HC Deb 25 February 1952 vol 496 cc105-7W
Mr. Gage

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement about the proposed purchase of manuscripts and early printed books by the Trustees of the British Museum.

Mr. R. A. Butler

Early in 1950 the Trustees of the British Museum learned that a notable collection of books and manuscripts from the Library of the Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall was about to be offered for sale. It was recognised that the collection contained printed books and manuscripts of the highest national importance which ought to remain in the country. The Trustees accordingly asked Sir Stafford Cripps, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, for Exchequer help in purchasing some of the outstanding items which were beyond their own means, and he agreed to ask Parliament for a grant.

The price of the selected items is £95,000 which is a fair one to both parties. I have agreed, subject to the approval of Parliament, to make an Exchequer grant of £74,500 towards this sum. The remainder has been promised by the Pilgrim Trust and the National Art Collections Fund, which have each offered to contribute £10,000 and the Friends of the National Libraries who have offered £500. The National Art Collections Fund's contribution comprises a gift of the same amount recently made to it by Miss A. M. Savill. The generosity of these contributions, for which the Government are most grateful, provide evidence of the importance attached by these bodies to this purchase.

More recently a famous 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, the Helmingham Hall Orosius, has been offered to the Trustees for £10,000. This is a reasonable price and I have agreed, if Parliament approves, to meet £7,500 of the cost from Exchequer funds, the remainder being contributed by the Trustees from their trust and other funds.

These two purchases together will cost £82,000 and a Supplementary Estimate has been laid before the House. I need hardly add that I should not ask the House to consider such purchases at a time like the present were I not convinced that these manuscripts and books must be preserved for the nation and for posterity.

The following is a description of the Holkham Library items and the Orosius manuscript: The Holkham Hall Library was founded in the 17th century by Sir Edward Coke, the Chief Justice, and increased in the late 18th century by Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester, and by succeeding Earls. It has been rightly described as one of the most important collections of books and manuscripts in the United Kingdom. Lord Leicester has offered the Trustees 83 of the most valuable printed books including a Mainz Psalter of 1459, a Coverdale Bible of 1535, the rarest of the issues of the second folio edition of Shakespeare's plays and other notable works illustrating the early history of printing. The twelve manuscripts offered include a unique illuminated Bible picture book, English work of the early 14th century; a brilliantly illuminated Italian 14th century Bible from the library of the Anti-Pope Clement VII and a richly ornamented manuscript prepared by Walter de Milemete for presentation to Edward III. The Helmingham Hall Orosius is the earlier of the two extant copies of the Anglo-Saxon works attributed to King Alfred. It is nearly contemporary with the King and is the only literary relic of Anglo-Saxon culture in the vernacular still in private hands in this country.

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