1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library

The Reconstruction Drawings

Christopher Norton (University of York)

Two watercolour reconstruction drawings of the fifteenth-century Minster Library have been commissioned to celebrate the sixth centenary of John Neuton's bequest of books to the Minster (Figs 1 and 2). They are the work of Allan T. Adams, an architectural illustrator who works for English Heritage, and they draw on new research by Stuart Harrison, the Minster Archaeologist, Sarah Brown, the Director of the York Glaziers Trust, and Professor Christopher Norton of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York. The drawings have been paid for by the York Minster Fund and will hang in the present-day Minster Library.

The Old Library, on the first floor of the building attached to the west side of the south transept, was originally a single room. It has been subdivided by nineteenth- and twentieth-century internal walls, and currently serves as the camera cantorum or choir practice room; but the shell of the early fifteenth-century library survives essentially intact. The walls are rendered but apparently original. Some of the window jambs and tracery have been replaced, not always accurately, but enough survives to show that the side walls had two-light transomed windows, while the west window was of three lights and untransomed. The medieval ceiling design can be seen in the eastern half of the room. The original features were measured by Stuart Harrison and entered into a digital CAD model. The missing features (including the furniture) were added, and the model was manipulated to choose the most effective views, which were then used as a basis for the reconstructions. One shows the view from the top of the spiral staircase in the north-east corner; the other shows a view across the room looking north-west.

The side windows have been shown with a single opening glazed casement in the lower lights, on the basis of the iron pintles which survive on some of the original jambs. Pintles on the lower part of the jamb of the left-hand light of the west window suggest that it too had one opening casement. The lost medieval glazing has been reconstructed on the basis of Sarah Brown's recent analysis of James Torre's record of the glazing made c. 1690. Each of the upper lights of the side windows contained diamond quarries with a single shield of arms, while the lower lights seem to have contained religious devices and inscriptions. The medieval glazing of the west window had already disappeared by 1690. It has been reconstructed to match the side windows, with the arms of John Neuton (on the left) and Bishop Walter Skirlaw (on the right) flanking the arms of the Minster.

No trace survives of the original furniture. However, some book-stands do survive from the contemporary cathedral library at Lincoln. These would fit the bay-spacings at York perfectly, so they have been used for the reconstructions. The tall two-sided book-stands apparently had benches attached to them by fixed rails on either side. The books sat on sloping book-rests, five or more per side, and were fastened with iron chains to metal bars above. The reader therefore had to move from one book to another, rather than carrying books to his seat, as nowadays.

How to cite

Christopher Norton, 'The Reconstruction Drawings', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2015, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=50, accessed 29 November 2020