Friday, June 21, 2013

A Book-Lovers Paradise

by Anne O'Brien

Any tourist visiting the lovely historic city of Hereford in the Welsh marches will have on the 'to see' list the Mappa Mundi which gives us the magnificent representation of the medieval view of the world.  Housed in Hereford Cathedral - worth  a visit in its own right for its solid Norman atmosphere - the map maker's masterpiece is displayed in the anteroom to another treasure which must attract any travelling book-lover.

This is the famous chained library.  It is a breath-taking remnant of the past.


The chained library at Hereford Cathedral is a unique treasure in England's rich heritage.  The earliest and most important book kept there is the 8th Century Hereford Gospels, but it is only one of the 229 medieval manuscripts which occupy two bays of the chained library.  And there are many more historic books, covering a wealth of subjects from theology to the law to horticulture.

Chaining books was the most effective security system in European libraries from the middle ages to the 18th century, and Hereford's 17th century chained library is the largest to survive with all its chains, rods and locks intact.

A chain is attached at one end to the front cover of each book; the other end is slotted on to the rod running along the bottom of each shelf.  This system allows a book to be taken from the shelf and read at the desk below, but not to be removed from the bookcase.

The books are shelved with their fore-edges, rather than their spines, facing the reader - the wrong way round to us - because this allows the book to be lifted down and opened without needing to be turned around.  This avoids tangling the chain.

The specially designed chamber at the Cathedral means that the whole library can be seen in its original arrangement as it was from 1611 to 1841.

To our good fortune, the library survived the 17th Century Civil War pretty much unscathed.  During the Second World War the medieval manuscripts and Mappa Mundi were removed to safety and returned 1946.

To visit this library is like stepping back into history; it is a special moment to stand in this room, surrounded by such a collection of past knowledge and erudition.  Even breathing in the air seems to be a privilege, although for the casual tourist it is definitely a case of look but don't touch.  It is an awe-inspiring place and not to be missed.  Long may it remain safe and secure for those who come after us.

The photographs of the chained library speak far louder of its quality and importance to us than do my words.  Do visit it if you ever get the chance.

My novel of Katherine de Valois, and her life with Henry V and Owen Tudor, now available in the UK under the name The Forbidden Queen, will be released in the US in February 2014.


  1. Fascinating! You can understand why they would have to take such care, in a time when books were so very expensive, with so much work put into producing them. I can only assume that the librarian would have known the order off by heart and taken down the books for readers.

  2. There was (and still is) a list at the end of each shelf.

  3. That's true. And very informative they are too since there is no other way of knowing what the books are for the casual visitor. You can actually see the written lists quite clearly in the second photograph.

  4. The way the chains were attached was so different to anything I'd imagined, and the books are huge, and must be heavy as well. Even without a chain they would have been awkward to steal - you would have been so conspicuous carrying them, and there's no way you could have hidden them. After my visit I found myself wondering if the books really were chained because they were valuable, or whether it was more about a show of power from an elite
    group of people who had wealth and knowledge.

  5. I was in Herefordshire recently and missed this gem of a place. Must revisit the area and it's now back on my to do list. A very interesting post Anne and one which will inspire I'm sure. Thanks

  6. I have always wanted to see this library. Thanks for the article!


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