Tug-of-war starts over Lindisfarne Gospels' future

The North wants its heritage back - but the 'London-centric' British Library resists
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The Independent Online

A row has erupted over the future of the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain's most valuable religious treasures.

Amid claims of "cultural snobbery" and political opportunism, Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, has been forced to step in to defuse a North-South dispute between MPs in Northumbria and officials at the British Library.

Campaigners and MPs have been lobbying to get the priceless eighth-century manuscript released from its present home at the British Library in London so that they can bring it back to its spiritual home in the North-east. The library is opposed to the move.

The row escalated after secret emails between British Library staff, which have been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and seen by The Independent on Sunday, revealed how officials were resisting efforts to return the gospels.

Privately, staff at the British Library accused MPs of jumping on the "Lindisfarne bandwagon for political reasons". One spoke of "natives getting restless in the North-east"; another described the plan as "regionalism gone mad".

MPs and local groups pressing for the return of gospels were outraged by an email written by Dr Michelle Brown, former curator of illuminated manuscripts, to another library official which suggested they should meet with a delegation from the region only as a "gesture of politesse", using it as an end to "complicate matters".

The library was also fighting efforts to loan the gospels for a temporary exhibition. One official suggested this should happen "no more than once in a generation", citing, "the more often it goes up [to Northumbria] the weaker our position becomes".

Another warned that campaigners could "seriously be forcing North-east heritage into a more, rather than less, vulnerable position. I do not suppose for a moment they have the slightest sense of this."

After the emails were disclosed, more than 40 MPs signed an early-day motion criticising the British Library's behaviour and accusing it of deploying "spurious" arguments for not allowing the return of the gospels.

Kevan Jones, Labour MP for Durham North, who has helped spearhead the campaign, called for an apology after the emails were revealed. He said: "There is quite a clear policy by the British Library to prevent [the gospels] from returning to the North-east. We have a very rich Christian history here. I put this down to Southern cultural snobbery. These offensive emails show just how London-centric the British Library is."

The Library said moving the gospels "would cut the heart out of the national collection".

The Church of England has thrown its weight behind the campaign to return the priceless scrolls to their home region, with the Archbishop of Canterbury backing the demands on a visit to Durham last month.

Written by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, around AD 715-720, the gospels record the legend of St Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, who rose from humble origins to become the first Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Mr Burnham has now agreed to meet a delegation of MPs from the North-east next month to hear their case.

A spokesperson for the library said: "The British Library Act 1972 prevents repatriation for those items in the British Library which, like the Lindisfarne Gospels, were transferred from the British Museum.

"The British Library Board has a statutory responsibility to ensure the long-term preservation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and this would be impossible to manage if the gospels were permanently moved from the British Library."

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