Sir Thomas Bodley was born in Exeter on 2 March 1545 in a house on the corner of High Street and Gandy Street which his father had leased from the Dean and Chapter two years previously. The Bodley family had lived for many years at Higher Dunscombe near Crediton. His father, John Bodley was an Exeter merchant and a fervent Protestant. He was among those who had helped to raise money to pay Russell’s troops during the Prayerbook Rebellion in 1549 and it is perhaps not surprising the young Thomas was forced to flee to the Continent with his father during the reign of Mary. It must have been his experiences during these formative years which gave him the breadth of vision which stamped his future career, while the contacts which he retained with Exonians and Devonians who shared his exile helped him to achieve his great enterprise.
The family went first to Germany, then to Geneva where the young Thomas, then aged twelve, became an “Auditour of Chevalerius in Hebrew, of Beraldus in Greeke and Beza in Divinity”. He also heard Calvin lecture and Robert Constantine, the author of a Greek lexicon came to read Homer to him at the house where he lodged. There were other notable persons with Exeter links who were in Geneva during this period. In the entourage of John Bodley was Nicholas Hilliard, son of an Exeter goldsmith, who was to become one of the leading miniature painters of the day, Miles Coverdale, the translator of the Bible into English who had been Russell’s chaplain in 1549 and became Bishop of Exeter in 1551 was also in Geneva during the reign of Mary. On 1 April 1555 Francis Russell the Second Earl of Bedford was granted a passport just two weeks after he had succeeded his father to the Earldom of Bedford to spend two years abroad “for the better attaignyinge of experyence and knowledge”. Among the places he visited was Geneva where he met Theodore de Beze. Also travelling in Europe during the 1540s was John Hooker, later to be appointed the first Chamberlain of Exeter. Like Bodley he had a systematic mind and, as well as being a prominent historian sorted and listed the archives of the city of Exeter. It is difficult to know the full effect that this network of likeminded Devonians and other learned exiles may have had in developing the young Bodley’s mind, but it must have opened it to a wide range of learning and experience. At least as important as these contacts was the activity of his father in financing the new English translation of the Bible which was being undertaken by English scholars in Geneva during the 1550s. On his return to England his father received in 1562 an exclusive patent for seven years for the printing of the Geneva (or breeches) Bible.
Once back in England the family settled in London and Thomas went to Magdalen College, Oxford where he took the degree of BA in 1563, in which year he was elected probationer fellow of Merton College where he commenced a Greek lecture in the College Hall. He took the degree of MA in 1566 and in 1569 was elected one of the University proctors. While at the University he devoted much time to the study of Hebrew. In 1576 he obtained a licence to travel from his College and from the Crown. His aim was to improve his knowledge of foreign languages and politics and he spent nearly four years in Italy, France and Germany. On his return he was appointed gentlemen usher to the Queen and became MP for Plymouth in 1584 and for St Germans in 1586. His experiences abroad made him valuable to the court and in April 1585 he received his first diplomatic mission - to the Danish court with the aim of encouraging the King to join a league to assist the French Protestants. In 1588 he was sent on a confidential mission to the King of France Henri III, entirely unaccompanied and carrying only autograph letters from the Queen. In his autobiography Bodley is obscure about the details, stating only that it “tended greatly to the advantage of all the Protestants in France. As at all times throughout history, diplomacy was then linked to espionage, and much of Bodley's surviving diplomatic correspondence is in cipher. From 1589 he was sent as ambassador to the Hague where he was admitted as member of the Council of State taking his seat next to Count Maurice of Nassau and having the right to vote on all issues. On various occasions he expressed his wish to be released from this difficult post and the Queen was not always happy with his decisions. On one occasion he learned that she wished he were hanged.
Bodley was proposed for Secretary of state but got caught up in the power struggle at court. Disgusted by the intrigues Bodley decided to retire to Oxford in 1597. This page of his autobiography shows that he felt that the most appropriate way to crown a life of public service would be to “set up my staffe at the Library doore in Oxford .... reducing that place to the publique use of Students”. That decision taken, he refused all subsequent offers of political or diplomatic positions.
Bodley was not the founder of the University Library. The existing building, Duke Humphry’s Library, had been built over the Divinity Schools in 1490. It was largely despoiled of books by the reforming Commissioners in about 1550 and the furniture removed by the University authorities in 1556. It was this empty building which Bodley described as a “great desolate room” which he offered to reinstate in 1598. The offer was gratefully accepted by Convocation and Bodley’s first activity was to arrange for the necessary carpentry work. Bodley had little precedent for design and at his request a committee was appointed to decide the “fittest kinde of facture of deskes and other furniture”. The timber was presented by his own College, Merton but it required “a conuenient seasoning: least by making to much hast, if the shelfes and seates should chance to warpe, it might proue to be an eyesoar and cost in a manner cast away”. On 24 December 1599 he writes “within this fortnight, I trust, I shall haue ended with my carpenters, ioners, caruers, glasiers, and all that idle rabble: and then I goe in hand, with making vp my barres, lockes, haspes, cheines, and other gimmoes of iron, belonging to the fastening and riuetting of the bookes”. In fact Bodley was responsible for innovations in the design of shelving, replacing the medieval lecterns with what are termed stalls – back to back presses with three shelves above a sloping desk – a designed first employed in England at Merton College.
Bodley was fortunate in securing the services of Dr Thomas James as his first librarian. He was a learned theologian who later worked on the Authorised Version of the Bible. He had compiled catalogues of manuscripts in Cambridge and Oxford libraries and had translated that important treatise on books Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon. He was appointed in 1601 at a salary of £20 per annum, raised in 1602 to £26 13s 4d. It was he who suggested negotiating the gift of all books registered with the Stationers’ Company of London, negotiations completed by Bodley in 1610. He compiled the printed catalogue of 1605 - the first general catalogue of any European library - and after Bodley’s death the catalogue of 1620 with some 16,000 titles. Bodley proposed to refit the library with seates and shelves and desks (Bodley to James, p. xii) and “to stir up other men’s benevolence” to furnish it with books. This is similar to the situation when public libraries were set up in the mid 19th century where early legislation covered buildings and staff but left the provision of books to individual benefactors. The books were at first stored in Bodley’s house in London. The Library remained closed until Bodley felt that sufficient material had been collected. He wanted to make a good impression; a small, insignificant library would attract fewer donations than one that gave the promise of future greatness.
The books purchased by Bodley were for the most part acquired in London. Bodley had a poor opinion of Oxford stationers and obtained his books chiefly from John Norton and John Bill, who was sent to France, Italy, Spain and to the Frankfurt book fairs to acquire foreign publications. Books in those days were normally issued in sheets, sometimes loosely stitched together and it was up to the purchaser to arrange for binding. Binding was normally done in London but sometimes sent to Oxford, and two or more slimmer books on similar subjects were frequently bound together to lessen the number of chains on the shelves. Even today special collection librarians have great problems in ensuring that valuable works receive the appropriate craft binding and Bodley’s letters are full of complaints. In letter 153 dated 8 Aug 1606 he writes: “It had been absurd to haue made the claspes of the Register of siluer, and the bosses of copper: albeit the charge had not differed muche, all thinges accounted. But my feare was, that where nowe the claspes fall of, of themselues, they would the haue fallen of with other mens helpe.” Binding was an expense and Bodley normally expected donors to arrange for the binding and repair of their gifts. However this was not always possible and Bodley was prepared to accept duplicate donations which could then be sold to fund bindings. Bodley writes of one prospective donor on 31 March 1602 (Bodley to James, letter 26) “because I knowe not, whether he will be wonne, to pay for the binding of suche as may neede it [..]. it will be requisit to take bookes we haue already, whereby those charges may be the better defraied.”
Books were shipped down at intervals in large consignments, frequently in June so that they could be ready on the shelves for the “Act” celebrations in July. Goods were carried either wholly by road or partly by road and partly on the River Thames. One carrier left London on Wednesday, arriving in Oxford on Thursday and another made the journey on Friday and Saturday. They were only able to take small parcels, larger consignments being sent by river. The books were packed in barrels, for example on 3 July 1611 they were “inclosed in a pipe & a hoggeshead” and carried by barge to Burcott near Dorchester. This took five or six days and portage for the consignment mentioned above was six shillings. At Burcott the books were collected by carts sent from Oxford. As the vats were too large to be carried up the narrow staircase, they were unpacked in the courtyard by students. Bodley pleaded: ‘I would intreat yow in any case to be carefull in appointing your schollers, that shall take the bookes out of their fattes, & transport them to the Librarie, that none be embezled, whereby they may be happely be soone intreated, by reason of the fine binding of some litle volumes”.
William Cotton, Bishop of Exeter was expected as a visitor in March 1602. Bodley wrote to his librarian (Bodley to James, letter 23) “If the Bishop of Exon come to visit the Libr. I pray yow obserue his speeches, and liking or disliking, and in your next, lette me know it. In his next letter (Bodley to James, letter 24) he writes: “If any should aske the like question as the B. of Exon, whether it be my purpose to fille the Librarie, it were not so good in my opinion, to answear that all of any worth are almost bought already. For besides that there are infinit yet behind, it may happely occasion, that many, which nowe are desirous to contribute will refraine altogether, when they shall be conceated that fewe or none are left vnboughte”. (Bodley to James, letter 73) Of another Westcountry visitor he enquires: “I would gladly vnderstand, whether the Lady Russel hath promised any bookes, and how she liked the Librarie” (Bodley to James, 4 Mar 1603).
The most notable visitor during Bodley’s lifetime was James I. Bodley devoted an excessive amount of attention to the speech which was to greet the monarch which he said should be “short and sweete and full of stuffe” and was anxious to see the keeper’s draft, preparing an alternative. He particularly wanted its delivery to take account of the King’s pronunciation of the letters i and au as James disapproved of the pronunciation of Latin then current in English universities. He gave instruction for the arrangement of furniture, the placing of the globes, the removal of the Library regulations hanging at the door and the washing of the floor and that it be subsequently “rubbed down with a litle rosemary: for a stronger sente I should not like.” All seems to have met with the royal approval. It is reported that, noticing the chains used to fasten the books the King expressed a wish that, if ever it should be his fate to be a prisoner, this library might be his prison, those books his fellow prisoners and those chains his fetters. (Timperley, p. 454). However the gift of books from the Royal library which Bodley hoped for never materialised.
Among the Devonians who are recorded as benefactors are: Mr Laurence Bodley, Thomas’s brother, the Canon of Exeter, 37 very fayre and new bought bookes in folio (reported 25 June 1600 [Bodley to University, 8], he later presented further books and the sum of £5 [Bodley to University, 10]. John Periam of Exeter presented £5 in money [Bodley to University, 8], Sir Robert Bassett of the county of Devon, Knight, Mr Peter Bogan of Totnes, Mr Edward Marshe of Exon, Mr John Travers of Devon and Mr Peter Duncombe of Crediton all presented books. [Bodley to University, 9-11] But perhaps the greatest benefactor from Devon was Sir Walter Raleigh who presented £50 in about April 1603 (Bodley to James78), [Bodley to University, 16].
Bodley took great pains to cultivate these benefactors. He was anxious to get their names correct. There is a footnote in one letter (Bodley to James, letter 80) “Mr Duncame of Kirton in Devon, his proper name yow may learne in Exetter college, by the meanes, as I take it, of Mr Hakewill.” He took great pains also to ensure that letters of thanks were sent from the University for larger donations and was not always pleased with the phraseology of some of these letters. Of the letter to Sir John Fortescue he wrote on 14 August 1601: “It is not indited as I would have wished, if I had bin present: but yet it will serue, although it will serue the worse for coming so slowly.” On 26 August he expresses the wish that these important letters should not be sent by the common carrier but that “it ought to be done with more regard, by some deliuerie of good account".
His experience in diplomacy led him to use any contacts which might lead to further donations, including his family. His brother Laurence was Canon of Exeter and it almost certainly through his intercession that the Dean and Chapter of Exeter gave in 1602 more than ninety early manuscripts in the Cathedral Library including the Leofric Missal.
Donations were noted in a register, the provision of which caused a number of problems. A volume was procured for the purpose by June 1600 but the fastidious Bodley could find nobody whose handwriting was satisfactory to enter details of donations in a fitting manner. Shortly after the opening of the Library on 19 November 1602 Bodley requested James to send him the still empty register. “I must intreat yow to send me the Register booke, wherein the Benefactours names and giftes shalbe recorded. For I will beginne to haue it written. It would be packed up in a coffin of boordes, with paper thicke about it, and hay between it and the boordes. I pray yow be carefull aboute it ...“ Despite these injunctions all did not go well. On 24 November Bodley writes “My register booke is safely deliuered, but for want of hay between it and the hard boordes of the case, it is somewhat grated in the carriage.” Even then there was no success in finding a scribe and the entries had to be printed. Only after 1604 were the entries made annually in manuscript, the first by John Hales, later of Eton “one that writeth faire and finely” (Bodley to James, letter 126, 4 April 1605).
But the fact that so much was donated did not mean that Bodley was prepared to accept everything indisciminately. Bodley was in general sceptical of the value of many works printed in English and indeed preferred Latin translations of English works. In general too he preferred folio volumes to octavo books, perhaps because they could be better chained. In an early letter he writes (Bodley to James, 15 May 1601): “Of your lesser books, because I knowe them not and make dout of their goodnesse, I leaue to your owne discretion to keep or reject.” In a letter dated 15 Jan 1612 he writes: “1 can see no good reason to alter my opinion, for excluding suche bookes, as almanackes, plaies & an infinit number, that are daily printed, of very vunworthy maters & handling, suche as, me thinkes, both the keeper & vunderkeeper, should disdaine to seeke out, to deliuer vnto any man. Happley some plaies may be worthy the keeping: but hardly one in fortie”. On 31 March 1602 he had written: “In any wise take no riffe raffe bookes (for suche will proue a discredit to our Librarie)”.
Once in the library the books had to be catalogued and Bodley was full of criticism of James’s work. There were insufficient extra entries for book that were bound together. “Where there are divers autours bounde together, yow place all their names many times under the first autours surname. As with Picardus de Prisca Celtopaedia, yow ioine Smithus de Pronunciat. ling. Graec &c and put not Smithus at all in the letter S, but onely in P. Whereby when I turne mine Alphabet, to see whether Smithus be bought, missing him in S. I take him as unbought. Again I did alwaies wish, that in the setting downe of an Autours title, yow would place his surname first and not in the Argument.” When work was started on the printed catalogue Bodley was anxious that “in making a newe, yow would take the paines to doe it by the bookes themselues and that very exactly and deliberatley. For I doe find euery day many errors in the former.” He found some of the entries too long and wanted the names of the authors to be in the genitive case “as I once remember I signified before, by words of mouthe ... I cannot choose but impart my fansie vnto yow in the smallest maters of the Libr.” (Bodley to James, 8 Oct 1602). The printed catalogue of 1605 ended up as a shelf list of 655 pages arranged by the four faculties and designed to replace the written tables of contents which were placed at the end of each shelf.
Through a long series of letters to the Librarian and personal visits to the Library Bodley remained involved in the detailed running of the institution he had set up. This involvement included what could be termed staff relations. James’s marriage met with his strong disapproval. One of the conditions attached to the office of Keeper was that its holder should not be married. Within a few months of his appointment James asked to be released from this condition and received a long tirade on his “vnseasonable and vnreasonable motions”. Within a year however, rather than lose his services Bodley acquiesced in James’s demands, thereby becoming “the first breaker of my owne Institution”. James took some time in obtaining agreement to the appointment of an assistant but in 1606 Bodley finally agreed, influenced perhaps by the fact that the proposed member of staff was not “bookishe”. Extracts from his letters can be used to draw up a job description of the assistant: He must “needes be a scholler of some good abilitie in learning, & not a drudge altogether to deliuer out bookes. For when yow shall be absent, it is fitte he should be able, to interteine commers in, aswel of other nations as our owne, with meete discourses for the place." (Bodley to James, letter 220). A few months later Bodley laboured this point again: “For I hold it a point, to be considered of, in regard of the great accesse of great persons often times, of both sexes, that he shall waite vpon them in Librarie, & answear their demandes, should be a personable scholler, & qualified, if it may be, with a gentlemanlike speeche & cariage, towardes suche as he shall accompanie.”
Bodley framed statutes to facilitate the running of the Library. It was to be open as much as possible and no artificial light was permitted. Heating was introduced in 1821 and lighting as late as 1929 - Alden’s 1907 Oxford guide shows that it closed at 5.00 or dusk. No loans were permitted. When James wished to remove books to assist in his studies Bodley admonished him: “And though the reasons may be weightie, that should moue yow to request it, yet the reasons are weightier, that should cause the denial, For still the like may be alleaged, in other cases heereafter, to the abuse of all good order, & totall ruine of the Librarie.” Charles I and Cromwell were unable to break this rule. The Librarian pretended to be ill whenever King wished to borrow books. But there was one exception: Sir Henry Saville, a generous benefactor to the Library. On 20 October 1608 Bodley wrote: “Sir Henry Sauile hath special occasion, for a time, to use the MS. epistles of Nazianzen, which are in the grated rowmes. I pray yow will deliuer what he shall require, vpon a note of his hand: but keepe it to your self lest it goe for a presedent. For happely som others will seeke the like fauour, as neither can nor will derseue it so well as Sir Henry, whose affection to the stoaring and preseruing of the Librarie, I knowe to be singular.” At first it was closed to undergraduates but open to visitors “gentleman strangers on request first made vnto the Congregation” (Bodley to James, p. xxi). The first “extraneous” or foreigner, John Basire, a Frenchman was admitted a reader in the library on 15 February 1603 and Dr James, the Librarian, in his book Romish corruptions lists the nations from which readers had been drawn as “French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch (which includes Germans), Danes, Bohemians, Polonians, Iewes, Ethiopians, and others”
An early project for the Librarian with the permission and also the cooperation of Bodley was the collation of the church fathers. By comparing manuscripts and printed texts it was aimed to show that, in editions of these works issued by Catholic theologians changes and omissions had been made for the purpose of supporting the claims of the Catholic Church and confuting those of the Protestants. The work was to be undertaken by a group of “very grownded schollers” who should all be able to speak the three classic languages. Strictly speaking this would have excluded the Librarian for as Bodley had pointedly remarked on more than one occasion James had little or no command of Hebrew, and Hebrew books were put aside for Bodley’s visits when he would catalogue them himself.
So Bodley was very much a man of his time, caught up in the religious controversy, indeed it could be said that the hidden agenda behind the setting up of the Library was to hone a tool for furthering the aims of the reformed church. Certainly the Library under its first keeper, Thomas James, was the centre of what has been described as a narrow and exceedingly militant Protestantism.
But he also looked to the future and saw the need for growth. The Library opened with 2,000 volumes in 1602. When James I visited in 1605 there were 6,000. Bodley thought that after the initial drive only about 200 titles would be added each year but accessions were much greater than that. Space was soon full and Bodley was talking of resorting to “double rowing”. Plans for an extension were put into effect on 19 July 1610 when the foundation stone of the Arts End was laid. Despite deteriorating health Bodley took a keen interest in the details of its planning and progress, down to the work of the painters: On 6 March 1611 he writes: I pray God Io. Bentley keepe touche, in amending the building: whereof I stand the more in doubt, for I am informed, he maketh that which was naught a great deale worse, with his very vnsightly daubing, which I trust Mr Brent or Mr Gent will cause him to forebeare: or els I will forbeare to pay him his wages.” On 5 November 1611 he addressed a letter to the Vice-Chancellor in which he suggested the rebuilding of the Schools quad and in his will he suggested that, if the University should erect two stories he would finance the erection of a third around the three sides as a “very large supplement for the stowage of bookes”. This foresight was justified as by 1620 the Library contained 16,000 volumes, but his single-minded devotion to his library, allegedly to the exclusion of relatives and friends, received much criticism.
Bodley felt that one reason why Duke Humphrey’s library had been allowed to decay was that no provision had been made for its continued funding and as early as 1598 he had promised an endowment: a standing rent, to be disboursed euery yere in buying of bookes, in officers stipends, and other pertinent occasions”, It was appropriate that work on the rebuilding of Schools Quad started on 29 March 1613, the day of his funeral (Bodley to James, p. xl).
The donation of manuscripts to the Bodleian by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, almost certainly through the intervention of his brother Canon Laurence Bodley, has been the subject of criticism down the centuries. The precise number of volumes is uncertain. The figure of 80 has been given but it is likely to be closer to 100, perhaps a quarter of the Cathedral Library's stock as recorded in the inventory of 1506. The library had been founded shortly after the removal of the see from Crediton to Exeter in 1050 by Bishop Leofric who donated 61 volumes to the Cathedral. Successive bishops, particularly in the 12th century were active in building the collection, even commissioning books from scriptoria in Normandy, so that when the inventory of 1327 was drawn up it listed 351 volumes, of which 55 were service books, so the actual total in the library was probably about 300 volumes. The 1506 inventory lists 374 volumes in the library out of a total of 634 volumes in various locations. Most of the remainder were service books but the inventory also includes some volumes of legal texts and other works stored in the old treasury and elsewhere which could be considered library items (including 30 libri antiqui). The actual total of library items could be perhaps 450 volumes. This total – less than one volume added each year over the centuries – might seem meagre, but manuscript books were valuable commodities in medieval times, their production involving a considerable investment of resources in locating an exemplar to copy, preparing the parchment and other materials, copying and correcting the text, illuminating, binding and providing chains to secure the volumes.
The arrival of the printing press and the Reformation had as great an effect on the value attached to the manuscript book as the arrival of digital technology has had on the appreciation of the printed book. By 1602 many of the Exeter volumes had been kept in poor conditions, most of those in the Bodleian being affected by damp and many having to be rebound in sheepskin on receipt. Many had probably been lost during the upheavals under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary and more were to disappear during the Commonwealth, classed as idolatrous books by the puritans. In fact Dean Charles Lyttleton could only identify 18 books listed in the 1506 inventory as remaining in the Cathedral in 1752. So the action of Bodley and his brother has actually helped to preserve Exeter's medieval library. The almost 100 volumes cover all periods of the library's development as is shown by an analysis by the centuries in which they were written: one from as early as the 9th century, six from the 10th, seven from the 11th, 41 from the 12th the period of the library's most active growth, nine from the 13th, 20 from the 14th and eight from the 15th century.
They also provide a good cross-section of the contents of the medieval library. Church fathers make up almost half of the gift with six of Ambrose, 17 of Augustine, 12 of Gregory, four of Isidore and two of Jerome. These volumes would have been invaluable in the project of James and Bodley to collate their texts. Other early writers represented include three volumes by the Venerable Bede, Boethius Consolation of philosophy, and works by Cassian and Prudentius. The Bible is present, also an early gospel book and various glosses on the Old and New Testaments and the psalms. Service books include a missal and a penitential. There is a work on astrology, two collections of medical texts and various legal writings. Works by later writers include the encyclopaedic work of Bartholomaeus Anglus De proprietatibus rerum, Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea works by Holcote, Kilwardby and Thomas Aquinas as well as the local writer Bartholomaus Exoniensis. Many include annotations by local readers including Bishop Grandisson.
Digital technology and the internet make it possible to view some of these volumes publicly in Exeter for the first time in four centuries and the Bodleian Library has kindly allowed copies to be made for exhibition as a first step in returning some of Exeter's lost heritage to the city. It is to be hoped that more digitisation of Exeter Cathedral's manuscripts can be undertaken in the future so that one of the greatest of England's medieval libraries can be reconstituted for all those who appreciate the value of the written word as a key component of our community memory. It would be a project which Sir Thomas Bodley, that greatest of scholar librarians and one of our most notable Exonians would certainly approve of.
Full references have not been given. The main sources used were:
Dictionary of national biography.
The life of Sr Thomas Bodley ... written by himselfe (1647). Bodley’s own autobiography, published after his death.
Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to Thomas James, edited by G.W.Wheeler (1926). Noted as (Bodley to James) in the text.
Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to the University of Oxford (1927). Noted as [Bodley to University] in the text.
This page last updated 11 August 2018