Details and Importance of the Collection

There are two key factors which give this collection its importance.

First, there are the significant manuscript books which it contains, many of them containing crucial documentary evidence:

  • The White Book of Southwell has copies of papal bulls, royal letters, archiepiscopal letters and orders, property charters for the chapter, the chauntries and the vicars choral, and a list of the chauntries.  The book begins with C14th and ends with C16th handwriting.  It is a highly important source for the history of the Minster1.
  • The Thurgarton Cartulary is similar to the White Book, and contains records of the extensive estates of Thurgarton Priory2.
  • The Registers of Chapter Acts record the admissions of canons, vicars choral, chantry priests, choristers and other records including payments.  Some of these volumes include leaves taken from manuscript books presumably in the medieval library3.
  • The Ecclesiastical Court volumes are full of interesting items concerning the jurisdiction of the chapter.  After the Reformation they also list, annually, all incumbents and churchwardens by parishes3.
  • The Liber Festialis, a book of sermons for Sundays and Holy Days, written originally by one John Mirk, a Canon of Lilleshall Priory.  The Southwell copy dates from the mid C15th and is one of the best extant manuscripts of this work (see Görlach’s The South English legendary, 1972).  It was presented by a late C17th vicar choral, Henry Raper.
  • A 13th-century manuscript Bible with ornamented initials, of French origin but from the medieval library of the Newcastle Dominicans, presented to Southwell by Edward Lee.

Secondly, there is the historic collection itself, some 1200 volumes, reflecting the efforts of two centuries or more of Chapter activity, still intact as a Library, and ideally to be seen as such.

The Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections (2nd ed. by B.C.Bloomfield, 1997) gives the following breakdown of the early printed books:

  • 79 STC [English printing before 1641]
  • 259 Wing [English printing 1641-1700]
  • 118 continental pre-1600 printing
  • 142 continental printing 1641-1700

Among the early titles are:

  • A volume of Aristotle, printed in Venice by Filippo Pincio in 1505, the earliest actual book in the Library, of which very few copies are known.
  • A 1519 Paris edition of the Decretals of Gregory IX, in original oak boards.
  • A volume of early legal Year Books (of the reigns of Henry VII & Henry VIII); some of the contents are unique and are listed in the Addenda to the 2nd edition of the Short-Title Catalogue (vol. 3, 1991).
  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed by Robert Toye, probably in 1550.
  • Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp, 1575), containing one or two maps not found in other copies.
  • The first editions of Lancelot Andrewes’s Tortura Torti (1609) and Responsio ad apologiam Cardinalis Bellarmini (1610), important works by one of the more famous prebendaries of Southwell, in a contemporary limp parchment binding containing an unrecorded fragment of Middle English verse.
  • There is a significant music collection including early editions of Handel, and choir books with annotations by lay-clerks and choristers.

Altogether it is a fine collection of handsome leather-bound volumes, and while there are relatively few notable books as such the cumulative effect is very impressive.

In addition to the historic collection the library has considerable numbers of books of the 19thC and 20thC.  Of these, a separate collection is devoted to local history and includes complete runs of the Southwell diocesan magazines and year books, parish histories, books about the towns of Southwell and Nottingham, etc.

The Archive collection, deposited with Nottinghamshire Archives, is significant as it holds the complete run of Bishop’s transcripts of Nottinghamshire parish registers from c.1598 to 1850.

  1. The original is housed at Nottinghamshire Archives; the library retains a typescript transcript and several indices.
  2. The original is housed at Nottinghamshire Archives; the library retains a modern printed transcript, with commentary.
  3. Housed at Nottinghamshire Archives.


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