Thomas Bodley was born at Exeter in the second to last year of the reign of Henry VIII. His father, John Bodley, was a Protestant merchant who went to live abroad rather than stay in England under the Catholic regime of Mary. The family (and the ten year old Nicholas Hilliard, who had been attached to the household by his parents, friends of Bodley) sought refuge in Germany, staying briefly in the towns of Wesel and Frankfurt before eventually settling in Geneva. There, Thomas had the opportunity to study at John Calvin's newly erected Académie. He attended lectures in Divinity given by Theodore Beza and Calvin, and attended services led by John Knox. He learned Greek from Mattheus Beroaldus and Hebrew from Antoine Chevallier. The study of these languages remained enduring passions for Bodley throughout his life.
After Mary's death in 1558 and the accession of Elizabeth, the family returned to England, and Bodley entered Magdalen College, Oxford to study under Lawrence Humphrey. In 1563 he took his B.A. degree, and was shortly thereafter, in 1564, admitted as a Fellow to Merton College. He began lecturing at Merton and in April 1565 he was formally appointed as the college's first Lecturer in Ancient Greek, a post that was subsequently made permanent. He served in many college offices and in 1569 was elected as one of the University's junior proctors, and for some time after was deputy Public Orator. Leaving Oxford in 1576 with a license to study abroad and a grant from his college of £6. 13s. 4d., he toured France, Italy, and Germany, visiting scholars and adding French, Italian, and Spanish to his repertoire of languages.
On his return he was appointed gentleman-usher to Queen Elizabeth and he entered Parliament as member for Portsmouth in 1584, and represented St Germans in 1586. In 1585 Bodley was entrusted with a mission to form a league between Frederick II of Denmark and certain German princes to assist Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV of France. He was next dispatched on a secret mission to France; and in 1588 he was sent to the Hague as minister, a post which demanded great diplomatic skill, for it was in the Netherlands that the power of Spain had to be fought. The essential difficulties of his mission were complicated by the intrigues of the queen's ministers at home, and Bodley repeatedly asked to be recalled. He was finally permitted to return to England in 1596, but finding his preferment of becoming Secretary of State obstructed by the competing interests of Burghley and Essex, he retired from public life, and returned to Oxford.
As he had married Ann Ball in 1587 (a widow of considerable fortune and the daughter of a Mr Carew of Bristol) he had had to resign his fellowship at Merton, but he still had many friends there and the college gave a dinner in his honour in the spring of 1598. G. H. Martin speculates that the inspiration to restore the old Duke Humfrey's library may have come from the renewal of his contact with Henry Savile and other former colleagues at this dinner. Once his proposal was accepted he spent the rest of his life devoted to the library project. He was knighted on 18 April 1604. He died in 1613 and was buried in the choir of Merton College chapel. His monument of black and white marble complete with pillars made from books and allegories of learning is placed on the western wall of the north transept of the chapel.
The Bodleian Library 
Bodley's greatest achievement was the re-founding of the library at Oxford. In 1470, the library had been presented to the university as a gift from Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Henry IV. However, during the Reformation of the 1550s, the library had been stripped and abandoned, remaining virtually untouched until the return of Bodley in 1598. The library was later named the Bodleian Library in his honour. He determined, he said, "to take his farewell of state employments and to set up his staff at the library door in Oxford." In 1598 his offer to restore the old library was accepted by the university. Bodley began his book collection effort in 1600, using the site of the former library above the Divinity School, which was in near ruin.
Although Bodley lived over 400 years ago, modern libraries benefit from some of his ideas and practices.
One important idea that Bodley implemented was the creation of a "Benefactors' Book" in 1602, which was bound and put on display in the library in 1604. While he did have funding through the wealth of his wife, Ann Ball, and the inheritance he received from his father, Bodley still needed gifts from his affluent friends and colleagues to build his library collection. Although not a completely original idea (as encouragement in 1412 the university chaplain was ordered to say mass for benefactors), Bodley recognized that having the contributor's name on permanent display was also inspiring. According to Louis B. Wright,
He had prepared a handsome Register of Donations, in vellum, in which the name of every benefactor should be written down in a large and fair hand so all might read. And he kept the Register prominently displayed so that no visitor to the library could escape seeing the generosity of Bodley's friends. The plan, as it deserved, was a success, for its originator found that, 'every man bethinks himself how by some good book or other he may be written in the scroll of the benefactors.'
For over four centuries, this innovative idea has continued to motivate friends of libraries everywhere.
Another significant event related to Bodley was the agreement between the Bodleian Library and the Stationer's Company, in which "the Company agreed to send to the Library a copy of every book entered in their Register on condition that the books thus given might be borrowed if needed for reprinting, and that the books given to the Library by others might be examined, collated and copied by the Company."
This was the beginning of legal deposit libraries, and today the Bodleian is one of six such libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland. In 2003, the Copyright Act of 1911 was expanded to include information on CD-ROM and websites. This regulation is in place to ensure the collection and preservation of all published materials as an accurate, up to date historical record.
Bodley wrote his autobiography up to the year 1609, which, with the first draft of the statutes drawn up for the library, and his letters to the librarian, Thomas James, was published by Thomas Hearne, under the title of Reliquiae Bodleianae, or Authentic Remains of Sir Thomas Bodley, (London, 1703, 8vo).
- Wright, Louis B. "Some Early 'Friends' of Libraries." The Huntington Library Quarterly 2, no. 3 (April 1939). http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0018-7895%28193904%292%3A3%3C355%3ASE%22OL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B (accessed March 10, 2008).
- Nicoll, Allardyce, ed. Shakespeare Survey Vol. 4: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study & Production. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1951.
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Pocket Books. 1981. p. 280. ISBN 978-0-671-44530-0. Retrieved July 12, 2010.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Martin, G.H.; Highfield, R.L. (1997). A History of Merton College. Oxford: OUP. pp. ch.8. ISBN 0-19-920183-8.
- Wright, Louis B. (April 1939). "Some Early 'Friends' of Libraries". The Huntington Library Quarterly 2 (3). JSTOR 3815753.
- Nicoll, Allardyce, ed. (1951). Shakespeare Survey Vol. 4: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study & Production. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-52378-8.
- Works by or about Thomas Bodley at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)