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Sir Robert Cotton's record of a royal bookshelf

Janet Backhouse


OUR knowledge of the early history of the English royal library, conveniently sketched out by Warner and Gilson in 1921, has been considerably amplified in recent years. An edition of the vital Westminster library catalogue of 1542 is now in preparation and will be of major advantage to future students. However, the Tudor rulers of England, like other noble owners of large quantities of books, did not confine the storage of reading matter to a single one of their many residences, nor to one specially designated apartment in any house. It is increasingly clear that the Westminster list by no means reflects even the entire royal collection of books in the one major palace at the time it was drawn up. The existence of substantial libraries in other royal residences is recorded in the inventories of Henry VIII's possessions taken soon after the accession of Edward VI and individual volumes appear variously among the diverse contents of private apartments, alongside hawks' hoods, dog collars, spectacles, scissors, knitting needles and other minor paraphernalia of everyday life. References to the contents of the royal library during the latter part of the sixteenth century are scanty, though all three of Henry VIII's children are known to have been interested in books and each quite frequently received them as gifts on appropriate occasions. Such books seem often to have been set aside for personal use. The New Year gift rolls of Elizabeth's reign show that, although some volumes were at once assigned to Thomas Knyvett, who apparently had charge of the library, the Queen herself not infrequently took possession of books that caught her personal fancy. Others were placed in the hands of her principal gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, Blanche Parry, or her successor Mary Radcliffe, who also took charge of gifts of clothing and personal jewellery.

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