Thomas Bodley

The wall plaque at the corner of Gandy Street and High Street reads:

Sir Thomas Bodley, 1545-1613, scholar, diplomat and founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford was born here 2 March 1545, son of John Bodley, publisher of the Geneva Bible. The house was also the home of JOHN SHILLINGFORD mayor and MP, died 1458

THOMAS BODLEY was the son of John Bodley, a wealthy protestant merchant, religious radical and publisher from Exeter, and Joan, the daughter of John Hone, a merchant from Ottery St Mary. His brothers included Laurence Bodley (1547/8–1615) and Sir Josias Bodley (c.1550–1617).

Thomas Bodley was born at what is now 229 High Street, Exeter, on the corner with Gandy Street. In 1544 the property was leased by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral to John Bodley. The house has been rebuilt more than once since Thomas Bodley’s time, but the present façade incorporates some seventeenth century windows salvaged from a house in North Street.

Nicholas Hilliard, self-portrait

In 1555 John Bodley went into exile in Europe and was joined by his wife, young sons and daughter Prothesia, and the boy Nicholas Hilliard who had been placed with the Bodleys by his father. Nicholas Hilliard was also Exeter-born and became renowned as a painter of portrait miniatures as well as a goldsmith. Thomas Bodley studied ancient languages and divinity at the university in Geneva where John Calvin was teaching at the time. He returned to England and matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, going on to hold a number of positions at the university. After a distinguished career as an academic, he left the university in 1576 and spent four years travelling in Europe. Back in England at the court of Queen Elizabeth, he entered Parliament in 1584, representing first Portsmouth and then St Germans. He was a skilled diplomat, going on several missions to Europe. In 1585/7 he married Ann Ball, a wealthy widow originally from Bristol. In 1597 he retired from public service.

Bodley is best remembered today through the Bodleian Library in Oxford which was named for him later. The library had been given as a gift by the youngest son of Henry IV in 1470 but suffered greatly during the Reformation and by the time Bodley set about restoring the library and building its collections from 1598 onwards, it was in a poor state. He spent a considerable amount of his own money on the library and brought in books from many places, including approximately 80 volumes – including medieval manuscript books – sold to him by the Dean and Chapter of Exeter (probably with the help of his brother Laurence who was a canon at the Cathedral). He was knighted under James I on 18 April 1604. He wrote an autobiography which was published after his death. Upon his death in 1613 a sizeable part of his fortune was left as an endowment to his library and he was buried in the choir of Merton College, Oxford. EJ

JOHN SHILLINGFORD  was a Member of the Parliament for Exeter in the fifteenth century. He was Mayor of Exeter 1444-5 and 1446-8. During a long-running dispute between the Cathedral and City, he travelled to London to put the City’s case before the Lord Chancellor. His letters and papers survived and have been published.

The current plaque replaces an older one, which was damaged in 2017. The previous plaque read:


The Dean and Chapter of Exeter in 1394–5 built a house on this site in which John Shillingford, a notable mayor, resided from 1423 to 1458. From 11543 to 1554 John Bodley, merchant, lived there and it is accepted that it was the birthplace of his son, Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, who was born in Exeter on 2nd March 1544.