The library we use today was established after the Abbey was founded as a collegiate church in 1560. It has been housed in part of the former monastic dormitory since 1591.
In 1623, Dean John Williams installed book presses at his own expense, and brought in around 2,000 books. The collection grew throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with books being given, bought and bequeathed. Dean Zachary Pearce left all his books to the library in 1774.
We now have around 14,000 books printed before 1801, about 60 manuscripts (mostly medieval), a collection of printed and manuscript music, and the Oldaker collection of fine bookbindings.
Our illuminated manuscripts include the Litlyngton Missal (now in two volumes), the Liber Regalis, and the prayer book of Lady Margaret Beaufort. All of these are on display in The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries.
We also have some modern collections. These are mainly books, pamphlets and other material about the history of Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church – as well as related topics, such as coronations.
You can buy copies of most of the early manuscripts, and the early printed and manuscript music, on microfilm from World Microfilm Publication. To find out more, email [email protected].
For a more detailed account of the library and its holdings, see:
A Directory of Rare Book and Special Collections in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, edited B C Bloomfield, 2nd edition, London, 1997.
The following publications deal with particular aspects of the library’s collections:
Armitage Robinson and Montague Rhodes James, The Manuscripts of Westminster Abbey, Cambridge 1909, [describes MSS 1-34 only].
N R Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British Libraries, vol.I: London, Oxford, 1969.[describes MS 34, 35, 37-40]
N R Ker, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain: a list of surviving books, 2nd edition, London: Royal Historical Society, 1964 [with a Supplement, ed Andrew G Watson, 1987].
Liber Regalis, [MS 38] printed for the Roxburghe Club, 1870
Missale ad usum Ecclesie Westmonasteriensis [the Litlyngton Missal, MS 37] ed. J Wickham Legg, Henry Bradshaw Society, 3 vols., London 1891-6. There are two theses on this manuscript by Dr Douglas East and Dr Jayne Wackett available for consultation in the Library.
A facsimile of our Bestiary of the 13th century (MS.22) can be consulted in the Library.
J Armitage Robinson, The History of Westminster Abbey by John Flete, [MS 29], Cambridge 1909. An English translation is available at the Library.
William Barclay Squire, Musik Katalog der Bibliothek der Westminster Abtei in London, Leipzig 1903.
Howard M Nixon, British Bookbindings presented by Kenneth H Oldaker to the Chapter Library of Westminster Abbey, London 1982. *
C D Cook, Incunabula in the Westminster Abbey and Westminster School Libraries, London 2013.
H.M. Nixon, The Gardyners Passetaunce c.1512..with notes on two unique editions in Westminster Abbey Library. Edited F.B. Williams 1985 [CE.3]
Peter Holman A new source of Jacobean lute music [MS 105], in The Lute, 2000 (includes transcription)
M. Payne & D. Smith, Re-discovering John Donne's Catalogus Librorum [MS 63], Review of English Studies
* You can buy copies of the Oldaker catalogue by Howard Nixon from the library.
Westminster Abbey Library
The biggest challenge we face is actually time – getting all our work done alongside the daily routine of the Abbey as a working church, visitor attraction and home to 1,000 years of history.