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The Cotton or Cottonian library was collected privately by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton
Robert Bruce Cotton
Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet was an English antiquarian and Member of Parliament, founder of the important Cotton library....

 M.P. (1571–1631), an antiquarian and bibliophile, and was the basis of the British Library
British Library
The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known languages and in many formats,...

. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries
Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their...

, many priceless and ancient manuscripts that had belonged to the monastic libraries began to disseminate among various owners, many of whom were unaware of the libraries' cultural value. Sir Robert's genius was in finding, purchasing and preserving these ancient documents. The leading scholars of the era, including Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh
Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was an English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England....

, and James Ussher
James Ussher
James Ussher was Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland between 1625–56...

, came to use Sir Robert's library. Richard James
Richard James (minister)
Richard James was an English scholar, poet, and the first librarian of the Cotton library.-Early life:He was born in Newport, Isle of Wight, third son of Andrew James , by his wife Dorothy, daughter of Philip Poore of Durrington, Wiltshire. Thomas James was his uncle...

 acted as his librarian.

At the time, official state records and important papers were poorly kept, and often retained privately, neglected or destroyed by public officers. Sir Robert collected and bound over a hundred volumes of official papers. By 1622, Sir Robert's house and library stood immediately north of the Houses of Parliament and was a valuable resource and meeting-place not only for antiquarians and scholars but also politicians, including leading members of the Opposition such as Pym
Pym
Pym or PYM may refer to:* Pym , a novel by Mat Johnson* Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, an organizing body for Quaker meetingsPeople with the surname Pym:...

, Selden
Selden
-People:* Anjelica Selden, an American softballer* Armistead I. Selden* Brian Selden, winner of the 1998 Magic: The Gathering World Championship* Catherine Selden, Gothic novelist of the early 19th century* David Selden...

, Eliot, Wentworth
Wentworth
-People:* Baron Wentworth , the Wentworth peerage, several men and women.* D'Arcy Wentworth , surgeon in the early days of Sydney, Australia, and father of William Charles Wentworth I....

 and Sir Edward Coke.

Such important evidence was highly valuable at a time when the politics of the Realm were historically disputed between the King and Parliament. Sir Robert knew his library was of vital public interest and, although he made it freely available to consult, it made him an object of hostility on the part of the government. On 3rd November 1629 he was arrested for disseminating a pamphlet held to be seditious (it had actually been written fifteen years earlier by Sir Robert Dudley) and the library was closed on this pretext. Cotton was released on 15th November and the prosecution abandoned the following May, but the library remained shut up until after Sir Robert’s death; it was restored to his son and heir, Sir Thomas Cotton
Sir Thomas Cotton, 2nd Baronet
Sir Thomas Cotton, 2nd Baronet, of Connington was an English politician and heir to the Cottonian Library.-Life:He was the only surviving child of Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Baronet, of Connington and Elizabeth Brocas. He graduated B.A. at Broadgates Hall, Oxford in 1616...

, in 1633.

Sir Robert's library
Library
In a traditional sense, a library is a large collection of books, and can refer to the place in which the collection is housed. Today, the term can refer to any collection, including digital sources, resources, and services...

 included his collection of books, manuscripts, coins and medallions. After his death the collection was maintained and added to by his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). A fire on 23 October 1731 in Ashburnham House damaged several manuscripts and destroyed many others, but the majority of the works survived. Consequently, this collection is the single greatest resource of literature in Old English
Old English language
Old English or Anglo-Saxon is an early form of the English language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants in parts of what are now England and southeastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century...

 and Middle English
Middle English
Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century....

, and contains many very important illuminated manuscript
Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

s. Several well-known works, such as Beowulf
Beowulf
Beowulf , but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject." of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.It survives in a single...

, the poem Pearl
Pearl (poem)
Pearl is a Middle English alliterative poem written in the late 14th century. Its unknown author, designated the "Pearl poet" or "Gawain poet", is generally assumed, on the basis of dialect and stylistic evidence, to be the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness or...

,
and the Lindisfarne Gospels
Lindisfarne Gospels
The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the British Library...

, survive today only because of Sir Robert's library.

Statutory history and gift of the library


Sir Robert's grandson, Sir John Cotton, gave the library to the nation of Great Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

. Its early history is set out in the introductory recitals to the Act of Parliament 12 & 13 Gul. III c.7 of 1700/1, to establish statutory trusts of the Cottonian Library:

"Sir Robert Cotton late of Connington in the County of Huntingdon Baronett did at his own great Charge and Expense and by the Assistance of the most learned Antiquaries of his Time collect and purchase the most useful Manuscripts Written Books Papers Parchments [Records] and other Memorialls in most Languages of great Use and Service for the Knowledge and Preservation of our Constitution both in Church and State

which Manuscripts and other Writings were procured as well from Parts beyond the Seas as from severall Private Collectors of such Antiquities within this Realm [and] are generally esteemed the best Collection of its Kind now any where extant

And whereas the said Library has been preserved with the utmost Care and Diligence by the late Sir Thomas Cotton Son of the said Sir Robert and by Sir John Cotton of Westminster now living Grandson of the said Sir Robert and has been very much augmented and enlarged by them and lodged in a very proper Place in the said Sir Johns ancient Mansion House at Westminster which is very convenient for that Purpose

And whereas the said Sir John Cotton in pursuance of the Desire and Intentions of his said Father and Grandfather is content and willing that the said Mansion House and Library should continue in his Family and Name and not be sold or otherwise disposed or imbezled and that the said Library should be kept and preserved by the Name of the Cottonian Library for Publick Use & Advantage...."

Statutory trustees were appointed for the library, who removed it from the ruinous Cotton House, whose site is now covered by the Houses of Parliament. It went first to Essex House
Essex House (London)
Essex House was a house in London, built around 1575 for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and originally called Leicester House.The property occupied the site where the Outer Temple, part of the London headquarters of the Knights Templar, had previously stood , and was immediately adjacent to the...

, The Strand
Strand, London
Strand is a street in the City of Westminster, London, England. The street is just over three-quarters of a mile long. It currently starts at Trafalgar Square and runs east to join Fleet Street at Temple Bar, which marks the boundary of the City of London at this point, though its historical length...

 which was regarded as a fire risk, and so was removed to Ashburnham House
Ashburnham House
Ashburnham House is an extended seventeenth-century house on Little Dean's Yard in Westminster, London, United Kingdom, and since 1882 has been part of Westminster School...

, a little West of the Palace of Westminster. From 1707 the library also housed the Old Royal Library (now "Royal" manuscripts at the British Library). In 1753 the Cotton library was transferred to the new British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

 under the Act of Parliament which established it. At the same time the Sloane Collection and Harley Collection
Harley Collection
The Harleian Collection is one of main collections of the British Library, London, England.The manuscript collection of more than 7,000 volumes, more than 14,000 original legal documents, and 500 rolls, formed by Robert Harley , and his son Edward Harley...

 were acquired and added, so that these three form the three "foundation collections" of the British Museum. The books were transferred to the British Library
British Library
The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known languages and in many formats,...

 when this was formed in the 1970s. The Royal manuscripts were donated by George II in 1757.

The Ashburnham House fire


On 23 October 1731, there was a fire in Ashburnham House, and many manuscripts were lost, while others were badly singed or water-damaged - up to a quarter of the collection was either destroyed or damaged. The librarian, Dr. Bentley, escaped the fire while clutching the priceless Codex Alexandrinus
Codex Alexandrinus
The Codex Alexandrinus is a 5th century manuscript of the Greek Bible,The Greek Bible in this context refers to the Bible used by Greek-speaking Christians who lived in Egypt and elsewhere during the early history of Christianity...

under one arm, a scene witnessed and later described in a letter to Charlotte, Lady Sundon, by Robert Freind
Robert Freind
Robert Freind , was headmaster of Westminster School.Freind eldest son of the Rev. William Freind , rector of Croughton, Northamptonshire, was born at Croughton in 1667, and at an early age was sent to Westminster School, where he was admitted upon the foundation in 1680...

, headmaster of Westminster School
Westminster School
The Royal College of St. Peter in Westminster, almost always known as Westminster School, is one of Britain's leading independent schools, with the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rate of any secondary school or college in Britain...

. Mr. Speaker Onslow
Arthur Onslow
Arthur Onslow was an English politician. He set a record for length of service when repeatedly elected to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons, where he was known for his integrity.-Early life and education:...

, as one of the statutory trustees of the library, directed and personally supervised a remarkable programme of restoration within the resources of his time. The published report of this work is of major importance in bibliography. Fortunately, copies had been made of some, but by no means all, of those works that were lost, and many of those damaged could be restored in the nineteenth century. Among the most important works to be damaged was the Byzantine Cotton Genesis
Cotton Genesis
The Cotton Genesis is a 4th- or 5th-century Greek Illuminated manuscript copy of the Book of Genesis. It was a luxury manuscript with many miniatures. It is one of the oldest illustrated biblical codices to survive to the modern period...

, despite which its illustrations remain an important record of Late Antique iconography
Iconography
Iconography is the branch of art history which studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images. The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek "image" and "to write". A secondary meaning is the painting of icons in the...

.

Classification


Sir Robert Cotton had organised his library according to the case, shelf and position of a book. Each bookcase in his library was surmounted by a bust of various Caesars
Caesar (title)
Caesar is a title of imperial character. It derives from the cognomen of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator...

, and his scheme worked by Caesar-Shelf letter-Volume number from end. Thus, the two most famous of the manuscripts from the Cotton library are "Cotton Vitellius A.xv" and "Cotton Nero A.x." In Cotton's own day, that meant "Under the bust of Vitellius
Vitellius
Vitellius , was Roman Emperor for eight months, from 16 April to 22 December 69. Vitellius was acclaimed Emperor following the quick succession of the previous emperors Galba and Otho, in a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors...

, top shelf (A), and count fifteen over," for the Liber Monstrorum of the Beowulf manuscript, or "Go to the bust of Nero
Nero
Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

, top shelf, tenth book" for the manuscript containing all the works of the Pearl Poet
Pearl Poet
The "Pearl Poet", or the "Gawain Poet", is the name given to the author of Pearl, an alliterative poem written in 14th-century Middle English. Its author appears also to have written the poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness; some scholars suggest the author may also have...

. In the British Library, these priceless books are still catalogued by these call numbers.

Selected manuscripts


For a full list of manuscripts see List of manuscripts in the Cotton library.

Notable manuscripts:
  • Augustus
    Augustus
    Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

    • ii.106 Magna Carta
      Magna Carta
      Magna Carta is an English charter, originally issued in the year 1215 and reissued later in the 13th century in modified versions, which included the most direct challenges to the monarch's authority to date. The charter first passed into law in 1225...

      : Exemplification of 1215
  • Caligula
    Caligula
    Caligula , also known as Gaius, was Roman Emperor from 37 AD to 41 AD. Caligula was a member of the house of rulers conventionally known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Caligula's father Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, was a very successful general and one of Rome's most...

    • A.ii "A Pistil of Susan" (frag.) (probably by Huchoun
      Huchoun
      Huchoun or Huchown "of the Awle Ryale" is a poet conjectured to have been writing sometime in the 14th century. Some academics, following the Scottish antiquarian George Neilson , have identified him with a Scottish knight, Hugh of Eglington, and advanced his authorship of several significant...

      )
    • A.xv Easter Table Chronicle
  • Claudius
    Claudius
    Claudius , was Roman Emperor from 41 to 54. A member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he was the son of Drusus and Antonia Minor. He was born at Lugdunum in Gaul and was the first Roman Emperor to be born outside Italy...

    • B.vi Cotton Genesis
      Cotton Genesis
      The Cotton Genesis is a 4th- or 5th-century Greek Illuminated manuscript copy of the Book of Genesis. It was a luxury manuscript with many miniatures. It is one of the oldest illustrated biblical codices to survive to the modern period...

       (fragmentary)
    • D.ii Leges Henrici Primi
      Leges Henrici Primi
      The Leges Henrici Primi or Laws of Henry I is a legal treatise, written in about 1115, that records the legal customs of medieval England in the reign of King Henry I of England. Although it is not an official document, it was written by someone apparently associated with the royal administration...

      , an illuminated manuscript
      Illuminated manuscript
      An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

       of a 12th century legal treatise, copied around 1310
    • D.iv fos 48-54 De Iniusta Vexacione Willelmi Episcopi Primi
      De Iniusta Vexacione Willelmi Episcopi Primi
      De Iniusta Vexacione Willelmi Episcopi Primi or Of the Unjust Persecution of the Bishop William I is a late 11th century historical work detailing the trial of William de St-Calais, a medieval Norman Bishop of Durham from 1081 to 1096...

      (missing introduction and parts of the conclusion)
  • Cleopatra
    • A.ii Life of St Modwenna
  • Domitian
    Domitian
    Domitian was Roman Emperor from 81 to 96. Domitian was the third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty.Domitian's youth and early career were largely spent in the shadow of his brother Titus, who gained military renown during the First Jewish-Roman War...

    • A.viii: Bilingual Canterbury Epitome (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
      Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
      The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great...

       F)
    • A.ix fragment of the Bilingual Canterbury Epitome (ASC H), futhorc row
  • Faustina
    Faustina the Elder
    Annia Galeria Faustina, more familiarly referred to as Faustina I , was a Roman Empress and wife of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.-Early life:...

    • A.x Additional Glosses to the Glossary in Ælfric's
      Ælfric of Eynsham
      Ælfric of Eynsham was an English abbot, as well as a consummate, prolific writer in Old English of hagiography, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. He is also known variously as Ælfric the Grammarian , Ælfric of Cerne, and Ælfric the Homilist...

       Grammar
  • Galba
    Galba
    Galba , was Roman Emperor for seven months from 68 to 69. Galba was the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, and made a bid for the throne during the rebellion of Julius Vindex...

    • A.xviii Athelstan Psalter
  • Julius
    Julius Caesar
    Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

    • A.x Old English Martyrology
    • E.vii Ælfric's Lives of Saints
  • Nero
    Nero
    Nero , was Roman Emperor from 54 to 68, and the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius to become his heir and successor, and succeeded to the throne in 54 following Claudius' death....

    • A.x Pearl
      Pearl (poem)
      Pearl is a Middle English alliterative poem written in the late 14th century. Its unknown author, designated the "Pearl poet" or "Gawain poet", is generally assumed, on the basis of dialect and stylistic evidence, to be the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness or...

      , Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance outlining an adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. In the poem, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious warrior who is completely green, from his clothes and hair to his...

    • D.iv Lindisfarne Gospels
      Lindisfarne Gospels
      The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the British Library...

  • Otho
    Otho
    Otho , was Roman Emperor for three months, from 15 January to 16 April 69. He was the second emperor of the Year of the four emperors.- Birth and lineage :...

    • A.xii The Battle of Maldon
      The Battle of Maldon
      The Battle of Maldon is the name given to an Old English poem of uncertain date celebrating the real Battle of Maldon of 991, at which the Anglo-Saxons failed to prevent a Viking invasion...

      (destroyed in 1731)
    • B.x Mary of Egypt (fragmentary)
    • B.x.165 Anglo-Saxon rune poem
      Rune poem
      The Rune Poems are three poems that list the letters of runic alphabets while providing an explanatory poetic stanza for each letter. Three different poems have been preserved: the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem, the Norwegian Rune Poem, and the Icelandic Rune Poem.The Icelandic and Norwegian poems list 16...

       (destroyed in 1731)
    • B.xi.2 fragment of the Parker Chronicle (the Winchester Chronicle)
    • C.i Ælfric's De creatore et creatura
    • C.v Otho-Corpus Gospels
      Otho-Corpus Gospels
      The Otho-Corpus Gospels is a badly damaged and fragmentary 8th century illuminated manuscript. It was part of the Cotton library and was mostly burnt in the 1731 fire at Ashburnham House. The manuscript now survives as charred fragments in the British Library . Thirty six pages of the manuscript...

      (fragmentary)
  • Tiberius
    Tiberius
    Tiberius , was Roman Emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD. Tiberius was by birth a Claudian, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced Nero and married Augustus in 39 BC, making him a step-son of Octavian...

    • A.vi Abingdon Chronicle I (ASC B)
    • A.xiii Hemming's Cartulary
      Hemming's Cartulary
      Hemming's Cartulary is a manuscript cartulary, or collection of charters and other land records, collected by a monk named Hemming around the time of the Norman Conquest of England. The manuscript comprises two separate cartularies that were made at different times and later bound together. The...

    • B.i Abingdon Chronicle II (ASC C)
    • B.iv Worcester Chronicle (ASC D)
    • B.v Labour of the Months
    • C.ii Bede, Ecclesiastical History
      Bede, Ecclesiastical History (British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C. II)
      British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C. II, or the Tiberius Bede, is an 8th century illuminated manuscript of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It is one of only four surviving 8th century manuscripts of Bede. As such it is on the closest texts to Bede's autograph. The manuscript has...

  • Titus
    Titus
    Titus , was Roman Emperor from 79 to 81. A member of the Flavian dynasty, Titus succeeded his father Vespasian upon his death, thus becoming the first Roman Emperor to come to the throne after his own father....

    • D.xxvi Ælfwine's Prayerbook
  • Vespasian
    Vespasian
    Vespasian , was Roman Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Empire for a quarter century. Vespasian was descended from a family of equestrians, who rose into the senatorial rank under the Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty...

    • A.i Vespasian Psalter
      Vespasian Psalter
      The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated Psalter produced in the second or third quarter of the 8th century. It contains an interlinear gloss in Old English which is the oldest extant English translation of any portion of the Bible. It was produced in southern England, perhaps in St...

    • D.xiv Ælfric's De duodecim abusivis
  • Vitellius
    Vitellius
    Vitellius , was Roman Emperor for eight months, from 16 April to 22 December 69. Vitellius was acclaimed Emperor following the quick succession of the previous emperors Galba and Otho, in a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors...

    • A.xv Nowell Codex
      Nowell Codex
      Cotton Vitellius A. xv is one of the four major Anglo-Saxon literature codices. It is most famous as the manuscript containing the unique copy of the epic poem Beowulf; in addition to this it contains a fragment of The Life of Saint Christopher, and the more complete texts Letters of Alexander to...

       (Beowulf
      Beowulf
      Beowulf , but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject." of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.It survives in a single...

      , Judith
      Judith (poem)
      The Old English poem "Judith" describes the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by Israelite Judith of Bethulia. Various other versions of the Holofernes-Judith tale exist. These include the Book of Judith, still present in the Roman Catholic Bible, and Abbot Ælfric's homily of the tale...

      )

Literature

  • Colin G. C. Tite, The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, Panizzi Lectures 1993, London (1994).
  • Christopher J. Wright
    Christopher Wright (academic)
    Dr Christopher John Wright OBE MA Phd, is a former Head of Manuscripts at the British Library and Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London...

    (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, London (1997).

External links