HL Deb 02 April 1998 vol 588 cc451-64

7.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would support the relocation of the Lindisfarne Gospels from the British Museum to the north east of England.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to move the Unstarred Question which stands in my name and to turn your Lordships from legislation to inspiration. I could not help but be delighted to see just now a noble Lord reading the Gospels during parts of the legislative process.

I seek the mind of the Government on an issue which is causing considerable public interest in the north east of England. But the questions surrounding the location of the Lindisfarne Gospels are far from being of interest to only one region of the country. The issue touches on matters religious, cultural, social and commercial which help to shape the whole nation. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will not interpret my question as a piece of special pleading from the north east but will seek to understand the wider implications of the principles at stake.

Your Lordships will need a little reminder of the unique place which the Lindisfarne Gospels has in the history of the country. The Roman mission in the north, spearheaded by Paulinus, after initial success ultimately failed and the region relapsed into paganism. Paulinus retreated to the safety of Rochester, a movement I have been glad to reverse. In the seventh century, Irish monks from Iona established missionary-minded religious communities at Lindisfarne, Jarrow and Wearmouth. From this base not only did the faith flourish and expand, but the monasteries became great centres of piety, learning and art.

The Lindisfarne Gospels has emerged as the most significant of a group of manuscripts produced at those monasteries in the seventh and eighth centuries. It is one of the world's masterpieces of book painting and one of the nation's greatest treasures. It was crafted in honour of St. Cuthbert and arrived in Durham with his body nearly 300 years after his death. The bodies of Cuthbert and Bede have remained in Durham to this day, together with many documents and artefacts. That is why Durham has remained a focus of pilgrimage for the pious, the curious and the scholar. The gospels remained until the dissolution of the Durham monastery, when it was brought to London and eventually found its way into the private collection of Sir Robert Cotton. In the 18th century it was made over to the nation and incorporated into the British Museum as part of its foundation collection—hence the involvement of today's Government. A bland government statement today to the effect that this is really a question to the British Library will disappoint many people in the north east. Your Lordships will note from that brief résumé that for well over half of the 1300 years of its history the Lindisfarne Gospels has been located in the north east and for only 250 years has been in the British Museum and is now housed in the British Library.

The Lindisfarne Gospels remains of huge religious significance. It was never simply a book from which to read but a powerful symbol of the revelation of God. As such, the gospels has been the focus of worship and veneration. But part of its significance is its association with the monastery and the remains of Cuthbert. Of course, the gospels is of great value to scholars—historians, artists, calligraphers and many others—but I am sure that they do not dismiss the contemporary religious significance as mere sentimentality. I understand that a digitalised copy will soon be available. I venture to suggest that this is ideal for scholars closely to examine the pages in a library or museum context in London.

The concept of pilgrimage is undergoing a contemporary revival. Cathedrals and other religious sites are often the focus of such pilgrimage. Durham Cathedral alone has almost half a million visitors per year. The juxtaposition of St. Cuthbert's tomb and the gospels, which was created in his memory so shortly after his death, would be a powerful and magnetic attraction for modern pilgrims who seek to recapture the holiness and values which Cuthbert made central to his life and legacy.

Closely associated with its religious significance, the Lindisfarne Gospels represents an important cultural focus. Your Lordships may be aware that the north east is one of the most clearly identifiable regions in the country. Part of this identity arises from its history and place in the Industrial Revolution. The beginning of the railway, coal-mining, steel making and shipbuilding industries can be seen in the north east. The people of the region have suffered greatly from the economic and technological revolutions of recent times. But great pride is still focused on the contribution which the region made to the wealth of the nation over the past 200 years.

Perhaps of even more lasting significance is the history of the area which defines the north east as a centre of religion, culture and artistic activity, particularly in the 7th to 10th centuries. It was this strength which enabled the region to be a fortress against invasions from the north and from the east across the sea. Many of the civic authorities look back to their foundation in this period. The interweaving of faith, scholarship, skills and creativity are still the foundations of much of the identity of the north east. The presence of the Lindisfarne Gospels would fit perfectly into this setting and enhance the sense of local cultural pride which has sustained the character of the region over many centuries and through much change of fortune.

Unless you know the north east it is perhaps difficult to grasp the social significance of its history. In the Durham dales as well as in the great conurbations people are still proud to say, "This is where St. Cuthbert walked", or, "This is where Bede wrote his great history", and they are drawn to the tombs in Durham Cathedral, which remain an icon of their identity. The grandeur of the cathedral's setting should not conceal that it is very much a people's cathedral where schoolchildren flock in their thousands and ex-miners still bring their banners. The presence of the Lindisfarne Gospels in the north east would greatly enhance this sense of history and identity.

Of course, I must declare an interest in all this, especially as I deal now with the commercial aspect of this possible move. It is worth noting that tourism is a fast-growing industry in the north east. While prudent planning has attracted much inward investment and new industry, both urban and rural areas are finding new employment opportunities in the tourist industry. The region is developing as a centre for the arts, and many historical sites are interlinked as attractions to visitors. A great deal of lottery money has recently found its way to the north east, and for that we are very grateful. There are new arts centres on the south bank of the Tyne and major new projects north of the Tyne in Northumbria. Four universities—one of the greatest, dare I say, being Durham itself—attract scholars from around the world and many who go to those universities are medieval history students. It has been said to me that the gospels must stay in London for the sake of accessibility to scholars worldwide, yet these days access to the north east is easier than to central London from many parts of the world.

I recognise that to move such an important and irreplaceable treasure could take place only after a great deal of consideration and planning. I do not ask that the gospels be moved without proper provision for its security and preservation; nor do I raise questions of ownership. I simply ask the Government and the British Library to consider three steps of a long-term plan: first, let the north east display a digitalised copy as a token of good will and earnest expectation; secondly, allow the Lindisfarne Gospels itself to visit the north east, with due care and preparation, at the time of the millennium; thirdly, when the first two stages have given all concerned the opportunity to reflect on their success, openly and publicly to consider the gospels' permanent placement in what I believe is its rightful home. I look forward to other contributions on this matter and to the Government's response.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I am sure that all noble lords are grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for raising this important subject. I have listened carefully to his speech. I realise that some people in the north east hold deep feelings on this matter, which is understandable. I have always been drawn to this period. When I was much younger I made a special study of the art and manuscripts of the early Saxon period with particular reference to the age of Bede.

The manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most important national treasures in the country. Although I note what the right reverend Prelate has said, it is essential that the gospels be kept in the nation's capital in the National Library. I believe that is important for several reasons. The manuscript on vellum dating from about 700 AD must be kept with other national treasures in controlled environmental conditions in cabinets with special lighting. It should be kept in London where it can be compared with other items of Anglo-Saxon art, such as the treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship burial now in the British Museum and other manuscripts in the British Library from the early Anglo-Saxon period.

The gospels should also be displayed where it can be seen by the maximum number of people. I understand that 1 million visitors a year are expected in the new public gallery of the British Library which is to open on 21st April. That has been made possible by the generous gift of —1 million by Mr. John Ritblat. The Lindisfarne Gospels has been one of the most important treasures in the British Museum for the past 250 years when this manuscript was bequeathed to the nation—the whole nation—by Sir John Cotton, the grandson of Sir Robert Cotton, the great 17th century antiquary and collector of early medieval manuscripts.

A permanent transfer to Durham would, I suggest, create a dangerous precedent. How many other claims would follow? At all events, any transfer would require primary legislation by Parliament. I believe that the worst solution of all would be for the gospels to be shuttled backwards and forwards between London and the north east, with possible adverse effects through being subjected to varying climatic conditions and the danger of damage in transit. I do not suggest that vellum should be compared with marble, but the fate of Canova's Three Graces, which has suffered a crack through constant journeying between London and Edinburgh, should be a warning.

I strongly believe that the Lindisfarne Gospels should remain in the British Library, which is one of the world's great libraries, a centre for international scholarship and serving a huge range of people both here and throughout the world.

8 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. The Lindisfarne Gospels is a masterpiece and an outstanding historical, artistic and religious artefact. I thank him for initiating this debate so eloquently. I disagree though with the practical implications drawn from the judgment by those who campaign for the gospels to be relocated to the north east of England. Like the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, we firmly believe that the gospels should remain in the British Library in whose care it has been for the past 25 years.

In 1972, the British Library Act amalgamated a number of institutions, including the library of the British Museum, to where the gospels were moved in 1753. We do not object to the relocation on the grounds that security and environmental control arrangements may be insufficient in the proposed locations, whether it is Durham Cathedral or the Laing Gallery in Newcastle. They can be upgraded, even if some campaigners greatly underestimate the cost of so doing. Nor do we object to the relocation on legal grounds. As noble Lords will be aware, the terms of the British Library Act forbid the library to dispose of any articles that have been transferred to it from the British Museum.

The Museums and Galleries Act 1992 relaxes that provision by allowing transfers between certain institutions, but those are, by and large, only national museums, galleries and libraries. A permanent transfer would therefore require legislation. If there were a sufficiently strong case to relocate the gospels, the law could obviously be changed. As the very division within the campaign suggests, arguments which back the case for relocation are weak.

It is argued that the gospels is a sacred text and should be kept in a sacred place in the historical and natural context of where it was made; keeping it in the British Library secularises it and tears it away from its roots. I am surprised by that interpretation of the meaning of "sacred" and "context". My understanding is that the core of the Christian message is to extend the domain of the sacred from the narrow confines of the temple and the law to the whole of life. Furthermore, the message of salvation is not just for one people but is universal. Accordingly, there is no necessity for sacred texts to be kept within a sacred precinct. Indeed, they should be made accessible to as many people as possible: to the many., not the few"— dare I quote the Secretary of State?

Furthermore, normally when we speak of studying something in its context, we mean in its cultural context, not in its physical context. If the argument that a work of art should be studied within its physical context were to be taken to its logical conclusion, most of our collections would explode and be scattered to the four winds.

I acknowledge however the importance of the gospels to regional identity, but it would be wrong for it to be politicised and used to strengthen the case for regional government. We oppose the introduction of regional government. It would take away powers from local authorities and add yet another tier of bureaucracy.

Our view is that the gospels should stay in the British Library. The British Museum, that great centre of excellence, has firmly taken a similar line. It has refused the permanent return of the Lewis Chessmen to Stornoway and the Lindow Man found in Cheshire to Manchester. Both the library and the museum have international standing and enormous scholarship and ensure free access seven days a week to a vast public from all over the world. The British Library expects, as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said, 1 million visitors a year to its new exhibition galleries at St. Pancras, provided by the generous donation of Mr. Ritblat. Access to the gospels will be further widened by means of the turning-the-pages computer animation system. In comparison, the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, where the gospels was exhibited in 1996, attracted only 72,000 visitors over three months.

The library houses also the greatest collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts in the world. It allows the gospels to be studied alongside them and other great national treasures. It can also provide the expert care it requires in optimum storage and display conditions. We urge the Minister to continue to back the British Library's position: that the public interest is best served by the library remaining the prime home of the gospels.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I must first declare an interest because I am the chairman of the National Sound Archive. There is no connection between the NSA and the Lindisfarne Gospels, but it is part of the British Library and so I may be thought to be parti pris in the matter.

I am pleased that the right reverend Prelate welcomed the electronic turning-the-pages device because it is imaginative and has an enormous future. Turning the pages electronically is very much better than turning them manually when, as I understand it, the curator is occasionally allowed to turn the pages but not unless he has a technical expert at his side. That device is a welcome idea not just for the north east but for London and many other places.

I can see the idea being extended. Illuminated manuscripts and books of all sorts are ideally suited to such a technique. I can imagine applying it to the four gospels published by the Golden Cockerel Press in the earlier years of this century, and magnificently illustrated by Eric Gill. At least I would have suggested that had not the British Library suffered such swingeing cuts in its income.

Although I admire the eloquent advocacy in this matter of the right reverend Prelate, I, too, am of the opinion that the permanent home of the Lindisfarne Gospels should remain in London. The right reverend Prelate spoke of pilgrims. Pilgrims come to the British Library. They may not be wholly or partially religious pilgrims; they may easily be scholarly pilgrims. They come because the collection of illuminated manuscripts in the British Library is second to none. It may be second to the Vatican, but I am not sure. There may be an argument between the two libraries about that.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, it is in the context of other treasures that many scholars want to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and not just for their own sake. There is beginning to be, not just in this country but around the world, a fashion for reclaiming works of art and objects of historical interest. The reductio ad absurdum of that movement would be that every nation had only its own national treasures; that all the Patinirs, the Breughels, Rembrandts and Van Goghs in the world would only be in Holland. The Italians would groan under the weight of their renaissance treasures. There would not be a Benin bronze except in Benin.

That is obviously a reduction ad absurdum, but the reallocation of things around the world would cause chaos in the world of museums and libraries and do very little good. I believe that there is a great deal to be said for finding objects that one would not expect in a national or local collection. The mixture of the world's treasures is only to be welcomed. Property obtained as a result of looting during wars should be returned. Here we are dealing with the Lindisfarne Gospels. It must be over four centuries since Sir Robert Cotton first acquired them, and nearly three centuries since his grandson gave them to the nation. So in this case, as in many others, we should resist this interchange of art around the world, and keep things much as they are.

8.10 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is always fun to follow the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. He mentioned looting. In my opinion, the Lindisfarne Gospels, where they lie at present, are stolen property. His late Majesty of happy memory, King Henry VIII, removed them from the custody of the Prior of Durham in 1537. They were bought by Sir Robert Cotton, into whose family my family married, and then they became part of the collection of the British Museum. They should be returned to the place from which they were stolen—that is Durham Cathedral—or Chester le Street. They were stolen because of their sumptuous gold binding. It was removed but a new binding was made in the 19th century.

It is a privilege to be a Member of this House, to take part in this debate and to follow the 93rd Lord Bishop of Durham. The right reverend Prelate, who is one of the busiest men in Europe, has corresponded with me and I am grateful for his advice, wisdom and guidance. He urged me to make a vigorous contribution. I shall do so in the same way as his forebears urged my predecessors in the north of England to make a vigorous contribution at the Battle of the Standard in 1138, at Neville's Cross in 1346 and at Flodden in 1514. Then we faced an enemy from the north; today the opponent is in the south in London.

The right reverend Prelate mentioned the cultural, spiritual, social, economic and commercial issues. I put them into one group, which is regeneration. I declare an interest. For four years I lived in Durham, in Easington village. During that time I fought three elections; in the old English kingdom of Bernicia, in Northumbria and in Durham. I was well aware of what happened in the 1080s when of the map of Britain and the Domesday Book, the Conqueror said hie est vasta; this is waste.

Lord Stockton referred to the descendants of the men who beat the Kaiser. The north needs to go through a regeneration; a spiritual, economic, social and cultural regeneration. What better way of starting and continuing that regeneration by returning the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham?

I was most disappointed by the handout from the British Library. The Secretary of State states that the Gospels can have only one permanent home. I assume that he means the British Library. If he had said that they should have one permanent home which is Durham Cathedral, I would be happy. The British Library is allowing the north to have what I would call a print out with rotating pages. That is unsatisfactory and most disappointing.

The Museum and Galleries Act 1992 provides that certain objects can be transferred between institutions. If primary legislation is required, I hope that the Government will allow time for a Bill to be presented in another place by the Member of Parliament for Houghton and Washington East, Mr. Fraser Kemp. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether time will be given for such a Bill and whether the Government will support it. Already an Early Day Motion has been tabled which has attracted 60 signatures, some of whom are Members on the Government side. Secondly, will the Minister tell the House how many days a year the British Library will make available the Gospels for public viewing? We cannot yet see the Lindisfarne Gospels until 23rd April.

There are precedents. I hope that the Dean and Chapter of Durham, who I am sure will receive the support of everyone in the north east in asking for the gospels to be returned, will cite as examples the Stone of Scone, which has been returned to Edinburgh; the Bayeaux Tapestry, which is extremely well presented in Bayeaux; at the way in which the Canterbury Gospels are displayed in Canterbury; and at the Book of Kells in Trinity, Dublin.

I lived for one year in Braunschweig near Wolfenbiittel. The Herzog August Library and the Getty Museum generously allowed the William the Lion Psalter to be displayed in the Wolfenbiittel library. That is a magnificent display. I should like to see the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham Cathedral not only alongside the tomb of Bede and the Shrine of Cuthbert but also alongside their companions, the Durham Gospels. I salute the Lord Bishop.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Murton of Lindisfarne

My Lords, the origins of the Lindisfarne Gospels are closely connected with the great Northumbrian Saint and Bishop, St. Cuthbert. Indeed, the book containing the gospels was written and illuminated in his monastery on the island of Lindisfarne around 698 AD by the monk Eadfrith, 11 years after the death of St. Cuthbert. A tailpiece or colophon inserted in the book some 250 years later makes it clear that the book was dedicated specifically "For God and St. Cuthbert".

The book itself is a remarkable example of a fusion of Roman, Celtic and Anglo Saxon styles and it is, in this context, one of the greatest works of art ever produced in this country. Written in the Latin of St. Jerome's Vulgate, it was later interlined with a translation into Anglo Saxon in the 10th century by the monk Aldred. This is not the time or place to attempt to describe in detail this amazing work depicting the Four Evangelists, the elaborate carpet pages, the comparative or canon tables on the four gospels and the list of liturgical readings and related matters. A finely illustrated book by Janet Backhouse in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Library has provided a definitive masterpiece on the subject.

All I wish to do is to underline the fact that the Book of the Gospels remained close to the body of St. Cuthbert for the next 841 years until Henry VIII's commissioners arrived at Durham; and also to describe briefly something of its earlier history.

In 875 AD, the monks of Lindisfarne and their followers had fled in the face of Viking raids on the Northumbrian coast, taking with them St. Cuthbert's body, the Gospel Book and other treasures. They wandered the north of England and south-west Scotland for seven and a half years before coming to rest at a monastery at Chester le Street in what is now County Durham.

In crossing the Solway Firth on their way to Scotland, with the ultimate intent of reaching Ireland, they lost the book overboard in a storm. Miraculously, it was found unharmed on the northern shore at low tide the following day. Over the years, historians have attempted to trace the route of these wanderings by reference to the list of the more ancient churches dedicated to St. Cuthbert.

After 113 years at Chester le Street, further raids on the north-east coast caused the little community of monks to move temporarily to Ripon. It was on their way back that the well-known legend occurred. The horse-drawn cart carrying St. Cuthbert's bier and the book broke down and became immovable at a place called Dun Holme. This was taken as a sign that the saint wished this to be his final resting place; so a little church was built for him at Durham.

However, the monks had to flee again; this time back to Lindisfarne. The date was 1069 and the threat was Duke William of Normandy, who had embarked upon a punitive expedition against his new and unruly subjects in the north. William retired south, having laid waste to Northumbria, and the monks returned to Durham. In 1093, work began on the great cathedral church to be raised in St. Cuthbert's honour.

St. Cuthbert's shrine in Durham remained undisturbed until 1539 when the commissioners of Henry VIII desecrated it and removed all its treasure to the Jewel House in the Tower of London. The Lindisfarne Gospels must have been included because later they came to light, despoiled of their jewelled and gilded covers, in the possession of one Bowyer, the Keeper of the Records in the Tower.

From Bowyer, the book passed into the ownership of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a distinguished antiquary who was MP for Huntingdon in 1604. His magnificent library ultimately was given to the nation by his heirs and it became one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753.

Durham Cathedral's Treasury is fortunate in possessing the fragments of the innermost coffin of the saint, together with his pectoral cross, his portable altar, his ritual comb and vestments placed later in the coffin by King Athelstan in 934AD.

The British Library has the St. Cuthbert Gospel of St. John—known as the Stonyhurst Gospel—of the 7th century, found in the coffin of St. Cuthbert when his body was placed in the cathedral shrine in 1104. And, of course, the library holds the Book of the Lindisfarne Gospels itself.

Both those books are historically of the first importance to this nation. They are national treasures and they should remain together in the British Library where indeed the Gospels of Lindisfarne have now been for close on 250 years.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I would not have ventured to speak on this subject had I not had the benefit of lengthy discussion with my friend, Professor Eric Stanley of Oxford. His learned observations so enriched my own views as to dispel my diffidence.

But first I should declare an interest—in fact, two interests. I confess a loyalty not only as one honoured with a Durham doctorate but as one who worked there as a professor in the 1950s. Already then there was much talk about repatriating the gospels, talk no doubt given fresh impetus by contemporary arguments for the transfer from Copenhagen to Reykjavik of precious saga manuscripts collected 300 years earlier by Arni Magnusson.

So I have sympathy with those who would move the Lindisfarne manuscript back to Durham, if not indeed to Northumberland where, as we have just heard, it spent its first 100 years, or to Chester-le-Street which was its home for the next 200.

But I declare also my loyalty to the British Library, having just completed a stint of 13 years as advisory committee chairman. If it had not been for the scholar, Sir Robert Cotton, this beautiful manuscript would very probably have vanished. Instead, it has been on display in Great Russell Street to many generations of admiring visitors, and from the 21st of this very month it will be on even grander display in the new British Library at St. Pancras. And there, in my view, it should stay. Care has always been lavished on the book with all the scholarly and technological expertise so richly available in this national library. As has already been mentioned, the latest achievement is an electronic viewing system providing high quality digitised images shortly to be enjoyed in the north east through an agreement with the Northumberland County Council.

History has played some very odd tricks with medieval manuscripts. What is the unique Gothic bible, the Codex Argenteus, doing in Uppsala rather than somewhere in Germany, perhaps Aachen? What is a unique codex of Anglo-Saxon poetry doing in Vercelli, halfway between Turin and Milan? Well, provided such treasures are properly cared for—as these are—they contribute to the charm of museum visits and to the wider dissemination of unfamiliar cultures. So I shall not be pressing the Prime Minister as president of the European Union to seek repatriation of the Vercelli book, any more than I would want to see the Book of Kells moved from Trinity College, Dublin, back to Ceanannas Mor where it was created over a millennium ago.

In any case, if Durham seeks repatriations, why start with the Lindisfarne Gospels? Why not the manuscript of St. John that was once actually in St. Cuthbert's coffin but which is now in the library of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire? Or what about the Codex Amiatinus, the grandest of all Vulgate bibles, written in Bede's Northumbria but now where? Not in the Vatican, where it was presumably headed, but in the Medici Library in Florence where it is virtually inaccessible to anyone wanting to see it. I give a further example. For nearly 200 years, major work by the Venerable Bede in another early Northumbrian manuscript has reposed in what was the Imperial Library, now the Public Library, in St. Petersburg.

I would not myself campaign for any of these manuscripts to be moved, but since the Lindisfarne Gospels are a national British treasure long since cared for in the national British Library, I respectfully put it to our friends in the north east that there may be more appropriate targets.

Perhaps I may end by venturing another word of advice. Once moves begin, where will they end? The right reverend Prelate will know that among the precious manuscripts in Durham's Chapter Library, one used to be in Hexham, another in Somerset's Witham Friary, another in York, another in Coventry. My Lords, need I say more?

8.25 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I find myself in a difficult position this late in the debate. The eloquent and elegant advocacy of the right reverend Prelate carried me along completely. I can see the force of his feelings and his arguments when he represents obviously deeply held feelings in the north east in wishing that priceless manuscripts of this kind should find their way to their original location. At least as a result of his speech, I shall find my way to Durham very shortly, which I have not visited since I was a recruit at Catterick Camp when I was doing my national service. I have passed it many times and felt like taking a detour on my way further north. This year, I shall certainly do that.

The arguments are interesting on both sides. They lead on to other issues which may possibly engage us in your Lordships' House at a later stage. For example, there is a need for a balanced strategy between the conservation of our heritage and our culture against the imperatives of tourism. A debate on that subject would not go amiss in your Lordships' House.

Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, and other noble Lords have pointed out to us, it is ironic that we should rather illogically now be so keen—not only us British but other countries—to gather together into one place works of art or pieces of culture which are perceived to belong rightfully in those areas when in fact nowadays, with all the benefits of travel and communication, as noble Lords have said, there is no real reason why we should worry too much that, for example, all Turner or Constable paintings should be collected together in one place. In a way, it is a pleasant surprise to visit a gallery in another country and find British paintings or to go to a German gallery and find Italian paintings or sculpture.

Therefore, I am extremely sympathetic to the views of the right reverend Prelate, backed up by the passionate, as usual, advocacy of my noble friend Lord Carlisle. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for giving me some very interesting reading material which, together with the interesting speech of the right reverend Prelate and by delvings into Encyclopedia Britannica, I at least go out of this debate a better-educated person.

However, the arguments for keeping such valuable manuscripts in the British Museum are, on balance, compelling. After all, the cost of keeping such pictures, sculptures and manuscripts in the condition in which they should be kept is extremely expensive. For example, a manuscript needs to be inspected every day. It needs to be seen that there is no deterioration and it must be kept in the right atmosphere and the right light. I ask rhetorically, how would we know—and perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us; indeed, he may even sing to us—how it will be financed if these manuscripts are taken back as suggested by the right reverend Prelate?

How can we be sure that there will be the necessary income to maintain the manuscripts in the way that they are being maintained now in the British Museum if funding is uneven and if, for example, through pilgrimage or tourism, the income cannot be created to maintain that level of care? Many people will read the report of our debate tonight and they will also be interested to know the answers to these questions. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give us some of them.

8.31 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, what does the noble Viscount want, a Gregorian chant? The whole House will be grateful to the right reverend Prelate for raising the matter and permitting what has been a brief but remarkably well-informed debate. I am selfishly especially grateful to him because, when he tabled the Question, I took the opportunity to go to see the Lindisfarne Gospels and they were shown to me personally. I must say that that was a revelation and a wonderful experience. I had already visited Lindisfarne Holy Island and Durham Cathedral, so I view the matter objectively, I hope, both from the point of view of where the gospels are now and where it is proposed that they should be returned to.

I suggest to your Lordships that there are three basic issues that we have to consider for the Lindisfarne Gospels and for all comparable treasures. First, there is the issue of availability for scholarly research; secondly, there is the issue of public access; and, thirdly, there is the issue of conservation.

As for scholarly access, the gospels are peculiarly important for scholars because they contain not only a good version of the Vulgate Latin but also the first known translation into Old English of the gospels. Therefore, scholars of Old English, as well as Biblical scholars, need especially to be able to see them. The right reverend Prelate suggested that it would be possible for scholars to look at the computer images on the electronic viewing system, of turning-the-pages. I have to tell him that I believe he is wrong; indeed, scholars need to see the original. For example, they need to be able to see erasures and the pricking of the vellum which laid out the lines and the images rather than see a computer image. As is well known, scholars do come to the British Museum to see the gospels and the other treasures in the department of manuscripts. They come especially from elsewhere in London, from Ireland and also from the United States. Therefore, from that point of view, I suggest that their location in London is the more appropriate.

I turn now to the issue of public access. This is not simply a matter of numbers. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi referred to the number of visitors when the manuscript went to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle in 1996. At present 6 million people visit the British Museum each year. As my noble friend said, it is expected that there will be 1 million visitors to the new John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library after it opens on 21st April. I should tell the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, that the intention is that the gallery will be open on all normal opening days; in other words, there will be no restriction on its access.

It is indeed the John Ritblat Gallery which provides a very powerful argument for the retention of the gospels in the British Library. First, there will be free admission, as is the case with the British Museum and the British Library at present. Secondly, it will be quite a remarkable new gallery for which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, £1 million has been given most generously. It will be for manuscripts and will include some of the greatest manuscripts in Christian history—for example, the Tyndale New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, Gutenberg's Bible, the Sforza Hours and other manuscripts less related to the Christian religion such as Shakespeare's first folio and the manuscript of Handel's "Messiah". Therefore, in itself, it will be an astonishing place of display.

Moreover, as other noble Lords have recognised, the gallery will also have the enormous benefit of the turning-the-pages viewing system, which uses computer animation and digitised images, together with touch-screen technology, to provide access not only to the one page which can be opened on any one day but to all of the 15 illustrated pages and, if necessary, to a sample of the remaining 240 text pages of the gospels. It will possible for every visitor to see all of the gospels, especially the illustrated parts. By using touch-screen technology, it will be possible to zoom in on the wonderful details of birds, cats and individuals and the images of the saints themselves. Noble Lords must believe me when I say it is astonishing stuff. It will be seen much more clearly through turning-the-pages than it ever could be by looking at it in a glass case.

Indeed, the whole thing reminds me of the programmes that my wife, as a senior commissioning editor on education for Channel 4, commissioned in her educational series. I have in mind in particular programmes on the stained glass windows high up in the cathedral at Chartres or on Elizabethan miniatures. That sort of technology provides for better access than could ever be achieved in any other way; indeed, better access than could ever be achieved by seeing it oneself in the place of origin. Noble Lords may remember staring up at the high windows at Chartres and recall how frustrating it is not to be able to see such noble images in detail. That is a powerful argument for the work of the British Museum. If any noble Lord doubts me, he should look at the Magna Carta, which is already on the British Library website.

The third issue is that of conservation. In physical terms the John Ritblat Gallery will have the environmental controls that are necessary: it will have controlled temperature, controlled humidity and controlled lighting. It is essential for a manuscript of this kind to have such controls and to have optic lighting. But there is more to it than that. Conservation requires the availability of trained conservation staff who will be able to examine the gospels at regular intervals to make sure there is no change in their condition.

At the end of his speech the right reverend Prelate proposed a three-stage process, as he called it. First, he asked that the turning-the-pages technology should be available in the north east. On 17th March the British Library agreed with Northumberland County Council that turning-the-pages technology would be available in the north east. I can tell the right reverend Prelate without hesitation that the first of his requests has already been granted. Secondly, he asked that there should be generous loan facilities. I can answer that in the affirmative too. Discussions are taking place between the British Library and the North of England Assembly. At a cordial meeting on 20th March it was agreed that the North of England Assembly should propose that the gospels should be loaned to the north east at about the time of the millennium.

Thirdly, the right reverend Prelate requested that we should consider the gospels' permanent location. I think this evening we have considered the gospels' permanent location. I think the majority of your Lordships have concluded that it would be right for them to stay where they are. We are not relying on legislation for that. Of course the British Library Act could be changed if necessary. We are not being legalistic about it. However, the fundamental point is that made by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, in a devastating speech; namely, that to return works of art to their original homes would be—if that were allowed to commence and continue—a wholly self-defeating exercise. It would not just break up collections—of course, it would do that—but it would deny the vast majority of people all over the world the opportunity to see at first hand the whole range of the artistic treasures of the world.

Occasionally if I have some free time after leaving the Department for Culture, I visit one room in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. In that room, which contains works of art up to 1510, I see medieval altar paintings stolen from Italian churches. They are not just paintings which could be hung anywhere but entire altar paintings. Is it suggested that they should be returned to churches, some of which are now demolished? I do not think so. I hope it will be agreed that an effective case has been made for the retention of the gospels in their present location as the most generous and imaginative way of making them available to the people of the north east of England.

I beg to move that the House do now adjourn for three minutes.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.43 to 8.46 p.m.]