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13 November 2014

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You are in: Oxford > People > Profiles > Local Lives - Sir Thomas Bodley

Sir Thomas Bodley

Sir Thomas Bodley

Local Lives - Sir Thomas Bodley

The Elizabethan diplomat who founded a library on the sale of pilchards

Sir Thomas  Bodley  1545 – 1613

We frequently hear the Bodleian Library in Oxford mentioned on the local or national news, or we read about it the newspaper, but we rarely think about why it is called the Bodleian, or who founded it. In fact it was founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, a former Oxford student and tutor, who worked as a diplomat in the service of Elizabeth I, and then, after his retirement, set himself the task of restoring a fifteenth century university library, which would later expand into the world famous library which still bears his name today.

Thomas Bodley was born in Exeter, Devon, in March 1545, into a strict Protestant family who fled to Germany and then to Switzerland after Mary Tudor succeeded her father Henry VIII in 1555.  She was extremely Catholic, and Protestants feared persecution and death for their faith throughout her reign. It was she who had Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latimer tried for heresy and then burnt at the stake in Broad Street, a terrible event commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial opposite the Randolph Hotel.

Thomas was only twelve when his family settled in the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva, but he was well schooled, and was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and also had a good grounding in science. On the accession to the throne of Mary’s half-sister, the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, life in England became safe once more for Protestants, if rather less so for Catholics, and so the Bodleys returned to England.  Thomas, who was then fourteen, became a student at Magdalen College, and by the age of nineteen, was appointed fellow at Merton College. He also served as Bursar to the college and held university posts too; he was only twenty four when he was appointed Proctor with responsibility for maintaining discipline within the University, and he later became deputy Public Orator, which gave him the chance of making impressive speeches in Latin and Greek during the ceremonies held in the University Church.

In 1576 Thomas Bodley felt, as he put it: “..desirous to travel beyond the Seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some speciall moderne tongues, and for the encrease of my experience in the managing of affaires [in order] to employ my selfe…in the publique service of the State.” So he was allowed by Merton to take leave of absence with a yearly stipend of £3.13s.4d., and spent four years in Europe. The guidebook he used in Rome (a Spanish edition, printed in 1575, of an Italian volume) is still held in the Bodleian. On his return, he stood for Parliament and eventually became MP for Portsmouth, and later entered the diplomatic service for Elizabeth I as an envoy to Denmark.  Further missions followed, to France and Germany, and then in 1588 he was posted to The Hague. This Dutch posting was not an easy one - Bodley complained that it was “as if I shoulde strive to keepe water in a sive” - and he retired from public service in 1597.

In 1586 he had married Ann Ball, a rich widow from Devon.  Her first husband, a fish merchant, had made his fortune from trade in pilchards, and it is always jokingly said that the Bodleian was founded upon this humble fish, but Bodley was already very wealthy in his own right - he had inherited family money, and was a canny property dealer.  However, extra funds never go amiss, and so there may be some truth behind the jest.  The marriage lasted for twenty four years and when his wife died, he had a plaque erected in her memory in the church of St. Bartholomew the Less in London which records that they had a happy life together. Curiously, however, he doesn’t mention his marriage at all in the short autobiography he produced in 1609 – what he wrote was very much an account of his working life, touching briefly on his childhood and years at Oxford, and going into more detail about his work as a public servant on behalf of the queen. It ends with his decision in 1598 to establish what would be his monument: the Biblioteca Bodleiana as the library would later be known.

He tells us in his autobiography that after retiring, he decided to “set up my Staffe at the Librarie dore in Oxon” and to begin the great work of restoring Duke Humfrey’s Library; he says that he felt well qualified to do this as he possessed four special attributes which would be advantageous: wide learning, wealth, many contacts (“a great store of honorable friends”) and plenty of free time. His career had also given him a good grasp of administration and of the practical aspects of managing such a project.

Duke Humfrey’s Library, a fifteenth century University library, had been built above the Divinity School (off Catte Street, behind the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street) and had been emptied of books and furniture during the Reformation in the 1550’s. Bodley felt that the University should have a fine library once again, and refurbished Duke Humfrey’s, taking inspiration from the recently refitted library at his old college, Merton. The work did not always progress as fast as he wished, and he was irked by the workmen, calling them “idle rabble”.  The opening ceremony took place in 1602, and at that time the library contained around 2,500 books, some given by Bodley himself, and others by benefactors such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney.  Patrons gave both books and money, as Bodley was a successful fundraiser – he prided himself on being well able to “stirre up other mens benevolence”. 

At first he did not want any books in English in his library – he referred to them as idle books and riff raff – but he soon realised that more and more publications were in English rather than Latin, and in 1610, he applied to the Stationers Company in London to be able to receive one copy of every book published in England, and the library thus became a copyright or legal deposit library, the first of its kind in the British Isles.  This agreement led to an explosion in the number of books coming into the library, which needed to be enlarged, so firstly an extension, Arts End, was built across the eastern end of Duke Humphrey’s, and then in 1613 work began on a much larger addition to the library, with an impressive entrance tower on Catte Street.
Bodley had vigorously involved himself in the planning of this, but sadly never saw construction begin: he died in March 1613, and the foundation stone was laid the day after his funeral.

The plaque above the doors that lead to the Divinity School bears the inscription “Quod feliciter vortat” and this wish that things might turn out happily for the library has been fulfilled.  Bodley’s Library went from strength to strength: it now contains almost eight million volumes, and these are housed in many parts of Oxford, both underground and above ground; near the village of Nuneham Courtenay; in a disused salt mine in Cheshire; and will soon be in Swindon too, Oxford City Council having rejected the library’s application to build a new depository at Osney Mead in West Oxford.

last updated: 18/06/2009 at 11:30
created: 17/06/2009

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