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  • The Lambeth Palace Library:England's First Public Library
  • Norman D. Stevens

As every librarian knows, libraries typically have suffered in times of cultural, political, or social unrest. The danger that books, libraries, and reading are felt to present against those who have power, or seek to gain power, too often leads to irreparable losses in the cultural record. The Lambeth Palace Library, which was established in 1610 in the will of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), archbishop of Canterbury, survived possible destruction early in its life, flourished until the 1930s, and was then resurrected after the building was badly damaged by German bombs during World War II. In 1953 its mission was redefined to establish it as the main special library for the history and affairs of the Church of England as well as for the archiepiscopal records of Canterbury and similar materials. The publication of Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Archbishop of Canterbury, in celebration of the library's four-hundredth anniversary, is a splendid tribute to the preservation, restoration, and expansion of its collections through circumstances that might well have brought them to the same fate as many now long-lost libraries. While those treasures largely represent beautiful rare books and manuscripts, there are numerous examples—such as William Gladstone's diaries, temperance collections, and the establishment of the first church in Australia—that demonstrate the depth and breadth of its research materials.

Lambeth Palace was acquired by the archbishopric around 1200 as the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury. The oldest part of the palace, which is located on the south bank of the Thames a short distance upstream from the Palace of Westminster, is Lollard's Tower, dating to 1440. Much of the palace was ravaged during the English Civil War (1642-51). Rebuilt in 1663, it has been described as either a Gothic survival or an early Gothic Revival building. Archbishop Bancroft's bequest was an unusual first step in the process of establishing the library of the palace. A number of his predecessors had book collections that [End Page 113] were dispersed when they died. Bancroft specified in his will that his collection should be left "to the Arch-Bishops of Canterbury successfully for ever." While he saw the need for such a library, he also realized that the support of his successor and the king was essential, so he specified that, if his wish could not be met, the collection should pass to a proposed Chelsea Library or the Cambridge University Library. Fortunately, Bancroft's successor, Archbishop George Abbott (1562-1633), also a bibliophile and a book collector, shared with Bancroft a friendship with King James I, who, himself an author, admired scholarship. In response to an appeal from Bancroft that his library be preserved for posterity, King James I sought advice from his counsel, Francis Bacon, who recommended that the best way to save Bancroft's library was to produce a catalog of the collection as a lasting record of its contents. In his preface to that catalog, which was completed in 1612, Archbishop Abbott appealed to his successors to enable the library "to descend from age to age, and from succession to succession, to the service of God and his Church, the Kings and Commonwealth of this Realme, and particularly of the Archbishops of Canterbury." Abbott in turn bequeathed his own library to the collection, and after his death the combined collection contained some nine thousand books and manuscripts, making it one of the largest libraries in England (at a time when there were few libraries) and one of the few with any claim to public status.

At that time, the Elizabethan religious structure was under attack from militant Roman Catholicism as well as from the Puritans, who sought radical reform. Libraries were being formed as literary arsenals. The arrangement and the broad range of views contained in the Lambeth Palace Library clearly indicate that it was a library of controversy. Somehow it managed to survive even in the worst of times. In 1641 Archbishop Abbott's successor, Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645), was accused of high treason and sent to the Tower of London. Soon thereafter, Lambeth Palace...


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