A priceless book, believed to have been owned by monks of Kirkstall Abbey over five centuries ago, has made its way back to the ruins of the abbey where it was originally transcribed and studied. The extraordinary copy of Missale ad usum Cistercienci, printed in Paris in 1516, still bears the delicate handwritten notes and passages crafted by the dedicated monks.
This exceptional edition, known as the Kirkstall Missal, had been passed down through generations of two prominent Leeds families before being acquired by Leeds Central Library at an auction in 1901 for a mere £5. The book, featuring intricate instructions and woodcut illustrations on the intricacies of public worship, has now been taken back to the abbey by librarians this week, as part of an extensive research project. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore and learn more about the Missal and even borrow a digital copy, while the physical book will be displayed at Leeds Central Library.
Rhian Isaac, the special collections librarian at Leeds Central Library, expressed her admiration for the Missal, stating, “This remarkable text has been part of the city’s history for more than half a millennium, remaining almost perfectly preserved amidst countless events, places, and people that have come and gone. It’s humbling to think that we are examining the very words studied by monks here in Leeds centuries ago and that we have now brought them back to the abbey where they held immense significance for its inhabitants. Additionally, it is thrilling that visitors to the abbey and the library will have the opportunity to connect with this unique piece of the city’s history in a fresh and engaging manner.”
The rediscovery of the Missal was attributed to Philip Wilde, a library assistant at Leeds Central Library, who stumbled upon it while exploring the library stacks. This unexpected find sparked a quest to unveil its secrets. Further research revealed that the Missal had received approval for use by the Cistercian order from their General Chapter in Citeaux, France.
Among the known copies in the northern region of England before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when King Henry VIII dismantled numerous religious institutions and confiscated their assets, the Leeds book is one of only three remaining. It is believed to have been preserved by William Cooke of Beeston, whose son Alexander later became the Vicar of Leeds from 1615 until his death in 1632. Alexander’s signature can still be observed within the Missal. Following Alexander’s passing, the book was passed on to Henry Robinson, the incoming Vicar of Leeds, who subsequently bequeathed it to his son, also named Henry, the founder of Holy Trinity on Boar Lane.
Containing numerous passages, one of note is the Mass of St Gregory’s Trental, written in Latin with red and black ink. The anonymous scribe added several unapproved names of saints, including St William of York.
The Cistercian monks initiated the construction of Kirkstall Abbey in 1152 after nobleman Henry de Lacy granted them the land. Flourishing until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on November 22, 1539, Abbot John Ripley relinquished the abbey to King Henry VIII’s agents.
In the late 1800s, Colonel John North purchased the abbey buildings, eventually donating the ruins and grounds to the Leeds Corporation in 1890. Today, Kirkstall Abbey stands as one of the country’s most well-preserved Cistercian monasteries.
Councillor Mary Harland, the executive member for communities at Leeds City Council, praised the librarians’ efforts in preserving such remarkable historical artefacts. She expressed her delight that the public will have the opportunity to delve into the captivating heritage of the city, presented within the splendid setting of Kirkstall Abbey.
In addition to being able to borrow a digital copy, visitors to Kirkstall Abbey can take advantage of a complimentary audio tour providing further insights into the abbey’s history. The Missal itself will be exhibited at Leeds Central Library for the next two weeks.
Leeds residents enjoy free entry to the abbey by presenting proof of address upon entry. For more information on Kirkstall Abbey, please visit: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/Pages/Kirkstall-Abbey.aspx