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Library of the Month: Exeter Cathedral Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Exeter Cathedral Library

Exeter Cathedral Library

Welcome to the new ‘Library of the Month’ feature on our blog. Each month we aim to post an article about a library of historical or cultural interest and we are fortunate to be able to launch this new feature with one of the longest established libraries in Britain – Exeter Cathedral Library. Thanks are due to Peter Thomas of Exeter Cathedral Library for writing the article and to Ann Barwood, Canon Librarian, for providing the photograph. – Lydia Gibbs

The original library at Exeter Cathedral can be dated to the time of Exeter’s first bishop, Leofric (d. 1072), who donated over 60 of his own manuscript books (among many other gifts) following his installation in 1050. The most notable of these is an anthology of Old English poems usually known as the Exeter Book. Written down in the late 10th century, it is the library’s ‘foundation volume’ and probably the world’s oldest book of English literature. From May to September 2012 it is on display at the British Library as part of the Writing Britain exhibition. Among many other remarkable manuscripts at Exeter is the Exon Domesday (c. 1086), a unique survival of regional (South West) Domesday returns, earlier and more detailed than the data in the Domesday Book itself. This is strictly an archive rather than a library holding, but the Cathedral Archives also contain many remarkable documents covering over 1000 years, including the foundation charter of the cathedral, detailing Leofric’s installation by Edward the Confessor.

The Cathedral Library itself contains other medieval and later manuscripts, some beautifully decorated and several being associated with Bishop John Grandison (d. 1369), in whose long episcopate the cathedral was enlarged to take on its current appearance. There are also some 20,000 printed books, dating from the 15th century to the 21st. Until recently the collections have grown sporadically and there have been several crises in the library’s history. In the early 17th century, for example, over 80 Exeter manuscripts were transferred to Oxford to help set up the Bodleian Library, and in the mid-1660s the library was only saved from the depredations of the Civil War by the actions of a local physician. Numerous individual volumes could be singled out for their interest and value, including a Second Folio Shakespeare (1632) and a Bible in the language of the Native Americans of Massachusetts (1661-63). Though the subject matter of a large proportion of the books is religious or theological,many other subjects are covered, most notably early medicine and science, holdings in these areas numbering about 2,500 printed books and manuscripts. In the late 19th century the library collections were greatly enhanced by large bequests of books from Chancellor E.C. Harrington and Precentor F.C. Cook of Exeter Cathedral. (Further details on these and other individuals mentioned in this article can be found in the ODNB). The Cook Collection is particularly unusual, being rich in interesting oriental and linguistic material – Cook was said to have known over 50 languages.

The library was administered for the 50 years up to 2001 by the University of Exeter, but since their withdrawal a huge improvement in the conditions of both library and archive has been effected through the Cathedral’s Third Millennium Campaign, which has led to vastly improved storage and service capability. We will now be able to offer increased access and facilities for scholars and the general public under one roof, using both professional and voluntary staff. The future is looking bright.

Peter Thomas


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