A book’s hidden history…

A book’s hidden history…

‘A book’s hidden history…’
Binding, front pastedown and flyleaf: De sacra episcoporum auctoritate, By Jean Filesac.
Parisiis : Apud Bartholomaeum Macaeum, 1606
Canterbury Cathedral Library, W/K-3-60

Like ancient buildings old books often have a hidden history and ‘the archaeology of the book’ can reveal considerably more about their past than the printed word alone might suggest. The monthly ‘Picture This…’ for November provides us with a fascinating example.

By the time of his death on All Souls Day 1610 Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, had assembled one of the largest private book collections in England. Rather than leaving it to an Oxbridge College, however, Bancroft took the unusual step of establishing an institutional library at Lambeth Palace. He was anxious that the collection he had so carefully assembled remain intact, and after his death a detailed catalogue was compiled, against which the collection could be checked at the time of the installation of each new archbishop.

Like his immediate predecessors Bancroft often made use of an armorial stamp on his bindings. Other books he had bound with his initials stamped on them. As was normal practice, the books were stored fore-edge out. Although identifying marks were not entered in the books themselves, they were furnished with vellum labels containing the title as well as the position of the book in the library. These were attached at their left edge to the front board of the book and then folded so the written text was displayed across the fore-edge. These labels, however, lost their purpose once books came to be stored spine out and most have disappeared.

Bancroft had named the University of Cambridge as an alternative destination for his books if Lambeth could not accommodate them.  When the archiepiscopacy was abolished during the Commonwealth, therefore, the collection was moved to Cambridge, where it was catalogued and shelfmarks entered in the books.  These consisted of a capital Roman letter to indicate the case in which the book was stored; the following Greek letter marked the shelf within the case and finally an Arabic number showed the position of the volume on the shelf.

Not surprisingly, royalists were determined that the library be restored to its rightful home and during the archiepiscopacy of Gilbert Sheldon (1663–77) it was returned to Lambeth. A new catalogue was compiled and further shelfmarks entered in the books: first an arabic number, then a capital letter, and finally another arabic number.

Among the books at Canterbury Cathedral Library, as David Shaw has kindly pointed out to me, is a small group with ‘R B’ stamped on the binding.  A pencil note in a modern hand has identified the initials as those of Richard Byrde, canon of Canterbury, 1590-1609.  One of the books is a copy De sacra episcoporum auctoritate (Paris, 1606) by Jean Filesac, rector of the University of Paris. That the book derived from Bancroft rather than Byrde is made clear by an examination of the original pastedown and flyleaf. To the left of the Christ Church Canterbury bookplate it is possible to see the traces of the Bancroft label.  Above the bookplate and the early Canterbury marks the shelfmark dating from the Cambridge exile, J eta 30, appears.  On the flyleaf, just above the pencil note, we have the Restoration Sheldonian shelfmark, 7 K 25. The initials, nestled on either side of a decorative cartouche of the binding, moreover, are identical to those found in bindings at Lambeth Palace deriving from Bancroft.

William Sancroft succeeded Sheldon as archbishop in 1677. According to the Canterbury Cathedral Benefactors’ Book, ‘ [Sancroft] gave the Duplicates out of Lambeth Library, a considerable number having the Archiepiscopall Arms on the covers, for which He bought other Books for the Lambeth Library according to the vallue at which these were estimated.’   What we have before us, then, is one of these books, one whose arguments concerning the divine authority of the episcopacy would have been of the greatest interest to Bancroft as he addressed the concerns of the most radical of the Puritans who had challenged the hierarchical structure of the church over which he presided.

Professor James Carley: York University, Toronto.