Thomas Bodley

  Exhibition in Oxford

  Thomas Bodley & His Library

  4 February - 1 June 2002

The Bodleian Library, Oxford, opened its doors to readers on 8 November 1602. This exhibition marks the library’s four-hundredth anniversary. It focuses on the character and career of founder Sir Thomas Bodley, and on the early development of the library (1598–1620) under Bodley and his first Librarian, Thomas James. Rarely-seen exhibits include:

  • Bodley’s own description of his struggles in Elizabeth I’s diplomatic service

  • the only 16th-century picture of the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library (used by David Gentleman in his design of the Bodleian’s logo)

  • the magnificent Benefactors’ Register, 1604

  • wonderful donations to the new library: a 10th-century Boethius manuscript, an English bestiary (12th century), ‘Codex Bodley’ (Mixtec genealogies of pre-Conquest Mexico)

  • the first catalogues, showing the development of this vital research tool

  • the first ‘reader’s ticket’, dated 13 February 1613

  • Bodley’s funeral helm, from his tomb in Merton College chapel

Admission is free

Entrance to the Exhibition Room is from the Old Schools Quadrangle, Catte Street.



Sir Thomas Bodley and his library

The Bodleian Library, founded by the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of its opening.

It is of particular interest to Tyndale Society members as Thomas Bodley received his early education in the Geneva of John Calvin. His father, John Bodley, a rich Devon merchant had sought refuge on the continent together with his household as a zealous Protestant in the reign of Mary Tudor. John Bodley was closely involved in the financing and production of the Geneva Bible 1560 and held the patent for its production.

Shortly after the family’s return to England on the accession of Queen Elizabeth Thomas went 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 in Geneva had broadened his horizons and increased his linguistic skills and by 1576 he ‘waxed desirous to travel beyond the Seas’ with a view to entering ‘the publique service of the state’. This he did and was involved in a variety of diplomatic missions culminating in his appointment as ambassador to the United Provinces in The Hague in 1588. He took his ‘farewell of State imployements’ in 1597.

Within a year Bodley had decided on the great undertaking which was to occupy the last fifteen years of his life — the re-establishment of the University Library at Oxford. Eleven years previously he had married Ann, the widow of Nicholas Ball, a wealthy merchant of Totnes in Devon, whose fortune (with that he inherited from his father) enabled him to make an offer to the vice chancellor. In 1598 he wrote where there hath bin heretofore a publicke library in Oxford … ‘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, indeed, proved endlessly adept at encouraging benefactions, both of money and of books.

Under the watchful eye of the founder, the first librarian, Thomas James, laboured at the cataloguing of the flood of incoming books. On 8 November 1602, the Library was opened to readers, and soon scholars were travelling from all over northern Europe to study there. In 1610 Bodley astutely made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company for the deposit in his library of one copy of every book registered at Stationers’ Hall — an arrangement which still stands to this day. A recent Bodley Librarian pointed out rather wryly that the founder could not have envisaged how much shelf space that advantageous arrangement would entail some 400 years later! Nonetheless, Thomas Bodley’s vision of a library serving not only Oxford but the whole scholarly world has stood the test of time.


Catalogue ‘Sir Thomas Bodley and his Library: An exhibition to mark the quatercentenary of the Bodleian’ Bodleian Library 2002.

© Valerie Offord (compiler)