Bishop Thomas Cobham and Oxford’s First University Library

At the east end of the Cathedral, in the Andrew Chapel, is the effigy of Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester from 1317 to 1327. Like many others holding such an office he came from a wealthy family, enjoyed income from various benefices and church appointments and acted as a diplomat on behalf of the monarch. Perhaps more unusually he was also a fine scholar who had taught at three universities, and owned a collection of books. That collection was to become the first library open to all Oxford students, and the ancestor of the modern world-famous Bodleian.

Bishop Cobham Bodleian Library Worcester Cathedral Library

Bishop Cobham’s Effigy. His face was badly damaged during the Reformation, as were the two figures of angels on either side of his head. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In 1320 he gave money for a building next to St Mary’s Church in Oxford, intending that the upper floor should house a chained library of his books, open to all the students at the university, which at this time had no library of its own. But after his death and to pay for his funeral expenses the books were sold instead to the recently founded Oriel College. This sale proved very unpopular with the rest of the university and especially with the students wanting to use the books as intended by the Bishop. In 1337 or thereabouts the university Proctor followed by a great crowd removed the books from Oriel College by force in the name of the university. Eventually they were installed in the room designed for them, to be later joined by Duke Humphrey’s collection, a name still familiar to anyone who has used the Bodleian.

Oxford St Mary's Church Worcester Cathedral Library

St Mary’s Church. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The Cobhams were a wealthy family who rose to prominence in the reign of Edward II. Thomas’s older brother Henry was Constable of Rochester, Dover, Tonbridge and Canterbury castles, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Sheriff of Kent. In 1312 he was created Baron Cobham, a title that survives today and belongs to the Lyttleton family of Hagley Hall.

Thomas by contrast was a studious type. He spent years in the 1280’s at the University of Paris, before becoming a recognised regent or teacher of the basic Arts course there. By 1291 he was teaching Canon Law at Oxford, and later Theology at Cambridge  after taking his Doctorate in the subject by 1314. It is not clear exactly when he was ordained a priest, but he became Rector of four parishes, Canon of three cathedrals, Archdeacon of Lewes and Precentor of York.

In 1313 he was elected Archbishop of Canterbury by the monks, as was customary, but Pope Clement V had already reserved the see, and appointed Walter Reynolds, a favourite of King Edward II. Cobham was made Bishop of Worcester perhaps to compensate for this loss, was consecrated at Avignon in 1317, and finally enthroned in Worcester in 1319.

Although wealthy by the standards of the day, Thomas spent a lot of money on the books he needed for teaching and study. As Bishop he took an interest in Oxford, which was the university that Worcester monks attended, and thus he spent more on the building by St Mary’s Church, intended to be the University congregation house, and a library for the students.

Bodleian Library Worcester Cathedral

The Bodleian Library today. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Thomas died in 1327, probably at Hartlebury, after a long and painful illness, his Oxford building stll not complete. He bequeathed his plate and vestments to the cathedral, where he was buried, but the executors of his will sold his books to Adam de Brome, Provost of Oriel College. De Brome agreed that Oriel scholars would say the prayers requested for the bishop’s soul, and the books were brought to Oxford and installed in the College, arousing strong opposition in the University. As mentioned above the books were removed by force in 1337, and the University decreed that they should be installed as Cobham intended. Oriel continued to dispute ownership and the matter was not settled until 1410, when Archbishop Arundel paid £50 of his own money to the College as recompense, and the library finally opened two years later.

Some years later Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V, gave the Cobham library a large collection of manuscripts. Then it was seen that a bigger building was needed, and in 1488 the library moved to the place still known as Duke Humfrey’s Library in the modern Bodleian Library. Sadly nearly all the books from the original library were lost by the time of the new foundation in 1602. But Bishop Cobham’s Oxford building is still there, now a popular café by St Mary’s Church.

Tim O’Mara

Bibliography 

Roy Martin Haines, ‘Cobham, Thomas (c.1265–1327)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5745]

‘Book Provision and Libraries at the Medieval University of Oxford: The Robert F. Metzdorf Memorial Lecture 1987’ University Of Rochester Library Bulletin Volume XXXX 1987-88 [https://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=4038]

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