King James I’s love of books

I knew sundry things about James I but not that he was a book-lover. Writing in his Anatomy of Melancholy, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640) left us an unexpected portrait of the king who contrasts the claustral office of the monarch with the freedom of the life of a scholar. Burton recalls that

King James 1605, when he came to see our University of Oxford, and amongst other Aedifices, now went to view that famous Library, renued by Sr Thomas Bodley, in imitation of Alexander, at his departure brake out into that noble speech, If I were not a King, I would be an University man; And if it were so that I must be a Prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other Prison then that Library, and to be chained together with so many good Authors, et mortuis magistris.

(Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Nicolas K. Kiessling et al., 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 2.88)

At any rate, James seems to have grasped the meaning of John of Salisbury’s warning that ‘illiteratus rex est asinus coronatus’ (an illiterate king is a crowned ass). When he spoke about being chained together with the authors, James is clearly alluding to the medieval and early modern practice of chained libraries, where books were secured to desks with actual chains to prevent theft. Erik Kwakkl has written an interesting post about this here.

 

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