Anniversary: Sir Thomas Bodley's birth

4_Bodley_portrait2 March 2009

On this day, 464 years ago, Sir Thomas Bodley, diplomat and founder of the Bodleian Library, was born.

The son of a merchant of Exeter, Thomas Bodley was educated at Geneva and Oxford. A gifted linguist, he served on a variety of diplomatic missions in Europe, retiring from public life in 1597. 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 refound the University Library in Oxford. Bodley took an enormous interest in every detail of the running of his library. His vision of a library serving not only Oxford but the whole scholarly world has defined the Bodleian’s role as a university, national, and international library for over four hundred years.

Thomas Bodley was able, at his own expense, to commission agents to travel across Europe in search of appropriate books with which to stock his new library. In addition, the restoration of the University’s library provoked much interest and persuaded many friends and acquaintances to give his new foundation either books or manuscripts from their own collections, or money to buy books. The quality of these founding gifts established Bodley’s Library as a major centre for scholarly research and their range ensured that it would never be limited in the studies it supported. By 8 November 1602, he judged the collection large enough, at about 2,000 volumes, for the Library to be formally opened.

Sir Thomas died on 28 January 1613 and was buried with much ceremony in Merton College Chapel on 29 March. His will provided the endowment which was essential for the survival of the Library, while his zeal in encouraging others to support it with gifts set a pattern for succeeding generations.

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