From the very outset, it was decreed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and college co-founder Henry Chichele that All Souls College should have a library. But in 1438, this was easier said than done. By the end of the 15th century, the library had a versatile working collection of texts spanning the disciplines of medicine, theology, and law that totaled 100 books and approximately 250 manuscripts.
Dodging the Reformation’s scourge, the library came under the early protection of Warden Robert Hovenden, who drafted the library’s first catalog, laid plans for the Old Library’s magnificent plaster barrel ceiling, and, in a genius but somewhat dicey move, accepted exquisitely bound books as payment from tenants in place of pounds sterling.
Over the following century, the library’s collection expanded more rapidly than its walls could contain. Enter: Christ Church graduate and All Souls Fellow Christopher Codrington. A voracious book collector and intellectual, he abandoned these pursuits for a career in the military on the European continent before inheriting his father’s post as governor-general on a plantation back in his birthplace of Barbados.
On his deathbed, Codrington bequeathed 12,000 tomes to the library in addition to a massive sum of money acquired through slavery to the University so that his volumes, as well as those to come, would always have a home. As a measure of thanks and in memorial, the new library was to be given Codrington’s name.
The construction of the library” designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor began in 1716, though it took until 1751 for the interior to be fully furnished and ready to receive its contents. The stately architecture of the library imparts a terrifying sense of weight to the knowledge contained therein.
To manage these new funds, a Library Committee was established, under whom the shape of the holdings seen today began to take shape. Acquisitions became more specific and intentional. Its collection diverged from a traditional college library into that of a “gentleman’s reference library” including topics such as travel, belles-lettres, classics, natural history, and more. Continued expansions into medieval manuscripts, 17th- and 18th-century Spanish books, and Persian manuscripts followed, as well as another reading room.
In addition to its magnificent architecture and a history that outdates the Gutenberg printing press, the library remains open to all members of the University, not just that college’s fellows.
In November 2020, All Souls College stopped referring to the library as the Codrington Library, as part of a set of “steps to address the problematic nature of the Codrington legacy,” which derives from the exploitation of enslaved laborers on plantations.