St Edburg’s Church’s Chained Library

Education Oct 1, 2022

The earliest example of education we know of in Bicester dates back to the 13th century when the monks of Bicester Priory started a small school. This continued until the priory was closed in 1536, but after that we don’t know of anything until 1671 when the new vicar of St Edburg’s, Rev. Samuel Blackwell, started a school in the chapel on the north side of the chancel.

By the time White Kennett became a curate under Rev. Blackwell in 1684, the chapel had been walled off from the rest of the church and converted into a proper schoolroom, and a school library had been established in a small room above the schoolroom (accessed via the door in the north-east corner of the building and up a spiral staircase). This included a number of chained volumes, books that were literally chained to the shelf, making them unable to be removed.

When the church was renovated in the 1860s the schoolroom was no longer needed, thanks to the National Schools having opened a few years earlier, so the blocked off arches were reopened and the upper room was removed completely. The books were then stored in the upper room of the church porch until this too was removed in the 1890s. At that point the books were sold to a dealer in London who, in turn, put them up for sale, as can be seen in the following article taken from the Bicester Advertiser, 20th March 1896:

A catalogue of second-hand books issued by a London bookseller this week contains some interesting items of "chained books" that formerly belonged to the library of Bicester School in the 17th century. Each of the thirteen volumes for sale is fitted with a brass ring, and they range in price from one to two guineas each.
The books were presented to the school by White Kennett, Matthew Bate, Abraham James, and others. It appears, according to Kennett, that the Augustine Priory in Bicester, about 1233, provided a school known as "Schola Barcestrenses". According to the note in the catalogue - "More than 100 years later a Schola Barcestrenses came into existence in Bicester itself; one of the 17th century grammar schools, which provided their early education for the sons of the gentry. The vicars for the time being undertook the mastership of the school, which was held in a part of the church bricked off for the purpose. This school possessed a library - no inconsiderable advantage in those days - and certain of the books were chained. All the books were kept over the church porch until its destruction in the present century."
According to the inscriptions written in the volumes the school was in a flourishing state from 1671 to 1692, the books being presented between those dates.