Our tour guide was both enthusiastic and interesting, Although our tour was scheduled for an hour and a half, not only did it take longer, but he invited anyone interested back to answer any questions, and though I cannot do justice to his talk as I was looking round as well as listening, and obviously not taking any notes, but this is what I remember, and hopefully will not have too many of the facts wrong
It is thought that early monastic buildings appeared at the site sometime in the dark ages, and later, during the time of Alfred the Great fortifications were undertaken against the Danes, who held land from the Thames to the Tees under Danelaw. Alfred could speak Latin, and of course had the famous Alfred Jewel made ( I had hoped to see this at the Ashmolean but got lost and felt too tired to carry on, as the museum is huge and the lifts are always full, so you will have to make do with an internet photo unless I return to Oxford sometime).
It is an object I have always loved and was one of the first things to get me really interested in antiques, though I have never seen the original. It is thought to have been the surmount for a pointer used for reading valuable manuscript books, helping to keep them from being soiled, and the dragon head socket at the bottom would have probably held an ivory pointing stick. I always imagined the figure depicted in cloisonné enamels beneath the large piece of rock crystal was Alfred the Great himself, but it is now though to be a symbolic representation of “Sight” one of the five senses, very appropriate. The lettering around the edge reads ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ or ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’, and it is probably the most important of a set of these “aestels” or pointers which Alfred is said to have distributed as gifts to monasteries to encourage or reward literacy in those places.
But to return to the history of Oxford - the most obvious old building is the Saxon Tower, dating from around the middle of the eleventh century just before the Norman Conquest, and then of course William the Conqueror built a castle there; but it was the history of the University which most interested me
The chances are Oxford was a seat of learning from before Alfred the Great’s time. At that time these were mainly to educate priests so they could read, as not only was the bible in Latin, but pretty well everything else that was written. The University of Paris was the most important, but with the continual friction between the monarchs of England and France as to who was entitled to the crown, Henry II, grandson of William the Conqueror suddenly decided that English subjects should not study there. So in 1167 it is thought some two thousand students returned to England looking for somewhere to continue their studies and settled on Oxford. At the time the resident population may not even have been as large and this may have been the beginnings of much of the later friction between ‘Town and Gown’
Although the students will have all been male and nearly all intending to enter the catholic church, as they say, boys will be boys, and the upshot was that in 1209 a girl of the town was murdered. The murderor fled, but the incensed towns people tried and excecuted two of his companions. There was then extensive rioting and many of the students fled to Cambridge, effectively abandoning Oxford for some five years or more. Perhaps missing the wealth the University brought, the townsfolk then invited them back. There is an interesting little aside about Brazenose College to which I will return later.
The original University was centred on St Mary the Virgin Church and the church was used for meetings. To provide additional meeting space in 1320 a Convocation House was built abutting the church, and above it a room to be used as a library to house the books. In those days all libraries were based on the first floor to help preserve the valuable manuscript books from the damp. - The lower room is now know as The Vaults and is used as a restaurant - which I can highly recommend being both central for looking at the buildings and offering good value home cooked food.
Once again boys will be boys, and the meetings became rowdy with the result that it was felt a separate meeting hall away from the church would be a much better idea and building began in about 1425, The interior of this building is truly exquisite, but it seemed construction was taking far too long. Then, in 1447 Duke Humphrey, a cultured and educated son of Henry IV, died and left his collection of 280 valuable manuscript books to Oxford University. The current library at St Mary the Virgin was far too small to accommodate them and it was suggested that the Congregational Hall being built should have an extra storey added to be used as a library, and 500 Silver Marks were given by Cardinal Beaufort on condition it was finished by 1453, which it wasn’t. Later Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London gave another 1000 Marks and it was probably finished towards the end of the 15th C.
Of course before long the Reformation of the 16th C took its toll, and by the end of that century the library was almost ruinous, with no furniture and only three books remaining. Sir Thomas Bodley had been educated at Magdalen College and lectured at Merton College, later becoming a politician under Elizabeth I. Retiring from court he married a wealthy widow and then devoted the rest of his life to restoring the Duke Humfrey library, which as since become known at the Bodleian Library in his honour
Although he was wealthy he still needed money, especially for books and he had two outstanding ideas.
One was the agreement between the Bodleian Library and the Stationer's Company, in which the Company agreed to send to the library a copy of every book entered in their register on condition that the books thus given might be borrowed if needed for reprinting, and that the books given to the library by others might be examined, collated and copied by the Company.
And the second was he had prepared a handsome Register of Donations in which the name of every benefactor was written- in a large and fair hand so all might read - and kept the it prominently displayed so that no visitor to the library could escape seeing the generosity of his friends. The plan was a success and he found that, 'every man bethinks himself how by some good book or other he may be written in the scroll of the benefactors.
No photography is allowed in the library at all so I have found a few from the free commons on Wikimedia
And should you want to read more about how the library developed over the centuries this article published by The Bodleian goes into more depth.