The spur to the Club's foundation was the sale of the enormous library of the Duke of Roxburghe (who had died in 1804), which took place over 46 days in May–July 1812. The auction was eagerly followed by bibliophiles, the high point being the sale on 17 June 1812 of a first edition of Boccaccio's Decameron, printed by Christophorus Valdarfer of Venice in 1471, and sold to the Marquis of Blandford for £2,260, the highest price ever given for a book at that time. (The Marquis already possessed a copy, but one that lacked 5 pages.) That evening, a group of eighteen collectors met at the St Albans Tavern, St Albans Street (later renamed Waterloo Place) for a dinner presided over by the 2nd Earl Spencer, and this is regarded as the origin of the Roxburghe Club.
A toast drunk on that occasion has been repeated at every annual anniversary dinner since to the "immortal memory of John Duke of Roxburghe, of Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Boccaccio of 1471, of Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer, the inventors of the art of printing, of William Caxton, Father of the British press [and others; and] the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club and the Cause of Bibliomania all over the world". It was decided to make the dinner an annual event: further members were admitted the following year. The club was formed by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, author of the book 1809 Bibliomania; or Book-Madness who served as its first secretary and the club was formalised under Earl Spencer's presidency.
The Club has had a total of 344 members since its foundation. The circle has always been an exclusive one, with just one "black ball" (negative vote) being enough to exclude an applicant. Since 1839 the number of members at any one time has been limited to forty.
A photograph exists of the membership in 1892, including the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and anthropologist Andrew Lang, as well as American poet James Russell Lowell, Alfred Henry Huth, and Simon Watson Taylor. James Gascoyne-Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, was then President.
The first female member was Mary, Viscountess Eccles, elected in 1985. In 2011, the Australian comedian Barry Humphries was elected a member. The President since 1998 has been Max Wyndham, 2nd Baron Egremont.
The Club rapidly became more than a merely social institution. Each member was (and remains) expected to sponsor the publication of a rare or curious volume. Other volumes are published by the Club collectively. Initially the volumes were editions of early blackletter printed texts (the first, in 1814, was the Earl of Surrey's translation of parts of Virgil's Aeneid, originally printed in 1557); but from as early as 1819 they began to include texts taken from manuscript originals. The standards of scholarship are high, and the quality of printing, facsimile reproduction, and binding is lavish. Copies of each volume (in a fine binding) are presented to all members, and a limited number of extra copies (generally in a less lavish binding) may be made available for sale to non-members. From 1839, the total number of copies for each publication, including members' copies, was limited to 100. Recently, the limit was raised to 342 copies: 42 for the club, 300 for the public. The Roxburghe Club is generally recognised as the first "book club" (that is, text publication society), and was a model for many book societies that appeared later in Britain and Europe.
Some notable members
- Thomas Frognall Dibdin (founder member, 1812)
- Joseph Haslewood (founder member, 1812)
- Edward Vernon Utterson (founder member, 1812)
- Richard Heber (founder member, 1812)
- George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 2nd Duke of Sutherland (founder member, 1812)
- George Hibbert (1757-1837) (elected 1816)
- Archdeacon Francis Wrangham (elected 1822)
- Sir Walter Scott (elected 1822)
- Edward Herbert, 2nd Earl of Powis (elected 1828)
- Evelyn Philip Shirley (elected 1839)
- William Edward Buckley (vice-president, 1884)
- Simon Watson Taylor (elected 1858)
- Henry Huth (d.1878) (elected 1866)
- Henry Bradshaw (elected 1866)
- John Duke Coleridge (elected 1875)
- Alfred Henry Huth (d.1910, son of Henry) (elected 1883)
- James Russell Lowell (elected 1884)
- Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (elected 1884)
- Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (elected 1884)
- Andrew Lang (elected 1891)
- M. R. James (elected 1909)
- William Osler (elected 1914)
- Thomas James Wise, forger and suspected thief (elected 1927)
- Sir Owen Morshead (elected 1931)
- Sir Charles Travis Clay (elected 1941)
- Sir Walter Oakeshott (elected 1949)
- Harry Lawrence Bradfer-Lawrence (elected 1954)
- Christopher Selby Dobson (elected 1964)
- Sir Robin Mackworth-Young (elected 1965)
- Frederick B. Adams, Jr. (elected 1966)
- David Eccles, 1st Viscount Eccles (elected 1966)
- Nicolas Barker — Editor of The Book Collector (elected 1970)
- Sir Anthony R Wagner — Garter Principal King of Arms (elected 1972)
- Mary, Viscountess Eccles (elected 1985)
- Sir John Paul Getty (elected 1988)
- Anthony Quinton (elected 1990)
- Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury (elected 1993)
- Jane, Lady Roberts (elected 2003)
- Barry Humphries (elected 2011)
- Barker, Nicolas (1964). The Publications of the Roxburghe Club, 1814-1962. Cambridge: Roxburghe Club.
- Barker, Nicolas (2012). The Roxburghe Club: a bicentenary history. Cambridge: Roxburghe Club. ISBN 9781901902112.