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24 September 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > Faith > The York Gospels

Illustration from the York Gospels

Copyright Dean & Chapter of York Minster

The York Gospels

It may be surprising to learn that the service of inauguration for the Archbishop of York doesn't contain a great deal of deep rooted legal complexity. However there is a very tangible link to the past in the form of the York Gospels.

One of the most valuable books held by York Minster is the York Gospels. An Anglo-Saxon book containing the four Gospels, rather than the whole Bible, if features beautiful illustrations and, in addition to the Gospels, it contains some interesting documents.

Louise Hampson, the collections manager of York Minster, explains the book's significance.

"The York Gospels is an Anglo-Saxon Gospel book. It was made in Canterbury, rather than York as you might imagine. The book came to York sometime around 1020 with Archbishop Wulfstan.

"As well as the four Gospels the book also contains the oaths taken by the Dean and Canons when they're installed, and documents about land ownership. One interesting thing is a letter from King Canute who, when he wasn't busy literally holding back the tide, was busy holding back the Danes. That's dated to around 1019.

"Those were copied into the book because that gave them a status of authority. The main function for us today is the book is used as the oath book, and that's almost certainly why it survived the reformation.

"It's one of the very few items that's survived to us from the Saxon Minster. The building we have today is partly Norman but mostly later. We don't really know where the Saxon Minster was. So to have this book from that period makes it particularly special and ties the services in which it's used to the heritage of the last several hundred years.

So just how important is it that this particular Archbishop is swearing his oath on this book?

"In an age where things do change very rapidly I think to have those very tangible links to the past, to see yourself as part of a continuing structure, is very important. It says 'this is something we've been doing for a long time'".

Rather than being kept locked away in a glass case, the York Gospels are very much in use, although due care has to be taken when handling the book.

"When we're turning pages we wear white cotton gloves, and I certainly wouldn't be balancing it on my knee. In the inauguration service it will be carried on a cushion, by me. So I'm practicing cushion carrying at the moment. Not something I do an awful lot.

"That allows the book to be open and used in the service appropriately and in a dignified way but without the necessity of handling it. We don't particularly want to wear white gloves in the service.

"Ideally the Archbishop's hand will hover over the page of oaths, however we have had one or two Archbishops who've felt they needed to take a good firm grasp.

"Provided that doesn't happen too often it will just add to the character of the book, but we wouldn't want that on a regular basis."

last updated: 26/06/2008 at 17:21
created: 29/11/2005

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