Allestree Library

The Allestree Library is the historic library of the Regius Professors of Divinity. It was founded in 1681 by Richard Allestree (1619-81), the royalist high churchman and best-selling author of The Whole Duty of Man. The library is housed in a room built in 1612, above the Cathedral cloister.  It has a stone floor, and is paved with medieval encaustic tiles which were re-used from the surrounding buildings of the former St Frideswide's Priory.  The Allestree Library’s holdings are closely linked with Allestree’s career as a scholar and ecclesiastical politician, while also reflecting his close friendship with John Fell, and his family links with James Allestree, one of the leading figures of the Restoration book trade. 

The main source of information about Richard Allestree is a biography written by his friend John Fell, which is prefixed to the posthumous edition of Allestree's Forty Sermons printed at Fell's press in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1684.  Allestree's personal papers have not survived. 

Allestree was born in Shropshire, and was educated at Coventry School, before going up to Christ Church in 1636, where his tutor was the formidable Richard Busby, the future headmaster of Westminster School.  His potential was recognised by Dean Samuel Fell and Allestree was elected to a Studentship which entitled him to a regular stipend and a position for life.  He fought for Charles I in the Civil War, before returning to Oxford and being ordained a priest of the Church of England.  After the fall of Charles I and the arrival of the Parliamentary Visitors in the city to whom Allestree refused to submit, he was expelled from the University. During the Interregnum he was - along with John Fell and John Dolben (later Archbishop of York) - one of the leaders of clandestine Anglican worship in Oxford.  They held illegal services according to the rites of the Book of Common Prayer in Beam Hall, a large house in Merton Street which belonged to Fell's brother-in-law, the physician Thomas Willis. Allestree also travelled between England and the Continent, acting as a courier and secret agent for Charles II.  These activities led him into trouble with the authorities, and he was eventually arrested on a charge of treason and imprisoned in Lambeth Palace, to be released shortly before the Restoration. In 1660 Allestree returned to Christ Church as a Canon and three years later was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity by Charles II.  With John Fell, son of Samuel, and John Dolben, Allestree set about putting Christ Church back onto an even footing after the years of turmoil. He was the first to move into the new north wing of Tom Quad when it was completed in 1665.  Allestree was a key figure in the re-establishment of Anglican orthodoxy after 1660. From 1665 Allestree was also Provost of Eton, which offered Allestree opportunities for regular contact with the court at  Windsor.

The Allestree Library contains c.3,000 printed books and a small collection of manuscripts including a thirteenth-century St Bernard, a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Clement of Llanthony, and a twelfth-century Augustine.  There are also several dozen early-modern manuscript  books in the hand of Tristram Sugge, a Fellow of Wadham deprived by the Parliamentarian Visitors in 1648, and who died in 1663.  As the library of the Regius Professors of Divinity, the Allestree Library naturally contains a large number of theological works, but it also contains very many books on the complete range of subjects that were studied in seventeenth-century Oxford, and on many subjects that were not. Fell's description of Allestree's interests offers a good summary of the strengths of the Allestree Library collection: 'few of his time had either a greater compass, or a deeper insight into all the parts of learning, the modern and learned languages, rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, history, antiquity, moral and polemical divinity, all of which was not to be pumped up, or ransacked out of commonplace books, but was ready at hand, digested for his own use and communication in discourse with others’.

A number of Allestree Library books were given to Allestree by various contemporaries. At least 138, and probably many more, were bequeathed to him by his friend Henry Hammond (1605-1660), who wrote the preface to The Whole Duty of Man.  There are at least three presentation copies from Isaak Walton, and others given by Thomas Barlow, as well as by various other colleagues and associates of Allestree.

Allestree died in January 1681 and left his library to the University of Oxford for the use of the Regius Professors of Divinity. In 1946, Christ Church formally took over the collection from the University. 

Material from the Allestree Library can be consulted by contacting to make an appointment. Please note that the Allestree collection is not fully catalogued so readers are asked to contact the Library to discuss any research needs.