By the late middle ages St Albans Abbey had one of the largest and most important book collections of any Benedictine house in England.  It contained many important texts from the Anglo-Norman period, and saw significant expansion between 1349 and 1465 during the abbacies of Thomas de la Mare and John of Wheathampstead.

But on 5 December 1539 the Abbey was closed by Henry VIII’s commissioners, and the Abbot and monks were pensioned off. The buildings were sold to Sir Richard Lee and largely demolished, while the Abbey church was soon after purchased by the townsmen for £400 for their own use.  The shrines were broken up and the relics disappeared; the Abbey’s treasures – gold, silver, jewels, vestments – were taken away and sold or given away for the King’s benefit.

The book collection was also dispersed, never to be reunited. Many other cathedrals have libraries where you can still see some of the glorious manuscripts created or held there in their medieval past, but not St Albans. We are delighted to have two leaves from a Bible, believed to have been purchased by Abbot Michael de Mentmore (1336-49),  and also the Primer of William de Trebilville, an official of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, which returned here as a gift from Canon Glossop in the 1920s. But that is all. 

But now, thanks to digitisation, we can begin to rediscover some of the Abbey's former treasured medieval book collection again. Many of the manuscripts from St Albans Abbey were of such quality and importance that they were prized by collectors both at the time of the Dissolution and later.   Many have since found their way into major libraries and archives which now own and look after them. The British Library, the Parker Library (at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge), Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, to name just four, all hold manuscripts from St Albans Abbey.  Some have been digitised and are freely available to view on their websites. The catalogue entries for these manuscripts provide valuable information on both their origins and their meanderings since 1539.   

As a ‘lockdown’ project, members of the Cathedral’s Archives team have been occupying themselves by trawling the internet to identify items from our former book collection, and the results can be seen here

It has been estimated that at least 150 manuscripts from St Albans Abbey have survived, which, according to Professor James Clark, is more than many other independent abbeys.  We have so far found digitised copies of over 70, and the search continues.

How do we know that the manuscripts came from St Albans?  There may be an ‘ex libris’ inscription which identifies the monastic community, an individual monk or the abbot as the owner.   Some contain an inscription with a book curse, which may be translated as ‘This is a book of St Alban, whoever takes it away, or defaces it, is anathematized’.    The anathema had far more serious long term consequences than a library fine today! Identification can also come through liturgical information in the manuscript, such as the inclusion of the feast days of local saints or information particularly relevant to St Albans. There may be stylistic details or other internal evidence which link the manuscript to this abbey, or to a known St Albans scribe.  The provenance of each manuscript is carefully explained in its modern catalogue entry.  Unfortunately, no medieval catalogue of the collection survives, though there is a borrowers’ list from c. 1430 and a few other hints elsewhere.  

Of the manuscripts which have survived, Professor Clark has estimated that those created before 1300 outnumber those from after that date by around three to one.  Survivals after 1300 are often books with historical importance (eg Walsingham’s Chronica Majora) or with political value to the king, and are not fully representative of the breadth of the collection.  Some manuscripts bear the monogram TC, identified as that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Abbot of St Albans in commendam from 1521-30.  These manuscripts then became part of the Royal Library, now part of the British Library’s collections. It is interesting to note that one such manuscript (BL Royal MS 13 E VI) was an account of the dispute between a king, Henry II, and an archbishop, Thomas Becket. 

The manuscripts which have been digitised cover a range of subject areas and historic periods. There are theological, legal, philosophical and neo-classical texts, many from the 1100s and just before. There are works of natural history and astronomy. Many of these were created in the St Albans Scriptorium, although now belong and are cared for elsewhere. 

St Albans Abbey was particularly noted for its historical writings.    Unsurprisingly, the work of Matthew Paris is well represented.  His chronicles have long been an important primary source for the history of medieval England.   You can also see Matthew’s drawing of Henry III’s elephant and his maps in their original manuscript form.  Thomas Walsingham continued the tradition of historical writing, and supervised the new scriptorium which was built in the 1370s.

Perhaps the most spectacular manuscript in St Albans Abbey’s book collection before the Dissolution was the Book of Benefactors which was so important to the community that it was kept on the High Altar.  This is lavishly illustrated with many small portraits of donors from all ranks of society.

Do browse this virtual collection and marvel at the wonderful range of manuscripts which were once part of St Albans Abbey's Scriptorium. 


Ailsa Herbert, St Albans Cathedral Archives Team



Title image: Matthew Paris’s famous elephant, from CCCC MS 16i (Copyright of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, accessed through Creative Commons)

Blog image 1: Bible Leaf from the St Albans Bible, St Albans Cathedral Archives

Blog image 2: Matthew Paris' Itinerary in the British Library's Historia Anglorum, BL Royal MS 14 C VII (Copyright of the British Library, accessed through Creative Commons)

Blog Image 3: A page from the  Chronica Maiora by Matthew Paris, from CCCC MS 16ii (Copyright of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, accessed through Creative Commons)

All manuscripts and images belong to their respective institutions as listed. St Albans Cathedral holds no claim to ownership of those manuscripts once held by the Abbey and since dispersed, save the ones held in their own Archives. 

Further reading:

James G. Clark, A Monastic Renaissance at St Albans. Oxford University Press, 2004

Rodney M Thomson, Manuscripts from St Albans Abbey 1066-1235. Brewer, 1985