Cotton manuscripts

Opening of Beowulf
Detail from the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf. England, 4th quarter of the 10th century or 1st quarter of the 11th century. Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f 132r.

The Cotton collection contains some of the British Library's greatest treasures, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, and the unique manuscript of Beowulf.

About the collection

The collection comprises more than 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals. These items range in date from approximately the 4th century to the 1600s and have their origin in western Europe and beyond.

The collection contains the largest group of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, some of the most important Biblical manuscripts, medieval cartularies from England and Ireland, an impressive series of maps, heraldic manuscripts, and 16th and 17th-century state papers. It includes manuscripts from the collections of the antiquarian scholar John Leland (d. 1552), the mathematician and astronomer John Dee (d. 1609), and the statesman William Cecil, Baron Burghley (d. 1598).

Highlights include the Lindisfarne Gospels, the unique manuscript of Beowulf, two of the four surviving endorsements of Magna Carta 1215, the Psalter of Henry VI, and the diaries of Edward VI and London merchant Henry Machyn.

Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old, Middle and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French (including Anglo-Norman French), German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish.

The Cotton collection was formed by the antiquary and politician, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631). The Cotton library was inherited and augmented in turn by Sir Robert’s son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). Sir John negotiated the transfer of the collection to the nation at his death, as confirmed in 1701 by Act of Parliament. In 1753, the Cotton library formed one of the three foundation collections of the newly-established British Museum. Sir John Cotton is therefore regarded as the first benefactor of the British Museum (and hence of the British Library).

On 23 October 1731, a fire broke out at Ashburnham House, Westminster, where the Cotton manuscripts were temporarily being stored. A few volumes were destroyed in their entirety, and many others damaged to varying degrees. Among the losses was the unique manuscript of the Life of King Alfred the Great, while the illustrated Cotton Genesis was badly injured.

In Sir Robert’s original library, the manuscripts were housed in presses surmounted by busts of the Twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies and they retain this sequence in the catalogue:

  • Cotton MSS Julius A I to F XI
  • Cotton MSS Augustus I to VII
  • Cotton MSS Tiberius A I to E XI
  • Cotton MSS Caligula A I to E XIII
  • Cotton MSS Claudius A I to E VIII
  • Cotton MSS Nero A I to E VIII
  • Cotton MSS Galba A I to E XIV
  • Cotton MSS Otho A I to E XIV
  • Cotton MSS Vitellius A I to F XIX
  • Cotton MSS Vespasian A I to F XVII
  • Cotton MSS Titus A I to F XIV
  • Cotton MSS Domitian A I to A XVIII
  • Cotton MSS Cleopatra A I to F VII
  • Cotton MSS Faustina A I to F X
  • Cotton MSS Appendix I to LXV
  • Cotton MS Fragments I to XXXII
  • Cotton Charters I 1 to XXX 41

What is available online?

Details of the contents of the Cotton collection can be found on Explore Archives and Manuscripts. The Cotton Charters and Rolls are not listed online but can be found in hand-written summary descriptions in a volume combined with Royal Charter descriptions, and another copy in a volume combined with other charter collection descriptions, both of which are available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. These calendars can also be consulted on microfilm M2032/15.

Full digital coverage of a small number of Cotton manuscripts can be found on Digitised Manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The vast majority of the Cotton collection, including all of the manuscript-maps, is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A very small number of items are held by Asia, Pacific & Africa collections.

Some items may require a letter of recommendation.

Further information

How to guides

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation