Home » Discover St John's

College Library treasures on display

The Old Library at St John's. Credit: Paul Everest

An extremely rare first edition of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’; a 16th-century map showing the dramatic defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the scrap book of a Professor of Arabic who, while on a secret service mission, met an early death in the Middle-Eastern wilderness:  As part of Open Cambridge, St John’s College is putting some of the most intriguing items in its Library collections on display.  

On a summer night in 1882, Edward Henry Palmer set out into the desert of the Sinai Peninsular carrying £3000 of English gold. A gifted linguist who had befriended many Bedouin sheikhs during previous adventures in the Middle East, Palmer had been commissioned by the British secret service to help secure the immunity of the Suez Canal from Arab attack.

However, the mission came to an abrupt end when Palmer and his companions were ambushed by Bedouin thieves. The gold was stolen and Palmer was shot.

Palmer was a Fellow of St John’s and his scrapbook documenting his travels is now held in the College’s Special Collections. The watercolour landscapes show his love of arid desert scenes and his passion for the adventure, culture and language he encountered in the Middle East.

The scrapbook is just one of the fascinating items going on display as part of an exhibition for Open Cambridge on 8 & 9 September. The display brings together some of the most spectacular items in the College’s collections, treasured for their beauty, historic value, uniqueness, fascinating content and personal associations.

Highlights include a rare first edition of Thomas More’s satire Utopia. The edition, published in 1516, contains an unusual map of the fictional island itself on the title page along with an example of the language used by its inhabitants.

The display will also feature a map, drawn up in 1590, showing the English victory over the Spanish Armada. Wind, tides, gun fire and a threatening dark mass representing the Armada as it moved up the channel all form part of its dramatic depiction of the battle.

Discover the Library treasures of St John’s College is going on display in the Old Library on Friday 8 September and Saturday 9 September from 2pm – 4.30pm.

The Library, opened in 1624, is one of the grandest in Cambridge. Its west-facing oriel window looks over the River Cam and the carved original wooden bookcases hold a diverse collection of around 30,000 books ranging widely in time and provenance.