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James, Thomasfree

  • R. Julian Roberts

Thomas James (1572/33–1629)

attrib. Gilbert Jackson

© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

James, Thomas (1572/3–1629), librarian and religious controversialist, was born at Newport, Isle of Wight, probably the youngest child of Richard James and Jane Overnone (d. 1581), who had been married there on 29 June 1549, but who had, according to their son's account many years later, been forced to live beyond the seas in Queen Mary's time. An elder sister, Mary, married Thomas Fleming (1544–1613), later lord chief justice, and it was Fleming who supported James first at Winchester College which he entered at the age of thirteen in 1586, and then at New College, Oxford, where he was admitted a probationer on 30 June 1591. He matriculated on 28 January 1592, was elected a fellow on 30 June 1593, graduated BA on 3 May 1595, and proceeded MA on 5 February 1599.

By this time the first of James's many publications had already appeared. A Commentary upon the Canticle of Canticles (1598), a translation of a work by the Italian reformer Antonio Brucioli, and The Moral Philosophie of the Stoicks (1598), a translation of a work by Guillaume Du Vair, manifested his linguistic versatility, although Thomas Bodley was later to find fault with James's Hebrew. An edition of Richard Bury's Philobiblon was printed at Oxford, also in 1598, and was reissued in the next year with a crude list of manuscripts and a dedication to Thomas Bodley. In it, James promises another catalogue of manuscripts to be published after a journey to Cambridge. By 1599 Bodley had chosen James as librarian for his refounded library, and Bodley's first extant letter, of 24 December that year, is addressed to him at Cambridge. The promised catalogue, Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis (1600), is a union catalogue of manuscripts in the Oxford and Cambridge college libraries, and in Cambridge University Library. Meanwhile, James had also been engaged upon rearranging and transcribing Oxford's statutes. He was paid £6 13s. 4d. for this in February 1601.

James's appointment as librarian was confirmed by the university on 13 April 1602, at a salary increased that year from £22 13s. 4d. a year to £26 13s. 4d. and in 1613, the year of Bodley's death, to £33 6s. 8d. Bodley's letters to James now became more frequent, and the instructions to the keeper more detailed: 'I can not choose but impart my fansie unto yow in the smallest maters of the Libr[ary]' (Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley, no. 50, 8 Oct 1602). There are frequent references to James's brother Edward. Bodley's draft statutes had directed that the librarian should not be 'encombred with mariage', but by September 1601 James had intimated his intention of marrying. Bodley eventually relented, although the move entailed resignation from the New College fellowship and consequent financial loss. James was appointed rector of St Aldates, Oxford, on 14 September 1602 and on 18 October he married Ann Underhill (bap. 1581, d. 1655), one of a large and prominent Oxford family, in St Thomas's Church. The library opened on 8 November with a procession, and an address by the librarian, but Bodley himself was not present. Remaining in London he bought books for the library there, had them bound to his order and then sent them to Oxford to be catalogued and placed by James, who returned manuscript lists to Bodley. The compilation of a general catalogue, printed by Joseph Barnes at Bodley's expense, between June and October 1604, was James's most onerous duty. Published in mid-1605 as Catalogus librorum bibliothecæ publicæ quam vir ornatissimus Thomas Bodleius … in academia Oxoniensi nuper instituit, it was dedicated to Prince Henry, from whom Bodley expected more than from King James.

With this task completed and the appointment of an under-keeper in 1606, James turned hopefully to an old preoccupation, the 'collation', the minute examination of the manuscript and printed texts of the church fathers in the belief that Roman Catholic theologians had deliberately falsified them. This had been the theme of James's Bellum papale (1600) and indeed was a motive in his early cataloguing of manuscripts. About 1607 he issued as a single sheet The humble supplication of Thomas James student in divinitie, and keeper of the publike librarie at Oxford, for reformation of the ancient fathers workes, by papists sundrie wayes depraved, while in 1608 he made use of manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to publish an edition of John Wycliffe's proto-reforming work Two Short Treatises Against the Orders of Begging Friars. At first his schemes had Bodley's support, but this weakened when Bodley realized that King James's promise of manuscripts from the royal library would not be fulfilled. Nevertheless, he pressed James's claims for preferment with Archbishop Richard Bancroft and his successor George Abbot. James was made chaplain to Bancroft and appointed rector of Midley in Kent on 6 November 1609. Two autograph (and identically bound) manuscripts in Lambeth Palace Library (MSS 524 and 525) record his gratitude to Bancroft and his hopes of Abbot. In a third manuscript (MS 526) he wrote 'Whence it is clearly proved in what value in this corrupt age manuscripts should be held'. Although Bodley frustrated his hopes of joining the translators of the Bible, James won widespread support in the church for his study of the fathers. A group of theologians was appointed and began work under his direction on 1 July 1610, but ceased, for want of payment, in October 1612. Despite its short life, the group collated fifty-six manuscripts, about half of which were from outside the Bodleian Library. James published in a pamphlet Bellum Gregorianum (1610) what he termed 'gustum non fructum', a foretaste of the work. Bodley, however, was contemptuous of 'this so litle fore-running proofe of your greater worke to come' (Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley, no. 193, 30 Oct 1610).

James's family grew in these years. Little is known of his eldest children, Thomas and Ann; Francis (b. c.1607) followed his father's course to Winchester and New College; Theodore, (b. 1609) was later a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and his baptism and that of several daughters, Martha (1615), Alice (1616), and Mary (1619), in St Mary Magdalen Church, suggests that the family was then living in that parish.

As a letter of Bodley dated 26 February 1611 makes clear, the agreement of 12 December 1610, between the Stationers' Company of London and the university, for the deposit in the library of the books the stationers printed had been James's idea. Its effect, though far-reaching, was at first vitiated by Bodley's contempt for 'London books', and particularly for plays, and by the stationers' reluctance to keep to the agreement; its enforcement was one of the duties of James's later years as librarian. With Bodley's death on 28 January 1613, James became answerable both for the administration of the library and for the purchase of books to a body of curators. For acquisitions, the curators relied upon the Frankfurt fair catalogues (for the most part, in the London-printed version) and upon experienced booksellers such as John Bill, and later Henry Featherstone.

Meanwhile James was also continuously engaged upon the cataloguing of the library, both upon subject catalogues and upon a new general catalogue. That published in 1605 had been essentially a shelf-list according to the classification of the library, followed by an alphabetical index. He now produced in 1612–13 a new catalogue, in alphabetical order of author or title. It was intended for printing, but absence of funding ensured that it remained in James's autograph. An alphabetical author catalogue was, however, printed and published as Catalogus universalis librorum in bibliotheca Bodleiana (1620). The title-page proclaimed James's authorship, although it appeared during the office of his successor, John Rous. His own correspondence shows that he was also much involved in the everyday work of librarianship, such as requests for information and transcriptions.

As building work on the schools quadrangle of the library progressed between 1613 and 1619, James concerned himself with the fabric too. While the overall design can be attributed to Sir Henry Savile, he was certainly responsible for the choice of authors depicted in the painted frieze in the gallery on the top floor. The frieze reflects the contents and arrangement of the library, and James's own reverence for the authors of Greece and Rome, for the church fathers upon whom he had lavished so much zeal, for foreign reformers, and for English protestant divines of his own century.

Meanwhile, James's almost obsessive anti-Catholicism remained unabated, finding expression in such works as A Treatise of the Corruption of Scripture (London, 1611) and The Jesuits Downefall (Oxford, 1612) and, more practically, in the detection of Jesuits in Oxfordshire. Ecclesiastical preferment also continued to come his way: on 20 October 1617 he was appointed rector of Little Mongeham, Kent.

In 1620 James resigned as Bodley's librarian, and thereafter dedicated himself, notwithstanding the sicknesses of which he complained, to grand schemes of collation, and to that end, to the study of manuscripts. His income, diminished by his resignation, was augmented again by his installation as subdean of Wells on 16 June 1621, but his correspondence is dominated by requests for assistance in paying 'a dozen able schollers' (T. James, An Explanation or Enlarging of the Ten Articles, 1625, 31) to peruse the fathers and other ecclesiastical documents supposedly contaminated by the papists. A scheme in ten articles was proposed to the clergy in late 1624 or early 1625 as The Humble and Earnest Request of Thomas James to the Church of England and republished as An Explanation or Enlarging of the Ten Articles (1625), although, as James wrote on 28 January 1624 to James Ussher, then bishop of Meath, one of his few sympathetic correspondents, 'I have not Encouragement from our Bishops'. However, one work of collation, the Vindiciae Gregorianae, appeared in Geneva in 1625, and the access that James had to Sir Robert Cotton's library in order to pursue his researches was no doubt eased by the appointment of his nephew Richard James as Cotton's librarian about that year. A final bolt fired at the papists, Index generalis librorum prohibitorum à pontificiis, appeared in 1627.

Little is known of James's last years. When he wrote to Cotton on 11 August 1628 to thank him for petitioning Archbishop Abbot on behalf of his wife and children, he commented that 'long I cannot have the benefitt of this worlde' (BL, Cotton MS Julius C.III, fol. 221). He died in August 1629, and was buried in New College chapel, but the exact site of his grave is unknown. Administration of his estate was granted to his widow, Ann James, on 14 November 1629 in the chancellor's court of Oxford University. An inventory of the same date gives the value of his goods as £219 1s. 10d. His books—which are not specified—were valued at £40. Ann James was buried on 22 June 1655.

In his own time, James was characterized, memorably, and perhaps accurately, by Wood, as 'the most industrious and indefatigable writer against the Papists, that had been educated in Oxon, since the reformation of religion' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 2.469). Underlying the obsessive vehemence of his anti-Catholicism, there is the fact that many of the patristic and other editions which he attacked were, perhaps more by carelessness than fraudulence, extremely inaccurate, and that James by his insistence on the use of manuscripts, served scholarship well. This service was the greater by his care for the manuscripts in his own library, and by his recording of them elsewhere. With the not always helpful oversight of Thomas Bodley, James was also the first librarian to attempt the organization of knowledge in books and manuscripts into the printed and published catalogues of a large library; the successive catalogues in which he did this were the work of a bibliographical pioneer.


  • Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to Thomas James, first keeper of the Bodleian Library, ed. G. W. Wheeler (1926)
  • G. W. Wheeler, ed., Letters addressed to Thomas James (1933)
  • indexes to Oxford parish registers, Centre for Oxfordshire Studies
  • G. W. Wheeler, The earliest catalogues of the Bodleian Library, Oxford (1928)
  • I. Philip, The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1983)
  • G. Hampshire, ed., The Bodleian Library account book, 1613–1646 (1983)
  • G. W. Wheeler, ‘The Bodleian staff, 1600–1612’, Bodleian Quarterly Record, 2 (1917–19), 279–85
  • G. W. Wheeler, ‘Thomas James, theologian and Bodley's librarian’, Bodleian Quarterly Record, 4 (1923–5), 91–5
  • G. W. Wheeler, ‘A librarian's correspondence’, Bodleian Quarterly Record, 6 (1929–31), 11–18
  • N. R. Ker, ‘Thomas James's collation of Gregory, Cyprian and Ambrose’, Bodleian Library Record, 4 (1952–3), 16–30
  • J. N. L. Myres, ‘Thomas James and the painted frieze’, Bodleian Library Record, 4 (1952–3), 30–51
  • New College, Oxford, MS 9750, pp. 465, 155
  • LPL, MSS 524–526
  • registers of archbishops Bancroft and Abbot, LPL
  • BL, Cotton MS Julius C III, fols. 220, 221
  • private information (2004) [T. B. James]


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers, MSS Arch Selden a 75; Ballard 44; Bodley 276, 510, 699, 763; e Mus 38, 40; Rawl. Q e 31
  • LPL, collections relating to ecclesiastical history


Wealth at Death

£219 1s. 10d.: inventory, Chancellor's Court, U. Oxf.

Lambeth Palace London