duke humfreys library by david iliff

This magnificent reading room is the oldest part of what is now known as the Bodelian Library, itself one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It’s the intellectual centerpiece of Oxford University. Duke Humfrey’s Library is named for the Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of King Henry IV of England. Humfrey amassed a large collection of books and manuscripts, most of them translations of Greek and Roman texts. When he died in 1447 he donated his collection to Oxford University, who then had this library built to house them. On November 8, 1602, 413 years ago today, this and other parts of Oxford’s holdings were officially consolidated as the Bodelian Library, which is now the second-largest holder of books in Britain after the British Library (which I also profiled in this series). As reading rooms go this is one of the coolest ones in the world–imagine the treasures you could find in these dusty old shelves!

The library is a very early Tudor style as you can see from the architecture. The joists are heavily carved and decorated, and the ceiling between them painted with images of coats of arms of the University. I wish I could see more of the paintings on the upper walls which presumably show some of the great benefactors of Oxford over the centuries. The paintings have darkened over the centuries. I believe much of the furnishing in this room dates from a restoration that began in 1598, although the building was originally constructed beginning in 1480. That’s a pretty impressive pedigree!

Jorge Luis Borges once said that if heaven exists, it must be some kind of library. You could definitely spend an eternity here and never run out of amazing discoveries in history, literature and the arts.

This photo of Duke Humfrey’s Library is by by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 (Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution license).