Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Shrewsbury School's Ancient Library

I’m beginning to think this blog should be called ‘My Yesterday Morning From Shrewsbury’, or even ‘My Last Week’.  In my mad panic to fit everything into the one year I’m beginning to develop a backlog of posts. Foremost in my mind, however, isn’t the film club I went to on Friday night, or the film makers I met a few days before that, but last Sunday morning’s visit to the library at Shrewsbury School.

Shrewsbury School is [geographically in particular] part of the backdrop against which the town is set. ‘The town is of great importance to the school,’ somebody told me on my Sunday visit to its library.  But the school – one of England’s seven great public schools, alongside Eton and Rugby – is important to the town too. Set up initially as a Grammar School by Edward VI, to educate the sons of the town, today it still has significance in shaping Shrewsbury’s life and character.

You can’t miss the schoolboys wandering about town. Even out of uniform you can pick them out. Many a boy comes to Shrewsbury for school and, barring university, never quite leaves. Take a walk along the river, and you’ll pass Shrewsbury schoolboys rowing on the Severn – and Shrewsbury schoolgirls, too, these days. Walk through the Quarry and look up Beck’s Field and you can’t miss Shrewsbury School standing high above the river, or fail to hear its bell ringing out the hours.

Shrewsbury School has stood on that prime site in Kingsland since the demise of the Old Shrewsbury Show, which I wrote about earlier this year.  Before that it was housed in what’s now the Castle Gates Library. Its old boys include the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, Willie Rushton, Christopher Brooker and Paul Foot, not to say anything of traveler and ex-Python, Michael Palin, and Radio One’s John Peel.

The view of Shrewsbury from the school’s current site is one of my favourites. I climbed up Beck’s Field and sat at the top in front of the main school building a number of years ago now, to witness the town’s last total solar eclipse. I couldn’t have chosen a finer place to do it. The wind dropped, the sky began to darken and the birds fell silent. In the unnatural twilight the rooftops, spires and towers of the town fell into shadow. I sat until the light returned and won’t ever forget the experience, including the wonderful stillness that fell across the town. No finer place in Shrewsbury, I reckon, could have been chosen to witness what My Tonight From Shrewsbury’s forebear would have called a ‘freak of nature’. 

The forebear in question is anonymous, but the manuscript in which he wrote about freaks of nature, amongst other things, is not.  In Shrewsbury School’s Ancient Library it’s known as ‘Dr Taylor’s MS’.  It’s an Elizabethan town chronicle, dated from the late 1570s,  penned by an anonymous Salopian using existing local annals, printed broadsheets and pamphlets, and drawing more widely for a fuller, more national – and indeed international – appeal. Apparently it was full of murders, suicides, executions, prognostications, freaks of nature, fires, floods, earthquakes etc.  Has the world changed? I don’t think so.

Certainly there are no executions or freaks of nature so far in My Tonight From Shrewsbury, but we’ve had floods this year, sadly we’ve had a murder and an unexpected death. And as for prognostications - well, who am I to say?

Until last Sunday I didn’t know about my Elizabethan counterpart, but now I can’t stop thinking about him – and I want to read more. You’ll know, if you’ve read many of My Tonight From Shrewsbury’s post, that I love old books.  Well, on Sunday I was in book heaven – and I want to tell you all about it.

My visit began on the stroke of eleven o’clock, when I arrived at Shrewsbury School in time for its act of remembrance. Sad to think, looking at a photo later of a group of boys, that within a couple of years of it being taken exactly half those boys would be dead, killed in battle.  Young lads, scarcely out of their childhood we might now say. And masters died as well. Their names are all read out. Every year the same, followed by the school crowding round the Philip Sidney oak to leave their poppies with the dropped leaves on the ground.

Afterwards in the library, Michael Morrogh, the school’s Ancient Librarian [I’m not being rude here; this is Michael’s official – if slightly Gormenghastly – title] showed visitors round a collection of memorabilia from the first and second world wars. Browsing amongst the tables I found a pamphlet on the Re-conquest of America [‘the Most Astounding Document Ever Discovered in The History of International Intrigue’] with fascinating sections on such matters as ‘Hostile Native Tendencies’. Then I picked up the Ruhleben Prisoner of War Camp Magazine, with some extraordinary drawings in it, and several German propaganda booklets putting forward a very different view of their Allied enemies and the war.

The Shrewsbury School library is a treasure house of books, not just old ones either, but modern books too.  On display I found everything from the latest Booker prize-winner to a collection of graphic novels.  There were easily a dozen books I could have stopped to thumb through, but I had a date with something older than them. These were not the books I’d come to see. 

I’d come to see the old guys. The really old ones. The ones that made my own person 19th century acquisitions from Candle Lane Books seem like Johnny-come-latelies. Some of these books were chained. Others were kept in a strong-room so strong that it felt like walking into an air-conditioned safe [but then I was walking into an air-conditoned safe].

In that library’s inner sanctum - a small room packed floor to ceiling with what I heard described as ‘the crown jewels’ - I saw an illustrated Bible from the 13th century, Charles Darwin’s personal atlas, with his name – and other comments – written inside it, and a Tyndale Bible.

This is a big deal. It’s the book, above all others, that I’d come to see. In its day, the Tyndale Bible [or, more accurately, New Testament] was dynamite.  Because of it, William Tyndale ended up being executed in horrendous fashion.  His crime? Translating the Bible into everyday English so that every man [who could read] could read it, and not just the privileged few. Also - equally heretical in the eyes of the church – he dared to translate not from the standard Latin ‘received’ text, but directly from the Hebrew and Greek.

Tyndale Bible
In 1522, William Tyndale acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, and began a translation into English using a Greek text compiled by Erasmus, which was older and reckoned to be more accurate than the Latin Vulgate, which was the only text authorized by the Roman Catholic church.  He was refused permission to continue with his work, which was seen as heretical, but moved abroad and carried on anyway, a fugitive from justice, on everybody’s Most Wanted list.

A partial translation of the New Testament was printed in Cologne, after which Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities. Doggedly, however, he carried on with the work, escaping to Worms where a full translation of the New Testament came out in1526.

It’s hard now to understand what all the fuss was about. Bibles are two a penny and, arguably, make very little difference to modern life. But Tyndale saw the Bible differently. Buried deep in his translation were direct challenges to the Catholic church, which was the major authority of the day.  The word ‘priest’ in the Latin Vulgate, for example, when  translated directly from the Greek came out as ‘elder’ - an elder being not a member of a separate caste but one of the people.  And the Vulgate phrase, ‘doing penance’ [something from which the Catholic Church accrued revenue], in Tyndale’s translation from the Greek came out as ‘repentence [something to be achieved for free]. 

Tyndale’s Bible was a bombshell.  Its legacy continues to this day. Some say that English as we now know it was formed out of Tyndale’s taking of the unpopular Middle-English ‘vulgar’ tongue, improving it with the help of Greek and Hebrew syntaxes and idioms and forming out of it all an early modern English that Shakespeare and others would draw upon.  I’m not a historian, or a linguist, so I wouldn’t know about that, but I do know that Tyndale was a reformer and a man of principle and faith, and that when he died [in 1536, by strangulation, followed by burning at the stake] he prayed that the King of England’s eyes would be opened.

Tyndale Bible in box
And indeed it turned out that they were. The Tyndale Bible played a massive part in the Reformation generally and - in England in particular - as much as Ann Boleyn, the Tyndale Bible played its part.  It changed society by bringing with it a new freedom from authority. It featured prominently in the Geneva Bible that was taken out with the Mayflower by America’s founding fathers. It found its way into the King James Bible, which is still being read. 

Nowadays I have the King James version of the Bible on my Kindle. I can carry it around. And Bible readers in Tyndale’s day could do the same. The Tyndale Bible that I saw in Shrewsbury School’s strong room was surprisingly small.  Given its status in history, I expected some massive tome, but out of a small box came something small enough to pocket and walk out with.

Not that anybody would be pocketing that particular copy, or even borrowing it on their school library card!  But there were other books in that Ancient Library that could be handled, and there were others on display that I want to share with you too.

Included amongst these are John Donne’s poems in first edition.  Then also a first edition of Ben Johnson’s plays, followed by an early Caxton dating from 1483.  None of these were in the strong-room, but on show in the main body of the Ancient Library, alongside Oliver Cromwell’s original death-mask, a whole host of Darwin artifacts, letters and the like, and a tiny but beautiful metrical psalm book bound in an immaculately stitched needlework cover [see below].

The Shrewsbury Fragment
For somebody who loves books, Sunday morning I was as near to Paradise as life on earth can get. Behind glass I saw a whole collection of tiny psalters, including a tortoiseshell one, which is a Huguenot psalm book dated 1660. I also saw the last book to be printed by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; the Gwassanaeth Meir – a devotional work, and rare text, written in the South Wales dialect of around 1350-80; and, oh my God – the Shrewsbury Fragment. The actual, real Shrewsbury Fragment in the flesh.

For one whole year, ever since I began My Tonight From Shrewsbury, I’ve been saving up writing about the Shrewsbury Fragment because I wanted to hang onto a few really special posts for the end of the year.  The Shrewsbury Fragment is intended as one of those posts, so forgive me if I don’t write more now.  All I’ll say for now is that the Shrewsbury Fragment is one of our town’s treasures, it has a remarkable story, which almost nobody seems to know about [in fact most people I’ve talked to have never heard of it] and one day before the end of the year I’ll tell it to you. 

Many thanks to Shrewsbury School, and Ancient Librarian Michael Morrogh, for allowing me to browse so freely amongst so many lovely treasures.  Thanks, too, to Head of Philosophy and Theology, Andrew Dalton, for being my fixer behind the scenes. Much of what I saw is there to be viewed most Sunday mornings after chapel, from 11 o’clock onwards. A warm welcome was extended to me and to other visitors, and I’m sure it would be to you too, if you wanted to arrange a visit.

I left the library with my head in a spin, and walked towards the school gate, heading down Central - an avenue of trees flaming in the autumn sunlight. Darwin’s statue stood tall at one end [representing the sciences] and Sir Philip Sidney’s at the other, profiled against an unsettled sky [representing the arts]. It had been quite a visit. I’d seen more than I have time to tell you now. Not just the Shrewsbury Fragment, but other things too.

Another day, maybe.

Sir Philip Sidney

Darwin's Atlas

A drawing from the Ruhleben Camp Magazine

Darwin with foot on [I think] an iguana 

A bit of a PS here.  On the subject of book heaven, I've just been sent this photograph of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Library in Ohio. Looks fairly heavenly too, so I thought I'd share it:


  1. What a fascinating and informative post, Pauline. My father worked for the Shropshire News Agency in Shrewsbury when I was a child and, though we weren't there for long, the sense of history has always stayed with me.

  2. The town is full of history, as you'll see in this coming Friday's post when I'll be writing about Shrewsbury's absolutely fascinating Richard II connection, having seen David Tennant in the Shakespeare play [courtesy of a live link to Shrewsbury cinema] of the same name. But hopefully this year has been about it's vibrant contemporary life too!

  3. It would be nice if everyone could go to a school with such an amazing library! But given that there are so many more people now than there were in 1300 that's impossible...

  4. Quite so. Everyone needs somewhere to go when they're skipping chapel.

  5. Thank you for that one, Joanna. And, indeed, Will - you speak from experience of course. I'm very envious. What a nice way of being naughty. Having said that, the chapel in question is currently looking fairly impressive too, courtesy of icon painter, Aidan Hughes, who I'd like to interview too before My Tonight From Shrewsbury's year is out.