Duke Humfrey's Library at the Old Bodleian Library – Oxford, England - Atlas Obscura
Free iron-on Atlas Obscura badge when you preorder our new kids’ book. Shop now.

Oxford, England

Duke Humfrey's Library at the Old Bodleian Library

One of Europe's oldest libraries. 

Humphrey Plantagenet had the misfortune of being born too late. He was the youngest son of a King, and thus no king at all. However, thanks to his birth order, rather than fight alongside his brothers in wars, he received a rigorous education. He became the first Duke of Gloucester and served in Parliament, and upon the death of his brother, King Henry V, Humphrey was Lord Protector of his nephew, King Henry VI, until he assumed the throne.

Today, though, he is best known for his books. Over the course of his life, he collected many books. “Many” being a relative term because the printing press had not yet been invented. In the late Medieval era, any library at all was likely a “chained library” where, you may have guessed, the books were chained to the wall. The chains were quite long, long enough to bring the book to a table, but visitors got the impression that they weren’t to remove the precious objects.

In his lifetime, Sir Humphrey was a patron of literature, commissioning translations of classical Greek works into Latin and corresponding with poets in far flung places like Italy. Upon his death in 1447 he bequeathed his collection of 281 manuscripts to the library at Oxford. The university built a new library to house these invaluable books.

As history would have it, however, Humphrey’s original collection did not survive to present day. During the Reformation in 1550, the Crown removed all the books from Duke Humphrey’s library to destroy the vestiges of Roman Catholicism. The books were likely burned. According to Historian Anthony Wood, “some of those books so taken out by the Reformers were burnt, some sold away for Robin Hood’s pennyworths, either to Booksellers, or to Glovers to press their gloves, or Taylors to make measures, or to Bookbinders to cover books bound by them, and some also kept by the Reformers for their own use.”

Today only three of the original books belonging to Duke Humphrey remain in the collection. The library was briefly taken over by the Faculty of Medicine but fifty years later, an enterprising scholar, Sir Thomas Bodley, financed a new library (thus Bodleian). This new collection had over 2,500 titles, thanks to Bodley, Gutenberg et. al.

Today, “Duke Humfrey’s Library” is the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library, and where most Oxford University theses are consulted.

The current collection has many invaluable pieces of literature, including manuscripts of the Gospels of the Bible from the 3rd century, some of the oldest known specimens. The Bodleian is also home to a Shakespeare First Folio and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (one of 42 left in the world). The library holds daily guided tours.