Many books produced in England during the 16th and 17th centuries were bound in treated animal skins, such as calfskin or pigskin. Some books, however, were bound in other materials, including embroidered canvas, velvet and satin.

During the Tudor and Stuart periods, embroidered bookbindings were especially popular among the gentry for small-format books of personal devotion, including Psalms and Bibles. The majority of these were created by professional embroiderers, though they were sometimes made by their female book owners.

This 17th-century Bible is the only example of an embroidered binding in the Cathedral’s collection. The original needlework would have covered every inch of the binding, though parts have since worn away to reveal the canvas base cloth beneath.

The centre roundel on both the front and back cover appear to depict the same image of an elephant in front of a pool of water, with a palm tree behind and possibly a storm cloud in the sky, with bolts of lightning.

Very few people in 17th-century England would have had the opportunity to see an elephant. Nevertheless, the elephant as a symbol of strength, intelligence and gentleness would have been familiar. The Christian significance of the elephant was noted, among others, by Edward Topsell (c.1572-1625) in his work, The Historie of Foure-footed Beasts (1607), “There is no creature among al the Beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisedome of almighty God as the Elephant”.

Flowers – another popular subject for 17th-century embroidered bindings – feature in the surrounding compartments and on the spine. The resulting effect is a very beautiful and unique example of how books intended for their personal use of ordinary individuals could themselves be decorated and made to reflect deeper meanings.


Further reading

Davenport, C. (1899) English Embroidered Bookbindings.

Pearson, D. English Book-binding Styles, 1450-1800 [see esp. page 21]

Topsell, E. (1607) The Historie of Foure-footed Beasts.