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The history of Oriel’s Library

At Oriel, books were acquired from the earliest period, and amongst the first books the college had were those that had belonged to Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester.

In 1320, Thomas Cobham, a former member of the University, provided money for the erection of a congregation house for the university with a room above it on the north side of St Mary’s church. He intended his books for the use of poor scholars at the university after his death, but when he died in 1327, his intentions could not be realized. The building had not yet been completed, the books were pledged by Cobham’s executors to meet the expenses of his funeral and were redeemed by Adam de Brome who was now Provost of Oriel. Brome agreed that the scholars of his new college would say the prayers requested by the executors for the bishop’s soul, and had the books brought to Oxford and installed in the college. The books were not retained in the college, however – in 1337 or thereabouts, the proctor accompanied by a great crowd, removed the books by force in the name of the university. In 1367, they were chained in the upper room, as Cobham had intended.

By 1375, the college already possessed 98 books, of which about 52 were arts books, 37 theological, and 9 legal. These books have been dispersed, but over seventy of the surviving manuscripts come from the medieval library. During the Middle Ages, and up until the 18th century, the college seems to have relied mainly on gifts and legacies for its books, rather than on purchases, although plate to the value of £30 was sold to provide money for theological works in the 1540s.

As elsewhere, the Oriel books were divided into a lending library and a chained library. A lending library is envisaged in the statutes; every year, on 2nd November, all books were to be returned, and each fellow, in turn, was to make a fresh choice of books. As regards the chained library, there are references to a chained library as early as 1409, and about 1449 a new library was built on the first floor of the east side of the quad, on the site of the present hall, which lasted till the 17th century. To judge from the marks on the manuscripts, they were probably chained so as to lie flat on a series of lecterns, no doubt at right angles to the walls, with seats between. The junior fellows were expected to study regularly in the library. By the early 17th century, the ‘stall system’ of shelves seems to have been introduced.

In the rebuilt quad, the library was a room about 50 ft. by 18 ft. on the top floor of the north side of staircase V; it must have been entered from staircase VII, and it had a row of seven windows on each side (three are now blocked). It was probably divided by projecting bookcases between the windows into seven bays on each side, and there were ‘archives’ and ‘claustra’– lock-ups for manuscripts and valuable books. The books were chained up until 1755, and stood on the shelves with their fore edges showing.

Oriel’s most famous period was between 1780 and 1850, culminating in its association with Keble, Newman and the Oxford Movement. At its outset, the library was doubled in size by a bequest from Edward, fifth Baron Leigh (1742-1786), formerly High Steward of the University and an Orielensis. This bequest necessitated a new library building. The Senior Library, as it is now known, was designed by James Wyatt. The library consisted of about 1,000 titles, which is not particularly large for a country house library of the period; but much of what it does contain is of unusual magnificence. The books cover all subjects, and range in date from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century. Wyatt’s new library was started in 1787, and was illustrated under construction in the Oxford Almanack for 1791. The books were moved into the library in 1795.

The neighbouring St Mary Hall (with its small collection of books) was absorbed by Oriel in 1902; its former chapel was later converted into a reading room for undergraduates, previously only served by a cupboard of books in a lecture room. In 1921, they were admitted as readers into the Senior Library. At first the two rooms were connected by a bridge, but this was removed in 1994-6, and the Senior Library may now be approached through the Lower Reading Room of the Junior Library. A fire, spreading from the roof on 7th March 1949, resulted in the total loss of just over 300 printed books and the few manuscripts on exhibition, but over 3,000 were repaired.

Oriel library has several distinctive features. The early medical books are important, as are the connections with the Oxford Movement. Oriel has an extensive collection of works written by or about alumni called Orielensia, housed in the Cedar Room. The medieval manuscripts reflect its antiquity while in some ways it still bears the impression of a country house library – an impression given by the Leigh bequest and that of Stephen Noel Furness (1902-1974) who also left a distinguished private twentieth-century collection.

This webpage was written by Marjory Szurko and information was taken from The History of the University of Oxford V.2, Oxford: Clarendon, 1992, pp. 407-483; Morgan, P, Oxford Libraries outside the Bodleian: a guide Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2nd ed, 1980, pp. 98-107; and The Victoria History of the Counties of England, Oxon. iii, pp.119-131.

further information

The Library

The Archives

History of the College