Rediscovered Libraries, Part Three: The Cotton Collection

Books lead hard lives. Stolen, vandalised, ripped apart, and reconstituted (as this post from the St Andrews library attests) they have borne the brunt of years–and sometimes centuries–of use and abuse. Under such considerations, its remarkable not only that many mediaeval manuscripts have remained, but that we continue to discover previously unknown caches of unlikely survivors (as at Dunhuang and Timbuktu, the previous entries in this series.)

This bust of Robert Cotton at the British Library recalls the Roman busts used to classify manuscripts in the collection (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most outstanding stories in the collection and preservation of these manuscripts follows the life and descendants of Sir Robert Cotton, born in England in 1571. Active politically, and at times an advisor to King James I, Cotton enjoyed a place in the high society of his day and interacted with many of the period’s most famous intellectuals. Because of this, he was perfectly placed to assemble many mediaeval masterworks–produced and preserved by now-dissolved monasteries. Collecting throughout his life, he not only laid the foundation for his family’s own famous library, but also provided some of the initial volumes for Oxford’s Bodleian.

Lavish Chi-Rho illumination in the Lindisfarne Gospels, a mediaeval masterwork (Wikimedia Commons)

After his death in 1631, the library–and the burden of expanding it–fell first to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton, and later to Sir Robert’s grandson, Sir John Cotton. In three generations, the collection acquired not only beautiful items such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (flip through a digital version here) but also innumerable charters–the Magna Carta among them–and priceless works of literature, such as the Beowulf manuscript. Through their efforts, these works were ‘rediscovered’ in a very significant sense, in that they were made available for study by the early generations of antiquarians in England.

Detail of Lindisfarne Illumination.

If the first transformation of the Cotton collection was its assemblage, out of a diffuse environment, by Sir Robert, than its second occurred in 1701 when it was transferred, upon Sir John’s death, into the care of the nation. By this time, it had also collected a number of more contemporary political papers, making it a valuable resource for politicians and bureaucrats as well as historians. Not long afterwards, however, this remarkable assortment of books suffered its most severe setback.

On October 23, 1731, a fire began at Ashburnham House–a temporary storage space for the Cotton collection. Many lucky volumes were carried out by hand, while others escaped the flames via the windows. Approximately 1/4 of the Cotton manuscripts–including the only extant manuscript of Asser’s Life of St Alfred–however, were destroyed in the blaze.

The first page of Beowulf in manuscript form (Wikimedia Commons).

Today, works from the Cotton collection can be found all over Europe, although the British Library (with 1,400 Cotton manuscripts and 1,500 charters, seals, and other ephemera) possesses the bulk of the library. Even divided among many institutions, however, Cotton’s library remains in spirit. Not only do the modern designations of the manuscript reference the works’ Cottonian origin, but they also preserve the shelf references of the physical library (in which each shelf was named after a different Roman imperial figure.)

Thus, we know that Beowulf, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, f.132, once sat beneath a bust of Vitellius, and that the Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV, was topped by Nero. Via the Roman numerals, we even know where on the shelf each Cotton volume sat in relation to one another.

Taken as a whole, the story of the Cotton Collection is one of repeated rediscovery and rescue, as the written wealth of Britain’s monasteries found sanctuary first in private collections and later in modern public institutions.

Learn More:

British Library page


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