In the Middle Ages a collection of 150 books constituted a major library. These hand-transcribed and -bound volumes on law and religion were irreplaceable assets, and thus exceedingly valuable. To solve the problem of possible theft, the Hereford Cathedral librarians seized upon a practical solution: they chained the books to the shelves.
Most of the volumes in the collection date to acquistions made in the 1100s, although the oldest book in the collection, the “Hereford Gospels,” dates to about the year 800. The books have moved around the Cathedral buildings over the centuries with some chained to desks and others to pulpits or study tables at one time. The chained library as a collection was created when the books were moved into the Lady Chapel in 1611, following an investigation into the care of the books.
Amazingly, the cathedral and the library collection escaped the widespread damage of the English Civil War, adding more books in 1678 from a Jesuit college.
Restoration work at the cathedral ended the chaining of the books. In 1841, the collection was moved into storage and then into separate rooms for several decades.
In May 1996 the entire collection was moved into a new, purpose built and climate controlled building. The permanent collection holds over 1,500 rare books, including 229 medieval manuscripts in the Chained Library bays, as well as the famous medieval map, the Hereford Mappa Mundi. Hereford Cathedral also houses one of only four known copies of the Magna Carta documents issued by Henry III in 1217.
Very few chained library collections survive and the Chained Library at Hereford is the largest collection of its kind. A few chained collections exist at the Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham, England, Marsh’s Library in Dublin, and small chained collections are at at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, England, and Chelsea Old Church in London.
It is housed in the same cathedral as the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in the world.