826 and 1829 Scott wrote a book a year, earning a substantial income for the trust.  Indeed, The life of Napoleon Buonaparte generated the colossal sum of £18,000[14], surely a telling tribute to his mastery.

From pen to press…

Different printers were deployed to produce the various volumes: one was Edinburgh’s John Stark (d. c.1848), in 1827 based at Old Fishmarket Close (and from 1828, Old Assembly Close) off the Royal Mile, a quarter specialising in, amongst other trades, printing and bookbinding[15]; he was the author and printer of Picture of Edinburgh; containing a history and description of the city, with a particular account of every remarkable object in, or establishment connected with, the Scottish metropolis (1806)[16], which ran to six editions.

Volume six states at the end of the book that it was ‘Reprinted by the heirs of D. Willison’.  David Willison was an Edinburgh printer based at Craig’s Close, another centre of printing, which was partly demolished in the 1930s; he died in 1821[17].  There is a connection to Scott and his book trade circle through Willison’s daughter Mary: she became the wife of Archibald Constable in 1795[18].

The book’s reception:

There was some criticism of Scott’s assessment of Napoleon’s character, and his perception of his policies; detractors were both French and English.  However, the book gained an enduring readership and proved most lucrative, a boon in helping Scott repay his considerable debts.  Indeed, he was one of few early nineteenth century literary figures able to prosper financially through their writing.  However, Scott outshone all authors of his time; he influenced how the public digested history.

Bibliophile’s delight: the book’s elegant armorial binding, incorporating a border of intricate, rolled decoration in gold (of alternating dots and leaves) (© Durham Cathedral Library)



[1] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Constable, Archibald, bookseller, stationer and publisher, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[2] Edinburgh University Library (2015) The Walter Scott Digital Archive: Williamina, Charlotte and Marriage.  Available at: http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/biography/marriage.html (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[3] McMullin, B. J. (1992) ‘Notes on cancellation in Scott’s “Life of Napoleon”’, Studies in Bibliography, 45, pp. 222-231

[4] Snow, Dan. (2015)  ‘The French should end their love affair with Napoleon – he was an utterly brutal and callous dictator’.  Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11472205/The-French-should-end-their-love-affair-with-Napoleon-he-was-an-utterly-brutal-and-callous-dictator.html (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[5] Abbotsford Trust (no date) The House.  Available at: http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/visit/the-house/ (Accessed: 6 June 2015)

[6] BBC (2008) Waterloo flags find at Scott home.  Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/south_of_scotland/7458741.stm (Accessed: 27 May 2015)

[7] Abbotsford Trust (no date) A great many trophies: Scott’s visit to Waterloo.  Available at: http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/event-registration/?ee=51 (Accessed: 6 May 2015)

[8] Abbotsford Trust (no date) Lock of Napoleon’s hair rediscovered at Abbotsford.  Available at:  http://www.scottsabbotsford.com/lock-of-napoleons-hair-rediscovered-at-abbotsford/ (Accessed: 6 May 2015)

[9] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Ballantyne, James, printer, Kelso and Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[10] Hewitt, David.  (2004) ‘Constable, Archibald (1774–1827)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 13).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 2-7

[11] Hewitt, David. (2004) ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 49).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 490-510

[12] Scottish Printing Archival Trust. (1990) A reputation for excellence: volume 1: Edinburgh. Available at: http://scottishprintarchive.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Vol-1-Edinburgh.pdf (Accessed: 7 May 2015)

[13] Hewitt, David. (2004) ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’, in Matthew, H. C. G. and Harrison, Brian (ed.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 49).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 490-510

[14] Wood, John W. (no date) An answer to William Peterson’s autumn ‘Spectrum’ article: the Bible and the French Revolution: an answer.  Available at: http://www.andrews.edu/library/car/cardigital/digitized/documents/b18434885.pdf (Accessed: 12 June 2015)

[15] The Post Office Annual Directory for 1827-28 (1827) Edinburgh: General Post Office

[16] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Stark, John, printer, bookseller and stationer, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 28 May 2015)

[17] The Scots Magazine (1821) ‘Births, Marriages, and Deaths’, May, p. 496

[18] National Library of Scotland (2015) Scottish Book Trade Index (SBTI).  Available at: http://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/ (entry for ‘Willison, David, printer, Edinburgh’) (Accessed: 11 June 2015)


Further reading:

  • O’Keeffe, Paul. (2015) Scott on Waterloo.  London: Vintage
  • O’Keeffe, Paul. (2015) Waterloo: the aftermath.  London: Vintage
  • Suarez, Michael F. and Turner, Michael L. (eds.) (2009) The Cambridge history of the book in Britain: volume v, 1695-1830.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press – please see the index for various references to Scott
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Celebrating Milestones (1): the Feast of St. Cuthbert, 20th March 2015

~ Remembering a beloved northern saint –––~

This feature introduces a new blog series, Celebrating Milestones, which pays tribute to, revives, or otherwise recalls, key events in the life and history of the Cathedral, or of ecclesiastical history in general.  Blogs may perhaps have a national or international flavour.  Reference will often be made to the Cathedral’s Collections of printed books, manuscripts, and other artefacts.  We hope these new explorations of the Cathedral’s place in history, and the wider picture of church art and history, prove both interesting and inspiring…

A Lindisfarne luminary: remembered thirteen centuries on

This Feast day commemorates the death of St. Cuthbert (b. c.635) on Farne Island on 20th March 687, and celebrates his remarkable life.  This blog post explores some aspects of the cult of St. Cuthbert which began to thrive after his death, and the miraculous quality of his legacy.

Grace in miniature: the St. Cuthbert Gospel

This is the oldest extant European book in its original binding, reputedly produced at the Wearmouth-Jarrow scriptorium in the late 7th century (soon after Cuthbert’s death), the work of a local craftsman.  It is also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, due to the book’s two centuries’ sojourn, from 1769 to 2012, at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit College in Lancashire; it was purchased by the British Library in 2012 for £9 million.  A beautifully scribed Latin copy of the Gospel of St. John, it has miniature dimensions of 5.3 by 3.6 inches – a ‘pocket-book’, ideal for the pilgrim; indeed it was probably intended to be conveyed in a special protective covering, due to the dearth of clasps on the binding.  This Gospel-book would provide inspiration, and perhaps reaffirm the weary traveller’s faith in his spiritual quest.

When Cuthbert’s coffin was relocated to the high altar at Lindisfarne in 698, this Gospel book was put inside; however in 1104 – when the new Cathedral, built in Cuthbert’s honour and furnished with shrine, reached fruition – the book was taken out.

Beautifully preserved fragments of the oak coffin constructed for St. Cuthbert’s translation to the high altar on Lindisfarne in 698 – it was carved with the twelve apostles (© Durham Cathedral Library)

The dark red leather binding, of goatskin surprisingly well-preserved, bears the hallmarks of the flourishing tradition of Insular art: beautifully distinctive, engraved interlacing and scrollwork adorn the front cover.  These designs were filled in with three different pigments.  The pages are made of vellum (fine calf-skin) and, whilst not illuminated, the gracefully rounded uncial script – common in the 4th to the 8th centuries, here with an Italian influence – is extremely pleasing to the eye.

It would appear that the St. Cuthbert Gospel was sequestered in the coffin to protect its contents from harm; this was of particular benefit on the community’s seven years’ perilous journeying with the coffin and relics, from Lindisfarne across the north to Ripon, Chester-le-Street, and Durham, after Viking attacks on the island in 793.  Some force, indeed, successfully kept the company safe.

Travel and transcendence: the cult of St. Cuthbert

It is perhaps difficult to grasp in today’s hectic, progressive society, where science and rationality hold such sway, the deep significance which saints held in the lives of ordinary people in the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval eras.  Indeed, a great mystique surrounds St. Cuthbert which has, like his relics, endured the passing of many centuries.  The enthusiasm for saints was especially pervasive in the 11th and 12th centuries: people from all walks of life were captivated by, and found succour in, personal devotion.  Many were prepared to travel far in order to fulfil their spiritual yearnings.  The experience of privation on a pilgrimage was richly rewarded by what a modern writer has evocatively described as ‘the spectacle and mystery of the gold- and jewel-encrusted reliquary shrines’ (Marner, p. 23).  The perils of travel made for a pious aim, with the glowing shrine a spiritually uplifting fruition.

In 698, eleven years after his death, Cuthbert’s remains were disinterred at St. Peter’s church, Lindisfarne, so that the bones might be cleaned and relocated for greater prominence and to encourage reverence.  Cuthbert’s body was discovered still ‘incorrupt’ (Marner, p. 22): this ‘sign of great purity and holiness’ (Crumplin) saw the dawn of a new, powerful cult – the miracle of a dead body preserved in this way suggested saintliness, being as it was beyond rational human experience.  As the astonishing tidings swept England, an incredulous abbot had to see the ‘as-sleeping’ body for himself.  Sequestered Lindisfarne rapidly became a special focus for pilgrimage, and prospered accordingly.  The monastery also showed great intellectual promise.

St. Cuthbert’s cult was, from the outset, characteristically luxurious and spectacular.  It may be that this pomp served to illustrate the great reverence, the spiritual fulfilment, Cuthbert inspired.  Pilgrims brought lavish gifts to ornament and enrich the shrine: jewels and vestments, plate and coins – and books – galore.

A breathtaking pectoral cross, crafted with garnets set in a white Mediterranean shell and discovered in Cuthbert’s coffin by James Raine in 1827. This exquisite ornamentation – if ever Cuthbert wore it – celebrated his saintliness and, in its beauty of craftsmanship, was also the beauty of faith (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Was Cuthbert’s potential wearing of the pectoral cross somewhat at variance with his preference for an austere way of life in order to be closer to God?  For more information on the pectoral cross and its significance, please see our Treasures Unveiled (3) feature.

The concept of relics, however, is perhaps distasteful, macabre even, to twenty-first century sensibilities; attitudes are more temporal and so often less attuned to sainthood and veneration.  The bones of Venerable Bede (673/4–735), the head of St. Oswald (603/4–642), a tooth of St. Margaret of Scotland (603/4–642), plus hair and diverse personal effects of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), St. Godric of Finchale (c.1070–1170) and other saints, ‘most of it displayed in reliquaries of crystal, ivory, or silver-gilt’ (Stranks, p. 33)… therefore make for an odd collection, more disquieting than mystical.

Nonetheless, perhaps the idea of spiritual healing has a resonance for many ordinary people today…  The shrine offered space for lame and ill pilgrims, of low or high station, to find repose and to pray to St. Cuthbert for healing.

Wearing words of wisdom: Cuthbert’s spiritual power

Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090–c.1128), an early 12th century monk, wrote an interesting   account of the settlement ceremony for St. Cuthbert’s body in the shrine newly built in his honour, on 29th August 1104.  He described how a Gospel-book (of St. John) in a sort of leather satchel was discovered in the inner coffin, and proudly shown to an audience by Bishop Flambard (c.1060-1128) as he preached.  Archbishop of York William Fitzherbert (d. 1154), cousin of Hugh de Puiset (c.1125-1195), experienced the ‘good luck charm’ first hand, as a sacristan placed the ‘satchel’ over his head – however the book contained within it was not the St. John Gospel but a Life of St. Cuthbert, showing Cuthbert’s burgeoning spiritual influence.  Furthermore, it seems to have been customary for distinguished pilgrims to be allowed to ‘wear’ the St. Cuthbert Gospel-book around their necks in the ‘satchel’.

A page from the Venerable Bede’s prose ‘Life of Cuthbert’, Cathedral MS A.IV.35 (late 12th C.), with spectacular illuminated initial. The colours appear as fresh as if just painted. In all likelihood it was produced at Durham’s own scriptorium, situated in the cloisters’ north range (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Texts as healing

Indeed, such Gospel-books were often prized as a sort of good luck charm, people believing they would ensure safety and good health.  Indeed, John’s iconic opening sentence, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, were frequently recited or worn around the neck.  There is a tale from John of Salisbury (c.1120-1180) which is testament to St. Cuthbert’s healing abilities: it seems Cuthbert rid a man of his illness by laying the gospel text upon him.  This widespread faith in the miraculous properties of ‘wearing’ Gospel texts, or Saints’ bones, was controversial, but compelling.  Hagiographies, like manuscripts of St. Cuthbert’s Life (see image above), also, were deemed therapeutic to body and soul.

Cuthbert’s enduring grace…

Events following Cuthbert’s death seem veiled in spiritual mystery – written sources from the period speak of his exertion of influence from beyond death, in the selection of his burial place.  Apparently, on a hill named Dun Holme, his coffin would not budge, and the monks interpreted the inertia as a sign Cuthbert wished to rest in Durham.

There were two further openings of the coffin – in 1537, by the royal commissioners of Henry VIII, seeking Crown aggrandizement; and in 1827, by librarian James Raine (1791-1858) in a spirit of conservation and intellectual curiosity.  In 1537, over seven centuries after his death, the body was extant… only as late as 1827 was it discovered in decay.  One could perhaps go so far as to say that Durham City is founded on this spectacular miracle…

Enshrined on a spine: a remarkable image of St. Cuthbert adorns the fore-edge of Cathedral MS A.IV.35. This edge-painting is seldom seen on mediaeval books (© Durham Cathedral Library)


References and further reading:

  • Adam, David.  Fire of the north: an illustrated life of St Cuthbert.  SPCK, 1993
  • Brown, David (ed).  Durham Cathedral: history, fabric, and culture.  Yale University Press, 2014
  • Brown, Julian T (ed.).  The Stonyhurst Gospel of Saint John.  Roxburghe Club, 1969
  • Colgrave, Bertram.  Two lives of Saint Cuthbert.  Cambridge University Press, 1940
  • Fowler, J. T.  On an examination of the grave of St. Cuthbert in Durham cathedral church.  J. B. Nichols, 1900
  • Gameson, Richard.  Manuscript treasures of Durham Cathedral.  Third Millennium, 2010
  • Marner, Dominic.  St. Cuthbert: his life and cult in medieval Durham.  British Library, 2000
  • Raine, James.  Saint Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of his tomb in Durham Cathedral, in the year MDCCCXXVII.  Geo. Andrews and J. B. Nichols, 1828
  • Rollason, D. W. (ed.).  Cuthbert, saint and patron: lectures given in the Prior’s Hall, Durham, February 1987.  Dean and Chapter of Durham, 1987
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Collection Endeavours (1): Transcribing a Colourful Life

~ The journals of Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947) –––~

This is the first feature in a new blog series, Collection Endeavours: this focuses on special, often long-term projects involving the Cathedral’s Collections of printed books, manuscripts, and other artefacts.  We hope you enjoy this different perspective on our work and collections…

From copperplate to keyboard

More observant visitors to Durham Cathedral Library in recent months might have noticed some studious volunteers poring over beautiful copperplate handwriting and a laptop, faithfully transcribing every word of the texts in front of them.  The texts in question are journals of former Bishop of Durham Herbert Hensley Henson (1863-1947) – a prolific writer who produced at least a page of writing every day of his life for over sixty years.

Henson pensively portrayed.  Collotype of drawing by Aidan Savage (1901-1986), date unknown (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Henson pensively portrayed. Collotype of drawing by Aidan Savage (1901-1986), date unknown (© Durham Cathedral Library)

A wartime observer

Interest in Henson has increased in recent years in the run up to the centenary of the breakout of World War One – as Dean of Durham from 1912 until late 1917, his insights into the area at the time give a vital first-hand account of how the Great War affected Durham and its residents, as well as the broader Church of England.  Furthermore, his warnings about the danger of appeasement, and his stress on the importance of standing up to a new threat from Germany during the 1930s – largely ignored at the time (much like those warnings of Winston Churchill (1874-1965)) – have helped vindicate Henson, so long considered a loose cannon.

‘I was there’: Henson’s vivid, eyewitness account of Durham responding to the call to arms, war having been declared only five days ago (© Durham Cathedral Library)

‘I was there’: Henson’s vivid, eyewitness account of Durham responding to the call to arms, war having been declared only five days ago (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Vocation and humanity

An unhappy childhood and an unconventional education made him unwilling to discuss his early years in his otherwise comprehensive autobiographies; Henson later felt his start in life (losing his mother at six, and living with an evangelical father who refused to send his son into formal education as a child) always placed him on the periphery of the Church of England: he didn’t necessarily feel that he ‘fitted in’ with his colleagues and contemporaries.  With a fearsome intellect, he briefly flirted with the idea of a career in law – but soon came back to his childhood dream of being ordained.

Capturing a musical dozen: a top-hatted Dean Henson with the Cathedral choir, May 1913 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Capturing a musical dozen: a top-hatted Dean Henson with the Cathedral choir, May 1913 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

By the time he was made Dean of Durham in 1912, Henson had garnered a reputation as a phenomenal preacher and a dedicated churchman, as well as something of a troublemaker.  He had been keeping his journals for twenty seven years already – colourful, often brutally honest accounts of both his private and professional lives.  In deeply moving passages, he writes about the stillbirth of his only child, a son, in 1905 – and later discusses how he feels fatherhood may have changed him:

“Our married life has missed the crowning joy of children, and so far it has been a maimed and shadowed thing.  The measure of that great failure is hard to know.  Probably our characters would have been greatly advantaged, and we should have escaped the isolation which is beginning to shadow our lives … Life is robbed of its natural interests for those who are childless, and old age takes on a new terror when it must be faced in solitude … I incline to the conclusion that the childless clergyman loses more than he gains” (October 20th 1920).

Sense of humour essential

Other entries take a lighter tone – particularly his description of a somewhat unexpected Swedish bath taken in 1920: “The whole performance seemed as natural and fitting as showing your tongue to a doctor, or stripping for his inspection; but it was a startling experience for a bashful bishop!” (September 26th 1920).

Cutting and amusing doodles frequently litter his letters and other papers – such as this sketch of his fellow bishops following the 1927 Lambeth Conference (December 1927):

These formidable drawings show some artistic talent, and an incisive sense of humour… (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Bishop at the coalface…

After a short spell as Bishop of Hereford from 1917, Henson returned to Durham as Bishop in 1920, and continued to be a controversial figure.  While acknowledging he liked the miners he came into contact with on a personal level, he vehemently opposed the miners’ strike, feeling that he was “witnessing the deliberate suicide of a great nation” (March 7th 1912).  At the Miners Gala in July 1925, Dean of Durham J.E.C. Welldon (1854-1937) was mistaken for Henson and attacked, eventually being thrown into the River Wear.

An eminent life, fruitfully lived

Henson was 75 before he retired from his post at Durham; his warnings against appeasement and his statement that “there can be no compromise or patched up peace” largely ignored.  In 1940, however, he was persuaded out of retirement by Churchill and took up a post as canon at Westminster Abbey – Churchill feeling that Henson’s preaching could serve as a useful boost to wartime morale.  Henson was not happy in this appointment: he resigned the following year, and died six years later.

Sometimes maverick, always estimable? - Henson photographed as Bishop of Durham, 1920-39 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Sometimes maverick, always estimable? – Henson photographed as Bishop of Durham, 1920-39 (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Henson’s digital legacy

Extracts from the Henson diaries are currently being transcribed for a Durham University project led by Dr. Julia Stapleton, entitled ‘The Bishop in Politics: Herbert Hensley Henson’s Journals, 1885-1947’.  Extracts from his WWI diaries are also being transcribed and displayed in Durham Cathedral, as well as featured online here: http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/first-world-war/hensley-henson.

Further reading:

  • Chadwick, Owen; Hensley Henson: A study in the friction between Church and State; Canterbury Press, 1994
  • Henson, Herbert Hensley; Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, vols. 1-3; Oxford University Press, 1942-50
  • Peart-Binns, J.S.; Herbert Hensley Henson: A Biography; Lutterworth, 2013


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Treasures Unveiled (8): Real life in Lapland

~ John Scheffer’s The history of Lapland (Oxford, 1674) ~

Our eighth feature in this Treasures Unveiled series has a suitably wintry flavour: a highly unusual English translation of the Latin-language Lapponia by John Scheffer, or Johannes Schefferus (Frankfurt Am Main, 1673).

Here Johannes Schefferus (1621-79) wrote on a vast array of subjects relating to the Sami people – including religious custom, political divisions, language, architecture, child-bearing, death and burial, and even ‘the inclinations, temper and habit’ – giving a late seventeenth century readership a glimpse into a society which very few people had the opportunity to experience.  In fact his book is the first ever wide-ranging portrait of the Sami.

The Sami – a unique and resourceful people

The northernmost indigenous people of Europe, the Sami are protected by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations General Assembly, 2007), and primarily inhabit the Arctic areas of Sápmi, or the most northern parts of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula, Russia).  The Sami people are frequently known in England as ‘Lapps’, or ‘Laplanders’ (although these are pejorative terms to many Sami people) and, traditionally, collectively spoke ten languages (all of which are currently endangered).

A detailed, ever-engrossing fold-out map of Sápmi’s extensive territory (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Schefferus – pioneer of many talents…

In 1648 Schefferus migrated to Sweden from Strasbourg, under the aegis of Kristina Augusta (1626-1689), Queen of Sweden.  He became a professor, first of Eloquence, and  then of rhetoric and political science, at the University of Uppsala, and taught civil servants and diplomats.  An industrious polymath, he pioneered the study of philology in Sweden; is viewed a key figure in that nation’s literary history; went on to distinguish himself in international law and the law of nature; and wrote on archaeology and the history of science.  He later took on the role of librarian to the University.

An attractive illustration, probably printed in relief, of a reindeer and Sami people: c. ten per cent of today’s Sami population engage in reindeer herding (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Upon its publication in 1673, Lapponia was translated almost immediately into English, French, German and Dutch but, interestingly, not into Swedish – Schefferus’s native language – until nearly three hundred years later, in the mid-twentieth century. This English translation is a rare survivor.

Further reading:

  • Kent, Neil.  The Sami peoples of the North: a social and cultural history.  C. Hurst, 2014
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Treasures Unveiled (7): A Neapolitan work on volcanology

~ Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies (Naples, 1776) ~ 

Continuing our series showcasing a treasury of artefacts from Durham Cathedral’s Collections, we journey into Italy in the later 18th century, in the heyday of the continental Grand Tour, and at the flowering of geology as a discipline.  Our seventh feature in this Treasures Unveiled series is an illustration from a folio on vulcanology.

Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies is a work of Sir William Hamilton (1731-1803) – husband of the famous Lady Emma Hamilton (baptised 1765, died 1815), and an early volcanologist.  It is one of the most valued early printed books in the Cathedral’s collections, and contains parallel texts in French and English.  Volcanoes were enthralling to many at that time, with this fascination frequently expressed in art and poetry.

‘Campi Phlegraei’ collates Hamilton’s letters to the Royal Society, Fabris’s illustrations, and later letters written on the activity of volcanoes.  The sketches were carefully hand-coloured in gouache by local artists before publication (© Durham Cathedral Library)


‘Campi Phlegraei’, or ‘flaming fields’, refers to the area around Naples – so named because of the frequent and often devastating eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, which was more active during Hamilton’s time in Naples than at any other time since Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).  As British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, Hamilton wrote a series of letters to the Royal Society detailing his observations of the activity of Vesuvius between 1764 and 1767, illustrated by beautiful sketches by the Anglo-Neapolitan artist, Peter (or Pietro) Fabris.  Hamilton’s account, and the samples of salts and sulphurs he sent alongside them, earned him election as a member of the Royal Society.

Sir William Hamilton was a childhood friend of George III (1738-1820), a diplomat – he was British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, 1764-1800 – as well as an antiquarian, early volcanologist and art-collector (his collection of vases is now held by the British Museum).  However, he is now chiefly remembered as the cuckolded husband of  Emma Hamilton, mistress to Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson (1758-1805).

 Further reading:

  • Constantine, David.  Fields of fire: a life of Sir William Hamilton.  Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001

Please visit us again, and continue to travel with us through the delightful landscape of our collections, next time to Lapponia (Lapland)…

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Treasures Unveiled (6): An incunable with Bede’s inimitable presence…

In the sixth vignette in our series shedding light on Durham Cathedral’s rich Collections, Treasures Unveiled, we travel back in time to the twilight of the mediaeval era.  This portrait focuses on Durham Cathedral Library’s newest acquisition, bought at a Sotheby’s auction in May 2014: Summa de Casibus Conscientiae (Strassburg, 1474), the work of Astesanus de Ast (d. c. 1330).  Publication is often attributed to the printer of Henricus Ariminensis, Georg Reyser.  This incunable (a book printed before 1500) is still in its original binding, which conceals a wonderful surprise: the paste-downs are made from ninth century manuscript fragments of In librum Genesim by the Venerable Bede (672/673-735)!  These are some of the oldest surviving fragments of his commentary on Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

The Venerable Bede: luminary with a legacy

Bede was a theologian and historian, regarded by many as the ‘Father of English History’.  On account of the significant Viking invasions at the close of the eighth century and into the ninth, and the subsequent destruction of many early Northumbrian libraries, earliest existing copies of Bede’s work tend to date from the ninth century and come from mainland Europe – in particular modern-day Germany, as do these fragments.

Durham Cathedral’s Canon Librarian proudly shows this precious, hidden fragment of local heritage: 9th century Northumbria meets 15th century Strasbourg (© Durham Cathedral Library)


This demonstrates Bede’s early international reputation and importance, which has endured over many centuries; his tomb enjoys a fitting, spectacular setting in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of Durham Cathedral.

Astesanus of Asti: illuming the letter & spirit of the law

The book itself, Summa de Casibus Conscientiae or ‘A Summary of Cases of Conscience’, is  in fact a set of eight volumes focusing on topics such as the Sacraments, civil law, morality (including the Ten Commandments), marriage, the ordination of priests, and so on.  It is a folio of formidable proportions, perhaps requiring a substantial lectern for really comfortable reading!  The text is in itself an object of beauty, with a clear, elegant Gothic type and bold, stunning initials in red and blue, gracefully executed by a rubricator.

Astesanus, thought to be born in Asti, a village in the Italian region of Piedmont, was a Franciscan canon lawyer and theologian: this seminal work stood distinct amongst the late Mediaeval body of writings in ecclesiastical law.

The purchase of this volume was made possible through a £10,000 grant from the Friends of National Libraries, and a grant from a generous private donor.

Further reading:

  • Bede’s World (2014) The world according to Bede [online]. [Accessed 16 December 2014].  Available at: <http://www.bedesworld.co.uk/>
  • Brown, George Hardin.  A companion to Bede.  Boydell Press, 2009
  • Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. (ed.)  Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of  the English people: a historical commentary.  Clarendon Press, 1988


We hope you have enjoyed this vignette, and that we’ve whetted your appetite for further delights from our collections…

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Treasures Unveiled (5): A 17th century polymath’s tribute to music

Our fifth feature in this Treasures Unveiled series is an illustration from a folio on musicology, published in Rome in 1650 by the printer and bookseller Francesco Corbelletti (1584?-1637).

Musurgia universalis is the creation of Athanasisus Kircher (1602-1680), German Jesuit man of letters, and combined two of the many passions of this polymath author – music and science.  He wrote over forty books during his scholarly residence in Rome, which lasted more than four decades until his death.  Rome was the cradle of the Baroque movement in art, architecture and music, and must have glowed with an atmosphere of learning, a cultural fever.

Musurgia universalis was Kircher’s attempt to offer a traditional scholarly account of the history of music and the mechanics of musical instruments; he experimented with different acoustic spaces and started to demonstrate that sound flowed differently through different mediums.  He also fine-tuned the æolian harp, an instrument first developed in Ancient Greece.  In Musurgia universalis Kircher also included prototypes of some of the instruments he had invented himself – including the “hydraulic organ”.

One of the more quirky and interesting plates, this image demonstrates Kircher’s attempt to plot the songs of the cuckoo, quail, parrot, hen and nightingale both on musical staves, and in word form. (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Musurgia universalis is kept amongst the Cathedral’s collection of manuscript music, much of it dating, like this volume, from the 17th century.

A Jesuit scholar as well as a polymath, Kircher published around forty major works on a series of subjects, including Orientalism, medicine, geology and disease.  His books were richly illustrated, designed to edify and entertain Baroque princes.  Compared to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) during his lifetime owing to his large range of interests, Kircher has even been credited with founding the study of Egyptology (although his claims to have been the first person to successfully translate Egyptian hieroglyphics later turned out to be nonsense); establishing the links between disease and microorganisms after studying bacteria under a microscope; and inventing the megaphone and the magic lantern.

Further reading:

  • Glassie, David.  A man of misconceptions: the life of an eccentric in an age of change.  Riverhead, 2012

Please join us again as we journey further through the international landscape of our collections…

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