History of the Library


Christ Church before the Library, 1525-1562

The institution which became Christ Church was originally founded as Cardinal College, Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey (ca. 1475-1530) in 1525. Wolsey planned his new college on a palatial scale, and must have intended it to have a library, but when he fell from power in 1529 it would seem that nothing had yet been done.

The half-finished college was suppressed by Henry VIII, refounded as King Henry VIII's College, and subsequently refounded again as Christ Church (1546), a unique institution combining college and cathedral, and occupying Wolsey's unfinished buildings and the surviving parts of St Frideswide's Priory. So far as is known, Christ Church was still without a library when Elizabeth I succeeded her Catholic half-sister Mary in 1558.

The Elizabethan Old Library, 1562-1610

There is no documentary evidence in the archives for the foundation of the library, because the Disbursement Books before 1577 are missing. But there is in the Bodleian Library a seventeenth-century copy of a letter sent by Christ Church to Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel (1511?-1580), apparently one of a number which circulated to the nobility and gentry to appeal for funds to found a library. The library still contains at least 174 dated ex dono inscriptions from the reign of Elizabeth I, and the earliest of these are a batch of twelve books given in 1562, several the gift of wealthy outsiders with no obvious connections with Christ Church. It seems that these books are the remnants of those which Christ Church solicited from Arundel (briefly Chancellor of the University in 1559) and other potential benefactors, and this fixes the date of the begging letters and the foundation of the library to 1562.

The new library was set up in the former refectory of St Frideswide's, the Augustinian priory taken over by Wolsey as the site of Cardinal College. The refectory was a late fifteenth-century hall which stood on the south side of the former monastic cloisters, a stone's throw away from the priory church, which had become the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford in 1546. Like other Oxford college libraries of the period it was fitted with wooden lecterns. According to Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575), these were purchased second-hand from the derelict medieval University Library founded in the fifteenth century by Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, which had been despoiled by the Protestant royal commissioners who formally visited the University in 1549. The books themselves were chained to the lecterns from the foot of the upper board: most were large Latin folios on theology and patristics. There were very few books in English: the only one which has so far come to light is a copy of the 1576 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which was presented by Tobie Matthew, Dean from 1576 to 1584.

The Refoundation of the Old Library, 1610-1614

By the early seventeenth century the Elizabethan lectern library would have seemed old-fashioned by comparison with the new stall libraries at Merton, Magdalen and Corpus, and above all in the new University library founded by Thomas Bodley in 1602. In response, Christ Church, the wealthiest college of the University, refitted the Old Library between 1610 and 1611, installing book presses across the main axis of the building, each incorporating its own desk and bench. New books were subsequently bought or given, shelved fore-edge outwards, and chained to the presses, usually from the foot of the fore-edge of the lower board. (See the separate page on chaining practice for more details). An elaborate painted ceiling was installed, parts of which still survive. The finished building would have been slightly smaller than Duke Humfrey's Library, but if anything rather more lavishly decorated. The driving forces beyond this ambitious scheme seem to have been John King, Bishop of London (ca. 1559-1621), and Thomas Thornton, Canon of Christ Church and of Hereford Cathedral. Thornton was also instrumental in the construction of the extant chained library at Hereford, which closely resembles the vanished Christ Church chained library, and which was partially fitted by Oxford craftsmen. The agreement between the Dean and Chapter and the joiners William Bennett and Thomas Key is particularly interesting. It specifies that the reconstructed library should contain:

"Eighteene Double Desks and Two half Desks or seats of good Oake, fitte for the settinge of placeing of books in. And that the same desks or seats for books shalbe well, sufficientlie and Cleanlie ioyned, wrought, and well-seasoned, and equall for substance, forme and workmanshippe to the Desks or seats in the pu[b]lique Library of the Univ[er]sitie of Oxford, ... And that the said Will[ia]m and Thomas ... shall make each of the said desks or seats to contein in length Eight footes and in hight Seuen foots. ... And [they] shall place in each of the said Desks or seats fower shellues in thicknes and Workmanshippe answerable to the Desks or seats in the publique Library aforesaid. And further at the upper end of tthe first aboue named Library, they ... shall make Two Closetts wch shall be sufficientlie shelved and borded at the backe in such mann[er] and forme as the Closetts in the said publique Library are fashioned and made." [Christ Church Archives, xx.c.3, p.175]

This appears to mean that each double-sided book press contained two rows of two shelves on each side, making a total of eight shelves to each press. The eighteen double presses would therefore have contained 144 shelves in total, which would almost certainly have been used to house folio books. The two half presses may have been connected with the 'Closetts' which would have housed the smaller formats, which (as many surviving books show) were usually unchained.

The refoundation was financed by another benefactor, Otho Nicholson, who gave £800 for the building, and a further £100 to buy books, which are easily recognized today by their characteristic gold-tooled armorial bindings. Nicholson was a wealthy Chancery lawyer, who is better known as the donor of the great water conduit which once stood at Carfax, Oxford's central cross-roads. He had no obvious connection with Christ Church, but J.N.L. Myres (Librarian 1938-1948) noted that Nicholson had made a great deal of money out of legalized monopolies, and speculated that he may have been pressured by Oxonian courtiers into spending some of his ill-gotten gains on good works in Oxford. Nicholson's name appears on the first page of the new library Benefactors' Book (1614) which is decorated with his arms, and designed in close emulation of the Bodleian Benefactors' Book, even down to the use of identical cast metal cornerpieces on both bindings. This seems to confirm that the refounded library was designed quite consciously in imitation of the Bodleian, both as regards its decoration and internal organization.


The Old Library from 1614 to 1775

Like the Bodleian, the Old Library was shelved by the four faculties: Theology, Arts, Law, and Medicine. The earliest catalogue dates only from 1665, and prior to this it seems certain that there would have been a hand-written shelflist pasted onto the end of each bay of shelving, just as there still is at Hereford. The collection expanded rapidly, and received many gifts from members, some of them very large, including 780 books from Robert Burton (appointed Librarian in 1624) author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton's collection, which is divided fairly equally between Christ Church and the Bodleian, is one of the most important surviving English private libraries from the period before the Civil War. Smaller gifts were received from members, often to mark signal moments in their University career, like matriculation or the taking of a degree. Others gave books later in life 'in gratiam studiosorum' ('in gratitude for his studies').

The Library seems to have been surprisingly little affected by the Civil War, and the Benefactors' Book shows that it was very active during the Commonwealth. It continued to expand after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. The main impression in the latter part of the seventeenth century is one of growing congestion and confusion, as the buildings filled up with more and more books and the authorities made desperate and increasingly futile attempts to accommodate them. Additional shelving was installed in 1677, and additional space was still being created for the books and prints bequeathed by Dean Aldrich (1647-1710) in 1715, only two years before the new library in Peckwater Quad was started. By this stage it seems that the Library may have been in a state of considerable disorder. The repeated alterations may have taken their toll on the medieval buildings of the former monastic refectory. It does not even seem to have been properly watertight, since the accounts show that considerable sums of money were spent on two separate occasions to remove colonies of birds & bees from the building. The neglect may not only have been structural: in 1679, the Dean and Chapter were complaining that the fees due to the library from members of Christ Church had been 'negligently paid', and they instructed the Library Keeper to remedy the situation. For all this, the contents of the Library, now considerably more varied than in the Elizabethan period, seem to have impressed John Evelyn, who spoke warmly of them in a letter to Samuel Pepys. These comments were echoed by the German scholar Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, who visited Oxford in 1710. Uffenbach was not generally terribly impressed with Oxford's libraries, but at Christ Church he noted that the library contained 'a considerable proportion of good books in good condition.

Though it is not difficult to reconstruct the architectural arrangement of the Old Library, understanding how it might have been used in practice is very much more problematic, simply because adequate evidence has not survived. The first and most important point is that the library was reserved for the use of senior members of the foundation; there was no library provision for undergraduates until Christ Church opened a special reading room for them in 1884. This was in no way unusual. Contemporaries plainly took it for granted that undergraduates would learn primarily from their tutors, and had neither the wish nor the need to have access to college or university libraries. There is also evidence that suggests that they did not necessarily view the library in the same way that readers might today. Though it was certainly a place for study and scholarship, it was also a repository of corporate pride, and successive librarians seem to have been as interested in recording the names of benefactors as in cataloguing the books themselves. Though the library did occasionally buy books, spending over £25 in 1676, the year of the great Bodleian duplicate sales, it was generally reliant on gifts from members - a situation which explains how the mindset which was preoccupied with commemorating benefactors may have begun. Nor did the library confine itself to collecting books. A set of globes is first mentioned in the Disbursement Books in 1664, and it is obvious from the context they had already been in the library for some considerable time; another is mentioned in 1680. In 1686, a BA called Edward Hanna presented a manuscript catalogue which he had made of the library coin collection; in the same year Dean Fell's executors handed over a Sinhalese palm-leave book, and a set of magical mandrake roots in a silver box, all still in the library.

By the time of Uffenbach's visit in 1710, it must already have been apparent that the days of the Old Library were numbered. Though large and imposing by the standards of contemporary Oxford libraries, it would have seemed embarrassingly old-fashioned to the early eighteenth-century prelates and aristocrats associated with Christ Church. But though the palatial new Peckwater library was started in 1717, the Old Library continued to function in parallel with it for much of the 18th century. Only in 1770 were the last books finally unchained and moved into their new home. The building was converted into residential accommodation five years later, in 1775. Today only its battered shell remains.


The Upper Library

The present building was started in 1717 and completed in 1772. It was intended to match the great classical libraries of Trinity College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, and to attract aristocratic students to Christ Church. The building was probably designed by Dr George Clarke of All Souls, and the master mason was William Townsend (1668?-1739).

The books were placed at first floor level to avoid damp and flooding. The ground floor was originally intended to be an open loggia, but while the building was still under construction, Christ Church was given a large collection of pictures by John Guise (1682-1765). The lower storey was filled in to house them. Today these rooms house the modern books used by Christ Church undergraduates.

The Upper Library is nearly 150 feet long, and contains around 40,000 books. It is lit by large Venetian windows at either end, and by three sash windows facing onto the Peckwater Quadrangle. Two more windows are hidden behind the pediments of the bookcases, and can only be seen from outside. Originally it was intended that the shelves should be placed across the building, but large bequests of books arrived while the building was under construction, and the present wall-shelving and gallery were inserted to house them. The interior and fittings mostly date from the 1750s; the plasterwork is by Thomas Roberts of Oxford. The names above the books commemorate: Dean Henry Aldrich (1649-1710); Canon William Stratford (1672-1729); Archbishop William Wake (1657-1737), and Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery (1676-1731). All bequeathed large collections of books to the library, though their gifts were not necessarily shelved immediately beneath the name labels, as was once thought. Otho Nicholson gave money to buy books in 1613, and paid for the refitting of the Old Library in 1610-11, and John Morris (d.1648) was Regius Professor of Hebrew, and set up a trust fund to buy Hebrew books.

The rooms leading off the Upper Library (closed to visitors) originally held prints, drawings, coins and scientific instruments, as well as books. Some of these are now in the Picture Gallery, and others are on deposit in various Oxford museums. Other objects are still on display. The celestial and terrestrial globes were made in London in about 1760. The head of Mercury (on the right-hand window sill looking down onto the Quad) is from the original statue of 1695 which stood in the fountain in Tom Quad.

The famous cardinal's hat is displayed under the gallery directly opposite, though there is no direct evidence that it belonged to Wolsey. Its painted Gothick display case was made for Horace Walpole.

The wooden models of characters from Alice in Wonderland are a reminder that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was Sub-Librarian in the nineteenth century. The Upper Library retains most of its original furnishings, including the stools made by Thomas Chippendale, the library steps, and the wrought iron charcoal braziers, which were once the only heating.,


Chaining Practice

From the 15th to the early 18th century, books were secured by chaining them to shelves, reading desks, pulpits and pews in order to prevent them from being stolen. The chains used for this purpose varied in length from nearly 3 feet to almost 5 feet, while the links ranged in size from 1 1/2 to almost 3 inches in length, with a width of about 1/2 inch. The problem of the chains breaking when twisted was partially overcome by the inclusion of a swivel in the middle or at one end.

When the books were meant to be stood on end the chains were usually attached to the fore edge of the upper cover by means of a ring held to the board by a length of thin brass which was bent around the edge of the cover and riveted in place. Often, however, the ring was not used, the chain being attached directly to the clip on the cover. This required that the book be shelved fore edge out. The practice of chaining books began to die out by the middle of the 17th century when it became a more common practice to shelve books with their spines out.

Chained Books in the Lectern Library (1562-1610)

The books in the late Elizabethan lectern library were not stored on shelves, but on medieval-style lecterns. They were in consequence usually chained from the foot of the upper board. A small number of examples can still be found in the library today. However, many of the books which have sixteenth-century ex dono inscriptions do not have chain holes in this position; it is likely that they have subsequently been rebound, perhaps in the seventeenth century.

Chained Books in the Stall Library (1610-1775)

Between 1610 and 1614 the Old Library was refitted at the expense of a wealthy Chancery lawyer, Otho Nicholson. It was arranged after the model of the newly-founded Bodleian Library. From this date until the end of chaining some time in the eighteenth century Christ Church generally chained its books from the fore-edge of the lower board, generally about three or four inches above the foot of the volume. From time to time other positions were chosen, but this was comparatively unusual.

Most of these chained books also have the remains of a small paper tab, which would originally have carried a shelf number. These are usually on the fore-edge of the upper board, two or three inches below the head of the volume. The majority of the chained books appear to have been folios, but smaller formats were occasionally chained as well. Unchained small format books generally have a shelf mark on the fore-edge of the text-block; very few books of any size have a fore-edge title.