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Sir Robert Bruce Cotton Collects One of the Most Important Libraries Ever Assembled by an Englishman

1588 to 1631

Portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet (d.1631) of Connington. Collection of Society of Antiquaries, London. Arms of Cotton (Ancient): Argent, a bend sable between three pellets. The painting has been attributed to Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen.

In 1588 English politician Sir Robert Bruce Cotton began collecting original manuscripts, an activity which he continued until his death in 1631. One of the foundations of the British Museum since 1753, and hence of the British Library, Cotton's library of 958 manuscripts has been called the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual. Competing for this designation would, of course, be Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker's library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Parker, who began collecting in 1568, preceded Cotton in his collecting by a generation. The Sir Thomas Phillipps library, though formed in the nineteenth century and dispersed, was many times larger than either Cotton's or Parker's libraries, and also needs to be considered for the designation. 

Among Cotton's many treasures were the Lindisfarne Gospels, two of the contemporary exemplifications of Magna Carta, and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf.  The first published catalogue of the Cottonian Library was Thomas Smith's Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Cottonianae, a substantial folio volume including a life of Robert Cotton and a history of the library published in Oxford in 1696. 

On October 23, 1731 Cotton's library suffered very significant damage in a fire where it was stored at Ashburnham House in London. Of its 958 manuscripts 114 were "lost, burnt or intirely spoiled" and another 98 damaged enough to be considered defective. The Wikipedia article on Ashburnham House states  

"a contemporary records the librarian, Dr. Bentley, leaping from a window with the priceless Codex Alexandrinus under one arm. The manuscript of Beowulf was damaged, and reported in 'The Gentleman's Magazine.' "  

An expert committee was formed to investigate the cause of the fire and assess the damage. This resulted in A Report from the Committee appointed to view the Cottonian Library and such of the Publick Records of this Kingdom as they think proper and to Report to the House the Condition thereof together with what they shall judge fit to be done for the better Reception Preservation and more convenient Use of the same (London, 1732). David Casley (1681/2-1754), deputy librarian of both the Royal and Cottonian collections, and a member of this committee, compiled the list of damaged and destroyed Cotton manuscripts, which was printed in an appendix to the committee's report. Casley described a number of manuscripts as "burnt to a crust." The Committee was also "empowered to investigate the state of the public records as a whole. They found that for the most part they were 'in great Confusion and Disorder' and much in need of care and attention" (Miller, That Noble Cabinet, 36).

The 1732 report also contained an appendix consisting of "A Narrative of the Fire. . . and of the Methods used for preserving and recovering the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian libraries,"  compiled by the Reverend William Whiston the younger, the clerk in charge of the records kept in the Chapter House at Westminster, another notorious firetrap. Almost immediately after the fire attempts at restoration or stabilization of some of the damaged manuscripts was undertaken, mostly by inexperienced workers under the supervision of members of the committee, using whatever methods were available, and thus potentially damaging as much as preserving what remained.  

In April 1837, palaeographer Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, was shown a garret of the old museum building which contained a large number of burnt and damaged fragments and vellum codices. Madden immediately identified these as part of the Cottonan Library. During his tenure as Keeper of MSS, Madden undertook extensive conservation work on the Cottonian manuscripts, often in the face of opposition from the Museum’s board, who deemed the enterprise prohibitively expensive.

In collaboration with the bookbinder Henry Gough, Madden developed a conservation strategy that restored even the most badly damaged fragments and manuscripts to a usable state. Vellum sheets were cleaned and flattened and mounted in paper frames. Where possible, they were rebound in their original codices. Madden also carried out conservation work on the rest of the Cottonian Library. By 1845 the conservation work was largely complete, though Madden was to suffer one more setback when a fire broke out in the Museum bindery, destroying some additional manuscripts in the Cottonian Library.  The process of restoring and conserving these precious manuscripts, which continues to this day, was studied extensively by Andrew Prescott in " 'Their Present Miserable State of Cremation' : the Restoration of the Cotton Library," Sir Robert Cotton as Collector" Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and His Legacy, edited by C. J. Wright (1997) 391-454. This paper, and its 357 footnotes, was available online in April 2012.

"The Cottonian Library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever amassed; of secular libraries it outranked the Royal library, the collections of the Inns of Court and the College of Arms; Cotton's house near the Palace of Westminster became the meeting-place of the Society of Antiquaries and of all the eminent scholars of England; it was eventually donated to the nation by Cotton's grandson and now resides at the British Library.

"The physical arrangement of Cotton's Library continues to be reflected in citations to manuscripts once in his possession. His library was housed in a room 26 feet (7.9 m) long by six feet wide filled with bookpresses, each with the bust of a figure from classical antiquity on top. Counterclockwise, these are catalogued as Julius (i.e., Julius Caesar), Augustus, Cleopatra, Faustina, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. (Domitian had only one shelf, perhaps because it was over the door.) Manuscripts are now designated by library, bookpress, and number: for example, the manuscript of Beowulf is designated Cotton Vitellius A.xv, and the manuscript of Pearl is Cotton Nero A.x" (Wikipedia article on Sir Robert Cotton, accessed 11-22-2008).

The most useful version of Smith's 1696 catalogue of Cotton's library, published in somewhat reduced format, was the offset reprint done from Sir Robert Harley's copy, annotated by his librarian Humfrey Wanley, together with documents relating to the fire of 1731. This annotated edition included translations into English of the Latin essays on the life of Robert Cotton and the history of the library. Edited by C.G.C. Tite, it was published in 1984. See also Tite, The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library. Formation, Cataloguing, Use (2003). 

Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631. History and Politics in Early Modern England (1979).

Timeline Themes

Related Entries

Lindisfarne Gospels:

Magna Carta:


Codex Alexandrinus: