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Cotton's counsels: the contexts of Cottoni Posthuma

Graham Parry

Abstract

COTTON'S name is constantly alluded to in books on antiquarianism, history, genealogy, topography and law published in the first three decades of the seventeenth century. Invariably these references to 'my worthy friend', the honoured, the learned, the worshipful Sir Robert Cotton, are accompanied by expressions of gratitude for his generosity in granting access to his library, his cabinet of coins and medals, or for his advice on procedure. The sense we have of Cotton as a universal facilitator among men of learning is overwhelming. Yet, although he was always willing to contribute to other men's works, and though books were his life and authors his friends, he made but a slender appearance in print himself. In fact, he published only one short tract under his own name. It was not until 1651 that a volume of his writings appeared, with the title Cottoni Posthuma. Then, twenty years after his death, the world could form some estimate of his political judgement, and understand why Cotton's incomparable knowledge of the parliamentary records was so valued by his contemporaries. Cotton's own reluctance to publish meant that he left his literary character to be formed by other men, by selective editing of his writings, and his first editor presented him almost exclusively as a patriotic political adviser who had anatomized the ills of the Stuart kings, and had done his best to offer remedies. In retrospect, his writings could be seen as describing the inward decay of Stuart kingship, and explain why the monarchy had collapsed within two generations of Queen Elizabeth's death. It is my intention in this article to provide some context for the various items in Cottoni Posthuma., and to read them as a critical commentary on the political developments of the second and third decades of the century.

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