St Augustine Gospels and the Enthronement of the Archbishop

Our oldest and most precious book, the St Augustine Gospels (CCCC MS 286) will be playing an important role on Thursday in the enthronement of the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. This copy of the four gospels was made in Italy in the late sixth century. It’s believed to have been brought to Canterbury as part of the mission of St Augustine who was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in AD 597 to (re)christianise the English. Augustine was successful in converting Æthelbert, King of Kent, and many of his people and was consecrated as the first archbishop of Canterbury. Throughout the Middle Ages, the gospel book was kept at St Augustine’s Abbey and venerated as a relic of the saint. After the closure of the abbey as part of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the book entered the collection of  Matthew Parker, the 70th archbishop, and was one of the manuscripts he gave to his old college in 1574.

Portrait of St Luke (CCC MS 286, f. 129v)
Portrait of St Luke (CCC MS 286, f. 129v)

The most distinctive elements of the St Augustine Gospels are the illustrated pages, extremely rare in such an early manuscript. The book seems originally to have had 8 full-page pictures but only two survive. The first is an author portrait of St Luke and it’s likely that there were similar portraits of the other evangelists. The other illustrated page is a grid with images of various events from the Passion, including this depiction of the Last Supper.

The Last Supper (CCC MS 286, f. 125r)
The Last Supper (CCC MS 286, f. 125r)

The new archbishop will be the 105th in succession to Augustine. It’s appropriate that he should swear his oath of office on the gospel book which has such a strong connection with the office and with Canterbury.

5 thoughts on “St Augustine Gospels and the Enthronement of the Archbishop

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  1. I took Dr de Hamel’s amazing summer school course as part of the Medieval Studies Summer School at Cambridge back in 2000, right as he began his job at the Parker Library, and he mentioned that one of the duties of the position was to bring this manuscript to Canterbury when a new Archbishop was enthroned. My first thought upon seeing the news of the enthronement today was of Dr de Hamel, hoping he was still at the Parker Library and able to go to Canterbury today.

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