The Library of St Mary’s Abbey

Editorial Update

This article was first published in the Society’s Annual Report and Newsletter, no 17 for May 1974 – May 1975, pp.4-12 and with little alteration is now published on its website for the first time. 

Its author, Alan Welsford, has contributed a further study on the Abbey: Scholars not Saints: Alexander Neckham and the community of Canons at the Abbey of St Mary, Cirencester, published as the Society’s 2017 Newsletter, issue number 63. The two should now be read together. Both were contributions to the Abbey 900 celebrations in the town during 2017, celebrating the 900th Anniversary of the ‘King’s great work at Cirencester’ in 1117 – thought to be its foundation year.   


Scholarship requires two things as a foundation – stability and books. A society can have a culture of considerable quality based on common experience and tradition passed on by memory in the form of fable, myth and belief. But it is only when facts and ideas are recorded that men can compare and reflect. Such reflection in its turn has requirements, principally release from full-time fending for life’s necessities.


During the early years of Christianity in these islands the oases of stability were the monasteries. Within the sanctuary of the religious conventual establishment men and women could find the security necessary for the exploration of spirituality. The roots of western monasticism lie deep in the Eastern Church’s cenobitic tradition – groups of independent hermits who lived quite separate lives although having their cells gathered at various sites. Gradually this developed into the religious community (in the technical sense of those living under vows) with a Rule and a hierarchy. The greatest, most famous and seminal Rule for western monasticism was that of St. Benedict, which came into common knowledge early in the 6th century.


It would be wrong to think that one of Benedict’s aims was to forward scholarship. His primary intention was to provide a framework for the development of the spiritual life through a willing obedience to those in authority and the acceptance of stability by a life-long attachment to one monastery. Indeed, St. Benedict was so far from being concerned about the intellectual development of his monks and nuns that he saw reading as a matter of discipline and of penitential discipline at that. Rule 4 of Chapter 48 of Benedict’s Rule is concerned with the combating of idleness – “the enemy of the soul”. It is in this context that he sets down his instructions on reading. “During Lent let them (the monks) apply themselves to reading from morning until the end of the 3rd Hour … and in these days of Lent, let them receive a book apiece from the Library and read it straight through. The books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.” There are subsequent Rules concerning the need to confess to the assembled Chapter the fault of not completing the set task, and others which deal with those who are unable to read. The penitential element in this attitude to reading is quite clear. Books are to be read straight through – no savouring or pondering upon interesting passages. How far the fact that the reading would have been aloud (at least mumbled) militated against scholarship is open to speculation but as the monks became more expert at reading it was almost inevitable that some would acquire the thirst for learning. Such thirst in its turn led inevitably to the formation of small collections of theological and spiritual works.


Here then was the seed-bed in which English monasticism grew. In the course of time the Rule became relaxed: some un-religious living clouded the original Spiritual Way. Such lapses generated reforms such as that of the Carthusians. The Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century provided the moral impetus which issued in the foundation of such establishments as the Abbey of St. Mary at Cirencester. For a long time Church life in Cirencester had been centred upon the College of Secular Canons. These were clergy who, though not in any of the religious Orders, lived in a community and under a Rule. As with so many groups, their way of life had become slack and perhaps even scandalous.


It was in an attempt to bring a properly regulated manner of life to such clergy that Pope Gregory supported the Order of the Canons Regular of the Rule of St. Augustine. This Rule was derived from the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. Once introduced into England the Order spread until it had over 200 Houses and became one of the most numerous of the Orders. Under the influence of the Order the Cirencester Canons rose to be the richest and most famous Abbey of the Augustinians in England, eventually becoming a mitred Abbey in 1416. The Collegiate Church was incorporated into the magnificent Abbey of St. Mary which grew to dominate the Town both architecturally and economically. The work was encouraged and no doubt enhanced by Royal patronage. Building began in 1117 and was sufficiently advanced by 1131 for Serlo to be consecrated as first Abbot and the canons to take formal possession. The formal consecration of the Abbey did not take place until 1176 when the full panoply of ecclesiastical splendour was enriched by the presence of the King himself.


The Rule which was attributed to St. Augustine was very much in the tradition of the Benedictines. Like them, the Augustinians had rules governing the reading and the keeping of books. Unfortunately, there is no known copy of the Rule of the Cirencester House but there are extant copies of Rules belonging to other Augustinian establishments in England and there can be no real doubt that they all had similar Rules. One such extant Rule is ‘The customs of the Augustinian Canons at Barnwell’ in Cambridgeshire. The translation from the Latin made by J.W. Clark includes the following passage:


‘The Librarian, who is called also the Precentor, is to take charge of the books of the church. He ought to hand to the brethren the books which they see occasion to use and to enter on his roll the titles of the books and the names of those who receive them. Nor ought the Librarian to lend books unless he receive a pledge of equal value. The larger and more valuable books he ought not to lend to anyone, known or unknown, without the permission of the Abbot. The Librarian is to provide writing materials and personally to hire those who write for money. Books which are to be kept at hand for daily use, whether for singing or reading, ought to be in some common place to which all the brethren can have easy access. The books, therefore, ought not to be carried away into chambers or into corners outside the cloister or church.’


The implications of this are quite clear. Books were being produced in sufficiently large numbers to warrant the employment of professional lay scribes. Also, it was expected that the Canons would wish to borrow books for study rather than solely for the fulfilling of penitential and disciplinary injunctions laid upon them by the Rule. In short, Augustinian establishments, and among them Cirencester, must have had libraries.


The utter removal of the buildings of St. Mary’s Abbey at the Dissolution leaves us with no firm evidence of what provision was made for the care of books there. However, in The Care of Books J.W. Clark amasses a great deal of evidence from English and European sources which can help us in speculating upon these matters. The first storage places in conventual establishments seem to have been wood-lined cupboards or armaria (the Librarian was sometimes referred to as “Armarius”). These armaria would be placed conveniently near the place where the books would be used. They took the form of recesses in the masonry with some divisions and lined to prevent damp from spoiling the manuscripts. Books for use during the Mass and Opus Dei – missals, antiphoners, lectionaries, Gospel books and the like – might well be kept in an armarium in the sacristy. The most valuable of all books might have been kept permanently on one of the altars. Presumably such a sacred location formed some kind of security. But the main reason for putting them here was probably that their bindings often contained relics of saints in honour of whom jewels would be encrusted in the covers. St Mary’s Abbey being so important and wealthy would undoubtedly have had some of these sumptuous volumes.


Books for use in the cloister could well have been housed, at least in the early days, in armaria actually in the cloister itself. Remains of such armaria can be found in many of our cathedrals. The carrels in the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral are a good example of the way in which that part of a monastery would be used for scholarly purposes. It seems very likely that at some stage the Canons at Cirencester would have built a separate room or rooms as a library. The reconstruction of the Abbey put forward by Beecham in his History of Cirencester is an interesting piece of speculation. Unfortunately, the excavations carried out under J.S. Wacher in 1964 completely invalidated the suppositions upon which Beecham based his work. We are not, however, much further forward since there was no evidence that any of the excavated foundations were those of a library. In The Care of Books, Clark states that a library was sometimes formed by making a room or two rooms at the entrance of the Chapter House. It is therefore extremely interesting to find that the foundations of two such rooms appear on Wacher’s plan of the conventual buildings in 1539.


With regard to the furnishing of the Library at Cirencester we are, of course, in an even worse state. However, it is possible from the evidence of manuscripts to establish that, unlike many others, they were not chained. Those which are in the chained library at Hereford Cathedral were chained there and not at Cirencester.


When we come to the contents of the Library at St. Mary’s Abbey we are in a rather better position. There are two lists of items belonging to the Abbey – that of Leland made at about the time of the Dissolution, and that of Boston of Bury, made about 1780. In all, some 300 volumes are mentioned. This is a minimum: many volumes contained more – often many more – than one work and there is no mention of the finest manuscripts, those of Bibles, missals and the like. Of the 300 volumes known to us, 56 were by St. Augustine, 26 by St. Jerome, 22 by Origen and 20 by St. Ambrose. We can also be confident that many if not all of the 52 works of Alexander Neckham, Abbot of Cirencester (1213-17) were in his Abbey library.


Again working from supposition, based upon the evidence of catalogues from other monastic libraries, we can be reasonably confident that the Canons would have had at their disposal works in all the major scholarly disciplines of the time, texts of the Bible, liturgical books, writings on the spiritual life and problems of living in community, books on law – principally canon law – philosophy, history, rhetoric, grammar, the classics and even poetical romances.


Quite a number of the manuscripts which once belonged to Cirencester Abbey still exist and can be found in Hereford Cathedral Library, at Oxford and in the King’s Library at the British Museum. Many of these volumes (for a reason we shall discuss later) are still in their medieval bindings, and carry inscriptions which afford good evidence of their history.


A nice example of such a manuscript is a copy of ‘Cassian’s Conferences’ on the Egyptian Monks. Its binding is the original one and on its inside cover it has an inscription which states that it was done at Cirencester when Andrew was Abbot (1142 or 1147 – 1176) and Dom Gileberto was Precentor. The Precentor, having responsibility for the provision of antiphoners and other books for the daily services, was probably also the Librarian. This is supported by the supposition that the Customs at Cirencester were similar to those at Barnwell, which we have already quoted. This volume also has an inscription in a much later hand, that of Sir John Prise, the significance of which will become clear later. 


Although the Abbey would have produced many of the manuscripts itself either by the original work of the Canons or by professional copyists, others were acquired from benefactions and men joining the Order. It seems likely that the theological treatise ‘Gregory on the Latin Fathers’ was a volume brought by one Jocelyn when he joined the community. Again, the original binding survives and there is an inscription in Prise’s hand. The record of donation states that this work was given by “Canon Jocelyn, when Serlo was Abbot” (1130 or 1131 – 1147). Another volume donated by Canon Jocelyn is of particular interest. There are eleven items bound together in this book, the one of especial interest being known by its opening sentence, “While some are considering the theory of multiplication and division” (The citing of items by their opening words, or incipit, was a common practice.) This work is in fact a copy of ‘On the abacus’ by Gerlandus (c1080). According to Hannyngton there are some ten copies of this known in Europe but none other contains the diagram in Canon Jocelyn’s copy. Several have a poem in common with the Cirencester copy which was used as a mnemonic device to remember the names of the ‘new’ Arabic numerals. The outstanding feature of Jocleyn’s copy, however, is the inclusion of the symbol “0” (naught). This is the first known mention of zero in the West – an innovation of the greatest importance for mathematics. As Hannyngton says, ‘Canon Jocelyn must have been an extremely advanced mathematical thinker’.


It does not surprise us that Cirencester Abbey, an Augustinian House, should have a good representation of the theologian’s works. Several are still to be seen at Hereford Cathedral library – Augustine against Faustus the Manichean, On Baptism, On Creation, On Predestination of the saints, On the Epistle to the Philippians – the last three bound as one volume – and his Sermon the Trinity. Like the majority of such manuscripts, these were working texts done in unspectacular hands and without any elaborate illumination. The Sermon, however, does contain a pleasing ‘portrait’ of St. Augustine and there is some very fine calligraphy in the triple-volume.


Robert of Cricklade, another Canon of Cirencester, has at least two works extant. ‘On the marriage of the Patriarch James’ contains a capital “D” in outline only – a nice example of the way in which text would be written first and rubrication later, probably by another person.


Mention has already been made of the most prolific author amongst the Cirencester Canons, Alexander Neckham. He was born in St. Albans and educated there, being known sometimes as Alexander de Sancto Albanus. He became a distinguished teacher, eventually holding a post in the University of Paris. It was in 1213 that he was elected Abbot of Cirencester. Of Neckham it has been said ‘His range of learning was wide and he wrote much on various subjects.’ He was greatly interested in the classics and grammar though Bacon was not at all impressed by his work on grammar. Much of Neckham’s writing was in poetry. He probably wrote the long poetical work on monastic life called ‘De Contemptu mundi’ as well as a translation of Aesop’s Fables. The Abbot’s interests were not confined to literature. In ‘De Naturis rerum’ he wrote of the contemporary understanding of science and the natural world. Neckham was also responsible for recording a first: in ‘De utensilibus’ he is the first person in the West to mention the magnetic compass as an aid to navigation.


The Royal patronage which was bestowed upon Cirencester Abbey right from its beginning was continued over the centuries. Most of its rights and appurtenances, whether bestowed legally or acquired deviously, were confirmed by successive monarchs. The connection with the seat of power was further strengthened by the Abbot’s seat in Parliament. The Bodleian Library has a manuscript which, while not actually belonging to Cirencester, is of interest. It is a 17th century copy of a Parliament Roll. The illuminations include a procession of abbots, bishops and peers present at ‘the parliament holden at Westminster the iiiith day of February in the 3rd year of oure soveraigne Lord King Henry VIIIth’. Amongst the assembled Lords whose ‘portraits’ are included are Lord Henry Beley, Abbot of Tewkesbury and Lord John Hawkeborne, Abbot of Cirencester.


Such contact with London would no doubt have kept the Abbey abreast of new thinking and innovations of all kinds. A significant development for libraries of all types – for the universities had by now built up collections – came during the second half of the 15th century when printed books became firmly established. As with so many technological advances this was both a boon and a threat. A boon because it made possible the production of numerous exactly similar copies of texts, whereas before even the most careful scribe would make many and different errors when copying by hand. A threat because these same scribes could see their bread and butter productions being taken from them. Of course, both printed books and manuscripts continued to be produced alongside each other, eventually providing for different markets.


The biggest threat to libraries of the Abbeys however, came not from the new printing but from their old and established support – the monarchy. The causes and effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries are too complex and arguable for us to consider here. One effect does however concern us – the dispersal of the monastic libraries. There had been previous small upheavals for the libraries. During the Peasants’ Revolt some manuscripts had been destroyed and at other times large parts of libraries had been removed to other places, an example being the transfer of collections from Durham Priory to Durham College, Oxford. However, there was no substantial threat to manuscripts until Henry VIII began his policy of dissolving the conventual establishments in his Realm. 


The process began with Royal Commissioners visiting the monasteries and making inventories of their contents. In this way Henry could ensure that he acquired all the valuable manuscripts – valuable for their jewel-encrusted bindings rather than their contents. Fortunately, not all men were concerned solely with economic satisfactions.  There was an incipient antiquarianism. John Bale writing in 1549, only four years after Edward VI’s final attack in the Act for the Dissolution of the Chantries, said, ‘Never had we been offended for the loss of our libraries, being so many in number and in so desolate places for the most part, if the chief monuments and most notable works … had been reserved… But to destroy all without consideration, is and will be unto England for ever, a most horrible infamy among the grave senyors of other nations.’ He goes on, ‘some they used to scour their candle sticks and some to rub their boots. Yea, what may bring our nation to more shame and rebuke, than to have it noised abroad, that we are despisers of learning?’


Aubrey (1626 – 1697) records a report that at Malmesbury manuscripts were fluttering about the town like butterflies. It has been estimated that a quarter of a million service books alone were destroyed. By 1565 the authorities had begun to waken up to the situation and were growing anxious. The Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed to have ‘special care for the ancient records in the monasteries’.


The ‘wanderings’ of the manuscripts following their removal from conventual libraries are rather difficult to determine in most cases but those from Cirencester do give us some strong evidence for their story. It is all but certain one of the Commissioners who visited Cirencester prior to the Dissolution was Sir John Prise. In that, our manuscripts were fortunate, as many Commissioners were fired by a fanatical hatred of the Old Religion and sought only to destroy every vestige of it.  Such a one was Dr. John London whom Matthew Parker referred to as ‘that fat and filthy prebendary’! Prise brought to his work no such negative attitude.


Sir John seems to have had a very real interest in manuscripts and began to collect them. His principal interest was in historical items but he was also prepared to acquire theological works many of which he obtained from the monasteries he visited. Another of Sir John’s great merits was that he did not rebind the books so that his collection provides a splendid series of ordinary everyday monastic binding of the 12th and 13th centuries. We have already noted that there are inscriptions in a hand which has been identified as that of Sir John, so forging a strong link in the story of the Cirencester manuscripts. Sir John also forms the connection of the books with their present owners at Hereford Cathedral and in Oxford; for Prise moved to Hereford in about 1540 and died there in 1555, leaving his books to the Cathedral and to Jesus College, Oxford.


The presence of manuscripts from St. Mary’s Abbey in the British Museum is explained by their being in the Royal Library which was deposited in the British Museum as one of the foundation collections.


The manuscripts of the Abbey form one of the few tangible remains of a great monastic institution. The ruins of other religious houses stand to remind succeeding generations of their place in the community. At Cirencester little of architectural note remains. But perhaps it is fitting that a scholarly community should have been so well served by a sympathetic Commissioner who helped preserve for posterity some of its tools of learning.



Beecham, K.J. 1887. History of Cirencester.  

Clark, J.W. ed. 1897. The Observances in use at the Augustinian Priory of St. Giles and St. Andrew at Barnwell, Cambridgeshire. 

Clark, J.W. 1902. The Care of Books (2nd edition).

Hannyngton, H. (nd). Notes on a 12th century mathematical manuscript from Cirencester. 

Ker, N.R. 1955. ‘Sir John Prise’ in The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, vol 10, 1-24.

Moorman, J. 1973. The History of the Church in England (3rd edition). 

Salter, H.E. 1922. Chapters of the Augustinian Canons

Wacher, J.S. 1965. ‘Cirencester 1964: Fifth Interim Report’, Antiquaries Journal, vol XLV, part 1, pp.105-110. 

Wormald, F. and Wright, C.E. (eds.) 1958. The English Library before 1700. 


Since this article was first published, excavations on the site of Cirencester Abbey have been published in detail in Wilkinson, D. and McWhirr, A. 1998. Cirencester: Anglo-Saxon Church and Medieval Abbey, Cirencester Excavations IV, 180pp.


Alan Welsford