Export bar on rare manuscript discovered at Alnwick Castle

A page from the manuscript of the translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion. Picture by Sotheby's.
A page from the manuscript of the translation of Erasmus' Enchiridion. Picture by Sotheby's.

The Government has frozen the export of a rare 16th-century manuscript, whose significance was only recognised after being put up for sale by the Duke of Northumberland.

It is thought to be the earliest surviving English translation of any work by the humanist scholar and reformer Desiderius Erasmus and will be exported overseas unless money can be found to match the asking price of £242,500.

Erasmus was one of the most important intellectual influences on the English Reformation, and this manuscript is the earliest contemporary English translation of his popular work, the Enchiridion militis Christiani, or Handbook of the Christian knight, a guide to devotion which attracted widespread attention across Europe when published.

The manuscript on paper, written in 1523 most likely by a professional scribe, comprises 145 leaves and may represent a ‘lost’ translation of the Enchiridion by the religious reformer William Tyndale.

The volume has been in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection at Alnwick Castle since at least 1872, but its true significance only became clear when it was put up for sale last year.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has deferred granting an export licence for the piece following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England.

The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that it is of outstanding significance for the study of cultural movements towards the Reformation in England, the earliest known translation of Erasmus into English, and of significance for the study of scholastic links between Erasmus and Tyndale.

Mr Vaizey said: “This manuscript from the 16th century is a rare and important work that is recognised for its impact in pre-Reformation England as well as being considered as a formative text for Henry VIII’s court. I sincerely hope that funds can be raised for a matching offer to keep the manuscript in the UK.”

Christopher Wright, from the RCEWA, added: “This newly-discovered translation of one of Erasmus’s most popular works would be of great interest in its own right. The tantalising possibility that it is the hitherto lost translation by William Tyndale confers on it international importance.”

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred for a period ending at midnight on April 13. This period may be extended until July 13 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the piece is made at the recommended price of £242,500.

In July 2014, a private collection of treasures belonging to the Duke of Northumberland made £32million at auction at Sotheby’s in London.

The items, some of which had been in the estate for hundreds of years, were sold to pay for damage to Northumberland Estates-owned land at Newburn, which was seriously affected by flooding when a culvert collapsed.


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