North and South tussle over fate of gospels

Click to follow
The Lindisfarne Gospels are becoming to the North-East of England what the Elgin marbles represent to Greece.

The dispute over the fate of the 7th-century calf-skin manuscript has led to MPs and councillors calling for the gospels be brought "home" to the North.

Yesterday, as the row threatened to escalate into an unseemly tug of war between North and South, a delegation of councillors from the North- East travelled to London to meet officials from the British Library, the custodians of the gospels, who wish to keep the treasure in the capital.

The 253 pages of beautifully-illustrated manuscript were taken from Durham Cathedral by Henry VIII's commissioners during the Reformation.

Ken Morris, the managing director of Northumberland County Council, said the millennium marked an appropriate time for their return to the North- East.

"The island of Lindisfarne, just off Northumberland, was the birthplace of English christianity," he said.

"If it had not been for Lindisfarne there would be no millennium ... we think there is a very powerful argument that says 'Let's have them back, they were ours. They were actually written here by people of Northumberland."

But Alice Prohaska, director of special collections at the British Library, pointed out: "The Lindisfarne Gospels are a piece of national heritage and indeed are an important part of the international Christian heritage which more than 6 million visitors come from all over the world to see every year."

She added: "If we were to send back to the region of origin every part of the heritage which we look after as the national library, for all of the nation to enjoy, there would soon be no collection left."

The new pounds 500m British Library at King's Cross in London is likely to fight tooth and nail not to lose an exhibit which would form the centrepiece of its collection.

The library has suffered from a series of major setbacks in its building programme.

But Michael Bates, a former Conservative minister who was born in Tyneside, dismissed the concerns of the library officials.

"The British Library is extremely possessive about its collection and these pompous people should realise it's not their collection but the nation's," he said.

Interest in the gospels increased greatly last year, when the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle exhibited them on home territory for the first time since the 16th century.

Paul Collard, who helped organise the exhibition, argued that the gospels did not need to be placed within easy reach of academics.

"Where you put the Lindisfarne Gospels is where the scholars will go," he told BBC Radio 4.

"They will find the time and space in order to do it, they do not need to be sitting next to everything else in London."