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 library assembled by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631) has been described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual’.

About the collection

There are more than 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls, and seals from the Cotton collection at the British Library. These items range in date from 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 (c.1503–1552), the mathematician and astronomer John Dee (1527–1609), and the statesman William Cecil, Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598).

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.

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. Papers from many other individuals are also in the collection, such as the diary of London merchant Henry Machyn.
  • 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, the Heliand (a version of the Gospels in Old Saxon verse), and the Psalter of Henry VI.
  • 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 (1551–1623).

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 1602-3, 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 (1594–1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (1621–1702). 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).

Arrangement

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 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?

Most of the Cotton collection, including all of the manuscript-maps, is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room. A small number of items are held within Asian & African Studies.

Some items may require a letter of recommendation.

Further information

Catalogues

Select bibliography

  • Handley, Stuart, ‘Cotton, Sir Robert Bruce, First Baronet (1571–1631)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Howard Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Prescott, Andrew, ‘“Their Present Miserable State of Cremation”: The Restoration of the Cotton Library’, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and His Legacy, ed. by C.J. Wright (London: British Library, 1997), pp. 391–454
  • Sharpe, Kevin, Sir Robert Cotton, 1586–1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)
  • Tite, Colin G.C., The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London: British Library, 1994)
  • Tite, Colin G.C., The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: British Library, 2003)
  • Wright, C.J., ed., Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and His Legacy (London: British Library, 1997)

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