Holkham's best kept secret revealed

For more than 130 years, it was one of Norfolk's greatest treasures - and best-kept secrets.But in 1952, after being one of the shining stars in a galaxy of priceless books at Holkham Hall, near Wells, it was sold to the British Library to help pay off death duties.

For more than 130 years, it was one of Norfolk's greatest treasures - and best-kept secrets.

But in 1952, after being one of the shining stars in a galaxy of priceless books at Holkham Hall, near Wells, it was sold to the British Library to help pay off death duties.

Now, after fascinating visitors for 55 years, the 14th century Holkham Bible is finally going to be available to the public.

Years of painstaking work culminates in the publication today of copies of the unique medieval manuscript.

For the princely sum of £50, buyers will be able to look at colourful, cartoon-style illustrations including:

Noah releasing a dove from his ark - with dead people and animals floating in the water below

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the infant Jesus sliding down a sunbeam

Jesus miraculously outdoing his playmates

a depiction of Jesus between the two thieves on their crosses - with the thief who turned to Jesus depicted as fair and the other “dark and sinister”

parents hiding their children from Jesus in an oven containing pigs. They become pigs. Jesus is then apprenticed to a dyer. He puts cloths of all colours in one vat, but they all come out the right colours.

The manuscript is a “bible” in the loosest terms. It includes stories and illustrations found in the Bible, but also a host of apocryphal episodes.

It is believed to have been made in London in the mid-14th century, about the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth.

It was produced for a Dominican friar, probably as a teaching aid for the rich and famous. The friar is depicted at the opening of the book, telling the artist “now do it well and thoroughly, for it will be shown to important people”.

It was bought on behalf of Thomas Coke, the Earl of Leicester, from the auctioneer Winstanley for £30 in 1816. The auctioneer had bought it for £28 from a Catholic priest who brought it over from the continent.

For 136 years it was a key part of the Holkham library, one of the most celebrated collections of books and manuscripts in Europe.

But in 1952 the then Earl of Leicester sold it along with several other manuscripts for £95,000 to pay off death duties.

The Holkham Bible illustrations are given added character by the inclusion of 14th century costumes, tools, weapons and buildings, and give a documentary-style glimpse into life in the 1300s.

The copies of the book are accompanied by a commentary by Michelle Brown, a British Library expert on illuminated manuscripts.

She said: “The Holkham Bible picture book is surely the most heartfelt of medieval manuscripts, and one of the most unusual. It is a unique example of medieval culture.

“It is a book you never tire of, for matter how many times you look through it, there is more to admire and to intrigue. Every time I open the book and see the glowing colours and lively scenes - the sheer joie de vivre - I'm enchanted all over again.”

The manuscript has been painstakingly photographed and reproduced on special paper designed to replicate the look and feel of the original vellum. It also includes a full transcript and translation of the text, which was originally in Anglo-Norman French, the literary language most familiar to English nobles.

t The Holkham Bible: A Facsimile is available from the British Library Shop on 0207 412 7735 or via email bl-bookshop@bl.uk or online via www.bl.uk/shop.

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