The oldest parish library in the country - at St Edmundsbury Cathedral - reveals its secrets

Assistant librarian Stephen Dart is pictured in the Ancient Library at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in B

Assistant librarian Stephen Dart is pictured in the Ancient Library at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury. - Credit: Archant

It holds a wealth of religious books dating back hundreds of years, but the little-known Ancient Library at St Edmundsbury Cathedral also tells us about the local people of the time.

Established in 1595 by Dr Miles Mosse, it is the oldest parish library in the country and contains about 600 books mainly dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, with the oldest from 1482.

Tucked away at the top of a spiral staircase near the main cathedral entrance, it is not usually open to the public, but its treasures are put on display during exhibitions and people can also visit the library on certain days, such as Heritage Open Days, and by appointment.

While the library is fascinating for anyone interested in religious books, volunteer Stephen Dart believes what is so special about this hidden gem is the links with local people of the time – including nobility – who donated the books, such as Sir Robert Jermyn.

He added what is also intriguing is the drawings and notes that have been scribbled inside, known as ‘marginalia’, and the pastedowns – inserted sheets to strengthen the binding – that were made from whatever was available, yet today provide an insight into the past.

Mr Dart, a former headteacher of Newmarket Upper School, said: “What is so fascinating is the history of the books and the history of local people and it’s the links we can make.”

A list dating to 1599 reveals who donated what to the library, which was used as a reference source for clergy in training.

Most Read

Sir Robert Jermyn, a member of the gentry who lived at Rushbrooke, gave 15 volumes of the works of Calvin to the library in 1595.

The name Jermyn is also linked to a copy of the first printed edition of the Koran in Latin, dating to 1543.

The book once belonged to George Blagge, a royal servant who was saved from being burnt for heresy in 1546 by the personal intervention of Henry VIII.

When he died of natural causes five years later, the book went to his best-friend Richard Goodrich, who also married his widow Dorothy whose brother owned the site of Bury Abbey. Then when he died, she remarried, this time to Sir Ambrose Jermyn, the father of Sir Robert.

Mr Dart, who read history at university, also showed this newspaper a book called ‘Actes and monuments of the Church’, dating to 1570, which includes a description of the martyrdom of Roland Taylor, Rector of Hadleigh and Archdeacon of Bury, who was burnt at Aldham Common in 1555. The book’s owner had been Robert Plummer, a barber/surgeon who lived at Scandinavia House on Bury’s Angel Hill.

The inscription in the book reads: “This book was given by Robt plummer to the Liberary of St james parish for ever in the year 1680. Cursed be he that depriveth the church of itt [sic].”

Mr Dart, who is also a former deputy head of the upper school in Thurston, revealed where people long deceased had left their mark in the books, such as doodles of a big cat and a face, and the handwriting of Bury gentleman William Alman, a will writer, who practised his writing and signature in a 1499 book called ‘Catholicon’.

Pastedowns in the form of accounts for works at the Royal Palace of Enfield, residence of Edward VI when he came to the throne in 1547, are another window into the past.

Mr Dart, who has been singing in the cathedral choir since 1981, spoke of the pleasure he gets from working in the library.

“It’s interesting looking at the books, finding out more about the books, the history of the books, and reading the ancient writing and showing people around and setting up the exhibitions.”

The Ancient Library will be open for a Heritage Open Day on Friday, September 11, from 2pm to 4.30pm. Due to limited spaces, people are advised to book. Call 01284 764667. Tickets are also available from

Dr Miles Mosse, who founded the Ancient Library in 1595, was a lecturer at the Church of Saint James, before it became a cathedral.

The library is unique because most of the books were donated by local clergy, gentry and tradesmen.

It was not only used by the clergy who were undergoing in-service training in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but also by laymen who were able to borrow the books.

The present

exhibition in the cathedral Treasury, which is open to the public, features some books from the Ancient Library that previously belonged to Dr John White.

Dr White (1570-1615) became rector of Barsham in Suffolk in 1609 after serving in Eccles and Manchester and was a chaplain-in-ordinary to James I.

His book The Way to the True Church, attacking Roman Catholicism and superstitious belief, was a focus of some controversy.

For more information about the Ancient Library visit