Richard Holdsworth gained his BA at St John's in 1610, before being elected a Fellow in 1613. He was ordained at Peterborough in 1617, the same year in which he was incorporated MA at Oxford. He was later to become a University preacher and professor of divinity at Gresham College. Holdsworth's main vocations were as a tutor and preacher. As the former he followed a fairly novel curriculum, and amassed one of the largest private libraries of the time. As the latter he became very well-known in London, and was president of Sion College. When the mastership of St John's fell vacant Holdsworth managed to gain the support of most of the governing body, but was denied the position by the King, who preferred a high church candidate. His disappointment was short-lived as he became archdeacon of Huntingdon soon after, and four years later was elected to the mastership of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. During the crises of the 1640s Holdsworth was forced to choose between Parliament and the King, while holding the post of vice-chancellor at Cambridge. He plumped for the latter, and after preaching a sermon before the King on his final visit to Cambridge, was summoned to explain himself before the House of Commons. Later, when elected Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he spent a short period in the Tower. He was never to return to Cambridge, and died at home in London.
Holdsworth's vast library of some 10,000 books went to the University Library on his death, but he did give some books to his College as a gesture of goodwill after he was denied the mastership. There are over sixty items in the Upper Library containing a book label bearing his name. These are a mixture of theological, classical and medical works, including one incunabule, an edition of Nicholas of Osimo's Supplementum Summae Pisanellae (1488), a work on conscience. Perhaps the most striking books given by Holdsworth are, however, those from the library of Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, with their distinctive provenance markings and German pig-skin bindings.
The books given by Holdsworth bear a simple book label. Translated it reads:
A gift in remembrance of that most distinguished man Richard Holdsworth, Batchelor of Sacred Theology, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, a most deserving Praelector of Theology at Gresham College in London, and once a Fellow of this College.