Richard Allestree was born in Shropshire, and educated at the free school in Coventry before he came up to Christ Church in 1637. After only six months his potential was recognised by Dean Samuel Fell and Richard Busby, his tutor, and Allestree was elected to a Studentship which entitled him to a regular stipend and a position for life. Soon after he graduated BA, Allestree joined the Royalist army and served throughout the Civil War. He is renowned for trying to save many of the college’s treasures from the Parliamentary forces. After the fall of Charles I, however, and the arrival of the Parliamentary Visitors in the city to whom Allestree refused to submit, he was expelled from the University. In 1660, he returned to Oxford and was made a canon of Christ Church. With John Fell, son of Samuel, and John Dolben, Allestree set about putting Christ Church back onto an even footing after the years of turmoil. He was the first to move into the new north wing of Tom Quad when it was completed in 1665.
In 1663, Allestree was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity. He was a noted scholar and conservative, anxious not to permit the propounding of any doctrines which might create controversy, but tolerant. For a man who had served in the army throughout the Civil War and seen the horrors of faction first-hand, this stance is not surprising.
Allestree died in January 1681, and left in his will his library of around 3500 to the University of Oxford for the use of the Regius Professors of Divinity. As the professorship is attached to a canonry at Christ Church, the books have always been kept here in a small room over the cathedral cloister set up specifically for them. In 1946, Christ Church formally took over the collection from the University.
There is a bias towards theology, but there are many other subjects, including classics, science, medicine, mathematics, and patristics. As a discrete collection, Allestree’s library is fascinating in many ways.
In addition, there are 138 books formerly owned by Henry Hammond (1605-1660), and the parochial library of Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, deposited here for safekeeping. These latter volumes, about 300 chiefly seventeenth-century theological works with a bias towards Oriental studies, were originally left to Wotton by John Okes (d. 1710), a St. Edmund Hall man. Many of the books bear the names of members of the Cholmondely family, who held the patronage of Okes' living at Whitegate, Cheshire, which he held from 1665 till deprived as a non-juror in 1689.
Until recently, however, the little room, probably of medieval origin but fitted up as the Allestree Library as soon as the bequest arrived, in which the books have been kept has been in a rather sorry state, prone to huge fluctuations in temperature and humidity which caused mould and mildew. Some books showed signs of being meals for book-worms and silverfish. It was rather grubby, and in need of a professional deep-clean and redecoration. Some of the shelving was unsuitable for the storage of rare books. And the floor, which is made up of a wonderful collection of medieval tiles, cried out for proper recording and preservation.
Now, however, in April 2012, a project for the refurbishment of the Allestree Library has been completed, thanks to grants from the Marc Fitch Trust, from Christ Church alumni, and from the Governing Body. A new heating and dehumidification system has been installed which has created steady conditions and a vastly-improved environment for the books; old shelving against damp, cold walls has been removed and replaced with new, made-to-measure bookcases; the books have all been cleaned and preparations made for the most damaged to be conserved and boxed; and the previously unknown medieval tiles are to be recorded and published for the first time.
The images of the medieval tiles in the Allestree Library are now all reproduced on Paving-Tile watercolours Online, which is hosted by the Ashmolean Museum. To see them, please go to TileWeb.
For further information about the Allestree Library there are two detailed articles, 'Time capsule under restoration' and 'Medieval tiles in the Allestree Library' (pp.15-17) in the Hilary 2011 issue of the library journal:
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