virtual tour

virtual tour  

History of the Chained Library


Books have always been collected by the cathedral community. The oldest volume is the Hereford Gospels, dating from around the year 800, although the history of the library really begins in 1100. The Cathedral acquired a large number of books in the twelfth-century.


Copied by hand, these volumes included vital texts on theology as well as ‘glossed books’, which are parts of the Bible with commentary. Most of the books collected from the fourteenth-century onwards were predominantly law books, thus reflecting a major interest of the canons at that time. It is unlikely that the Library had more than one hundred and forty books in its early days.


These books were kept in different places in the Cathedral. Some were chained to lecterns, others kept in cupboards, and a number possibly in wooden chests. The first library room was not created until the fifteenth-century, when a special space was built over the west walk of the south-west cloister. Here the books were kept and could also be read. Unfortunately, no furniture from this room survives, though it is likely that the books were chained to sloping desks.


During the reign of Elizabeth I, a commission investigated the goings-on at the Cathedral, and the commissioners found that the books were not being looked after properly. In fact, the Library was described as being in a state of collapse. In 1590 the whole library was moved to the Lady Chapel, thus enacting a principle of the Reformation to convert such a chapel into non-liturgical use, and the Chained Library created in 1611 by Thomas Thornton.


Thornton, canon of Hereford from 1583 onwards, was a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and vice-chancellor of Oxford University in 1583 and 1599. He had seen Sir Thomas Bodley’s design at the Duke Humfrey Library and copied this furniture at libraries he set up at Christ Church and Hereford. To save space, the books were placed upright on shelves, especially as the invention of printing meant that there were many books, and chains attached. This allowed the books to remain safe and secure, but could still be taken off and read on the shelves below.


It seems that the library had many additions during the seventeenth-century and survived the Civil War pretty much unscathed. After the Restoration of 1660, the Library was revived a little and in 1678 witnessed the arrival of the books from the Jesuit College at Cwm, a college that was closed down by Bishop Croft of Hereford.


In 1841 the chaining of books came to an end. When major restoration work was carried out on the cathedral, the books and shelves had to be removed from the Lady Chapel. After having been stored in various parts of the cathedral, half of the Chained Library was located in the room above the North Transept, which was open to the public, and the remainder in the Victorian Dean Leigh Library.


During the Second World War the medieval manuscripts and Mappa Mundi were removed to safety and returned in 1946.  When the Dean & Chapter thought of selling the Mappa Mundi, a trust was a established to safeguard its future. The ownership of the famous map, and historic collections, were transferred to the Trust and following a gift from the late Sir Paul Getty, and an endowment from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, a new building was constructed to house these treasures. It was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 3 May 1996. The Library is together, all in one place, and in a controlled environment.