History of the Old Library

History of the Old Library

The Old Library was built between 1623 and 1628. It was brought into being largely through the efforts of two members of the College, Valentine Carey, Bishop of Exeter, and John Williams, Lord-Keeper and Bishop of Lincoln.

St John's College first opened its doors in 1516 and the original library was situated in First Court (then the only court) on the first floor to the south of the Great Gate.

The building of a new library was prompted by the promise of a large donation of books and manuscripts bought from William Crashaw (puritan divine and father of the poet Richard Crashaw) by Henry Wriothesley (Earl of Southampton and patron of Shakespeare), both of whom were alumni of St John's.

In 1605 Crashaw was appointed by the Inner and Middle Templars to lecture at their church. Crashaw was a devoted bibliophile and, in his own words, 'gathered up out of many nations, one of the most complete libraryes in Europe', 'with great paines, & the cost of more then 2000 li.'. Forced to leave London for the north, when the Middle Temple discontinued their half of his stipend, Crashaw offered his library to the Templars in 1613. When the lawyers refused, Crashaw offered his collection to other institutions.

Between October 1614 and 1615 Cambridge University paid 20 shillings to the Stationers' Company for examining Crashaw's library but went no further. So, in a letter dated 23 March 1615, Crashaw offered St John's 500 manuscripts and up to 3000 printed books. Crashaw credits Wriothesley with the idea, saying that he hopes to give 'his best assistance to his lordship for the well maneginge of that good motion his lordship made to me for our librarye'. Crashaw negotiated the gift in letters to the College but the donor was Wriothesley. Having received a catalogue of the College library, to compare with that of his own, Crashaw wrote to the Master, Owen Gwyn, on 30 June 1615 reporting that he had delivered 'into Southampton house almost 200 volumes of Manuscripts in Greeke, Lattine, English and frenche, and about 1000 printed books' none of which the College owned. In the same letter Crashaw suggests that the Master might consider 'whether some other parte of the house were not a fitter place for a librarye' than the existing one.

The Master clearly thought so, since in 1616 the cases and books were removed from the original library into accommodation over the kitchens and the College began to approach possible benefactors to raise the money for a new building. On 9 July 1617 the College wrote to Mary, Countess of Shrewsbury, who had contributed so generously towards the cost of Second Court, but without success.

In January 1623 Gwyn appears to have approached Williams. On 23 January Carey wrote to the Master to report that Williams, while not wishing to 'be counted the builder or founder' of a new library, was prepared to be a 'contributor towardes it'. In the subsequent correspondence Carey can be seen to be quietly guiding Williams towards contributing a larger sum, so that in his letter of 23 May Carey was able to report that Williams had promised £1400, though he wished his benefaction to remain anonymous.

Carey showed Williams drawings of the proposed new building, prepared by Henry Man, a local carpenter. It was to stand 'upon pillars' and stretch from the Shrewsbury Tower to the river. Williams did not like it and proposed his own scheme. Williams's building would join the west end of the Master's gallery in Second Court and continue to the waterside, 'a square building' with 4 chambers underneath and the library above, with stairs in the middle of the building going up to the floor of the library. The whole building would be of brick with windows and quoins of stone. Carey's letter to Gwyn of 3 October records a slight change of plan, with the staircase to the library being moved to one end of the building. By 10 October the anonymity of Williams's benefaction was over, and Carey could write that the Bishop was 'pleased now to be knowen to be the founder'. New plans were drawn up based on Williams's scheme and by 19 November Carey was able to report that Williams had approved them, with some alterations, and that building could therefore proceed in earnest.

The date 1624 which appears on the south gable of the western oriel window marks the conclusion of the shell of the building and it must have been during the late summer/autumn of 1625 when the last external members were completed. Once the building was sealed from the weather work began on the ceiling and fittings: 42 oak cases with exquisite carving, typical of the Jacobean age, together with the wooden ceiling fittings, all crafted probably by Henry Man himself. This apparently took almost 3 years, for the books were not removed from their accommodation over the kitchens until 1628. The printed books bought for the College by Henry Wriothesley from Crashaw's library had arrived from Southampton House in 1626 but it was not until 1635 that the manuscripts were sent, as a joint gift from the Countess and Henry's son Thomas.

Bishop Williams inspected the new building in 1628 and a banquet was held to celebrate. A portrait of Williams was hung in the library and his arms, impaled with those of the See of Lincoln, were hung on the east wall above the entrance door. The stone letters I.L.C.S. (for Iohannes Lincolniensis Custos Sigilli) above the oriel window were another reminder to the College of its benefactor.

The whole building is a splendid example of Jacobean Gothic, 110 feet long and 30 feet wide. To create a convenient access to the library a staircase was built in 1628 into the west end of the Master's gallery. The entrance from the stair landing is of a heavy and sumptuous Jacobean style with thick tapering pilasters. The door is surmounted by the arms of Bishop Williams. The windows of the oriel are large, lofty and pointed, divided by a transom and with tracery at the heads. Angle buttresses with ornate pinnacles flank the river gable and buttresses continue along the north wall. The tall two-light windows are self-consciously Gothic, a very early case of Gothic Revival. In spite of the Gothic windows, the whole façade, with its segmental battlements, has an air of the Renaissance.

The fittings in the library consisted of 42 bookcases arranged at right angles to the north and south walls. Of these, the 22 taller cases, on either side of the windows, are attached to the walls and linked with them by their cornice level. In between these, in front of each window, were fitted 20 dwarf bookcases with double sloping desks on top. The cases were true 'bookcases' in that they consisted only of shelves for books and had no reader's desk attached. Readers could rest books on the sloping tops of the dwarf cases and stand to read. On the faces of the taller cases were fitted small twin doors, on the inside of and behind which were pasted lists detailing the contents of each class under a subject heading. Lists in various 17th century hands still survive, with the following headings: philologi, philosophi, medici, theologi recentiores, theologi scholastici, historici ecclesiastici, SS Patres, liturgica, biblia sacra, concilia, iurisconsulti, lexicographi, historici, mathematici.

A shelf list of the contents of the library compiled in 1634-5 (MS U.3) shows that the cases on both sides of the room were identified by letters of the alphabet running from C to T from west to east, with each case bearing the same letter as the one facing it across the room. This must have been very confusing and the next surviving catalogue, from the middle of the century (MS U.1), shows that the cases on the south side were given double letters. It was probably also at this time that the sequence of the letters reversed to run east to west as it does today. The arms of 22 benefactors to the library emblazoned on shields are fitted to the tops of each of the tall cases.

The opening of the new library inspired donations of books and money from numerous benefactors and a book, Mnhmosunon Collegii Divi Joannis Evangelistae or Liber Memorialis, containing their arms and details of their benefactions, was produced to commemorate them (MS K.18).

John Evelyn visited the Library on 31 August 1654 and acclaimed it as 'the fairest of that University'. Some years later, in July 1710, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach was less enthusiastic but conceded that that the books were 'more tidy than we have found them elsewhere in England'.

Over time the shelves filled and an entry in the College rentals shows that the bookcases were altered in 1711, perhaps to allow for more shelf space. A shortage of space was certainly revealed when on the death of Thomas Baker, Fellow and antiquary, in 1740 the College acquired a large and very fine part of his library. An entry in the Conclusion Book for 12 July 1742 shows that, in order to accommodate Baker's books, the College decided to raise all the dwarf cases in the library with the exception of the two nearest to the entrance, which remain to this day at their original height.

As the library's collections expanded through purchase, donation and bequest so it was found necessary in the nineteenth century to extend the library to the floor below. In 1858 two sets of chambers on the ground floor at the west end were taken over and connected to the Upper Library by a spiral staircase, and in 1874 a third chamber adjoining the former was also appropriated. It appears that by 1903 the present Lower Library was wholly in the possession of the library.

In 1885 sixteen stained glass coats of arms of various benefactors to the library were placed in the oriel window of the Upper Library in memory of H.H. Hughes (Fellow 1817-36). Since then the shields of four further benefactors have been added. The window had previously housed the arms of Bishop Williams, Thomas Baker and James Wood, and on the introduction of the new shields Baker's and Wood's arms were removed to the lower library window.

In 1885-8 the erection of the Penrose Building resulted in the alteration of the 1628 staircase, so that two steps at the foot and a long flight of sixteen steps brought one to the entrance to the library. The staircase was restored to its original position in 1968-9.


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