PRESSURE is mounting on the British Library to rethink its remaining argument against a long-term loan of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Staff at the Library are insisting the Gospels cannot be loaned out to the North-East, and that any move towards ‘repatriation’ is prevented by law.
They claim the 1972 British Library Act specifically rules out any transfer of St Cuthbert’s Book, but North-East MPs have poured scorn on the idea and, after a week in which The Journal revealed the Library knew some of its arguments were worthless, they are now renewing their call for a long-term loan.
Gateshead East and Washington West MP Sharon Hodgson said the Act is not as restrictive as the Library thinks. “It does not appear to prevent the Library loaning the Gospels to us here in the North-East,” she said.
“It does state the importance of preserving items which are extremely rare and in a delicate physical condition.
“Thanks to pressure from the public and MPs, we have managed to secure a review of the existing condition report. Until the results of this new report are known, there is very little we can do as the old report states that the gospels cannot be moved.”
Earlier this week we revealed how Library staff knew their arguments against a North-East loan were wrong but continued to rely on them anyway. Last night Durham North MP Kevan Jones said The Journal’s coverage had revealed a “disgraceful London bias”. He said: “This shows arrogance in the extreme. They have this out-dated idea that we in the North do not know how to look after national treasures.”
A spokeswoman for the Library said: “There is no question of the Board divesting its statutory responsibility for the Gospels, and the British Library would be seriously derelict in its obligation to provide access to these manuscripts for people of all faiths and nationalities, if it allowed this collection to be broken up by removing one of its greatest treasures.”
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Why the Gospels matter to you
THE Lindisfarne Gospels form a key part of the North-East’s heritage and have a powerful association with people and places in the region.
They are the oldest surviving English bible, are considered to be one of the world’s greatest books and had been kept in the region for hundreds of years before they were stolen and taken south.
Created on Holy Island around 700AD, the Gospels were written in Latin by Eadfrith, one of England’s first known artists, for ‘God and Saint Cuthbert’. The intricate lettering and artwork is unique and reflects a crucial period in the development of England.
The Gospels were produced at a time when the monasteries at Lindisfarne and Wearmouth-Jarrow were in a collaboration.
Around the same time, St Cuthbert produced his work, the Venerable Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History and both are described as part of an effort to shape a new, united, cultural identity. The Gospels were intended to be kept close to the remains of the saint, a major figure who helped spread Christianity through England.
In 875, the Lindisfarne community fled in the face of attacks from the Vikings, taking with them the Gospels and the body of Saint Cuthbert.
They travelled around the ancient kingdom of Northumbria for seven years, setting up more than 50 churches in the name of Saint Cuthbert.
Eventually they arrived at Chester-le-Street and an English translation was added between the lines of the Latin original.
After 113 years, the community of Saint Cuthbert moved to Durham and the Normans built the cathedral which stands today. The Gospels were kept by the remains of Saint Cuthbert in a special shrine.
But in 1539, when the monasteries were dissolved, Durham Cathedral was looted by men working for King Henry VIII. The ornately decorated and bejewelled binding was ripped off and after 800 years the Gospels were stolen and taken south to London, where they were sold to a private collector, Sir Henry Cotton, whose grandson gave them to the nation.
They were given to the British Museum before being passed on to the British Library when it was set up in the 1990s.
Now the Gospels rarely see the light of day and are locked in a cupboard and only occasionally exhibited.
Northumbrian Association historian Chris Kilkenny said the Gospels are an integral part of the region’s history.
“There is just something about these Gospels that unites the North-East, and that was plain to see on their last visit when thousands turned out for them. We call them St Cuthbert’s Book. He was the patron saint of the North-East and he would never have intended the book to be stuck in a Library. They were written for his people in our region.”