The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley written by himself/Preface

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AS what is known of Sir Thomas Bodley's early life is derived from the short sketch "written by himself," which is reprinted here, it is unnecessary to speak of that period at any length.

Of "worshipful parentage;" brought as a small boy in Geneva under the teachings of men like Chevallier, Beroald, Calvin, Beza, and Robert Constantine; educated later at Oxford, where he passed many years both as student and lecturer; an accomplished linguist through years of travel and residence in foreign countries, he was well adapted to a career of diplomacy, and was selected by Queen Elizabeth for many state embassies, which he recounts with naïve pride. He seems to have conducted these embassies with tact and ability, but they are almost forgotten, while Sir Thomas will always be remembered for the library which bears his name, at whose door he "set up his staff" when, tired of statecraft, he withdrew from public life, determining still to "do the true part of a profitable member of the state."

His own account of his life ends here, with the wish that the library itself may show how well he has sped in his endeavours. And who could wish a nobler monument!

"It is surely unnecessary," says old Anthony à Wood, "to repeat the praise of such a man as Thomas Bodley, a man whose name will perish only with that of his country. The obligations which literature owes to the exertions of this individual can only be estimated by those who have opportunity as well as occasion to consult the inestimable treasures he bequeathed to the place of his education." A more modern tribute is paid by Mr. Augustine Birrell in his agreeable essay, In the Name of the Bodleian: "Springing out of the mind, heart, and head of one strong, efficient, and resolute man, it is matter for rejoicing with every honest gentleman to be able to observe how quickly the idea took root, how well it has thriven, by how great a tradition it has become consecrated, and how studiously the wishes of the founder in all their essentials are still observed and carried out."

The first actual university library at Oxford, called after its benefactor, Bishop Cobham, was begun in 1367, in a small upper room, lighted by four windows. Even before that a few books had been kept in chests, to be "lent out under pledges," while others were chained to desks for public reading. Bishop Cobham's books, by the way, were nearly lost to the university because the poor Bishop died without enough money to pay for his funeral expenses; but a kindly friend redeemed the books and sent them to Oxford, in accordance with the last wishes of the Bishop.

It was not many years before the building of a more worthy room was begun, and to appeals for aid in the new enterprise Duke Humphrey of Gloucester responded so liberally with both money and books that he is often called the founder. It is of Duke Humphrey, that "religious, good, and learned Prince," the patron of all learning, that quaint Thomas Hearne (the story of whose connexion with the library is an interesting one) tells us that, whenever he saw his handwriting in the library, he used to "show a particular sort of respect" to it. What this "sort of respect" was, history does not say.

Another forerunner of the university library was the collection presented to Durham College by that early and earnest lover of books, Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham, with the injunction that it was to be free to all scholars, who might carry away books for purposes of study, provided they left pledges exceeding their value. On the dissolution of Durham College by Henry VIII some of these books found their way into "Duke Humphrey's Library." Other benefactors were Bishop Kempe and John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. The library soon lost some of its treasures, however, for there are records that "scholars borrowed books upon petty or insufficient pledges, and so chose to forfeit the latter rather than return the former."

But dire calamity was to come! In 1550 the commissioners appointed by Edward VI in his zeal for reformation visited the library at Oxford, destroying all illuminated manuscripts as "necessarily Popish," and leaving everything exposed to harm and pillage. Traditions have been handed from one generation to another of the vandalism that went on. Some of the books were burned, some sold to bookbinders, tailors and shoemakers, who found vellum and parchment procured thus cheaply most useful in their trades. The rest disappeared mysteriously, but so completely that, six years later, the university itself, having no books, sold the very shelves and benches, and the room was left desolate. And so young Thomas Bodley found it when he was entered at Magdalen College four years after the final ruin had been wrought. He must have been deeply touched by the traces of recent destruction; for the thought of them followed him through the years spent away from Oxford, and was destined finally to bear rich fruit.

Having first counted the cost, and made sure that he was "furnished in a competent proportion" with the four aids necessary to success in his enterprise,—knowledge, "purse-ability," "great store of honourable friends," and abundant leisure,—Thomas Bodley wrote, on the twenty-third of February, 1597-8, to the vice-chancellor of the university, offering to "reduce again to its former use" the room which, with the statute records, alone remained to prove that there had once been a "publike library" at Oxford, by fitting it with the necessary shelves and seats, procuring for it gifts of books, and by an annual endowment. The offer was most gratefully accepted, and from that time the story of the founder is practically that of the library.

Bodley's firm confidence in his "honourable friends" was not misplaced: gifts came pouring in, both from those who shared his enthusiasm and from those who "wished to be written in the scroll of the benefactors," for whose recognition wise provision was made. The expense of fitting up the room was far greater than had been anticipated; but Bodley was nothing daunted, and the library was formally opened in November, 1603. Visitors flocked to this "the first practically public library in Europe," and King James I was twice an appreciative guest. He granted letters patent the year after it was opened, calling the library by Bodley's name, and soon afterwards knighted the founder, whose name, said he, should have been not Bodley, but "Godley."

The first catalogue appeared in 1605, and before many years, the library having outgrown its quarters, extensions were begun.

Sir Thomas wrote his Life in 1609, and the original manuscript is preserved in the Bodleian. It was printed first in 1647, by Henry Ball. In 1703 Thomas Hearne (later sub-librarian) included it, as reprinted here, in his Reliquiae Bodleianae, together with Sir Thomas's First Draught of the Statutes of the library, and a collection of letters written by him to Thomas James, the first librarian. The latter is known for his editions of Richard de Bury's Philobiblon one of which has a long dedication to Bodley. It is fortunate indeed that these letters have been preserved, for they are a most truthful witness of the unceasing activity and industry, the indefatigable attention even to matters of minutest detail, and the unending devotion which Sir Thomas lavished upon his self-appointed task.

"I have spoken here with Mr. Farmer," he says, "who hath promised, that whensoever you come after Thursday next, he will be at Home. He hath a Cartload of Books, of which you may make your choice, which he will cause to be new bound at Oxon. You shall do well, in my Opinion, to be there some morning very early, least he ride abroad, and not come in till Night." And again: "Now I must entreat you to send me the Register-Book, wherein the Benefactors' Names and Gifts shall be recorded. For I will begin, to have it written. It would be packed up in a Coffin of Boards, with Paper thick about it, and Hay between it and the Boards. I pray you be careful about it, and let me receive it the next Week, sent by the Waggon for Fear of Rain."

At another time he writes: "I pray you salute and intreat Mr. Principal from me, to cause such Bars to be supplied, as are wanting: And your self I would request to write as often as you find a fit Messenger, to the Chain-man, to dispatch the rest of the Books, and to make as many Chains before Midsummer, as is possible. For I am like to bring more Books, than is imagined. I do not find in your Catalogue Fricius de Rep. emendanda, and yet I think it is in the Library, whereof I pray you advertise me: And likewise what Works of Sigonius are wanting."

In speaking of an unusually large number of books which he is sending, he says: ". . . which will add more and more unto your Care and trouble, as it doth unto mine, who am toiled exceedingly, and assure your self, no less than yourself, with Writing, Buying, Binding, Disposing, &c. besides all mine own Business, which are of no moment. But I am fed with the Pleasure of seeing some end before it be long: Which must be likewise your Comfort."

"I do not doubt but you have divers Books double, which proceedeth in part of the Imperfection of your Catalogue, wherein are sundry books omitted that are in the Library: but withal, the Fault is mine, and Jo. Bill's, who dealing with multitudes, must of force make many Scapes," is one kindly comment. Bill was the London bookseller employed to buy books on the Continent, while works of the English press were furnished by the Stationers' Company, in accordance with an agreement by which the library received a copy of every book published by them.

Sometimes good Sir Thomas's friendship of long standing with Mr. James is slightly tried when the regular bulletins of the library's welfare, lists of donations, and work on the catalogue are delayed or imperfect; or when Mr. James hints that an increase of his stipend (something over five pounds quarterly at first) would be acceptable, or shows a desire to become "encumbred with marriage," a state which Sir Thomas deems inexpedient to the welfare of the library. But in general the letters are marked by confidence and kindly consideration.

There are some clauses of the statutes which time has proved to be unwise; Mr. Birrell calls attention particularly to the provision for the disposal of duplicates which led to the sale of the Bodleian's First Folio of Shakespeare, the discovery and identification of which make one of the romances of bibliography. But for the most part these statutes show amazingly wise forethought and a broad and business-like grasp of the needs of the library, both in his own day and in time to come.

After a lingering illness. Sir Thomas Bodley died on January 28, 1613. He had married, when about forty years old, Ann Ball, a wealthy widow, whose death preceded his by a year and a half. He left no children and made the university his heir, causing thereby some reproach, although his carefully drawn will is full of bequests to various relatives, servants and friends. A sum of nearly seven hundred pounds was left to provide suits of mourning and a dinner for a large number of people, many of whom were poor scholars. The principal legatee among his kinsmen was his brother Laurence, Canon of Exeter. Another brother, Sir Josias, a soldier and military engineer, who had presented several astronomical instruments to the library, was remembered, and also nieces, nephews and stepchildren. A sister who had gained his disapproval by eloping with a poor minister was completely overlooked in the will. Some hundred years later her descendants, being very poor and infirm, begged aid from the university.

In his will Bodley had desired to be buried in the chapel of Merton College, and his wishes were carried out with great ceremony, the funeral oration being delivered by Sir Isaac Wake, the public orator. Volumes of verse were printed in commemoration of him, and a monument in his honour was erected in Merton Chapel.

It is interesting to follow with Dr. Macray, in his Annals of the Bodleian Library, the growth of the great collection until we read of half a million volumes over which Mr. Nicholson, the librarian of to-day, presides, and we can but repeat, with emphasis which the years increase, the words of Anthony à Wood: "Another Ptolemy! . . . by his noble and generous endeavours he hath been the occasion of making hundreds of public writers, and of increasing in an high degree the commonwealth of learning."


New York, June 1, 1906