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Among Dorset’s Hidden Gems – The Chained Library

A planned book signing at Gullivers, Wimborne Minster led to the discovery of the Chained Library, housed in the Minster and accessed via a spiral staircase. Originally a treasury, it would have held not only fine jewels, but also precious relics: a phial of the blood of St Thomas a Beckett, pieces of the Manger and the Holy cross, all seized by Henry VIII. In 1685 the room – which had resorted to use for storage – was transformed into a library. Low ceilinged and beamed, its walls are shelved and tightly packed with leather-bound volumes (many of whose spines are hidden, since books were displayed with the edges of their pages on display until it was realised that the spine would be a far better place for the title). So precious were books – the cost being equal to the value of a small farm – that each is chained to its nearest neighbour. This practice stems from an Abbott’s discovery that books were disappearing from his library at the monastery. Convinced that his monks were too devout to consider theft, he decided that imps and devils were responsible. After chaining, no more were lost.

The library’s first collection of books was bequeathed by its founder, the Revd William Stone, who compiled his controversial collection at Oxford. Words were dangerous. Works not recognised by the Church of England were burnt by a public hangman at a place of execution. Although the Chained Library was public, its books were in Greek, Hebrew and Latin: few of the local populace could read English. In full visibility, they would be safe-guarded.

Quite apart from the importance of their contents – including works by Erasmus who drew attention to an error in translation at the cost of his own life – the instruction to KILL all non-beleivers should in fact have been IGNORE all non-believers – and many other writers whose work was banned by the inquisition, the collection includes examples of the finest printing and binding.

The oldest volume is the Regimen Animarum (The Guiding of Souls), dated 1343 and laboriously written on vellum with a quill pen using ink made from oak apples and iron sulphate. The book lists ways to avoid the Spiritual Dangers to which we are exposed. These might include gossiping (a verb for which there was no male form) and missing out words from prayers or getting them wrong, punishable by hell. Even in church there was no protection from the devil.

The oldest printed volume is the Opuscula Beati Anselmi Archiepiscopi published in 1495, the year Columbus set sail on his second voyage to the   New World. It is unusual in that it contains no capital letters. At the time the press had no capitals and the printer inscribed those by hand. For some reason this example escaped the attention of the scribe.

Among the rare bindings is a copy of Theophylacti dated 1532, showing the royal arms paired with the badge of Catherine of Aragon. A year later, Henry married Anne Boleyn and the binder was instructed to remove  Catherine’s pomegranate and replace it with Anne Boleyn’s falcon. This copy  slipped through the royal net.

Secular texts are also well-represented. Included is Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World London, written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and completed after his execution by Ross, then the Principal of Southampton Grammar School. We also find William Temple’s The Gentleman’s Companion, 1672, which strictly warns against marriage and recommends that men ‘spend their time inventing ships to sail under water and carriages to fly in the air.’ However, if marriage is to be undertaken, there should at least be a sizable dowry to compensate for the enormous inconveniences that will naturally follow.

Jane visited Wimborne Minster. Wimborne is hosting its first ever Literary Festival on 29th October, featuring Martin Brown, Imogen Parker, Elizabeth Cooke and Natasha Solomons as well as the Word Crunch short story competition!

All information about The Chained Libraray was provided by ‘Frank,’ otherwise known as William A Tandy, whose publication of the same name is available to purchase in the gift shop.