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Cathedrals of Knowledge - Bodleian Library

History of Thomas Bodleian - one of the greatest Classical Architects


As with many exceptional places, the Oxford Library was created, or rather, recreated by a generous benefactor. Thomas Bodley was born in 1545 to a family associated with religious reform. The family temporarily relocated to Geneva where Thomas studied during his early years. When his family returned to England after Queen Mary I’s death, Thomas immediately went to study at Oxford, and as soon as he graduated with his BA he started on a grand tour of Europe.


Entrance to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK
The entrance to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK

When he returned home he became involved in politics. He held several offices, was an ambassador to the United Provinces, and also served as Elizabeth’s representative in the Council of State until early 1597.

His portraits show a man with a fairly long bearded face, dressed in black with a fashionable white collar, expressing a modest and tidy elegance.


His portraits show a man with a fairly long bearded face, dressed in black with a fashionable white collar, expressing a modest and tidy elegance.


One of the greatest Classical Architects - Thomas Bodley
Thomas Bodley

At age 41 he married Ann Cary, the widow of a wealthy Bristol pilchard (inexpensive sardines) merchant in 1586. Her fortune, added to his own inheritance after his father’s death, allowed him to become involved in what was going to be the passion of the rest of his life: the restorations and additions to the dilapidated university library at Oxford University.


A precursor to copyright libraries, the Bodleian library is still entitled to a free copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. Bodley quickly saw that this arrangement would strain the old library's storage space, and commissioned, and financed an extension to the library precinct (now known as Arts End). Additionally, Bodley meticulously laid the foundations for the future financial security of the library, funding it personally until his death.


Bodley was not the true creator of the library. It was founded in 1320 and received a number of prestigious collections. But due to a witch hunt for Catholic books it lost many of its treasures before it was renovated by Thomas Bodley.


The present library was designed by Thomas Holt. A 17th century master carpenter and architect from either Halifax or York, he is notable for designing important architectural works in the Renaissance style built at Oxford. I very much admire the original use of many different sizes of wooden columns in the Doric order in the design of the access to and circulation around the upper levels of the stacks. Today, the Bodleian Library serves as the main research library for Oxford’s prestigious campus.



Inside of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK
Inside of the Bodleian Library


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