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As the Bodleian Library celebrates its 400th anniversary, Mary Clapinson remembers its far-sighted founder


Mary Clapinson


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Sir Thomas Bodley and his Library

Volume 14 Number 2, Hilary 2002

The Bodleian Library, founded by the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of its opening. Bodley's contemporaries were quick to recognise the grandeur of his vision and the vastness of his benefaction to the University. Within six months of Bodley's offering at his own cost to re-establish the University's library, in August 1598, Richard Haydocke, Fellow of New College, dedicated his translation of an Italian treatise on the art of painting to Bodley, acknowledging his 'exceeding love towards this our University'. A few years later the Oxford poet Samuel Daniel prefaced a presentation copy of his works with a dedicatory poem describing the newly founded library as 'this goodly Magazine of witte' and its founder as one 'whose care hath beene / To gather all what ever might impart / Delight or Profite to Posteritie'. His contemporaries' lavish praise of Thomas Bodley as the Mycenas or the Ptolemy of his age, whose library would serve the University and the world for centuries to come, has been amply justified.

Thomas Bodley received his early education in the Geneva of John Calvin, where his father, an Exeter merchant and zealous Protestant, sought refuge in the reign of Mary Tudor. Shortly after the family's return to England on the accession of Queen Elizabeth, Thomas came to Oxford to pursue his studies. He graduated in 1563, and the following year became a Fellow of Merton, where he lectured in Greek and promoted the study of Hebrew. His years abroad had broadened his horizons and by 1576 he 'waxed desirous to travell beyond the Seas' with a view to entering 'the publique service of the state'.

Bodley spent four years travelling on the Continent, improving his Italian, French and Spanish. A fascinating relic of his sightseeing survives in the Bodleian: his own copy of a 1575 Spanish version of Girolamo Franzini's guidebook to Rome. Bodley resigned his fellowship at Merton on his marriage in 1586, and went to The Hague in 1588 as envoy to the United Provinces. It proved a thankless posting, with Anglo-Dutch relations frequently strained to breaking point. Bodley graphically described his constant struggles 'as if I shoulde strive to keepe water in a sive'. His hopes of higher office were thwarted by the rivalry between the Cecil family and the Earl of Essex, and in 1597 he took his 'full farewell of State imployments'. Nevertheless, duty, public expectation and personal inclination led him to seek some sphere in which he could 'doe the true part of a profitable member in the State'. To Oxford's lasting benefit, he identified the re-establishment of the University's long-neglected library as the focus of his contribution to the public good.

The first University library, founded by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, had in the mid-14th century been housed in a room adjoining the church of St Mary the Virgin. The gift to the University between 1439 and 1444 of 279 manuscripts from Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of King Henry V, prompted the building of a quiet library room over the Divinity School. Completed in 1488, this second University library lasted only about 60 years and when Thomas Bodley came as an undergraduate to Magdalen College in 1560, the Library room was empty and derelict.

Upon his retirement from public service in 1598, Bodley wrote to the Vice-Chancellor offering that 'where there hath bin hertofore a publicke library in Oxford Á I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to its former use'. In his autobiography Bodley enumerated his qualifications for this self-appointed task - learning, leisure, money and friends. He set about the practical work with a will, while asking the University to appoint a group of six delegates to oversee the renovation of the great empty room. Inspired by his friend Henry Savile, Warden of Merton, and by the design of Merton's recently completed library, Bodley fitted the room with tall cases with three shelves above reading desks, replaced the roof timbers where necessary and panelled the ceiling with the arms of the University. By June 1600 the workmen, whom Bodley described as 'idle rabble', had practically finished the renovation and, exercising all his energy and diplomatic skills, he turned to his 'great store of honourable friends' to fill the shelves with books.

Bodley proved endlessly adept at encouraging benefactions, both of money and of books. His handsomely bound register, designed to 'conserve a perpetuall remembrance of every giver and his gift', was kept on display in the library to encourage all who entered. Those who contributed substantial sums of money in the first years of the 17th century - Sir Robert Sidney, Lord Mountjoy, Lord Buckhurst, Sir William Knollys and the Earls of Northumberland and Southampton - had all served in the Netherlands. Many others gave smaller sums, with the result that by 1605 Bodley had something in the region of £1,700 to finance the employment of two London booksellers, John Norton and John Bill, and the purchase of books on a remarkably comprehensive scale.

Bodley's wide-ranging purchases were supplemented on a grand scale by donations from a host of friends and contacts. Notable among the gifts were several hundred medieval manuscripts - including many of the Bodleian's major treasures - which, having passed into private hands on the dispersal of the libraries of the monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII, were now transferred to the safer haven of Bodley's new foundation. Meanwhile, Bodley encouraged the addition of books in oriental languages (the first Chinese book was acquired in 1603) and commissioned the consul at Aleppo to collect 'bookes in the Syriacke, Arabicke, Turkishe and Persian tongues'. Although no one in Oxford at the time could read them, Bodley was confident that 'in processe of time' they would prove useful. As a result of both purchases and gifts, the library accumulated collections which went far beyond the confines of the University curriculum of the day and of English scholarship as a whole. It remains one of the great ironies of the Bodleian's history that Bodley at the same time rigorously excluded works of English literature as 'idle bookes and riffe raffes' - leaving a gap in its collections that was only to be filled after his death.

On 8 November 1602, the Library was opened to readers, and soon scholars were travelling from all over northern Europe to study there. That from the outset it proved such an attraction was in no small part due to the man whom Bodley chose to be his first library keeper.

Thomas James, a young scholar from a strongly Protestant background similar to Bodley's, was working on a catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford and Cambridge colleges when Bodley recruited him. He laboured for the next 20 years to realise the founder's vision of a library that would be an ornament to the University and a benefit to the learned world beyond. James worked under constant direction from Bodley, delivered in a long series of letters written from 1599 to Bodley's death in 1613, which contain detailed instructions on every aspect of library administration and provide a fascinating account of the birth of a great library. They chronicle the production of the first published catalogue in 1605, which made the riches of the collection known throughout the scholarly world; Bodley's endowment of his library in 1608; the confirmation of its statutes in 1610; his agreement the same year with the Stationers' Company, whose members 'beinge readye to manifeste their willinge desires to a worck of so great pietye and benefitt to the generall state of the Realme' agreed, in what was to prove the forerunner of legal deposit, to present one copy of every book they printed; and from 1610 to 1612 the construction of a new wing to provide shelf space for the ever-growing collections. It is a reflection of the extent to which Bodley's library had become in effect the national library of his day that the Crown provided timber for the first extension from the royal forests at Stowe and Shotover.

When Bodley died on 29 January 1613, the University assumed responsibility for the administration of the library. James continued as Librarian for a further seven years, acquiring more books, recording their use by a host of readers, working on a new catalogue, and reporting to the governing body: the Curators. When he resigned in 1620, the second expansion of the library on the top floor of the Schools Quadrangle, with its famous painted frieze, was complete and the scene was set for centuries of continuous growth at the heart of the University.