Volume 42 - Autumn 2016


The King's Grave

A Rebinding in the 1485 Style - by Michael Kelly

This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of 'Bookbinder' and appears here with the kind permission of its author Michael Kelly and the Society of Bookbinders.


For the citizens of Leicester it was a sensation when, in September 2013, Richard III's grave was discovered under a site where many of them might actually have parked their cars. For some members of the SoB Midland Region, the opportunity to explore the idea of binding The King's Grave, Philippa Langley and Michael Jones's book about this remarkable find, using - at least in part - fifteenth-century materials and techniques, proved irresistible. Our two regular Leicestershire classes, in Quorn and Wigston, decided to adopt this venture as a class project and, in the end, some fifteen of us bound a copy of the book under the direction of our tutor, Nick Wells.

The Kings Grave

Some of the binders with their finished books. Nick Wells is second from the left

Most of us knew very little or nothing about fifteenth-century bindings, so some background research was necessary. One of the first things we did was contact the Librarian at Leicester University, who kindly provided access to a copy of the Vulgate version of the Bible, bound by Johann Ameribachi of Basle in 1481¹. Although much of the construction of this binding lies hidden beneath its outer coverings, the presence of vellum stubs can be felt beside the spine beneath the endpapers. The leather that once formed the turned-in head- and tailbands has worn away to show the stitching on a leather core. This is so tightly adherent to the book-block that there is no way that the leather could have been 'tucked in' in the modern way.

The Kings Grave

Vulgate version of the Bible, bound by Johann Ameribachi in 1481¹

We also visited Leicestershire Record Office where we learned about papermaking in this period, and we consulted the standard texts, David Pearson's English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800, and Bernard Middleton's A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique.

Books were, of course, precious objects at the time of the Battle of Bosworth, and were built to last for many years. Boards were made of wood; paper was hand-made from cotton, linen, and hemp; reinforcers were made of vellum, and thongs of leather. Old pieces of parchment were cut up and reused to reinforce the spine. As far as finishing was concerned, external gold tooling had not yet come in and blind pressure stamping was used to decorate the covers. Lettering on leather was not widespread, particularly on the spine, where it was difficult to place on a curve which was often uneven.

As far as our materials were concerned, we wanted to be as 'authentic' as possible. Obviously, we were setting out to bind a twenty-first-century book inside a fifteenth-century carapace so a good deal of compromise was inevitable. But deciding how, and when, to compromise was, in itself, an experience from which we learned a great deal. This is an account of the methods that we, with Nick's expert guidance, adopted.


We bought copies of the book in the usual way. Although it is published as a hardback, it is perfect bound, which in itself created something of a dilemma. Short of separating the book into individual pages and copying them onto larger sheets of paper to form folded sections, which was clearly not practicable, we decided to divide the text-block into ten arbitrary sections and carefully sew through the existing adhesive onto leather thongs, taking care not to over-tighten the thread. We planned to rely on the later reinforcement of the spine with vellum to maintain its integrity. So the first thing we did was to strip off the boards and endpapers to leave just the text-block. We had to sand down the spine to remove as much as we could of the rubbery glue used to hold it all together in order to make it possible to pierce it with our sewing needle.


We did compromise on adhesives, using modern water-soluble PVA and starch rather than animal glues as we felt we did not have the experience and expertise to use these odiferous, hot, and unpleasant liquids. Our need to build up the spine provided further justification for using PVA, with its strength and flexibility.


Blank vellum was commonly used for endpapers throughout the fifteenth century, though plain paper came in during its second half. Often waste pieces of vellum or paper were used, with or without stubs of vellum or parchment, and we opted for the method where stubs were used. We bought handmade paper from Griffen Mill², and used vellum strips 5cm wide, folded asymmetrically, 3cm and 2cm, as stubs. The papers were folded in the usual way and glued to the folded vellum strips with the narrow side towards the inner part of the text-block.


In the fifteenth century, thongs were most commonly made from narrow strips of tanned or tawed skin. These were usually folded double. Hemp cords only started to appear about two hundred years later in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

We used three vegetable-tanned calf thongs, splitting them horizontally over the width of the spine so we could employ the figure-of-eight stitch described in A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique³.

The Kings Grave

Figure-of-eight stitch being sewn into a split thong

In this image, the sewer's right hand can be seen holding the vellum stub steady as it is attached to both the text-block and the thong. We found that this task was not easy as we needed to pierce the strong rubbery glue in the spine that held the sections together. Our solution was to use a surgical needle-holder to grasp the needle.

The Kings Grave

A volume with the sewing completed


The boards were of mature seasoned English oak, which is quite hard to find. We had the wood cut to size for us, into flat pieces 0.85cm thick, 24.4cm high and 15cm wide. First, we chamfered all four edges by planing and sanding them. Then we rounded the corners at the fore-edge as symmetrically as possible to accommodate the chamfers. The sides abutting the spine were shaped to fit the swell of its curve.

The Kings Grave

Thongs laced into a slotted and grooved board.

After this, we used a hand-held chisel to cut three pairs of slots in each board so that they could be laced on using the leather thongs. We made grooves between the slots nearest the spine and the spine-edge of the board so that the thongs lay flush with the surface.

The Kings Grave

Trimming off surplus leather from the thongs.

Once laced on, the thongs were glued to the boards and the surplus at the free ends trimmed off.

Finally, the free ends were wedged in using scrap pieces of oak. Then the free surface of the vellum strip was glued to the inner surface of the board using PVA which, when dry, conferred an amazing level of solidity to the hinge: we could easily see how important this was in the construction of a long-lasting volume.

Head and Tail Bands

In the fifteenth century, headbands were often sewn in continuity with the stitching that secured the sections, but occasionally they were constructed separately, and this is what we elected to do. For the core, fifteenth-century binders used a range of materials, including rolled paper, vellum, parchment, and leather. We used strips of vegetable-tanned calf like those we had seen on the Basle bible. Sewing them onto the head and tail of the spine was difficult because of the force needed to pierce the glue. We discovered that placing the book tightly but obliquely in a lying press helped a lot. The linen thread was carried over and over the core in tight turns. At every fifth turn we pierced the spine and went into the relevant section. As with the thongs, we found the sewing difficult because of the force needed to pierce the glue.

The Kings Grave

Headband partly sewn.

Building up the Spine

We built up the spine using multiple layers of old parchment, cut and glued to fill in the gaps between the thongs and the thongs and headbands. This also conferred solidity on the book.

The Kings Grave

Book ready to be covered in leather.

The Leather Covering

Deerskin, calfskin, sheepskin, goatskin, vellum, and alum-tawed skins were all used to cover books in the fifteenth century, but the kind of leather most commonly used was brown vegetable tanned calfskin, so that is what we chose. Although our leather was both beautiful and authentic it was pretty thick and inflexible, so paring was a real challenge. We used a combination of hand-paring, a paring machine, and a sanding block. (We discovered that sandpaper was first described in thirteenth-century China, but we are not sure when it reached Europe!)

We made paper templates against which to cut our leather and, once cut, pared the edges as well as the grooves for the hinges. We then pasted it and, having done this, were rather taken aback to find that the damp leather stretched a good one to two centimetres transversely and rather less vertically. This threw out all our measurements and the accuracy of the paring, so emergency re-paring was necessary. When we applied the leather to the oak boards they absorbed a lot of paste so we ended up coating both them and the leather.

The corners were nowhere near as difficult as we had anticipated because, once wetted by the paste, the leather became springy and stretchy and very forgiving. Thus it was possible to turn the flaps back repeatedly, cutting away and re-paring until they looked very good indeed. However the spine was difficult because much more paste was needed on our old parchment layers than is usual when binding a modern book, and we might have done better to have used PVA. Hard work with the bone folder produced a reasonable result, but there was a tendency for the leather to lift at the hinges.

Head and Tailcaps, and Turn-Ins

In the fifteenth century, head- and tailcaps were often folded over the top of the headband and then cut off flush with its inner lower border so this is what we did. The medieval turn-in was reinforced by a series of separate through-and-through stitches. We found these incredibly hard to insert evenly and so, it appears, did most fifteenth-century binders. In the end most of us omitted them.

Board Warping

Somewhat to our surprise, when the leather dried out the boards warped concavely quite badly. (We had imagined that oak would resist this tendency more than millboard.) Several layers of paper pasted on the inner surfaces of the boards rectified this problem in the usual way. Some of us did this as a preventive measure before applying the leather and carried the paper right up to the edge of the wood, whereas others inserted the paper as a 'filler' after the leather had been applied and turned in. Both systems seemed to work equally well.


From about 1460 onwards, a pattern frequently used for decoration, especially for larger books, is known as the 'diaper'. This is a framework of diamond- or lozenge-shaped panels, either left blank or filled in with a separate design such as a fleur-de-lis. In the period we are talking about, both diaper outline and any filler were usually applied using hand tools as cold stamps on the damp leather. Sometimes tools were heated to a moderate temperature, though nothing like the 80ºC now used for gold tooling.

The Kings Grave

Specially commissioned whole-panel plate in the diaper design, and other finishing tools.

After discovering that whole-panel stamps made out of wood or metal were used from the 1490s, we decided to commission one in the diaper pattern from Tomlinsons, a local firm of die-makers. This was made of aluminium. Most of us used the stamp to emboss our covers, first placing a thin steel plate under the board to protect the book-block and provide support, and then carefully positioning the stamp on the dampened leather. A minute's steady hard pressure in the nipping press secured a very satisfyingly even result. Those with more confidence in hand tooling (including our tutor!) used the curved brass hand tool in the above image The fleurs-de-lis were applied by hand, centred by eye, in the diamonds of the panel. We discovered that heating the tools to a modest 50º&C created a much sharper image than using them cold.

The Kings Grave

Some of the finished books.


All fifteen of us managed to produce decently bound books. We were surprised at how much time and effort - probably forty hours' work, if not more - went into the rebinding of just one book, despite having the advantages of modern tools and materials. To a purist, all of our volumes have defects and imperfections, but when you go back and look at the genuine medieval articles in the great libraries, as we have done, our ancestors produced bindings with a great many of what these days would be considered 'faults'. They were plainly much more interested in creating tomes that would be durable rather than symmetrically perfect.


1. This volume was placed on Richard III's coffin during the Service of Compline for the reception of his remains held in Leicester Cathedral on 22 March 2015.
2. Merlin 115gm yellow toned mediaeval laid paper.
3. See A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique, (1978 edn), p.16.


It is a pleasure to acknowledge the inspiration, drive, and expertise of our tutor, Nick Wells, who conceived this project, did the research, and took it through with us in our bookbinding classes at Leicester and Quorn. I have only been the scribe. The Librarian at Leicester University was immensely accommodating in providing access to their 1481 Bible. I am also grateful to David Cotton and John Hawkins, who advised on the drafts of this manuscript.


The Kings Grave

Michael Kelly is a semi-retired consultant surgeon in Leicester who many years ago had his surgical thesis bound in full leather in Cambridge. This made him decide that, when he eventually retired, he would take up craft bookbinding. In 2007, he attended one of Nick Wells' Saturday Taster Classes in Quorn. Inspired by this, he joined the Leicester College Evening Class under the late George Mottram. Michael now reckons that he has progressed from 'complete novice' to 'fairly adequate'. He is the Midlands Representative on the Society of Bookbinders National Council. When choosing leather for a new bookbinding or book repair an understanding of this material can assist in deciding on the best leather for the job. This includes recognising the animal species, how the leather was tanned and dyed and whether the leather was finished with a pigmented and embossed surface finish. These are just some of the processes that influence the final look, workability and durability of leather for bookbinding.


Skin Deep - Volume 42 - Autumn 2016

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