The manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), which was presented to the British Museum on its foundation in 1753, contains around 250 manuscript maps, charts and plans. It is one of the earliest map collections in Europe, and one of the most important ever assembled by a private individual. Whilst the geographical coverage is universal, its primary focus is upon the British Isles followed by Western Europe. The maps are either bound in volumes, or rolled, and are orderable to the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library.
Sir Robert Cotton
Cotton was an administrator in the Elizabethan and Early Stuart governments, as well as an antiquary and owner of land in Huntingdonshire. His collecting was driven by a blend of patriotism and a passion for antiquity, and this patriotism found its main cartographic reflection in a series of maps and plans dating from about 1425 to 1625, with an emphasis on the period 1530 to 1620. Almost all of these were intended to be used for government and administrative purposes, and were accumulated, by gift or by stealth, as a part of Cotton’s plan to create a national library containing materials illustrating the history and achievements of the English.
The River Dart and Tor Bay, Devon 1539-40. Cotton MS. Augustus I.i.35,36,38,39. Copyright © The British Library Board
The Cotton library is arranged into 14 sections, reflecting the original arrangement where the collection was stored under busts of Roman emperors. The names of these emperors have been incorporated into the modern shelfmarks of individual items.
The shelfmarks of Cottonian manuscripts will begin, for example: Cotton MS Caligula … followed by a Roman numeral or letter, followed by the part or folio number, for example:
Cotton MS Vitellius A.XII
This originally meant that the book was the twelfth from the left on the top shelf (A), surmounted by a bust of the Emperor Vitellius.
The majority of maps are to be found in the Augustus series, though others are to be found scattered among the Cotton charters and bound volumes, usually with the letters and texts that originally accompanied them.
The maps, charts and architectural plans provide an invaluable insight into the preoccupations and working methods of Tudor and Early Stuart administrators, and cover almost all aspects of English official activity. The needs of national defence are paramount with extensive maps of England's coastlines and depictions of forts in France, Ireland and Scotland as well as England. Also well represented are foreign policy and war, with a particular emphasis on the Netherlands and Normandy; conquest and colonisation (particularly in Ireland but also north and south America) and internal administration and settlement (including waterways and drainage).
The maps illustrate the mapping techniques of the period. They include the earliest known plan of an English town drawn to a consistent scale (of Portsmouth in 1545) [Cotton MS Augustus I.i.81] and the earliest isometric view of a building (of the royal manor house in Hull in 1542) [Cotton MS Augustus I.i.84] as well as pictorial maps and bird's-eye views of towns. There are, however, virtually no examples of estate plans even though these were produced in increasing numbers from the mid-1570s, probably because Cotton did not consider such maps to be of national significance.
Other important maps from the Cotton Collection include:
Cotton MS TiberiusB.V. f.56v: The Anglo-Saxon world map from 1025-1050, one of the earliest detailed European world maps, possibly derived from a Roman prototype.
Cotton MS Julius D.VII
Cotton MS Nero D.I
Cotton MS Claudius D.VI: Mid-13th century maps and itineraries of Matthew Paris, a monk and chronicler of St.Albans.
Cotton MS Domitian D.XVIII: Pioneering maps of England, Scotland and Ireland from the 1560s by Lawrence Nowell.
Cotton MS Augustus I.i.1: A chart of part of the northern hemisphere from 1580, by John Dee.
Cotton MS Augustus I.i.9: The ‘Anglia Figura’ (map of the British Isles) from about 1537.
A map of Great Yarmouth, ca 1585, Cotton MS. Augustus I.i.74
Finding aids, Further reading
Although British Library Explore includes records for some Cotton manuscript maps, the system cannot be used for ordering. The Manuscripts Catalogue should be consulted for a concise listing of the material. Cotton manuscript maps may only be ordered to the Manuscripts Reading Room.
Catalogus librorum manuscriptorum Bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (1696). MSS 017.21 BL Open Access
Hooper, S. A catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library (1777). R.B.23.a.4638.
Planta, J. A catalogue of the manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, deposited in the British Museum (1802). MSS 017.21 BL Open Access
A guide to a select exhibition of Cottonian manuscripts in celebration of the Tercentenary of the death of Sir Robert Cotton, 6 May, 1631 (1931). 011899.d.48
Wright, C.J.(ed) Sir Robert Cotton as collector: essays on an Early Stuart courtier and his legacy (1997). MSS 002.092 BL Open Access
Tite, C. The manuscript library of Sir Robert Cotton (1993). MSS 002.092 BL Open Access