Bodleian Library Oxford – 5th December 2017

A trip to Oxford to view the Tewkesbury Abbey Founders’ Book attracted a full complement for the scenic coach ride through the Cotswold countryside. On arrival, the group of 26 were given time to wander through the delights of the city before meeting up at the Bodleian Library for an introduction in the beautifully vaulted 15th century Divinity School. Some members knew this as the robing room for the graduation ceremony in the adjoining Sheldonian Theatre, but it had also been the examination hall in times gone by. A knowledgeable guide recounted the history of the buildings, and the development of the library. From a few hundred manuscripts when first set up by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester (who died in 1327) and later developed by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, between 1435 and 1437, it soon became the University Library. It is now a reference library which contains millions of books and rare manuscripts, many stored away from Oxford in Swindon. We were shown the books in tiered shelves in the Duke Humfrey’s Library (1488), which had in former times been a chained library, now only with a demonstration of what chaining individual books involved to prevent theft.

The Library went into a period of decline until 1598 when Thomas Bodley, a former fellow of Merton College, offered to support the redevelopment. He donated many of his own books and after the Reformation many other donors came forward with books to start, in 1603, what has become Britain’s second largest library after the British Library. In 1610 Bodley struck an agreement with the Stationers’ Company in London to provide his library with a copy of every book registered with them, an arrangement that continues to this day.

We were then taken to the rare manuscript department in the Weston Library, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1940, where Dr Kauffman showed us the Tewkesbury Abbey Founders’ Book. This history, reporting events in the 13th and 14th centuries but compiled in the first half of the 16th century, tells of the families involved in the foundation of the Abbey. The illustrations still exhibit the vibrant colours that have survived so many years and so many owners. The history of ownership of the book has been unravelled up to the last few years before it was given to the Bodleian Library, a donation that remains a mystery. Despite having had a replacement outer leather cover at some stage, it is in remarkably good condition, and a full transcription of the text by Sir Robert Atkins is available. There was also a parchment ‘Roll’ illustrating the family trees from the foundation by Oddo and Doddo along with the heraldic shields of the families, getting ever more complex with the passing generations. It was a privilege to be able to see such an important book and beautifully illustrated manuscript relating to the early years of Tewkesbury Abbey.

A short stroll through the Christmas shoppers brought us to the splendour of Christ Church College. We took tea in the magnificent hall, lined by portraits of many famous alumni looking down on us. Well satisfied, we made our way to the Cathedral, which also acts as the chapel for the college, for Sung Evensong. After a thoroughly enjoyable visit we returned home, timed to perfection by Patricia Purkiss’s excellent organisation, for which we are most grateful.

Dr. Andrew Crowther