On Wedesnday, I led a debate in Parliament on the future of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospels are a source of great pride for the North East and I was very pleased to be able to underline their historic importance.
With the Lindisfarne Gospels Durham exhibition opening on Monday in Durham University’s Palace Green Library this was the perfect time for MPs to speak about their cultural significance. I took this opportunity to press the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, on whether he would support the regular return of the Gospels to the North East and raised the issue of the price of the exhibition.
I have been campaigning to bring the Gospels back to Durham for many years along with other regional parliamentarians, Durham Cathedral, Durham University and other local organisation. I am delighted that they are returning for a major 3 month exhibition and I hope that we will be able to welcome the Lindisfarne Gospels back to their regional home again in the future.
My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here:
“I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, which is particularly time-sensitive. It is good to be able to have the debate in advance of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ return to Durham.
Let me start by explaining why there is so much excitement in the north-east and Durham, where the Gospels are to be exhibited, about the temporary return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to our region. The book is simply a stunning masterpiece of early mediaeval European book painting and the beautifully illustrated manuscript represents the pinnacle of achievement of Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian art at the end of the seventh century.
The Gospels book was made on the holy island of Lindisfarne and was probably written between St Cuthbert’s death in 687 AD and the death of Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was identified as the artist and scribe of the book by Aldred, the provost of the monastic community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street. A recent study suggested a date for the Gospels of between 710 and 720 AD.
The making of the book required time, dedication and the invention of new tools and materials. With no modern technology at his disposal, Eadfrith is credited with inventing some of his own gadgets to help. Professor Michelle Brown, an expert in mediaeval manuscript studies at the University of London’s schools of advanced study, stated that Eadfrith“ was a technical innovator who invented the pencil and the light box in order to achieve his complex artistic and social vision”.
The book is the oldest surviving translation of the gospels into the English language, but it is worth recognising that the Lindisfarne Gospels’ intricate and symbolic artwork helped convey its message to those who could not read. The Gospels were created at a time of great change when Britain was a land of many cultures that were coming together into an emerging national identity. The manuscript is inspired by all the different peoples who lived in these islands at the time: Britons, Picts, Celts and Anglo-Saxons, along with those of Mediterranean and middle-eastern cultures.
Another extraordinary aspect of the Gospels is that unlike most early mediaeval books this one has come to us in almost perfect condition. That is, frankly, remarkable, considering that it was written about 1,300 years ago and the eventful journey it has been on ever since.
The first Viking raid on Britain struck Lindisfarne in 793 AD. After nearly 100 years of continuing raids, the monastic community abandoned Lindisfarne in 875, taking with them the body of St Cuthbert, the Gospels and other important relics. The Lindisfarne community is believed to have travelled around for seven years before eventually settling at the priory at Chester-le-Street, where they stayed until 995. They then moved to Durham priory with the relics of St Cuthbert, after the dead saint revealed to one of the monks where he wanted his new resting place to be.
In 1069, the Lindisfarne Gospels spent a short time back at Lindisfarne to escape the devastating raid on the north by William the Conqueror.
The book was then returned to Durham. In 1104, St Cuthbert’s body and other monastic treasures from Lindisfarne were moved to the splendid new cathedral at Durham. However, in 1536 the dissolution of the monasteries was ordered by Henry VIII. The priories of Lindisfarne and Durham were broken up and the Gospels were believed to have been seized by the King’s commissioners.
By the early 17th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton. Cotton’s heirs presented the book to the nation and it became part of the founding collections of the British Museum in 1753. In 1973, the Lindisfarne Gospels became part of the British Library, their current permanent resting place.
This is only the fifth time the Gospels have been loaned since coming into the hands of the British Museum and later the British Library. Except for a museum evacuation during world war two, all the loans were for major library and museum tours undertaken within the past 50 years: at the Royal Academy in 1961, in Durham cathedral in 1987, and at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle in 1996 and 2000. It took nearly two years of negotiations, planning, organisation and effort to bring the Gospels to the region on the last two visits. On the first day of the exhibition, almost 3,000 people came along to see the Gospels, which demonstrates huge interest from the region.
What has happened since the last visit? A condition survey by the British Library in 2004 suggested that it might be difficult to move the Gospels again, but the findings of the survey were far from conclusive. There followed a fervent campaign, led first by the Northumbrian Association—I take the opportunity to thank the late John Danby for his work; he is much missed—and by my hon. Friends the former Member for Houghton and Washington East, Fraser Kemp, Baroness Quin, the former Member for Stockton South, Dari Taylor, my hon. Friends the current Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for North Durham (Mr Jones), and me.
I first raised the question of what was to happen to the Gospels when I was elected in 2005 and put down an early-day motion on the subject. I then wrote to key agencies, including the British Library, Durham cathedral and museum services. We constantly badgered the British Library to consider a permanent move for the Gospels to the north-east, and if that was not possible we called for a temporary move. We also lobbied our Government on the matter, and the then culture Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), intervened on our behalf. It was difficult, but that lobbying persuaded the British Library to commission an independent expert review into the future of the Gospels in 2006. In 2009, the panel reported back, recommending that, with great care, the books could be loaned for three months every seven years.
The review set out the conditions and criteria that would need to be met for the Gospels to be loaned out, to preserve the quality and condition of the book. It was agreed in 2009 by the British Library and the Association of North East Councils that Durham would be the first place the Gospels visited under the new arrangements. It took some time and forbearance, but we are all pleased that all the partners exhibiting the Gospels in the north-east for three months from this weekend, especially Durham university and Durham cathedral, managed to persuade the British Library that suitable conditions in the north-east could be created to house the Gospels adequately.
The exhibition has been made possible by the close partnership working between the British Library, Durham cathedral, Durham county council and Durham university, as well as the long-standing and continued support from parliamentarians. Together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, the British Library is lending five other precious manuscripts for the exhibition, including the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel. These manuscripts and artefacts have not been seen together since the Reformation, and they will be exhibited in the newly refurbished Wolfson gallery in the Palace Green library of the University of Durham. The university is to be commended for the simply amazing space it has created to show the Gospels.
The British Library has worked closely with the university and the cathedral to ensure that the Palace Green library meets the requirements for lending the Lindisfarne Gospels for exhibition display, and that that complies with the report by the panel of independent experts. The exhibition is the centrepiece of the festival around the Lindisfarne Gospels, and we hope that it will attract many people to the history and heritage of the region, as well as the Gospels themselves. To that end, I am grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for providing a grant of £487,000 to Durham university.
I thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for its grant, which has helped the university to run an outreach project alongside the exhibition. The manuscript is one of the most important books in the British Library’s collection, but it is also a treasure of world culture, and it is a symbol of our region’s proud past and the cultural legacy that it has created for the nation. That was recognised by the Prime Minister, who when visiting Northern Ireland in 2011 described the Lindisfarne Gospels as “a British national treasure”.
Bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments, I should be grateful if the Minister said whether his Department will continue to support the loan of the Gospels to the north-east region on a regular basis, and whether the Government will encourage the Heritage Lottery Fund to give access funding to the Gospels exhibition so that not only schools but everyone attending the exhibition can view the Gospels free of charge, just as tourists and others can do in the British Library. I believe that that is particularly important, given that the north-east is the country’s poorest region. Having to pay a charge to see the Gospels does not seem to be entirely fair. It is fantastic, however, that the British Library has agreed to lend the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham this summer so that they can be displayed in the north-east and many people in the region and elsewhere will have an opportunity to see them.”