Today marks the 400th anniversary of Thomas Bodley’s death. Although his name is not as well known on this side of the Atlantic, Bodley’s contribution to research and learning has had lasting impacts in the English-speaking world for centuries.
Though English, Bodley spent his childhood and adolescence abroad in Europe. He had the misfortune to be born into a Protestant family in the last year of the reign of Henry VIII in 1545. After the short reign of Henry’s son, Edward, Mary took the throne and spent the entire five years of her reign persecuting Protestants. His family escaped to mainland Europe, and there, Bodley studied under the tutelage of John Calvin in Switzerland and attended services by John Knox. When Mary died and was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth, the family returned and Bodley enrolled in Magdalen College at Oxford University.
After finishing college, his career took him to Parliament and eventually he served as a diplomat and sent on secret missions to the Netherlands, France, and Denmark. In 1596, he returned home and settled back in Oxford. Two years later, Bodley was given a large dinner in his honor. It is speculated that it was that fateful evening in 1598 when 53 year-old Thomas Bodley, while speaking to old friends and colleagues, came up with the inspiration to do one last project that would make his name live on 400 years later.
Over 120 years earlier, the main library at Oxford University had been presented as a gift from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. However, after Queen Elizabeth had ascended to the throne, the library had been stripped and abandoned. In 1598, after the dinner in his honor, Bodley determined to restore the library and spend the rest of his life working in it. Oxford immediately and graciously accepted his offer. In 1600, Bodley began collecting books to donate to the library that would use his name.
To motivate others to donate money and books, he created a large book bound in
vellum, a “Benefactor’s Book”, which would remain on display in the center of the library. The book would contain the names of all those who had contributed to the library. This novel idea is used to this day in libraries around the world.
The Bodleian Library is one of six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A copy of every book, CD-Rom, website, and other public materials published in the UK and Ireland is deposited at the Bodleian. As such, space is limited and larger facilities are used as depositories to hold all of the materials the Bodleian possesses. Some of the treasures of the Bodleian include a copy of the Magna Carta, one of 42 complete 1455 Gutenberg Bibles still in existence, the Ashmole manuscripts, the Song of Roland, the Book of Hours (shown here) and the Codex Bodley.
Special Collections has various items relating to the Bodleian Library and its long history. The items depicted in this blog post are all materials you can find by visiting us up on the 4th Floor West in Ellis Library. We would be happy to help you and answer any questions you might have.