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Durham Cathedral Library has descended from Lindisfarne monastery's library founded by St Aidan in 635.

On the move from Lindisfarne

When the Lindisfarne community left in 875, the monks took with them St Cuthbert's coffin, his relics, and a number of books. These probably included the famous manuscript now known as the Lindisfarne gospels.

The community settled at Chester-le-Street in 883, where it continued to acquire books. In 995 it moved to Durham, where it built the ‘White Church’, completed in 1017.

The Medieval Priory Library

In 1083 the Bishop of Durham, William of St Calais, founded a Benedictine priory to replace the community which had served the White Church and shrine of St Cuthbert. The new priory inherited books from all these predecessors, including 7th and 8th century manuscripts of Northumbrian origin. Some of these are still in the Cathedral Library today.

The priory gradually amassed a substantial library, including books written in its own scriptorium. Find out more in Durham Priory Library Recreated.

Where were the books stored?

  • the Spendement off the west cloister
  • cupboards in the north cloister
  • from the early 15th century a new library room above the east cloister

After the dissolution of the monastery

After 1539, some of the contents of the Library were dispersed. The Cathedral was re-founded under a Dean and Chapter who inherited what survived of the priory’s collection of manuscripts and printed books.

A century of loss

Further severe losses occurred in the later 16th century, including the Lindisfarne Gospels which are now in the British Library. Nonetheless, over 300 manuscripts and some 60 printed books from the monastic collection still remain in the Cathedral Library today.

Surviving the Civil War

Thanks to the initiative of John Cosin (later Bishop of Durham) and other Cathedral canons, the Library was reformed in the 1620s. During the Civil War and Interregnum it suffered less depredation and dispersal than many other cathedral libraries.

After the Restoration of Charles II, the former monastic refectory was restored and fitted out as a library by Dean Sudbury. The old library room above the east cloister ceased to be used for library purposes. The book collection grew rapidly, both by purchase and gift, and by 1676 the stock had increased to almost 1000 volumes.

18th century expansion

The collections expanded substantially during the 18th century. There was less emphasis on theology and more on antiquities, history, travel, topography, and natural history.

In 1742 the library received the important bequest of the music books and scores of Philip Falle. In 1757 the Dean and Chapter bought the manuscripts (around 150 volumes) collected by the local antiquary Dr. Christopher Hunter. Several of these had once belonged to the medieval Priory Library.

Between 1823 and 1900 we acquired important additional collections from local antiquaries such as Allan, Longstaffe, Raine, Randall,Sharp and Surtees. The Library began to outgrow the Refectory. In 1849-54 the former Monks’ Dormitory was restored and fitted out as a library.

New additions in the 20th century

In the 1930s part of the Archdeacon Sharp Library was transferred to the Cathedral Library. This was followed by the music manuscripts and printed scores from Bamburgh Castle Library, jointly owned by the Lord Crewe Trustees.

The Cathedral Library today

We coordinate with other local theological libraries as to what we buy.

The Chapter Library now concentrates on acquiring works concerning:

  • the cathedral and its collections
  • the region we serve
  • major reference works and critical studies to set the topics above in their wider contexts
  • works of bibliography and manuscript studies
Find out more about our modern collections