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14 November 2020

Following yesterday’s exploration of the library at Felbrigg Hall, part of ACE’s series of short cultural histories, today we focus on another outstanding collection of books in the ownership of the National Trust.


Blickling Hall
Ten miles further inland from Felbrigg Hall, towards the city of Norwich, stands another notable country house. Blickling Hall, also built in the 17th century, is an impressive Jacobean mansion particularly noted for its historical connections with the Boleyn family. It is, however, also home to a very important 18th century library.
The library at Blickling contains over 12,500 books, making it the largest single collection in the hands of the National Trust, and one of Britain’s finest private libraries. As at Felbrigg, this was not a collection put together for show, but a serious scholarly library. The books were originally acquired by Sir Richard Ellys, a cousin of the Hobarts family at Blickling, for his library in London, and span a variety of learned subjects: from the classics to theological texts, antiquarian volumes to maps, and books on the arts. 

Sir Richard was interested in the history and provenance of his books, and their value for him must have lain not only in their contents and use for study – he made his London library available to scholars – but in their worth as objects and artefacts in their own right. Again, he acquired books through the use of an agent, who attended auctions on the continent on his behalf.

The books came to Blickling in the 1740s, and the Long Gallery was turned into an impressive library to house the many volumes. Often Elizabethan and Jacobean country houses were built with long galleries as spaces in which to house collections of family portraits, and to be used for exercise during inclement weather. At Blickling, this room was repurposed to accommodate the collection of books, and a series of portraits previously on display in the Long Gallery were relocated to the Great Hall.

The library at Blickling contains over 12,500 books, making it the largest single collection in the hands of the National Trust

Highlights of the Blickling library include astronomical works such as De Sphaera Mundi, dating from 1478, and a copy of the Eliot Indian Bible, dating from 1663. A project inaugurated in 2015 by the University of East Anglia in partnership with the Norfolk Heritage Centre, entitled ‘Unlocking the Archive’, has recently collaborated with the Blickling Estate, with the aim of shedding light on this great library’s significant holdings of Renaissance books.
Blickling Hall library
The COVID-19 pandemic has not put a stop to this project, and this year has in fact seen the creation of an exciting interactive digital resource, ‘Discover Historic Books’, enabling audiences at home to take a look inside some of the fascinating early modern books in East Anglian collections. For those wishing to engage in some ‘armchair travel’, why not take a look at and learn about this 1706 volume from the Blickling library, documenting Three Years’ Travel from Moscow Over-Land to China; or for those with younger family members looking ahead to the festive season, how about a description of reindeer in a 1674 History of Lapland?

We hope you have enjoyed this brief exploration of these fascinating libraries, which we look forward to visiting in person on our tour of Country Houses of North Norfolk with architectural historian Oliver Gerrish in September 2021.
In the meantime, for those searching for some inspiration for their own reading this winter, look out for a new blog post on the ACE website in the coming weeks, featuring a review of Tour Director Imogen Corrigan’s recent book, Stone on Stone: The Men Who Built the Cathedrals. Moreover, those keen to learn more about the remarkable histories and contents of Britain’s stately homes may find some recommendations of interest in ACE’s free downloadable Country Houses reading list here

Later in November, we will continue our series of ‘ACE stories for the culturally curious’, turning our attention to the subject of ‘A Good Walk’, exploring the significance of walking not only in daily life but also in great art.
"Blickling Hall library", by Martin Pettitt, licensed under CC BY 2.0
"Blickling Hall", by maff257, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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