The Lyme Missal

Paragraph detail of Lyme's 15th centurey Sarum Missal printed by Thomas Caxton

The Sarum Missal in our Library is the only surviving, largely intact, copy printed by William Caxton in Paris 1487.

The book was in the Legh family’s possession from at least 1508 until the National Trust purchased it in 2008. The missal has been on display in the library ever since, and from June 2019 it forms the centrepiece of a brand new exhibition in the saloon, recounting the history and secrets of this work.

What is the Sarum Missal?

Handwritten copies of the Sarum Missal were commonplace in early modern England.

The text of the Mass was broken up into sections, each major book opening with an illuminated letter and individual verses with a blue coloured letter.

The body of the Mass was written in different coloured inks, fonts and sizes. Priests could then use this to navigate through the sections, without which the text would lose much of its meaning.

Bound and printed

The version on display at Lyme, however, was the first copy to be printed. It was produced in 1487 by William Caxton in conjunction with the printer Guillame Maynyal in Paris.

The Lyme Missal also shows the reaction to the Reformation in Catholic Cheshire. Henry VIII's edict in 1538 requested the obliteration of references to the Pope, the Church of Rome and the Catholic cult of St. Thomas from all liturgical books.

We can see examples of verses being crossed through, faintly enough so they can still be read and prayers removed but then re-written by hand at the back. This strongly indicates the Legh family continued to practice their Catholic faith during the Reformation.

Another important historical aspect of the volume is the rare survival of part of its original binding. Of the 60 Caxton books in the John Rylands Library, only two have parts of their original binding surviving. Many of these books were rebound in the 19th century.

The Lyme Missal was saved from this treatment by being carefully restored by the highly skilled and sensitive binder Francis Bedford - thanks to Thomas Legh's interest in preserving antiquities.

Who was William Caxton?

William Caxton brought the printing press to England.

He was an apprentice in Cologne where he learnt his trade, setting up his first press in Bruges 1475, where he issued six books. In 1476 he returned to England and founded the country's first printing press.

From this press he issued several liturgical books, making connections with Catholic institutions. But, when it came to printing the Missal, Caxton didn’t have the skills needed to print in different colours, fonts and sizes.

He travelled abroad to team up with Guillaume Maynyal in Paris, who perfected the two-pull, two-colour printing technique. The Sarum Missal was the first book to be printed this way.

What’s its connection to Lyme?

Sir Piers Legh V, both a knight and a priest, bought the book and most probably used it to officiate services. It then lay forgotten and dormant after the Reformation until it was rediscovered by Peter Legh XII.

He repaired the book in the 18th century only for it to disappear again. In the 1870s it was then given pride of place in Lyme’s Library until leaving with the family in 1946.