400 Years of the Bodleian Library

Celebrating the library and the University of Oxford’s greatest benefactor.

Bodleian Library, Oxford: interior panoramic view. Line engraving by G. Hollis after J.C. Buckler.
Bodleian Library, Oxford: interior panoramic view. Line engraving by G. Hollis after J.C. Buckler. Wellcome Collection.

On 8 November 2002, the Bodleian Library in Oxford celebrated the 400th anniversary of its opening. Refounded in 1602 on the site of the earlier university library, it has since 1604 borne by royal decree the name of the remarkable man whose endowment remains the greatest benefaction ever received by the University of Oxford.

The first university library, housed in a room above the convocation house next to St Mary’s Church, was transferred in 1488 to much grander premises over the new Divinity School to accommodate the gifts of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. Here, lacking the resources to acquire printed books, it declined until it was finally dispersed by the zealously reforming Commissioners of Edward VI. The room remained empty until Thomas Bodley brought about the library’s revival, and indeed a renaissance of learning in Oxford.


Early years

In The Life of Sr Thomas Bodley, the Honourable Founder of the Publique Library in the University of Oxford. Written by Himselfe, 1647 [written in 1608] the founder narrates the course of his life up to the foundation. He was born in Exeter on March 25th, 1545, the eldest son of John Bodley, a Protestant merchant who during the reign of Mary Tudor sought refuge with his family in Geneva. It was here, from the age of twelve, that Thomas began his education, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and becoming at fourteen one of the first students at Calvin’s new Académie. On the accession of Elizabeth, the Marian exiles returned to England, and in 1559 Thomas went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, becoming at the age of nineteen a fellow of Merton College, where he had a distinguished career teaching Greek and science, and promoting Hebrew studies. But he also displayed a capacity for public office that was the basis of his career in politics and diplomacy.

In 1576 he began a long period of travel in Europe, visiting France, Germany and Italy, ‘for attaining to the knowledge of some speciall moderne tongues, and for the encrease of my experience in the managing of affaires, being wholly then addicted to employ my selfe, and all my cares, in the publique service of the State’. After this apprenticeship he held a succession of public offices. He became a gentleman usher to the Queen, and was member of parliament for Portsmouth in 1584 and for St German’s in 1586. But it was his foreign service that was most notable. He appears to have been a member of Walsingham’s and Burleigh’s intelligence and counter-espionage networks. And he was despatched on several embassies for the Queen: to the North German Protestant Princes in 1585; in May 1588 to Henri III of France; and with great urgency in July 1588 to the King of Denmark and the Hanseatic towns, urging them not to offer help to the Spanish Armada. His longest period of service was from 1588 to 1596 as Elizabeth’s senior representative on the Council of State of the Netherlands. Here, his almost impossible task was to persuade the Estates General to honour the terms of the Treaty of Nonsuch, most particularly in the matter of their repayment of Elizabeth’s loans. He wearied of an irksome assignment from which he often asked to be recalled, and was finally released in 1596.


Bodley’s library

Now occurred the crisis of his life that was to have such great consequences. His ambition to become Secretary of State was compromised in the rivalry of the Cecil family and the Earl of Essex. Bodley, no doubt sensing danger, strategically took his ‘full farewell of State imployments’, refusing henceforth all public office. He rapidly concluded that the best use of his abilities would be to ‘set up my Staffe at the Library doore in Oxford ... which then in every part lay ruined and wast’. Bodley wrote to the Vice-Chancellor on February 23rd, 1598, ‘I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it [the library] again to his former use: and to make it fitte, and handsome with seates, and shelfes, and Deskes, and all that may be needfull, to stirre up other mens benevolence’. The offer had clearly been carefully prepared; he was already planning endowment; and within less than a month announced that he had obtained timber for the furnishings, and that he and his close friend and advisor, Henry Savile, the polymath Warden of Merton, were about to come forward with a new design, on the model of the shelving introduced, for the first time in England, by Savile in the Merton library just ten years earlier.

The Library was a project of vast ambition. The Statute of 1610 confidently asserts that ‘the European world will never look on one more perfect or better equipped with God’s aid for the advancement of good letters’; and an inscription over the entrance proclaims that Bodley founded it for the University of Oxford and the Republic of the Learned.

Bodley, clearly aware of his qualifications for the task, enumerates them in the autobiography as leisure, learning, money and friends. His ‘leisure’ was completely filled with an unremitting concentration on all aspects of the library, which may be seen in the long series of letters which he wrote to his first Keeper, Thomas James. The learning which Bodley considered essential is of course shown in the choice of books. He was advised by his booksellers and friends in Academia, but the ultimate decisions were Bodley’s. The width of his intellectual horizons, and his interest in language, are manifested in the vast range of subjects acquired, and their linguistic diversity.  Many European languages, but also Oriental languages are represented, such as Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Hebrew and even Chinese. The comprehensiveness and foresight of this collecting policy culminated in perhaps the most historically important legacy of Bodley’s vision: the agreement negotiated in 1610 with the Stationers’ Company for the supply of any book published in this country, the basis of the privilege of legal or ‘copyright’ deposit which the Bodleian still enjoys, together now with the British Library and others.


Inspiring benevolence

Bodley, aware of the poverty of the earlier library, attached great importance to money. He was himself rich, having famously married the rich widow Ann Ball of Totnes, and inherited substantially from his father. He was also an adept investor in property, and left the library well endowed on his death. And he was happy in his ‘choice company of honourable friends’. He had many intersecting networks of potential benefactors, and was most successful in stirring up their benevolence, using such methods as the prominent display in the library of a splendidly illuminated benefactors’ register. The first major donation was of 222 books given by the Earl of Essex, spoils of his expedition to Cadiz and Faro. Six members of the Privy Council appear in the register, which is almost a who’s who of the worlds of politics, the church and academia. The last groups in particular were instrumental in contributing to the library’s fame as a repository for many of the manuscripts alienated from religious houses at the Dissolution.

This breadth of vision, supported by a tireless devotion, sometimes viewed by his contemporaries as obsession, enabled Bodley to establish what was immediately recognised as the greatest library of its day, and the first that was to open its doors not merely to the University, but to the whole ‘Republic of the Learned’. It has given the founder a fame surpassing any he might have won had he remained in the world of politics.