Finding St Cuthbert’s Gospel

BBC Radio programme focuses on St Cuthbert's Gospel, saved from the fires of the French Revolution by the Jesuits

“I’m sitting in a private office in the British Library. A friend, a distinguished figure in the library hierarchy, has something to show me. He places in my hands a small, compact book bound in red goats’ skin, hardly bigger than an old-style British passport but considerably fatter.” So begins the reflection of esteemed English writer Gillian Tindall in her memoir The Pulse Glass: And the beat of other hearts. Extracts of Tindall's book have been read by actress Anastasia Hille on BBC Radio 4 this week. 

The book Tindall is referring to is St Cuthbert’s Gospel, the oldest book in the Western world to survive in its original binding. Its excellent condition is extraordinary given that it spent 400 years in the coffin of St Cuthbert and was only discovered when the saint’s grave was opened in 1104. Just as extraordinary is the story of how it came into the possession of the British Library.

After the discovery of the Gospel, it was kept in the priory of Durham Cathedral. Miraculously, it survived the Reformation. When the monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIII, their libraries were either pillaged or destroyed. Out of six hundred books in the library of Worcester Priory only six remain. How St Cuthbert's Gospel survived remains a mystery. 

In 1769, Thomas Philips (a prominent Catholic convert from Buckinghamshire) bequeathed the book to the English Jesuits who were then based in Liège. The Society was later expelled from France and during the French Revolution vast numbers of Catholic books were burnt. During this tumultuous time, Jesuit brothers were able to keep the book safe.

The Gospel remained in the possession of the Society until 2010 when the Jesuits approached the British Library with an offer of the first option to acquire it. Jesuits at the Curia in London today recount how the book was once kept in the drawer of the Provincial.

Tindall’s reflection (as read by Anastasia Hille) of handling this unique and extraordinary object is hauntingly beautiful. You can listen to it here.

Photos of St Cuthbert's Gospel can be viewed here