Sir Henry Savile 1549-1622

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Sir Henry SAVILE 1549-1622

Biographical Note

Born at Over Bradley, Yorkshire, son of Henry Savile, lawyer and landowner. BA Brasenose College, Oxford 1566, fellow of Merton College, Oxford 1565, MA 1570, regent master (i.e. lecturer) in astronomy 1570; the lectures he delivered are documented in his notebooks and the testimony of others and are regarded as one of the high points of scientific thinking in Elizabethan England. In 1576 he travelled in Europe with Thomas Bodley (then Dean of Merton), and made many contacts with scientists there. He was appointed Greek tutor to Elizabeth I on his return to England in 1582, and Warden of Merton in 1585. In 1595 he became Provost of Eton College. He was friendly with the Earl of Essex in the 1590s and was briefly imprisoned and questioned over the Earl's 1601 rebellion, but soon released. In 1604 he was knighted by James I. He founded the Savilian professorships in geometry and astronomy at Oxford in 1620.

Savile's scholarly life was manifested not only in his career and his extensive network of contacts (which included Scaliger and the Casaubons), but also in various learned publications. His translation of Tacitus, with his own additions was first published in 1591 as The ende of Nero and beginning of Galba, and went through many editions. In 1596 he published a collection of English chronicles, Rerum Anglicarum scriptores, and in 1621 a series of lectures, Praelectiones tresdecim, on Euclid. His magnum opus was his 8-volume edition of the works of St John Chrysostom, in Greek, printed at Eton 1610-13.


Armorial stamp of Sir Henry Savile (British Armorial Bindings).

Books and libraries were central to Savile's activities throughout his life, and from an early age; his father had a library which was divided amongst his three sons. He was closely involved with the founding and early development of the Bodleian Library, giving books in 1601 and in several years thereafter, and a significant collection of Greek and Latin manuscripts in 1620, many dealing with mathematical, scientific and astronomical matters. He was given responsibility, in Bodley's will, for specifying his burial place in Merton chapel. At Merton, Savile took an active interest in the college library, introducing new library rules in 1586 and encouraging donations and purchases; the rapid growth of the collection led to the refashioning of the library, and introduction of a new stall system layout, from the late 1580s into the 1590s. Once he became Provost at Eton he directed similar attention to the library there, and the college accounts for the late 1590s record extensive work on fitting out a new library, with expenditure on shelving, chains, and binding. The Eton joiner was sent to Merton to use that as a model. Over 500 books are noted in the Eton Audit Books as having been acquired during Savile's Provostship, and by the time of his death the Library is reckoned to have held at least 1000 volumes.

Savile's will refers to the disposal of remaining sets of his edition of Chrysostom, 50 copies each to be given to Eton and Merton. All his books in his studies at Eton and Oxford, together with "all my other papers referring to everybody especially my wife daughter and daughter in law and above all to the two colleges of my government" were left to "the disposition of my nephew Sir Henry Savile" (Sir Henry Savile, 1st bart, 1579-1632). The size of these collections, and their dispersal from the 1620s onwards, is not known; on 19 December 1860 and 6 February 1861 Sotheby's held sales including parts of the libraries of Sir Henry and his elder brother Sir John Savile (728 lots in all, books and manuscripts, many of them noted as having the inscriptions, initials or arms of one or the other). Examples: MSS Savile in the Bodleian Library (108 manuscripts); Bodleian Vet.E.1.e.27; BL 537.c.6; Folger STC 18183.

Characteristic Marking

Savile's books are often inscribed with his name and sometimes a date of acquisition. He was also a regular annotator of books, and the value of his annotations is referred to several times in his Dictionary of National Biography entry; a list of Savile books with manuscript additions in the Bodleian is held there as Library records b.473. An armorial binding stamp is attributed to him in the armorials database, but it is not clear that this was used by him rather than by his brother Sir John (the stamp has the initials I S at the foot).


  • Armorials database.
  • Birley, R. The history of College Library, 1970, 18-26.
  • Feingold, M. The mathematicians' apprenticeship, 1984, esp p.124-31.
  • Goulding, R. D. "Savile, Sir Henry (1549–1622), mathematician and classical scholar." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Hirshfield, J. An autograph manuscript commonplace book of Sir Henry Savile, Bodleian Library Record 7 (1963) 73-83.
  • Ker, N. R. Oxford college libraries in the sixteenth century, Bodleian Library Record 6 (1957-61), 459-515.
  • Macray, W. D. Annals of the Bodleian Library. 2nd edn, Oxford, 1890.
  • Madan, F. et al, Summary catalogue of western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, vol 2 pt 2, 1937, 1094-1114 (Savile mss);
  • Philip, I. The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oxford, 1983.
  • Quarrie, P. Treasures of Eton College Library, 1990, p.29ff.