“The library’s treasures include Cardinal John Henry Newman’s personal copy of the Bible, together with some of the earliest Bibles printed in English, a beautifully illustrated 14th-century Book of Hours and other medieval manuscripts.”
The doors of the largest monastic library in the UK and the admired but leaking modernist building which holds it will open to the public for the first time after a major grant to Downside Abbey from the Heritage Lottery fund.
The Benedictine monks, who also run Downside school at the abbey near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, founded the monastery after they were expelled from France in the wake of the revolution, but their library – described by the abbot, Dom Aidan Bellenger, as a “secret garden” – was already centuries old and among its 450,000 volumes are many illuminated manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages.
Once conservation work on the building is complete, exhibitions, guided tours and regular public access are planned to the books and archives of the community, founded in Douai in 1606.The order trained generations of priests to work as missionaries in Protestant England – including six who were hung, drawn and quartered as traitors or spies in the early 17th century.
The library’s treasures include Cardinal John Henry Newman’s personal copy of the Bible, together with some of the earliest Bibles printed in English, a beautifully illustrated 14th-century Book of Hours and other medieval manuscripts, rare theological texts, and unusual donated collections. These include books on sundials, birds, archaeology and local history, along with the archives of the English Benedictine Congregation dating back to the 17th century.
There was no full catalogue of the collection until after 1971, when the books were moved to the new library building from storage in cupboards and attics all over the abbey.
Although most of the abbey’s gothic buildings are Victorian, the library was added in a strikingly modern design by Francis Pollen. At six storeys tall with double height windows, it has been described by the architectural historian Alan Powers as “like nuts threaded onto a bolt” and was intended to suggest a beacon when lit from inside at night.
The £856,000 grant means the building will now be restored and the glazing replaced to improve the climate control and protect the collection. Much of it will also be placed online for the first time.
Bellenger said: “The secret garden of this great centre of Christian culture and heritage has at last been opened. Home to a vast range of books, pamphlets, periodicals and papers dating back centuries, the library has palpable potential and Downside are delighted to have its rightful place as a national centre for religious heritage unlocked thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.”
Old Gregorians, named for the abbey’s patron saint Gregory the Great, include the Oscar-nominated playwright Peter Morgan, the author and former Tory MP Rupert Allason, the hotelier Rocco Forte, the television presenter Chris Kelly and the late novelist and Private Eye diarist Auberon Waugh.
Last year the school announced a review of how it is governed after Richard David White, a monk who taught there in the 1980s, was jailed for five years for child sex offences, and others were investigated over historic offences.
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