THE British Library last night denied misleading campaigners fighting for the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels after it emerged hundreds of copies were for sale on the Internet.

Now local historians are to relaunch the campaign to have the 7th Century gospels returned to the region.

The North-East had hoped to win the Gospels' return from the British Library, in London, so they could go on display at their island birthplace in Northumberland.

They have been kept in London since they were seized by Henry VIII in 1537.

The argument appeared to have been settled in January when library officials agreed to pay for two replica copies to be made - one for Durham Cathedral, the other for a heritage centre on Lindisfarne.

When the replica went on display in Durham earlier this year, more than 800 people an hour queued to see them.

But now the North-South dispute has re-ignited after it was revealed that the copies were far from unique.

Outraged campaign chiefs said they were told that only four copies were being made - two for the region, a spare for the British Library and one for the Vatican, in Rome.

They feel they were duped into dropping their protest, after learning the British Library has made nearly 1,000 editions of the book.

For sale via the Internet and priced £13,000 each, the sell-off could net the library £10m.

Mike Tickell chairman of the Northumbrian Association which led the campaign, said: "We were very shocked when we found out there were 980 copies. It makes them more available to people, but it is not just about that. The Gospels are a spiritual icon. The original was kept in Durham for hundreds of years and that is where it belongs.

"I am sure the Scots would not be happy with a facsimile copy of the Stone of Scone, or the Greeks satisfied with a plaster cast of the Elgin Marbles.

"If the Elgin Marbles go to a British Museum outpost in Greece, we would love to have the Lindisfarne Gospels at a British Library outpost in Durham."

Huge celebrations took place to mark the arrival of the Gospels copy in Durham in May, with a dedication service at the cathedral, filmed by the British Library.

Campaigner John Danby said: "The dedication ceremony now looks like it was an extended advert to help them sell other copies. When there were only a few copies, we maybe had less of a chance of getting back the original - now there is no excuse."

A British Library spokeswoman denied the campaigners had been misled and said it had never hid the fact that more copies would be made.

"These are very expensive items and it would not be possible to produce just four," she said. "We are a publicly funded body and had to work with a private partner on this."

The former Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Michael Turnbull, who retired this year, led the campaign to bring the precious book back to its rightful home.

The Northumbrian Association - which counts the former bishop as a member - plans to ask for support from his successor, Tom Wright. If he agrees, the crusade to bring back the book would start in earnest next spring.

The 7th Century tome was laboriously produced by Eadfrith and the monks of Lindisfarne, in honour of St Cuthbert, whose shrine is in Durham Cathedral.

After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the Gospels went into private hands, until 1973, when they became part of the British Library collection.

A spokeswoman for the library said: "The Lindisfarne Gospels are 1,200 years old - they simply cannot be moved.

"It is a very fragile document and we have to preserve it for future generations.

"Producing these copies does not cheapen the original. It makes it much more accessible - for the first time, people can actually see and touch the pages."

A third copy of The Gospels has arrived at Bede's World in Jarrow, South Tyneside. It will spend five weeks there, before being moved to Hartlepool Museum, Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Hexham Abbey and then Chester-le-Street library.