Day 12: London – Lambeth Palace and Farewell

Guest post by Margot Willis.

Group photo outside Lambeth Palace, the London home to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hard to believe, but today is our last day in London, and the last day of our Great Cathedral Libraries course. As today is unique in our itinerary, so our destination, Lambeth Palace, is unique among our visits to great cathedrals of England. First and foremost, it is not a cathedral.

“But we are great, and we are in England, so we’ve got that covered,” remarked Paul, an archivist at Lambeth Palace and our host and guide for the day.

We arrived at Lambeth mid-morning and were met at the front gate by Paul, who guided us up a stone spiral staircase to the “audience chamber”, which doubles as a records room and a meeting room. With everyone seating around a very Arthurian round table, Paul launched us into a whirlwind introduction to Lambeth Palace and the records kept there.

When everyone had a seat, Paul commented: “It’s all very Arthurian – and I’m King Arthur”

Lambeth Palace was originally built to be the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. While the Archbishop still has a flat within the Palace, part of the Palace has become a library and archive. This library was founded in 1610 by Archbishop Richard Bancroft, who donated approximately 5000 books to the collection. Now, the library has grown to over 120,000 books, and the archives contain papers and records of archbishops of Canterbury.

The collections include records, medieval manuscripts, and objects. Some highlights Paul told us about were the MacDurnan Gospels (9th century illuminated insular gospels), gloves belonging to Charles I, and the execution warrant of Mary Queen of Scots. A particularly special volume is the book of hours belonging to Richard III, which had a special outing a few years ago, when it was placed on Richard III’s coffin during his reburial in 2015.

Execution warrant for Mary Queen of Scots. This is actually a contemporary copy – Queen Elizabeth I destroyed her copy, very wary of the potential consequences of killing another ruling monarch. Little did she know, someone else kept a copy.


After this introduction, Paul took us to see the conservation suite, where conservators are hard at work cleaning, repairing, rehousing, and looking after some of the most fragile volumes. The lab is definitely the most well-equipped we’ve seen on this trip, with enough heavy equipment fitted into the long room to merit a solid oak floor to take the weight.

The conservation lab had wonderful views.

Throughout our visit, Paul talked excitedly about the new library Lambeth will be opening in 2020 at the end of the Bishop’s Gardens, which would include a huge conservation suite with a ‘wet’ room, a quarantine room, and multiple rooms to fit 8 conservators at a time – but more on that later. After we briefly said hello to the busy conservators, we headed down to the Great Hall to see some of Lambeth’s collection and displayed pieces. There, we were met by Sarah, who told us about the room and the printed book library.

Though the great hall and the library it contained was severely damaged by a bomb during WWII, multiple restorations have restored it to what it would have looked like centuries ago.

The Great Hall used to house far more books, but after many were destroyed or damaged by bombs, the remaining books have been relegated to the edges of the room.

After a look around at the exhibits of books which included maps, theological works, and one work depicting and describing 17th century America – including Maryland! – Paul took us out to see the front of the Palace and the gardens beyond. The gardens were absolutely beautiful, and gave us a tree-framed view of the top of the parliament building.

The great hall and the archway that leads to the front courtyard and entry.


A windy day gives a good view of the Union Jack

 We stopped midway through the garden so Paul could point out the place where the new library will be. It will be a long building, with seven whole stories dedicated to storage space, as well as two stories for offices, and of course the comprehensive conservation suite mentioned earlier. While it is just an empty field right now, perhaps future UMD study abroad classes will get to tour the state of the art facilities a few years down the road!

One day this view will have a great big wonderful building in it

Lambeth Palace can afford the new library, as well as it’s 5 archivists, 4 librarians, and 4 assistants because it is funded by the Church Commissioners for England. Because of this steady stream of income, Lambeth is the most well-funded and well equipped institution we’ve seen during this trip. It also probably has one of the most beautiful surrounding grounds. Standing out on the flower-rimmed green watching the flags wave over Parliament, Paul asked us if Lambeth was our last stop. When we told him it was, he said “It’s always good to end on a high.” And so it is!

After Lambeth, the group split up to do some last minute exploring around London. Some went to take photos on Abbey Road, others explored history and tried on a few corsets at the Victoria and Albert museum, some grabbed a snack at the newly re-opened Borough Market, while others went off to buy entirely too much tea at Fortum and Mason.

We met back up again in the evening and shared one last meal together. We chatted about the class, our thoughts on Lambeth and Westminster, on what we loved about the course (everything) and what we would change (very little) and what we would recommend to future Great Cathedral Library students.

It’s almost ten o’clock here in the UK, and we’ve all said our goodbyes and returned to our rooms. Some of us will be flying back to the States tomorrow, others will be staying in London, or traveling to France, Scotland, or elsewhere.

I speak for all of us when I say that we have been exceptionally privileged to have been a part of this course, to have seen what we’ve seen and spoken with all the amazing professionals here in England. If you see any of us in the iSchool lounge or in class, I know any one of us could talk about this trip for hours. We’ve learned so much, made some new friends, and had an experience unlike any other.

So, if you ever find yourself in the Cathedral libraries of Canterbury, Exeter, Hereford, York, or Westminster (or the not-cathedral at Lambeth Palace!) tell them that the folks from the University of Maryland say hello!

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