The King and the Bodleian

The King and the Bodleian

Upon first visiting the Bodleian in 1605 – shortly after its opening and his accession and before the erection of Arts End – King James remarked,

If I were not a King, I would be an University man; And if it were so that I must be a Prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other Prison then that Library, and to be chained together with so many good Authors.*

In 1619, King James published a Latin translation of his collected works, which had appeared in English three years earlier.** In 1620, while the Tower of the Five Orders was still under construction, an emmisary of the king, Dr Patrick Young, presented a copy of the book, bound in red velvet and dedicated with the king's own hand, to the University.+ By Young's account,

The King’s Booke was receaved with a great deale of solemnitie, and in a solumne procession was carried from St. Marie’s (where the Convocationwas) by the Vice-Chancellor, accompanied with some 24 Doctors in scarlett, and the rest of the bodie of the Universitie, unto the Publick Librarie where the Keeper, one Mr Rows, made a verie prettie Speech, and placed it in archivis, intuentibus nobis et reliquies academicis[in the public collection, for consultation by us and other scholars], with a great deale of respect. In this they far surpassed Cambridge …. His Majestie was exceeding well pleased … and does preferre Oxford  unto … Cambridge.++

The engraved frontispiece which adorned both the English and Latin versions of the book -- showing the king full-length, seated on a throne, wearing crown and royal robes, and holding an orb and scepter -- provided a general inspiration for the statue of the king on the Tower of the Five Orders. The posture was modified and the orb and sceptre replaced by two books in order to memorialize the king's donation to the Bodleian. The final couplet of the verses below this image alludes to his intellectual pretentions: 

Of more then earth, can earth make none partaker,
But knowledge makes the King most like his maker.

From his permanent place atop the Tower of the Five Orders, King James I therefore might be said to look longingly across the Quadrangle and through the magnificent window of Arts End to the chained folios which symbolised his intellectual aspirations.

* Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Vol. 2: Text, ed. Nicolas K. Kiessling, Thomas C. Faulkner, and Rhonda L. Blair (Oxford, 1990), p. 88.
** Serenissimi et potentissimi Principis Iacobi, Dei gratia, Magnæ Britanniæ, Franciæ, et Hiberniæ Regis, fidei defensoris, opera, edita ab Iacobo Montacuto, Wintoniensi Episcopo, & sacelli regij decano(London, 1619).
+ The copy donated by the king is Bodleian Library, sign. Arch. A b.3. For more on the Bodleian's copy, see D. M. Rogers, The Bodleian Library and its Treasures, 1320-1700 (Henley on Thames, 1991), p. 73 and pl. 59; David Vaisey, Bodleian Library Treasures (Oxford, 2015, repr. 2018), 146-7.
++ Young to his brother, London, 8 June 1620; quoted in The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First, collected by J. Nichols, 4 vols (London, 1828), iv. 1105-6.

Credits: Brandan Powell-Josiah (third-year student, St Anne's College) and Howard Hotson (March 2021)