Nosy Parker

In between Cranmer, burnt at the stake for his adherence to Calvinism under Queen Mary, and Archbishop Laud, executed in 1645 for his opposition to Puritanism, we find Matthew Parker, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Elizabeth I in 1559.  He is described in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as ‘a wise and tolerant, though hardly a forceful, archbishop, preferring scholarship to controversy’.  That might remind some of a more recent archbishop; if avoiding controversy meant avoiding execution, it probably wasn’t a bad thing.

Parker is seen as a consolidator of the Reformation, involved in the issue of the ‘Bishops’ Bible’ and the writing of the ‘Thirty-Nine Articles’ appended to the Book of Common Prayer.  He died peacefully in 1575 and was interred in his private chapel at Lambeth, ‘but he was not given long to rest and as the political tide turned in the Civil War his remains were dug up in1648 and cast on a dung heap. At the end of the Protectorate and with the Restoration of the Monarchy his bones were found and re-interred at Lambeth.’

Parker had always been interested in collecting old books and manuscripts and was given authority by the Privy Council in 1568 to acquire ancient records, including those previously owned by religious houses which since the dissolution had passed into private hands.  The new owners were requested – politely! – to hand them over to the archbishop.  Parker was so assiduous in searching out these old manuscripts that he gained the nickname ‘Nosy Parker’.  He was concerned with preserving these documents and manuscripts for future, scholarly use.  He also wanted to prove the existence of a church in Britain independent of the Roman church, and so was particularly keen to collect manuscripts pertaining to Christianity and the church in the old ‘Saxon’ language – the language we now know as Old English.  He used this material for his own scholarship, producing a book he presented to the queen, De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae et Privilegiis Ecclesiae Cantuarensis cum Archiepiscopis eiusdem (On the History of the British Church and the Privileges of the Church of Canterbury and its Archbishops).

His great legacy is the library he left to the Cambridge college where he had been Master, Corpus Christi; the Parker library contains one of the finest collections of Old and Middle English manuscripts in the world.  Some of the books from this library were on display in the exhibition of Cambridge Illuminations at the Fitzwilliam Museum a few years ago.  In the catalogue to that exhibition, Christopher de Hamel, the librarian of the Parker Library, wrote that Parker was trying to prove there had been a ‘golden age of the English church’ to which the reformed Anglican church was heir.

One of the oldest of the books in the collection is one that is central to English history, the single most important relic of the conversion of the kingdom of Christianity: it is the Canterbury Gospel, brought to England by St. Augustine, when he landed in Kent in 598 AD sent by Pope Gregory to convert the people of Britain. Whenever a new Archbishop of Canterbury is enthroned, the Master and one or two other representatives of College take the Gospel to Canterbury and the new Archbishop takes his oath on the book. When the current Pope, John Paul II, came to Britain for the first time in the 1980s, there was a little problem of precedence concerning who should sit on the throne in Canterbury Cathedral. They solved this by putting the Augustine Gospel on it, and both the Pope and the Archbishop revered the book.

For the enthronement of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, de Hamel carried the Augustine Gospel into Canterbury Cathedral and I have heard him tell the story of how in the procession the pages of the ancient book resonated with the singing of the choir as though the book itself was singing.

For more information on the Parker Library, see, which also provides a link to a short biography of Matthew Parker from which I have quoted.  I also read R. I. Page, Matthew Parker and his Books (Sandars Lectures in Bibliography, University of Cambridge, 1990).


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