Library Spotlight: Edmund Geste - the Bibliophile Bishop pt 1 | Salisbury Cathedral

Search form

The Cathedral, Magna Carta and Refectory will be closed for visiting all day on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 and the morning of Saturday 23 October. Click here for opening times.


Library Spotlight: Edmund Geste - the Bibliophile Bishop pt 1

This blog was written by Library volunteer Ken Smith.  

You are here

Library Spotlight: Edmund Geste - the Bibliophile Bishop pt 1

Posted By : Emily Naish Friday 2nd February 2018

This blog was written by Library volunteer Ken Smith.


The Cathedral library contains thousands of books. Some of these are ancient, including Anglo-Saxon works and medieval volumes produced in Bishop Hermann’s cathedral at Old Sarum. Others are later, from Reformation times and yet others are relatively modern. Probably the largest single transfer of books into the library happened in 1577 when, after the death of Bishop Geste, his personal book collection was bequeathed to Salisbury Cathedral. Of the more than 900 books thus given, almost 700 are still in the library. They are a unique reflection of a man’s lifetime collection, for Bishop Geste was a bibliophile as well as a scholar.


Edmund Geste was born in Northallerton in Yorkshire sometime between 1514 and 1518. His background circumstances must have been wealthy enough to send the young Edmund to Eton, and in 1536, to King’s College, Cambridge. We know little of what Geste was like, except that he was a bookish, rather serious young man keenly interested in the religious controversies of his time. He lived in an age where the religion of the Monarch determined the religious affiliations of their subjects. When he went up to Cambridge, Henry VIII’s severance from the Church of Rome was showing its effects. For a theological “think-tank” as we might term it, Cambridge University was grappling with new ideas and ways of worshipping inspired by the rise of Protestantism in mainland Europe.


We have some clues as to what the young Geste may have been reading from his surviving books in the Cathedral library. There are books given to him by his uncle John Brandisbury. Some of these inscribed by Brandisbury are often of a decidedly Humanist stance and include a few by Erasmus. There are also early Lutheran works that might well have been smuggled into England. Clearly, Geste’s ideas were inclining towards reform rather than traditional Catholicism.


During the last years of Henry VIII’s reign, Geste, like many other theologians had to wrestle with the contradictions of changing religious belief. This conflict may be reflected in an annotation of his, written in a copy of a work by the Catholic George Witzel, where he says “How we may with a good conscience use and suffer ye Romyshe Masse”. Close to this note he has written the date 1542.


King Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his protestant son, the nine year old Edward VI.  By the late 1540s, Reformation changes were well under way in the English church. An example of this was the abolition of private Masses in King’s College chapel. This was bitterly opposed by the staunchly Catholic Provost of the college. This response may well have generated Geste’s sole work: “A treatise againste the privee Masse”. Geste dedicated this venture into print and controversy to his mentor, John Cheke, who became Provost in 1548.


Over the next few years, there were huge changes in the Church as an institution as well as in individual churches in towns and villages. The Latin mass was replaced by a service in English, altars were removed and plain communion tables put in their place. Priests could marry if they wished and the building of pulpits underlined the primacy of the sermon in spreading and explaining religious ideas. In some churches, wall paintings (like the Doom painting in St. Thomas’ church, Salisbury) were covered over, stained glass removed and religious images destroyed.


It is possible that Geste, though a reformer, was perhaps more conservative than others and may not have welcomed this Iconoclast zeal. In 1549, he was chosen to take part in the Cambridge disputation on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, held before royal visitors to the university. He and others put forward arguments against transubstantiation*. In 1550 he again took part in a university disputation on the topic of Christ’s descent into hell. Later that year he was granted his B.D. after six years of study. He was then offered a fellowship at King’s College, which he accepted.


During his time at King’s College, both as a student and as a fellow, Geste collected a growing number of books. This was not merely bibliophilia. Many of his books currently in the Cathedral library contain notes and annotations in his hand. These books had clearly been used to inform and develop his evolving doctrinal ideas.


Several volumes were from continental Europe where competing versions of Protestantism had emerged. As was often the practice at this time, continental imprints came to England as sheets to be bound up later. This is evident as some of Geste’s notes and jottings were obscured by later binding. I was interested to see that some of the bindings were re-used manuscript pages from medieval missals or psalters. After the dissolution of the monasteries, huge numbers of such manuscripts were in circulation and regarded as so much waste paper. As John Aubrey noted: “in those days the manuscripts flew about like butterflies”.


The issue of transubstantiation was one which Geste and other theologians were debating and considering at this time. In the Catholic tradition the bread and wine are, during the sacrament of the Eucharist, literally turned into the body and blood of Christ. Luther’s view on this was that the sacrament did produce the real presence of Christ and he defended adoration of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Conversely, other reformers, such as Zwingli taught that the sacrament is purely symbolic and memorial in character following the words of Jesus “do this in remembrance of me”.


Issues such as this, which may seem somewhat academic to modern eyes, were to have dramatic effects on the lives of Geste and others. This was brought sharply into focus in1553, when King Edward died of illness, aged just fifteen years. Edward was succeeded as monarch by his half-sister Mary, who was determined to restore the “true” religion as she saw it. For Geste and other prominent theologians who had publically stated their opposition to the idea of transubstantiation and the supremacy of the Pope, it was ominous news.


How would the new Queen, known for her fierce piety, view those influential men who had denied key Catholic beliefs? Imprisonment or even death might be justified for such heresy.


*The idea that during the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ


To be continued in part II