Blickling's books share their secrets

John Gandy, the librarian, in the Long Gallery at Blickling Hall © Antony Kelly, Archant

John Gandy, the librarian, in the Long Gallery at Blickling Hall

John Gandy is a man with a mission - a 10-year mission, to be precise.

He's the National Trust librarian charged with cataloguing the 12,500 volumes that pack the bookcases at Blickling Hall.

The shelves are filled with some of the finest books from across the centuries, from highly decorated medieval manuscripts through huge encyclopaedias of wildlife to first editions of Jane Austen's classic novels and a couple of examples of 16th century erotica.

The vast majority of the books originally belonged to one man, Lincolnshire scholar Sir Richard Ellys (1682 - 1742). In his lifetime the collection was considered to be one of the finest academic libraries in the country. When he died, Ellys left the collection to his cousin, the 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire, who lived at Blickling Hall.

"We are very lucky to have such a wonderful library of rare books right here in Norfolk," says John, three years into his mammoth task. "It could easily have been sold off in its entirety over the years, a common fate for many country house libraries. The fact that it remains mostly uncatalogued means that few people are aware of its existence."

Cataloguing is important. When a detailed description of each book is entered on to an international online database it gradually opens up the library's contents to scholars all over the world.

What really piques John's interest is the secret stories the books are waiting to tell - about themselves and their former owners, thanks to handwritten inscriptions inside the covers.

Eliot's Indian Bible was published in Massachusetts in 1663. It is one of the first books ever printed on North American soil and, rarer still, is a copy of the Old and New Testaments translated into the language of the Massachusett tribe of the Algonquin Indians. It is unlikely the book was ever read by the native Indians, rather it was probably a piece of propaganda to help raise funds for Christian missionaries.

Inside the front page is a handwritten message from John Higginson, minister of Salem, presenting the book to his brother Francis. In 1692 John Higginson was involved in prosecuting the town's infamous witch trials and even had to judge his own daughter.

The library's most prized possession is a copy of Suetonius' classic first century piece of historical gossip, The Twelve Caesars.

Handwritten on vellum - animal skin - the book was produced in 1450 for Borso D'Este, the Duke of Ferrara and one of the great men of the Italian renaissance. Featuring exquisite gold leaf decoration and and painted pictures, the manuscript was a medieval showpiece.

"We know the book came to Blickling from the Dutch scholar Nicolaus Heinsius, so we can trace back some of its story," says John.

"Late 15th century Italy was a land in turmoil following years of war. The duke's library was possibly looted, the book then somehow ending up in the possession of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 16th century Prague. One hundred years later, the Swedish army invaded central Europe and entire libraries were looted and sent home so Queen Christina could add to her collection.

"Nicholas Heinsius was Christina's librarian. She was notorious for not paying her staff on time and we think Heinsius ran away, helping himself to books in lieu of pay. He went back to Holland and when he died his library was sold and Ellys bought the Suetonius."

The oldest book in the library is a handwritten manuscript from the 1100s containing the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great. It is most notable for a short paragraph containing the Lord's Prayer in a mix of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and early Middle English.

"Old English texts of this antiquity are rare and this is one of the earliest known versions of the Lord's Prayer. This was written at a time when Old English was dying out under the rule of the Norman conquerors. The fact that it is written in the Kentish dialect means that the book may have originated at Canterbury," says John.

Visit Blickling's fascinating library for yourself. The catalogue is free to access at www.copac.ac.uk.