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Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library

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Lambeth Palace Library has been kept within Lambeth Palace for 400 years, but things are changing as a new Library is currently under construction.


Across the river Thames from the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster), Lambeth Palace is a working palace and for over 800 years has been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence.

In 1197 land was purchased by the Archbishop from the monks of Rochester with a plan to build a college. That idea didn’t happen, so Cardinal John Morton built Lambeth Palace in the late 14th century. At that time the river came right up to the palace building which was convenient for catching a ferry to the north side. There was a ‘horse ferry’ from here which wasn’t a ferry pulled by a horse but a vessel large enough for a carriage with horses. The tolls and rights of passage belonged to the Archbishops of Canterbury who derived a considerable income from it.


Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library

Lambeth Palace Library was founded in 1610 after Archbishop Bancroft (1544–1610) bequeathed his private collection of 4,500 books and manuscripts to the public. It is the historic Library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the principal repository of the documentary history of the Church of England. The Library focuses on ecclesiastical history, but its rich collections are important for a great variety of topics from the history of art and architecture to political history. The records held here date from the 9th century to the present day, so it is also a significant resource for local history and genealogy.

James I described the Library as “a monument of fame” in his kingdom. Peter the Great, who visited in 1698, is recorded as saying that nothing in England astonished him as much as Lambeth Palace Library; he had never thought there were so many books in all the world.

Even with twenty staff working here, as the collection is so vast it’s often readers who request a book who notice things inside that the librarians have never seen.


Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library

While the Library’s focus is on ecclesiastical history, it contains an unrivalled collection of precious books and manuscripts, documenting nearly 1000 years of ecclesiastical and cultural life of the Church and Great Britain. The collection includes over 200,000 printed books and 4,600 manuscripts.

A lot of the Library’s collection was destroyed or looted during the Civil War in (1642–1651), but it still has some real gems such as Queen Elizabeth I’s prayer book, a Gutenberg Bible and the only copy of the execution warrant for Mary Queen of Scots.

The Archbishops’ Archives have papers relating to the role and work of the Archbishops of Canterbury. (The papers become available in the Library after 30 years.) There are also papers of the Bishops of London and various Anglican societies.

In 1996 Lambeth Palace Library took into its care all the early collections of Sion College, the historic Library of the City of London clergy, which comprise manuscripts, pre-1850 printed books, and pamphlets. Its 35,000 book collection complements that of Lambeth with a key focus on the Church, but a rich diversity of other subject material.


Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library


The Church Commissioners are keen to preserve and protect this precious collection which has begun to deteriorate due to unfavourable environmental conditions within the Palace. The optimum storage would be cool and relatively dry, but in an old building next to the river that has been hard to maintain. Mould and pollution have affected the papers and old inks have corroded. Red rot has caused some leather bindings to disintegrate into powder. Digitisation is being considered, but it is very expensive, and it’s worth remembering that vellum lasts longer than Windows 95 so it’s always worth preserving the original.

The Library has a Conservation Studio, staffed by five preservation specialists, which carries out a range of conservation and preservation work on its collections in order to ensure they are preserved for future generations. Works to the documents include, but are not limited to, cleaning, repair, resewing, rebinding and box-making for storage of both the books and manuscripts. There were 10,000 books destroyed during World War II bombing, and they were still repairing books in the 1990s.

This year the team are busy making individual boxes to protect the books ready for the move to the new Library to be ready by the end of 2019.


Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library

There is a need to protect the Library’s fragile artefacts, and its current home is inappropriate.

The collection is housed in cramped conditions across 20 rooms within the Grade I listed Palace buildings. It is stored on four floors of Morton’s Tower over the gatehouse entrance to Lambeth Palace which is only accessible via a spiral stone staircase. The rest is on the shelves in the Palace’s Great Hall (see below). There are no correct temperature or humidity conditions for the collection, leaving it open to deterioration as well as the risk of damage or destruction by light, fire and flooding.

In order to accommodate the collection, the palace building has had its interior structure altered as the collection has expanded. By relocating to the new Library, restoration and alteration works to the Palace can be undertaken to preserve the buildings and in time make them more accessible to the public.

Library staff offices are also in the Palace and, while often beautiful historically they are no longer fit for purpose. I saw an office with dark wood panelling and original paintings on the wall – one with the date MDCXCI (1691) – and a Tudor toilet cupboard next to a desk. While the staff were getting on with their jobs – a book on a shelf was titled Faculty Officer Registers 1534-1549 – modern facilities would be appreciated.


Laura’s London: Exploring Lambeth Palace Library

Award-winning architects Wright & Wright have designed a single national library and archive for the National Church Institutions of the Church of England at Lambeth Palace. This will be the first new building on the site for almost two hundred years and the first purpose-built home for the collection since it opened to the public in 1610. It will safeguard the future of the Library and increase the accessibility of its world-class collection. Wright & Wright Architects, who have extensive experience of designing buildings in historical settings, have worked on projects at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and the National Gallery amongst other high profile locations.

A small section of the perimeter wall, which was built in the 1960s when Lambeth Palace Road was realigned, will be removed and the new building incorporated into the wall. The building will also screen the garden from noise and pollution from traffic on the main road. The new building will rise to create a nine-storey tower to elevate the precious collection and protect it from any potential risk of flooding. The simple tower form enables the reduction of the building footprint to the minimum necessary for the operation of the Library and by ‘going up’ and not ‘out’ there is also minimise disturbance to the palace gardens and the archaeological sensitivity of the site in general. (Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) will do archaeological digs on the grounds.)

The building comprises of a double-height entrance hall containing the reception and exhibition areas which will host a dedicated programme of exhibitions. This sits centrally between two wings of four and five-storey archives. The design also incorporates a conservation studio, seminar and teaching rooms, a ground floor Reading Room and staff offices on the ground and first floors, all of which overlook the garden.

Building work started in summer 2018, and the team are excited about having all of the collection in one place with extra space for expanding. Building work should be finished by 2020 with the opening due for 2021. The build time includes an extended period to allow the building to dry and establish stable interior atmospheric conditions before the collection can be relocated.

This new library building will be truly accessible with decent sustainability credentials, including solar panels and high levels of thermal insulation. I was pleased to see Max Fordham (environmental engineers) are involved, and I expect the boreholes to the river gravel terrace level are their idea as they used a similar technique for the Tate Modern Switch House  – another building next to the Thames – to put the thermal properties of the groundwater trapped there to good use. The groundwater is pumped into the building and heat is either rejected to it for cooling or extracted from it for heating. It is then returned to the gravels through re-injection boreholes. The system at Switch House was pioneering and the first time groundwater abstracted from the river terrace level had been used to provide heating and cooling on a commercial scale in London.


The new Library will be on the edge of the garden within the Palace grounds. It is intended to form a protective barrier between the busy road and the Archbishop’s garden. Landscape architects will enlarge the garden’s existing pond and introduce new planting, particularly further mature trees which help soften the outline of the building and create a sense of peace and seclusion.

You may be surprised to discover there is such an extensive private garden in central London. Shielded from the main road by trees, the Archbishop’s garden is 11 acres of well-tended lawns, formal planting with the Palace as an elegant backdrop. During the 1980s, the then Archbishop’s wife, Rosalind Runcie began restoration works to the site after decades of neglect following extensive damage from World War II bombing raids.

Next, to the entrance to the Great Hall, do look out for the huge fig tree. It was planted in 1556 by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole. A few years ago Archbishop Justin Welby gave Pope Francis a cutting from the tree as a symbol of the shared heritage of Anglicans and Roman Catholics. He told the Pope he hoped the one tree in Lambeth and Rome would be “a visible sign” of both churches growing and bearing fruit from the same source.


I was lucky to book on a one-off tour to get a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes at Lambeth Palace Library and to see parts of the Palace too.

We saw The Audience Chamber in the Weston Tower that stores marriage allegations by year in huge tomes which are too heavy to move, so it’s helpful that the information is now on microfilm. These records are great for family history, and it reminded me that my great grandparents’ marriage must be listed there as they lived in Lambeth.

The palace architecture ranges from Tudor at the gatehouse to later additions from the 1600s and 1800s. The crypt chapel actually dates back to 1220, and it is now adjoined by an atrium added in 2000. The crypt has only been used as a chapel since 1980. Previously it was used for storage and as an air-raid shelter, but it has been flooded often.

While most services took place in the crypt chapel, there is the private chapel of the Archbishop above. This was damaged by World War II bombing and now has a modern mural painting on the high ceiling but you can see bomb damage in the scorch marks on the black and white floor tiles. This room is important as it was where the Book of Common Prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer.

I discovered Lambeth Palace holds the longest unbroken stretch of portraits outside the Royal Collection. Among the portraits of the archbishops in the Palace are works by Hans Holbein, Anthony van Dyck, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The National Portrait Gallery assessed the collection and found a rare portrait of Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), the first wife of King Henry VIII, which is incredibly valuable so the Gallery now has the original and a copy is on display here.

We stopped to admire a portrait of Matthew Parker who was Archbishop in 1559–75 and was an avid book collector. (Unfortunately, he gave his collection to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.) He had a large nose which brought ridicule, and this is where we get the phrase “Nosey Parker” meaning an overly inquisitive person.

I saw the pet tortoise of Archbishop Laud (1573–1645) kept in a glass case. The tortoise lived for over 100 years, outliving the Archbishop who was beheaded during the English Civil War.

There’s a room with a 14th-century hammer-beam roof like you can see in Westminster Hall across the river at the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster). And a State Dining Room where the Queen dines when visiting that has crockery with archbishop mitre caps on. The Great Hall is the most impressive room in the Palace, and the walls are lined with books from the Library’s collection.

The original Great Hall, built in the 16th century, was ransacked by Cromwellian troops during the Civil War. After the Restoration, William Juxon, a loyal Royalist supporter – he attended Charles I on the scaffold during his execution – completely rebuilt it on the site of the original hall. William Juxon (1582–1663) was an English churchman, Bishop of London from 1633 to 1649 and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1660 until his death. The diarist Samuel Pepys visited in 1665 and described a visit to see ‘Bishop Juxon’s new old-fashioned hall’ as it has a wooden hammer-beam roof from earlier styles of architecture.


Lambeth Palace is generally not open, but there are monthly garden open days in the summer. And while the new Lambeth Palace Library isn’t expected to be open until 2021, the current Library is open to the public from Tuesday to Friday each week with no appointment necessary. It is not a public lending library where you can take out books but is a fetch on-demand service. The Library is primarily used by over 2000 scholars, historians and ecclesiastical students every year from across the globe.

Address: Lambeth Palace Library, Lambeth Palace Road SE1 7JU

Website: www.lambethpalacelibrary.org

P.S. If you do go to Lambeth Palace Library, you should also visit the Museum of Garden History which is housed next door in the medieval and Victorian Church of St Mary-at-Lambeth that was the parish church for the Palace.

Laura Porter
Author: Laura Porter

Laura Porter writes AboutLondonLaura.com and contributes to many other publications while maintaining an impressive afternoon tea addiction. You can find Laura on Twitter as @AboutLondon, on Instagram as @AboutLondon and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook.

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