‘A little Vatican of choice manuscripts’: the unique history of Durham Cathedral Library

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, our Open Treasure gallery attendants deliver punchy 10 Minute Talks on the fascinating history of the Cathedral’s collections and buildings. Here’s a sample of a talk exploring the history of the Cathedral Library!

The birth of the collection

The library at Durham Cathedral is of significant importance as a direct continuation of the one started at Lindisfarne by St. Aidan. The books that the monks could carry with them were brought to Chester-Le-Street and it was here that the first new additions to the collection were made. The collection was bolstered in 934 AD by King Athelstan, who gave five new volumes to the community, including a copy of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’ which now resides in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

In 1083, Bishop William St Calais (1081-1096) converted the existing Community of St Cuthbert into a Benedictine Priory, and energetically acquired books for his new foundation, including a personal donation of nearly 50 books to the new library collection. During the medieval period library books were stored in the Spendiment, off the Cloister, and also in book cupboards built into alcoves along the north wall of the cloister.

By 1160, less than 100 years after the founding of the cathedral, the catalogue records ‘a reading, reference and school collection of nearly four hundred volumes’ which included ‘biblical and patristic texts, with a good number of pagan classics, with the necessary books for elementary instruction with a useful start in law, history and medicine’. The vast collection of texts ensured that the monks of Durham Priory had a well-rounded education.

MS.B.IV.24.f.2r_12 century library catalogue
A 12th century catalogue of Durham Priory Library’s books & manuscripts

Building the Priory Library

However, it wasn’t until 1418 that the first dedicated library was built. Prior John Washington (an ancestor of George Washington, first president of the United States) spend £90 16s on windows, desks and book bindings in a 165ft x 60ft room between the south transept and the Chapter House. Shelf marks on the remaining books indicate ten double sided and two single sided desks with chained books.

Disruption and Dissolution

With the Dissolution in 1539, Durham Cathedral lost between 30-80% of its books, between 1000 and 2000 in total. This included the St Cuthbert Gospel, a 7th century manuscript with the oldest intact original binding in Europe, discovered in St Cuthbert’s coffin in 1104. In 2012 the manuscript was returned to national ownership after £9 million was raised to save it from private ownership.

Despite the disruption of the Dissolution, today Durham Cathedral still houses the largest in-situ monastic library in the country, with 300 manuscripts and 60 early printed books still in the collection. By comparison, York has five and Westminster has only one. A recent project between Durham Cathedral and Durham University is building an online digitised library of Durham Priory’s collections as they existed before the Reformation.


Expanding collections: the seventeenth century

Although Cathedral records indicate the existence of a librarian as early as 1273, the first paid Librarian, Elias Smith, was only appointed in 1633. Elias was given a salary of £4 and soon completed a catalogue of the collection showing an extra two hundred books had been added since the last catalogue was made.

The state of the library had declined to such a poor state that by 1663 Robert Hegge was able to comment that books ‘had better fortune in the sea, than the books of St. Cuthbert have now in his library at Durham, which was once a little Vatican of choice manuscripts’. Despite these scathing comments, it would still take another twenty years before works began on improving the library.

In 1683 work began to transform the Refectory in the Cathedral Cloister into the current library that we continue to use today. Dean John Sudbury made donations of £1116 (nearly £250,000 today) towards its development and the Refectory received its first books in 1696 after which there is a steady growth of new acquisitions.  The shelving in there currently dates from this time period and the tables and benches were the ones the monks would have once sat at while they ate.

The Refectory Library

A New Library in the Monks’ Domitory: the nineteenth century

By 1843 the library became more open to the public, holding opening hours of 11am-1pm on a Tuesday and Saturday, but it was also continuing to outgrow the Refectory. Once the house of Canon Wellesley was removed from the former Monks’ Dormitory, plans were made to construct a library.  Philip Hardwick was appointed designer and on July 20th 1856 the New Library was opened. The carved bookcases which adorn the walls of the Monks’ Dormitory today date from the construction of this ‘New Library’.

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In addition to the books, space was made in the centre of the Dormitory to display a case of shells and the various relics of St. Cuthbert which had been removed during Raine’s excavations in 1827.

In 1937 the Cathedral began to store and administer the Sharp collection, a modern theological collection owned by Lord Crewe’s charity. On October 1937 E.H. Knight was appointed the first Durham librarian of the new collection. In addition to this the library extended its opening hours to four mornings and two afternoons a week, demonstrating public interest in the Cathedral’s valuable and significant collections.

Open Treasure: conservation and public enjoyment

In 2016, the £10 million Open Treasure project was completed, restoring and enhancing the Cathedral’s claustral buildings. The Refectory Library received a much-needed renovation, with systems installed to ensure the atmospheric conditions were suitable to protect the Cathedral’s collection of 40,000 early printed books. Although not usually open to the public, special events such as the upcoming Treasures of the Cathedral Library: Inventors and Innovators on 16 June will allow you to see inside this beautiful space and learn more about our unique collections.

F.VI.1_plate 5
See a first edition of the first modern atlas: Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, at our event Treasures of the Cathedral Library: Inventors and Innovators in June.


As part of the same Open Treasure project, the Monks’ Dormitory, a library for nearly 150 years, has become an exhibition space, educating visitors about the history of Durham Priory and its monks, and showcasing our collections. The long Dormitory also houses the Sharp Library and Chapter collections.

If you’re interested in using our collections in your own research, find out about accessing our collections here. Did you know you can help us restore our precious manuscript and book collections through our Adopt a Book scheme?


Today’s blog is based on a short ‘Ten Minute Talk’ given in the Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibition space by one of our talented team of Gallery Attendants. Every Wednesday and Saturday at 2.00pm you can discover the hidden histories of our collections, our buildings and our exhibitions; read another Open Treasure Spotlight on the legendary history of the Conyers Falchion here, or come along to our next talk! You can find details of upcoming talks on our social media pages.


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