With the King at Oxford - Alfred J. Church

Of Bodley's Library

'Tis no small pleasure for me, and will be doubtless for any that shall hereafter read what I have here written, to turn from wars and fighting, of which I must perforce say pouch, to the quiet and delectable realm of learning. And, though I would not be thought wilfully to praise myself, I may say so much that, amidst all the distractions of the time, which were indeed many and great, this realm I did never wholly leave or desert, though compelled often to be absent therefrom.

Having already spoken of these matters, I would now say somewhat of that place which is, as it were, the capital of this kingdom to such as are subjects thereof, within the limits of the University of OxfordľI speak of Bodley's Library. This I do the more willingly because I know not how long it may abide unharmed in its present estate. For who knows not what shameful things were done, when, one hundred years ago, or thereabouts, the visitors of King Edward, sixth of the name, purged, as they did call it, the libraries of this place, and among them that noble collection of manuscripts and books which Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Thomas Kempe, some time Bishop of London, with other benefactors, did bestow upon the University of Oxford. Their commission was to do away with all that savoured of Popish superstition. If, therefore, they spied in any volume any illumination or picture, or even rubrical letter, such as are wont to be used for the ornamentation of mass-books and the like, that they incontinently destroyed without further examination, for such examination they had not the will, or, it may be, the ability to make. Such, indeed, was their ignorance, if one may believe the tradition that is yet current in Oxford concerning this matter, that such books wherein appeared angles or mathematical diagrams were thought sufficient to be destroyed, because accounted Popish, or diabolical, for, indeed, they stood in no less dread of witchcraft than of the Pope. Nay, their folly had almost led them into the grossest impiety, for among the books brought out to be destroyed were, 'tis said, many copies of the New Testament in Greek, which, the character being strange to them that handled them, were condemned as mischievous, and had perished together with the rest, but that one wiser than his fellows kept them from their fate. Certain it is that damage beyond all counting was done in this way, the rage of these ignorant men being especially directed against the works of Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, and others, who are commonly called the Schoolmen. These were carried on biers by rude young men of the city to the market-place, and there, being piled in a great heap, burned with fire. Others, against which they had no special hate, were sold, and at such mean rates that one knows not whether to be more angry or ashamed at their silliness. For what says John Bale on this matter, who, as all know, was no lover of monks and monkery, but rather hated all that savoured of Papistry with a perfect hatred. He says that many reserved these books to scour their candlesticks and to rub their boots; that others they sold to grocers and soap-sellers, and some they sent over to the bookbinders, whole shipsful at a time, to the wonderment of foreign nations. And again, descending to particulars, he writes: "I know a merchant man, which shall at this time be nameless, that bought the contents of two noble libraries for forty shillings price: a shame it is to be spoken. This stuff hath he occupied in the stead of grey paper by the space of more than these ten years, and yet he hath store enough for as many years to come." All that bought them made not such an ill use of their purchase. God be thanked therefore! Thus a certain Dutchman, by trade a stationer, living in St. Mary's Parish, bought some, which, being handed down by him to his son, were in the end given to the Library when Sir Thomas Bodley did restore it.

So much for the past, which I have here written down because I hold it to be not impossible that the like may be done again. For the present, indeed, this fate has been warded off, for when, as I shall hereafter relate, this City of Oxford was delivered up to the Parliament, the Lord-General did straightway set a guard to keep the Library from all harm; and this he did, being a lover of learning, and well knowing that there were in the army many persons who, having a zeal without knowledge, would have utterly destroyed it. And, indeed, I know not whether these may not yet so prevail as to get the chief regimen of things into their own hand, for, as all history teaches us, the course of things in all such revolutions as this that hath lately overthrown the constitution of this country is this: first, the moderate and discreet have power; next, these either yield to the more violent and extreme or are themselves carried away by their own headway; and last, when the folly and wickedness of this excess has become altogether unendurable, the old order is again set up. Meanwhile, being desirous above all things to follow the truth, and to be just to all men, I must acknowledge that so far more damage was done to the Library by the King's friends while they held the city than has since been done by his enemies, many books having been embezzled, the chains by which the more precious are bound to their places being cut off, and other injuries done. But to come back to my subject.

Bodleian Library, Oxford


Sir Thomas Bodley's Library, then, is a spacious building, of which the main chamber lies east and west, having ten windows on either side, and furnished in most goodly sort with shelves and other needful appurtenances. The chief glory of this chamber is the roof, divided into squares, on each of which are painted the arms of the University, being the open Bible with the seven seals, of which St. John speaks in the Revelation (but others take it of the seven liberal arts), and the words, "DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO MEA."On the bosses that are between each compartment are painted the arms of Sir Thomas Bodley himself. At the east end of this chamber is the bust of the pious founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, who has been dead at this present time of writing (1651) eight-and-thirty years. Of this bust King James I, visiting the Library three years after his coming to the throne, said, having read the well-merited praises that have been inscribed there, "Verily, his name should be Godley  rather than Bodley." The wit of this saying is indeed but indifferent, but it has what all wit does not possess, that is to say, truth. To this chamber has been added at the eastern end what may be called a picture gallery, also furnished with bookshelves, which occupies the whole of the upper story of the quadrangle. So much of the building, but of the precious things which it contains I cannot profess to speak. Of printed books there must be near upon thirty thousand, a number which it staggers the mind only to conceive; but as for reading them, not the lifetime of Methuselah himself would suffice. Of manuscripts also there is a great store, some of them being most uncommonly rare and precious, as, for example, to mention one only out of many, is a manuscript of the Gospels, sent by St. Gregory to St. Augustine, his missionary to this realm of England, a treasure long preserved in St. Augustine's Abbey in the City of Canterbury, and given to this Library some fifty years since by Sir Robert Cotton. In this temple of the Muses, then, to speak the language of Paganism, I was accustomed to spend many hours; at the first, while I was as yet an undergraduate, by favour and recommendation of Master Webberley, of whom I have before spoken, and afterwards, having been admitted to the degree of Bachelor, of my own right. 'Tis rich in books of that classical learning which I have always, so far as it has been possible for me, especially followed, and most conveniently ordered for students, to whom indeed it is specially commended by the courtesy of its officers. 'Twas indeed but little visited by readers in my time, the Muses having been driven out both there and elsewhere by the tumult of arms. Yet there were some faithful students who seemed not to care one jot who ruled the realm so that they were not disturbed in this their peculiar province; as for me, my young blood permitted me not to reach so serene a height, but I never suffered myself to be wholly distracted from study, as were many of my fellows, by the excitements of war. I have myself seen more than once the King come into the Library, desiring to see some book that was therein. This he did because Bodley's statutes forbid the lending out of any book or manuscript, be the borrower who he may. But I remember that in the year 1645, while I was reading in the great chamber (I bear in mind that it was winter time and passing cold), there came an order to Master Rous, then and now Bodley's Librarian, in these words: "Deliver unto the bearer hereof, for the present use of his Majesty, a book entitled Histoire Universelle du Sieur d'AubignÚ, and this shall be your warrant." To this Dr. Samuel Fell, Dean of Christ Church and then Vice-Chancellor, had subscribed, "His Majesty's use is in command to us." But Master Rous would have none of it, having sworn to observe the Statutes of the Library, which statutes forbid all lending of the books without any respect of persons. Therefore he goes to the King and shows him the statutes, which being read, the King would not have the book nor permit it to be taken out of the Library, saying that it was fit that the will and statutes of the pious founder should be religiously observed. Would that he had been like-minded in all things! So much I may say without damage to my fidelity. It had been happier so for him and for this realm of England.

And thus I am reminded of a strange thing that I heard from the lips of Master Verneuil who was in those days Deputy-Librarian. The King coming into the Library on a certain day, was shown a curious copy of the poet Virgil. Then the Lord Falkland that was with him (the same that was slain at the second battle of Newbury, to the great loss of this realm and sorrow of all the better sort on either side) would have his Majesty make trial of his fortune by the Sortes Virgilianť. This is a kind of augury which has been very much used for some ages past, the manner of it being thus: The person that will consult the oracle, if I may so speak, taking a penknife or bodkin in his hand, thrusts it, turning his head away at the same time, into the volume of Virgil. This done, he opens the book and takes the place to which the instrument may point as the answer that Fate intends for him. On this occasion, therefore, the King lighted upon this period, being part of the imprecation which Queen Dido invokes on Ăneas that has deserted her. It was Englished thus by Master Thomas Phaer, about one hundred years since.

"Yet let him vexed be with arms and wars of peoples wild,

And hunted out from place to place, an outlaw still exiled.

And let him beg for help, and from his child dissevered be,

And death and slaughter vile of all his kindred let him see,

And when to laws of wicked peace he doth himself behight,

Yet let him never reign, nor in this life to have delight,

But die before his day, and rot on ground without a grave."

The King being in no small degree discomposed at this accident, the Lord Falkland would himself make trial of the book, hoping to fall on some passage that should have no relation to his case, that so the King's thoughts might be in a measure diverted from the impression that had been made upon them. But, lo! it fell out that the place he stumbled upon was yet more suited to his destiny than that other had been to the King. 'Twas in the eleventh book of the Ăneid where the old King Evander speaks of the death of Pallas his son. This was Englished by Master Thomas Twynam, who finished the work of Master Phaer aforesaid.

"Didst not, O Pallas, thou to me, thy sire, this promise make:

That charily thou wouldst thyself to cruel war betake?

I knew right well the novel pride, and glory first in fight,

And pleasant honour won in arms how much prevail it might.

O hard beginnings to a lad and woeful martial train!"

So much then for the Library of Sir Thomas Bodley.