Thomas Bodley was born in 1545 to a Devon family associated with religious reform. With the rest of his family, he followed his father into exile in 1555, and was educated briefly in the Geneva Academy until Mary I’s death, and his family’s return to England in 1559. Bodley immediately entered Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating BA in 1563, and was accepted as a probationer fellow of Merton College. Following a string of distinguished posts, including holding Merton’s first lectureship in Greek, Bodley took leave from Oxford in 1576 to travel through Europe. He visited France, Germany and Italy, before returning to Merton. In 1586 he resigned his fellowship following a period of increasing involvement in political affairs. He was appointed gentleman usher to Elizabeth I in 1583, and served in two parliaments, 1584 (Portsmouth, Hampshire) and 1586 (St Germans, Cornwall).

In April 1585 Bodley was sent to the King of Denmark and the Duke of Brunswick to mediate between the two sovereigns in an attempt to bring the signatories of the Augsburg confession together in an alliance to support Henri of Navarre and the French Protestants. In May 1588 Bodley was dispatched to the King of France - bearing secret, personal letters in Elizabeth’s own hand – and then later in the year he returned to the king of Denmark and the merchants at Hamburg (the representatives of the Hanse Towns), urging them against offering assistance to the Spanish in the Armada against England.

In November 1588, Bodley was appointed English ambassador to the United Provinces, replacing Henry Killigrew. His diet, or daily allowance, was 40 shillings. As part of the conditions of the treaty of Nonsuch (1585), which awarded the English crown with three Dutch towns as sureties for the expense of providing substantial numbers of troops to aid in the Low Countries conflict, Elizabeth I was entitled to appoint two English representatives to the Dutch Council of State. George Gilpin, who had long experience of continental affairs following a career with the Merchant Adventurers at Antwerp and who was fluent in Dutch, was nominated as secretary to the Council.

Thomas Bodley served as Elizabeth’s representative in the Council of State until early 1597, when he was recalled back to London. Entangled in the factional struggle between the Cecils and the Earl of Essex, he failed to secure the typical government post for a successful returning ambassador and, dissatisfied with political affairs, he resigned from public office. He was approached several times to return to diplomatic service, all of which approaches he refused.

Bodley married Ann Cary, widow of a wealthy Bristol pilchard merchant, in 1586. It was her considerable dowry, supplemented by a substantial sum inherited after his own father’s death, that enabled Bodley to concentrate on what was to become the consuming passion for the rest of his life – that of the refoundation of the dilapidated university library in Oxford. Bodley offered – at his own expense – to restore the fabric of the library, and to lead a clarion call to other prominent and distinguished members of the political and scholarly community to furnish the rebuilt library with books. Bodley himself donated many of the books. The library was officially opened in 1602, and Bodley was responsible for many of the processes involved in setting up the library, of the refurbishment, design, acquisition and bibliographical deposit, collaborating closely with the first librarian, Thomas James. In 1610, Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that every book published in England and registered at Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in his new library.

A precursor to copyright libraries, the Bodleian library is still entitled to a free copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. But Bodley quickly saw that this arrangement would strain the old library’s storage space, and commissioned – and financed – an extension to the library precinct (now known as Arts End). In addition, Bodley meticulously laid the foundations for the financial security of the library, funding these personally until his death.

Bodley died in 1613. He was mourned with pomp and ceremony, having laid aside £666 13s. 4d. for his funeral in Merton College chapel. He left substantial legacies to the university and various individuals, and annual grants to the poor of Oxford.

Bodley wrote his autobiography in 1608. In it, he presents a glossy view of his academic life, diplomatic service, and library-founding activities. It has been called the first autobiography in English and the forerunner of the modern political memoir.

For a wider survey of the context of Bodley's legation, see the Contextual Essay.

This biography is based upon Bodley's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For further sources on the life of Bodley, please see the Bibliography.