Matthew Parker (1504–75)was the foremost collector of medieval manuscripts in the Elizabethan period. The library that he assembled acquired national importance in his own time, and – thanks to Parker’s provision for its preservation after his death – it has retained that importance to this day. When Parker became archbishop of Canterbury in 1559, the threat of neglect, loss and destruction still hung over large numbers of books that had belonged to the religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII. The intervening years had witnessed valiant efforts by individual collectors, who, however, had tended to work only on a local or regional scale. What was lacking was a nationally coordinated initiative to salvage the written record of England’s medieval past. It was just such an initiative that Parker succeeded in instigating and overseeing, even as he laboured to secure the Elizabethan settlement of the Church of England.
During the years of Parker’s archiepiscopate, more than 500 manuscripts passed into his hands. These manuscripts included such outstanding treasures as the twelfth-century Bury and Dover Bibles, landmarks of English Romanesque illumination (CCCC, MSS 2 and 3–4); the earliest surviving copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (CCCC, MS 173); a two-volume copy of Matthew Paris’s Chronica maiora illustrated by Matthew himself (CCCC, MSS 26 and 16); and a fine copy of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with a frontispiece showing the author publicly declaiming his work (CCCC, MS 61). Even more important than the highlights of the collection, however, were its solid depth and the wide geographic range of the source libraries from which it was garnered.