Operation Red Star: treasures of the Church of England find magnificent new home

Archives reveal a many-layered past, including Richard III's prayer book and a 17th-century Quran

Operation Red Star was something from the pages of a thriller. The challenge was how to get the most valuable artefacts from Lambeth Palace across its own garden to a new state-of-the-art library complex built on the east wall.

Experts were consulted. The security team at diamond company De Beers were included. An observer from the insurance company was booked to attend. With only staff notified on a need-to-know basis, the treasures, including the only copy of the death warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots, were whisked inside the Palace walls to their new home.

The Church of England is the national church that separated from Rome in the 16th century, in an event that shook the world. Its archives and vaults are a repository of religious and social history going back to the 9th century. Its library is therefore rated second in importance to the Vatican’s in Europe.

As Covid-19 lockdown measures ease, the managers have only just started opening the new red brick, temperature-controlled, sustainable structure completed last year. The new central London landmark has been 15 years in the making.

“We very carefully checked every item, checked its condition, packaged it up, carefully put it into crates, and we moved it inside the site so Red Star materials never left the site perimeter,” recounted Declan Kelly, the manager of the Library build for the Church of England. “We had someone from the insurance company there with us. And then we very carefully checked it all again when we got it to this site. And then we very carefully put them on the shelves.

“Things like Richard III's prayer book that was found in his tent at the Battle of Bosworth, [the Queen] Elizabeth I Prayer Book or the only surviving copy of the execution warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots. So very, very rare, valuable items.”

Among the history that the new library can show visitors are the ancient possessions brought back by early English travellers in the Levant and beyond, in what was then the Ottoman Empire.

Keen to ensure knowledge of the sacred texts, the owners would pass on the books and writings they brought back to their homeland to scholarly Church libraries or fellow clergy, and the gifts survive to this day. Now inside the modern reference library, it takes only a few minutes to retrieve the artefacts from storage.

A copy of extracts from the Quran donated by John Merritt, a Church of England cleric, in 1658 is part of the collection. It is still in its original binding and enduring evidence of the hunger for knowledge that went alongside the trade in spices and cloth done by English travellers to places like Constantinople and Smyrna.

“What’s extraordinary to think is that in the middle of the 17th century there is a London parish clergyman who is giving a Quran to his college library,” said Giles Mandelbrote, librarian and archivist for Lambeth Palace.

Another item is a Greek manuscript dating from the 15th century that was the personal possession of Meletios Pegas, a patriarch of Alexandria from 1590 that was later given as a diplomatic gift to William Abbott, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1610. It is a testament to the close relationship between the Eastern and English churches.

“This is a remarkable documented history,” Mr Mandelbrote said.

Stored in the new Lambeth vaults is the infamous Discourse on the Turks by Sir Thomas Shirley, who was imprisoned in Constantinople for almost three years in the early 1600s.

A second Quran shown to The National highlighted the level of intellectual interest in faiths beyond the English church hundreds of years ago.

“When works like these arrived in England there were only a relatively small number of people who could tell you what it was written in it,” he said. “When it arrived in England it then had a description written by Dr Edmund Castell, who is one of the most famous Arabists of the 17th century. This is his description in Latin of what is written in Arabic and Turkish so that normal scholars in England could get to the meaning of it.”

It was given to another Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sandcroft, a noted scholar, as part of an effort by the donor, John St John, to gain funding or a parish from the leader of the church.

Situated on the southern embankment of the river Thames, the red brick block is topped by a partially open upper floor and a seminar room with a view across London, including of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river.

Not only does it seek to provide a haven for the scholars and curious members of the public who cross its threshold, the Library is a showcase of how to build in keeping with nature and a historic garden, the second biggest in London after the Queen’s.

“From the start, we wanted to make sure we were being as environmentally sound and environmentally friendly as possible,” said Mr Kelly. “We've designed it so all of the rainwater that falls on to the building flows down into a landscaped pond. We put solar panels on the roof so that we expect to get almost half the building's energy from solar. The power in the building is all electricity because we've moved away from installing gas boilers.

“The core of the building is of course about protecting the archives and there are a series of concrete boxes with really thick walls, then insulation and then gorgeous brickwork on the outside.

“What that gives us is control to achieve really stable temperatures and really stable relative humidity.”

In the functional floors, there is shelf after shelf of antiquity. Passing one metal stand with a tab indicating that etchings are stored within, Mr Kelly pulls out a folio.

The first piece he covers happens to be a sketch by the Dutch Old Master, Rembrandt.

Updated: July 27th 2021, 9:21 AM