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Lindisfarne Gospels

Volume 565: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, which is particularly time-sensitive. It is good to be able to have the debate in advance of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ return to Durham.

Let me start by explaining why there is so much excitement in the north-east and Durham, where the Gospels are to be exhibited, about the temporary return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to our region. The book is simply a stunning masterpiece of early mediaeval European book painting and the beautifully illustrated manuscript represents the pinnacle of achievement of Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian art at the end of the seventh century.

The Gospels book was made on the holy island of Lindisfarne and was probably written between St Cuthbert’s death in 687 AD and the death of Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was identified as the artist and scribe of the book by Aldred, the provost of the monastic community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street. A recent study suggested a date for the Gospels of between 710 and 720 AD.

The making of the book required time, dedication and the invention of new tools and materials. With no modern technology at his disposal, Eadfrith is credited with inventing some of his own gadgets to help. Professor Michelle Brown, an expert in mediaeval manuscript studies at the University of London’s schools of advanced study, stated that Eadfrith

“was a technical innovator who invented the pencil and the light box in order to achieve his complex artistic and social vision”.

The book is the oldest surviving translation of the gospels into the English language, but it is worth recognising that the Lindisfarne Gospels’ intricate and symbolic artwork helped convey its message to those who could not read. The Gospels were created at a time of great change when Britain was a land of many cultures that were coming together into an emerging national identity. The manuscript is inspired by all the different peoples who lived in these islands at the time: Britons, Picts, Celts and Anglo-Saxons, along with those of Mediterranean and middle-eastern cultures.

Another extraordinary aspect of the Gospels is that unlike most early mediaeval books this one has come to us in almost perfect condition. That is, frankly, remarkable, considering that it was written about 1,300 years ago and the eventful journey it has been on ever since.

The first Viking raid on Britain struck Lindisfarne in 793 AD. After nearly 100 years of continuing raids, the monastic community abandoned Lindisfarne in 875, taking with them the body of St Cuthbert, the Gospels and other important relics. The Lindisfarne community is believed to have travelled around for seven years before eventually settling at the priory at Chester-le-Street, where they stayed until 995. They then moved to Durham priory with the relics of St Cuthbert, after the dead saint revealed to one of the monks where he wanted his new resting place to be.

In 1069, the Lindisfarne Gospels spent a short time back at Lindisfarne to escape the devastating raid on the north by William the Conqueror. The book was then returned to Durham. In 1104, St Cuthbert’s body and other monastic treasures from Lindisfarne were moved to the splendid new cathedral at Durham. However, in 1536 the dissolution of the monasteries was ordered by Henry VIII. The priories of Lindisfarne and Durham were broken up and the Gospels were believed to have been seized by the King’s commissioners.

By the early 17th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton. Cotton’s heirs presented the book to the nation and it became part of the founding collections of the British Museum in 1753. In 1973, the Lindisfarne Gospels became part of the British Library, their current permanent resting place.

This is only the fifth time the Gospels have been loaned since coming into the hands of the British Museum and later the British Library. Except for a museum evacuation during world war two, all the loans were for major library and museum tours undertaken within the past 50 years: at the Royal Academy in 1961, in Durham cathedral in 1987, and at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle in 1996 and 2000. It took nearly two years of negotiations, planning, organisation and effort to bring the Gospels to the region on the last two visits. On the first day of the exhibition, almost 3,000 people came along to see the Gospels, which demonstrates huge interest from the region.

What has happened since the last visit? A condition survey by the British Library in 2004 suggested that it might be difficult to move the Gospels again, but the findings of the survey were far from conclusive. There followed a fervent campaign, led first by the Northumbrian Association—I take the opportunity to thank the late John Danby for his work; he is much missed—and by my hon. Friends the former Member for Houghton and Washington East, Fraser Kemp, Baroness Quin, the former Member for Stockton South, Dari Taylor, my hon. Friends the current Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for North Durham (Mr Jones), and me.

I first raised the question of what was to happen to the Gospels when I was elected in 2005 and put down an early-day motion on the subject. I then wrote to key agencies, including the British Library, Durham cathedral and museum services. We constantly badgered the British Library to consider a permanent move for the Gospels to the north-east, and if that was not possible we called for a temporary move. We also lobbied our Government on the matter, and the then culture Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), intervened on our behalf. It was difficult, but that lobbying persuaded the British Library to commission an independent expert review into the future of the Gospels in 2006. In 2009, the panel reported back, recommending that, with great care, the books could be loaned for three months every seven years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She will be aware that the fabulous collection of Roman gold and silver known as the Backworth hoard is in the north-east for the first time in 200 years, on loan from the British Museum. Does she agree that such exhibitions and the fact that the Lindisfarne Gospels will be allowed to come to us every seven years shows that our region has the skills, expertise and knowledge to host our most treasured national items?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will talk about what skills the region has to support the Gospels.

The review set out the conditions and criteria that would need to be met for the Gospels to be loaned out, to preserve the quality and condition of the book. It was agreed in 2009 by the British Library and the Association of North East Councils that Durham would be the first place the Gospels visited under the new arrangements. It took some time and forbearance, but we are all pleased that all the partners exhibiting the Gospels in the north-east for three months from this weekend, especially Durham university and Durham cathedral, managed to persuade the British Library that suitable conditions in the north-east could be created to house the Gospels adequately.

The exhibition has been made possible by the close partnership working between the British Library, Durham cathedral, Durham county council and Durham university, as well as the long-standing and continued support from parliamentarians. Together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, the British Library is lending five other precious manuscripts for the exhibition, including the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel. These manuscripts and artefacts have not been seen together since the Reformation, and they will be exhibited in the newly refurbished Wolfson gallery in the Palace Green library of the University of Durham. The university is to be commended for the simply amazing space it has created to show the Gospels.

The British Library has worked closely with the university and the cathedral to ensure that the Palace Green library meets the requirements for lending the Lindisfarne Gospels for exhibition display, and that that complies with the report by the panel of independent experts. The exhibition is the centrepiece of the festival around the Lindisfarne Gospels, and we hope that it will attract many people to the history and heritage of the region, as well as the Gospels themselves. To that end, I am grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for providing a grant of £487,000 to Durham university.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate, and may I register on behalf of Government Members the total support of the whole House for the campaign that she and many others have conducted for many years? Does she agree that this is a good example of the north-east working together for something that we all treasure, and that there is no finer tourism opportunity this summer?

I agree entirely, and it is excellent that we have been able to achieve cross-party support to bring the Gospels back to the region on temporary loan. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

I thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for its grant, which has helped the university to run an outreach project alongside the exhibition. The manuscript is one of the most important books in the British Library’s collection, but it is also a treasure of world culture, and it is a symbol of our region’s proud past and the cultural legacy that it has created for the nation. That was recognised by the Prime Minister, who when visiting Northern Ireland in 2011 described the Lindisfarne Gospels as “a British national treasure”.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter to the House for consideration. She, the Prime Minister, many others in the House and I have called the Gospels a national treasure because they are one of the most important pieces of informative history in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does she agree that such is the historical importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the interest that they create across the whole of the United Kingdom that opportunities should be given to all regions, including to Northern Ireland, to see them?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree: it would be wonderful for the people of Northern Ireland to have the opportunity to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and other important historical texts in the region too.

Bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments, I should be grateful if the Minister said whether his Department will continue to support the loan of the Gospels to the north-east region on a regular basis, and whether the Government will encourage the Heritage Lottery Fund to give access funding to the Gospels exhibition so that not only schools but everyone attending the exhibition can view the Gospels free of charge, just as tourists and others can do in the British Library. I believe that that is particularly important, given that the north-east is the country’s poorest region. Having to pay a charge to see the Gospels does not seem to be entirely fair. It is fantastic, however, that the British Library has agreed to lend the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham this summer so that they can be displayed in the north-east and many people in the region and elsewhere will have an opportunity to see them.

I apologise for being late for the debate. As my hon. Friend has no doubt mentioned, the last time that the Gospels came to the north-east they came to the Laing art gallery in Newcastle. Does she agree that enthusiasm for their return and the campaign waged by many Members for that return shows the value that the north-east places not only our cultural heritage but on the arts more broadly?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted to see the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels nearly to their rightful home. I say “nearly” tongue in cheek, because really the Gospels belong to the beautiful island, Holy island, in Northumberland.

The Gospels were made on the holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. The book was probably written at some time between St Cuthbert’s death in 687 and the death in 721 of Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne, who was identified as the artist and the scribe of the book. The Gospels’ last visit, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) correctly pointed out, was a tremendous success. It was in 2000, and on the first day the Gospels attracted almost 3,000 people, which was fantastic. I hope that that will be repeated or even surpassed when the Gospels come to Durham later this year.

I feel the need to raise a couple of points with regard to artefacts including the Gospels, their accessibility to people throughout the country, and fairness. The first point was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham when she said how difficult it was to arrange even a temporary loan of the Gospels. For many years the British Library flatly refused to allow any temporary loan of such a valuable asset to the north-east. That upset many people in our region. The people in the north-east see the Gospels as theirs and were offended by the attitude of the British Library.

Given that these treasures belong to the people of the whole country, there should be a much greater requirement on the national museums to loan artefacts such as the Gospels to regions such as the north-east. Museums do loan some artefacts and materials, but they are generally stuff, as they see it, of lesser importance. They make people jump through hoops and over hurdles in order to secure the loan of artefacts such as the Gospels, even on a temporary basis. The British Library should not expect people to travel from the likes of the north-east to London to see these artefacts. It should bear in mind the distance and the cost, and the priority of people who want to see them. We have world-class museums in the north-east region, and facilities such as Woodhorn museum in my constituency—a first-class museum that is perfectly capable of housing artefacts such as the Gospels.

My second point is a simple one. Why are the national museums in London? There are a few outposts, such as York, but generally the national museums are in London. Again, I emphasise that they are inaccessible to many of the people whom I represent and many in my region. We should be looking at outposts up and down the country. The comprehensive spending review today could spell dangerous times and possibly even the end for many museums throughout the country. Rather than seeking funds to extend or refurbish the London sites, why do the national museums not create new outposts, possibly even within existing museums, to ensure that people across the nation can see the treasures that they want to see, and experience what other people are experiencing? Why cannot the British Library, for example, establish a base in Northumberland or Durham, where items such as the Gospels could be displayed without leaving the Library’s care?

We are delighted to celebrate the Gospels’ return to the north-east and also the exhibition that accompanies them, which has provided inspiration for a number of local groups to engage with their cultural heritage. Without being too negative, I simply say that we should make sure that these cultural artefacts are accessible to people up and down the country, regardless of how much they have in their back pocket.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and has been so ably contributed to by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and other Members who intervened. The debate is about the best way to display the Lindisfarne Gospels and the work that has gone into ensuring that they are displayed regularly in the north-east.

Let me begin by taking up the challenge set out by the hon. Member for Wansbeck on the need for our national museums to work more closely with organisations and museums outside London. Having spent this morning debating the future of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, which is part of the Science Museum Group, and having spent most of last week debating the future of the National Media Museum in Bradford, which is also part of the Science Museum Group, I can only say that I wholly concur with the sentiments he expressed. We need to do much more with our national museums to ensure that the regions are not seen as somehow second class, that national museums, wherever they are located, are on an equal footing with those in London, and that the quality and expertise that exist in national museums outside London and our major regional museums are as good as any to be found in London.

I certainly hear the hon. Gentleman’s point about having to jump through hoops and hope that we can continue to encourage and work with our national museums to share much more of the national collections around the country, because they are national collections and deserve to be seen by everyone across the United Kingdom. His point was well made. I think that the north-east—I might be inviting an intervention on this point—is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. For example, I was delighted by the recent decision to save the Zurbarán paintings and by the moves to turn the bishop’s palace in Bishop Auckland into a major cultural destination site.

In praising the north-east and the wonderful facilities we have for exhibiting and conserving documents such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, it was remiss of me not to invite the Minister to visit Durham and see the exhibition himself.

In preparing for the debate, the thought did occur to me: “How on earth can I resist if an invitation is made?” As someone who occasionally spends his summer holidays in Newcastle, I would be only too happy to visit the Gospels displayed in Durham cathedral and also to go to Lindisfarne, with a suitable escort—the hon. Member for Wansbeck clearly thinks that if he keeps his head down he will not have to come with me.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of Durham for her campaigning. She acknowledged in her remarks the work done by the noble Baroness Quin when she was a Member of this House. I was delighted to hear that she is pleased with the current arrangements, but that does not mean that she will not continue to push for better arrangements from her perspective. It is important to stress that the British Library operates at arm’s length from the Government, but as the hon. Lady indicated, it is not unheard of for Arts Ministers occasionally to engage in what today is known as the nudge agenda in order to encourage our national institutions to do the right thing.

I could wax lyrical in the time remaining about the importance of the Lindisfarne Gospels. They are one of the world’s great treasures. They help us interpret Britain in a time of change. They are known the world over. Indeed, I was speaking only this afternoon with a friend visiting from New Jersey who is a great fan of the Gospels. It is worth remembering that in this age of digital technology, we have the chance to share the beauty of the Lindisfarne Gospels with not just the United Kingdom but the whole world, particularly through the British Library’s “turning pages” technology.

I do not know whether it is the mention of New Jersey or technology that has prompted the hon. Lady’s intervention; I shall wait and see.

My intervention is about the Minister’s mention of sharing the Lindisfarne Gospels the world over. Given that they have such massive heritage importance to the north-east and the world, is it not a shame that people will be charged to see them when they are on display in the north-east?

I note the hon. Lady’s point, but I am delighted that schoolchildren will get the opportunity to see the Lindisfarne Gospels for free and that the Government have maintained their policy of free access to the national museums. It may be difficult at this stage to allow free access to the Gospels, but given that we are now on a seven-year cycle, perhaps my successor could look at the issue in 2020.

The key point about the seven-year cycle is that the Lindisfarne Gospels are part of the national collection and of international significance. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, many other parts of the United Kingdom would welcome the opportunity to see them. The British Library should maintain ownership and curatorial control of the gospels, so that other parts of the country may see them in future.

As the hon. Member for City of Durham pointed out, we have made great progress. Since the Lindisfarne Gospels came into the national collection in 1753, they have been removed only five times. They were evacuated during world war two and subsequently moved as far as the Royal Academy for display. The three other times since then have also been when they have been displayed—once in Durham and twice in the Laing art gallery in Newcastle. Now, of course, they are going back to Durham.

The page openings that will be on display in Durham are the same that would have been on display had the gospels been exhibited in the British Library in London. Different generations of people from across the north-east region will be able to appreciate the artistry, craftsmanship and beauty of these unique national treasures.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, this is the first time in about 400 years that the key relics from St Cuthbert’s grave, including St Cuthbert’s Gospel, St Cuthbert’s cross, St Cuthbert’s travelling altar and the Durham Gospels, will be displayed together. They will be in place for three months. I am delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund has found almost half a million pounds to enable the display to take place. I have absolutely no doubt that these extraordinary treasures will attract tens of thousands of people from the north-east and around the world. I look forward to making the trip up to the north-east myself.

The hon. Lady gave a detailed exposition of the journey of the Lindisfarne Gospels. It is worth recording in this Chamber that in the early 17th century they were held in stewardship by a parliamentary Clerk. How things have changed—in the 17th century, a parliamentary Clerk held the beautiful artefacts that are the Lindisfarne Gospels, while tonight the parliamentary Clerk is holding a petition to save the skateboard in the south bank.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.