Ever heard of the St Albans Bible?  Do you know where it is? 
That the St Albans Bible exists may be a surprise but where it is, unfortunately, is tricky to answer. 

Just before Christmas 2019, the Cathedral Archives were contacted by Professor Erik Kwakkel, from the University of British Colombia, whose blog “Breaking Bad”[1] provides much information on the St Albans Bible.  His enquiries started a conversation within the Cathedral which reveals an interesting story.

Fourteenth-century Paris was a centre for book production, and the life of the St Albans Bible undoubtedly starts there around 1320-40[2].  No one knows who made it but by the sixteenth century it was rebound in vellum with two sheets of the Register of John of Wheathamstead used as flyleaves.  This associated it with the library at St Albans Abbey so that, when it came up for auction in 1964, it was given the name “The St Albans Bible”. 

Michael de Mentmore was abbot from 1336 to 1349, around the time of the bible’s production.  He was a scholar and bibliophile and The Book of Benefactors records “He stocked the church with many volumes, on which he is believed to have spent more than £100.”[3]

Undoubtedly The St Albans Bible was a magnificent thing and the Gesta Abbatum records that Mentmore “provided two fine Bibles for the church, one of which he gave to the convent and one he assigned to his own study”[4]The St Albans Bible is believed to be one of these. How the bible travelled from Paris to St Albans is unclear.  Mentmore did visit Paris, so may have bought it while there, or he could have purchased it from an intermediary.[5]

At the Dissolution of the monastery, the St Albans Bible disappeared until in 1964 it was offered for sale at Sotheby’s, as “The property of a Lady”[6].  It was bought for £1,500[7] - or part of it was, for it is clear that, probably in the nineteenth century, some of the pages and illustrations had been cut out and separated from the book[8].

The bits sold in 1964 were bought by the New York rare book dealer Philip Duschnes, who proceeded to dismember it with wild abandon.  Leaves were cut from it along with individual illuminated initials.  For Duchesne, the sum of the parts was far greater than the whole.  The St Albans Bible was dismantled and, as a book, effectively destroyed.  As Kwakkel puts it “as a result of Duschnes’s dark deed, leaves from “the” St Albans Bible flooded the market and often found new homes in private collections. Even today, the book’s eye-catching leaves are frequently auctioned.”[9]

So the answer to the tricky question of where is it now is (1) no one knows and (2) not in any one place anyway.  Kwakkel has found 11 libraries with fragments and there must be countless unidentifiable private collectors.

Of the institutions holding parts of the St Albans Bible, happily one is St Albans Cathedral. 

The Cathedral owns two leaves.  The first (image left) is from the Old Testament[10], headed ESDRE NEEMIE, (i.e. “Ezra” and “Nehemiah”).  On this page there should be an illuminated V but a patch has replaced the original. 

The second leaf (image right) [12] is from the New Testament (Philippians 4:9 - Colossians 2:23)and also has been subjected to some damage:  the initial P is recorded in the Inventory as having been stolen, although it is more likely that the letter was missing at the time of purchase. 

The Old Testament sheet was a gift from The Fraternity of Friends who bought it for £259 in 1983[13].  Probably inspired by the Friends, the second sheet was a gift from the family of Dean Thicknesse (1936-55, died 1971).   Joan Freeman, a member of the Cathedral community, was asked by them to create a replacement P initial and the leaf with its replacement decoration was given to the Cathedral in 1984[14].

For some years, this New Testament leaf was displayed on the south side of the entrance to the Lady Chapel.  When it was discovered

that someone had possibly attempted to unscrew it from the wall, it was decided to store it more securely in the Cathedral Muniment Room.  At the same time, the Old Testament leaf, which had previously been on display in the exhibition area, was also brought into the Archives and reproductions of both were put on show in their place.

Since the opening of the new Exhibition Area, they are alternately displayed in a secure, environmentally controlled cabinet, available for all to see and admire.

Their journey may have been tough but these two leaves of the St Albans Bible, at least, have managed to find their way back to a place where they were for centuries an integral part of the life of the monastery – reflecting something of its wealth and artistic bounty, its scholarship and its dedication to worship.


Rob Piggott - Archivist

Thanks especially go to the Archives Team who provided so much information and advice:  Derrick Chivers, Sheila Green, Ailsa Herbert and Richard O’Neill.


[1] https://medievalbooks.nl/2019/11/01/breaking-bad/

[2] Fine Books and Book Collecting, Leamington Spa 1981, Christopher de Hamel pp10-12

[3] The Book of Benefactors, translated by D Preest 1995, p 21 St Albans Cathedral Archive

[4] The Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans, Translated David Preest and edited by James G Clark, Woodbridge 2019 p750

[5] Ibid note on p750

[6]  Sotheby’s Catalogue 6 July 1964, lot 239

[7] http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/medieval-renaissance-manuscripts-l15241/lot.4.html

[8] https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/8658014

[9] https://medievalbooks.nl/2019/11/01/breaking-bad/

[10] Principal Inventory Catalogue St Albans Cathedral 00.17.0

[11] Emails from Fr Jerome Bertram to Derrick Chivers, 19 December 2018; and from Derrick Chivers to St Albans Cathedral Archives 5 December 2019

[12] Principal Inventory Catalogue St Albans Cathedral 00.17.1

[13] Fraternity of Friends Gift Book entry for 1983 and minutes from the 34th AGM on 25 June 1983 entry (4b)

[14] Ibid