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Discover the Country’s Oldest Parish Library

Hidden within St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds is The Ancient Library, the oldest parish library in the country with a treasure trove of books and a wealth of local stories.

The Library was founded by Dr Miles Mosse in 1595 as a resource for clergy training. He gained sponsorship to set up the library and book plates from that time show that at least 41 local clergy, gentlemen and townspeople contributed.

The Ancient Library is open to the public on special days, heritage weekends and by appointment. It contains around 600 books on theology, maths, herbal remedies, history and more. There are some rare volumes and many of the books were printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the oldest from 1482. 

The rarest book in the collection is a Bulbus 1499 dictionary with its illustrated capitals and beautifully ornate handwriting.


But it is not the rarity of some of the books, the editions, the language of the books (many are in English, French, Greek and Latin), or fine binding that makes this library unique. 

While the library is fascinating for anyone interested in books, librarian Stephen Dart believes what is so special about this hidden gem is the links with local people of the time – including gentry – who donated the books, such as Sir Robert Jermyn. It is also the donor’s inscriptions, doodles or margin notes in the books and medieval manuscripts that give them a special value. The drawings and notes that have been scribbled inside, known as ‘marginalia’, and the pastedowns – inserted sheets to strengthen the binding – that were made from whatever was available, provide an insight into the past.

In one book an old song called ‘Susannah’, popular in the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign is written in the margins of a religious book.

A book called ‘Actes and monuments of the Church’, dating from 1570, includes a description of the martyrdom of Roland Taylor, Rector of Hadleigh and Archdeacon of Bury St Edmunds, who was burnt at Aldham Common in 1555. The book’s owner had been Robert Plummer, a barber surgeon who lived at Scandinavia House on Angel Hill.


The library was originally housed at the east end of the north nave aisle at St James Church (now the Cathedral) but moved in 1847 and for a while it was at Bury St Edmunds Guildhall.

Provost of Eton and Kings, author MR (Monty) James, known for his ghost stories, had a detailed knowledge of the Ancient Library after studying its collection when it was at The Guildhall. The first article he printed was about the Ancient Library and in 1902 he supervised the excavation of the chapter house at the Abbey of St Edmund, which exposed the graves of five abbots and he gave a talk on the Abbey at the town’s Athenaeum in 1932.


The library is now in a room over the north-west porch and is visited by professors of theology, geography, rare books specialists, and has even featured in the BBC’s ‘Escape to the Country’ programme when a couple interested in local history and calligraphy wished to relocate to Suffolk. 

If you would like to visit the library, please contact the librarian through the Cathedral Office on visits@stedscathedral.org  or 01284 748730.