Described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual’, the library assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631) contains some of the greatest treasures of British literature and history, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, and the unique manuscript of Beowulf.
History of the Cotton Library
Robert Cotton was born at Denton (Huntingdonshire) in 1571, and was educated at Westminster School and Jesus College, Cambridge. He had started to acquire manuscripts and other antiquities by the age of 18, and built up an impressive collection which also included printed books, Roman inscriptions and medieval coins. The printed books are now dispersed, but many of the coins remain at the British Museum, and the inscriptions at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Cotton was elected to Parliament on numerous occasions, and was an advisor to King James I of England and VI of Scotland. He was also one of the early members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries. Sir Robert Cotton died at Westminster on 6 May 1631, and was buried at his family estate of Conington (Huntingdonshire).
Cotton obtained manuscripts from the collections of, among others, the antiquarian scholar John Leland (d. 1552), the mathematician and astronomer John Dee (d. 1609), and the statesman William Cecil, Baron Burghley (d. 1598). He famously allowed some of his contemporaries to use his own library, foremost among whom were the jurist John Selden (d. 1654), James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (d. 1656), and William Camden (d. 1623), Clarenceux king of arms and author of Britannia. Sir Robert even loaned manuscripts to his friends, some of which were never returned. One manuscript alienated from his library in the 1620s is the Utrecht Psalter, one of the masterpieces of western European art (now in Utrecht University Library). In 1602-03, Sir Robert Cotton also gave approximately a dozen volumes to Sir Thomas Bodley (d. 1613), the first major donation of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
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 (12 & 13 William III, c. 7). This Act states that the library was to ‘be kept and preserved ... for Publick Use and Advantage’, and that it should ‘not be sold, or otherwise disposed of’. This was the first time that the British nation became responsible for a collection of books or manuscripts, an important stage towards the creation of a national, public 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. A programme of restoration was carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, under the direction of Sir Frederic Madden (d. 1873), Keeper of Manuscripts, making these items once again available for public consultation.
In 1753, the Cotton library formed one of the 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).
Today, the Cotton collection at the British Library 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. 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 vast majority of the Cotton collection, including all of the manuscript-maps, is made available in the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library. A very small number of items is held by Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections.
In Sir Robert’s original library, the manuscripts were housed in presses surmounted by busts of the Twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies. They retain this sequence, which runs as follows:
- Julius A. I — F. XI
- Augustus I — VII
- Tiberius A. I — E. XI
- Caligula A. I — E. XIII
- Claudius A. I — E. VIII
- Nero A. I — E. VIII
- Galba A. I — E. XIV
- Otho A. I — E. XIV
- Vitellius A. I — F. XIX
- Vespasian A. I — F. XVII
- Titus A. I — F. XIV
- Domitian A. I — A. XVIII
- Cleopatra A. I — F. VII
- Faustina A. I — F. X
- Appendix I — LXV
- Fragments I — XXXII
- Charters I. 1 — XXX. 41
Highlights of the Collection
- The largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Beowulf-manuscript, two of the earliest copies of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
- 16th- and 17th-century state papers, including the diary of Edward VI, the will of Mary, queen of Scots, and autograph letters of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
- Medieval chronicles from the British Isles and western Europe, including the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, the Chronicle of Mann and the Isles, the Annals of Egmond Abbey, and the Russian Chronicle.
- An impressive series of 16th- and 17th-century maps (housed in the Augustus press), together with an Anglo-Saxon map of the world.
- Biblical manuscripts, including an early illustrated copy of the Book of Genesis (the “Cotton Genesis”), the Cotton Hexateuch, the Vespasian Psalter, the Winchester Psalter, and the Heliand (a version of the Gospels in Old Saxon verse).
- Anglo-Saxon and medieval British charters, including two of the four surviving contemporary exemplifications of Magna Carta (1215).
- Medieval cartularies from England and Ireland, including the oldest-surviving Anglo-Saxon cartulary.
- Heraldic manuscripts, many of them bequeathed to Cotton by William Camden (d. 1623).
- Thomas Smith, Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1696): facsimile edited by C. G. C. Tite, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, 1696 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984) [arranged by emperor press-marks]
- A Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library. To which are added many emendations and additions. With an appendix containing an account of the damage sustained by the fire in 1731, and also a Catalogue of the Charters preserved in the same library (London: Samuel Hooper, 1777) [arranged by subject]
- Joseph Planta, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, deposited in the British Museum (London: The British Museum, 1802) [arranged by emperor press-marks, but omitting much of the fire-damaged material]
- a new online catalogue of the Cotton manuscripts is in preparation, to be completed by the end of 2009
- Julian Harrison, The Cotton Library: An inventory of the Cotton manuscripts and charters in The British Library, London (London: The British Library, forthcoming)
- Kevin Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: History and politics in early modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1979)
- Colin G. C. Tite, The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London: The British Library, 1994)
- C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London: The British Library, 1997)
- Colin G. C. Tite, The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: The British Library, 2003)
- Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels, 3 vols (Luzern: Faksimile Verlag, 2002-03)
- Claire Breay, Magna Carta (London: The British Library, 2007)
- Kevin Kiernan et al., Electronic Beowulf (London: The British Library, 1999)
- Kemp Malone, The Nowell Codex: British Museum Cotton Vitellius A. XV Second MS, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, XII (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1963)
- David Rollason & Lynda Rollason, The Durham Liber Vitae: London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A. VII, 3 vols (London: The British Library, 2007)
- C. R. Dodwell & Peter Clemoes, The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B. IV, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, XVIII (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1974)
- Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: The British Library, 2007)
- P. McGurk et al., An Eleventh-Century Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Miscellany: British Library Cotton Tiberius B. V, part I, together with leaves from British Library Cotton Nero D. II, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, XVIII (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1983)
- Dauvit Broun & Julian Harrison, The Chronicle of Melrose Abbey: A Stratigraphic Edition, I, Introduction and Facsimile Edition, Scottish History Society, 6th Series, 1 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007)