THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

23 October 2018

Fire in the library

Our new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, has been receiving rave reviews. Don't just take our word for it, read here why The Guardian and the Evening Standard have both given it a coveted 5 stars. The show features outstanding archaeological finds alongside incredible illuminated manuscripts and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus.

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The Old English epic poem Beowulf survives uniquely in a manuscript from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Approximately a quarter of the manuscripts on display come from one collection alone, namely that of the 17th-century politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. They include books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Vespasian Psalter, and documents such as the oldest surviving charter written in England. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our show, but even more so because they escaped near-total destruction in one of the most devastating events in modern library history: the Cotton fire, which broke out on the night of 23 October 1731.

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The manuscript of Gildas' The Ruin of Britain was almost ruined by fire in 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

A quick look at the pages of the unique surviving manuscripts of Beowulf and Gildas' The Ruin of Britain gives some idea of the damage they sustained in that fire. Their parchment pages started to warp in the heat of the flames, and the edges began to crumble. In some sad cases, the manuscripts were blackened and rendered almost useless, and in a handful of instances — such as that of the only medieval copy of Asser's Life of King Alfred — the volume was destroyed for ever.

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A page from the London portion of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing the severe damage this manuscript sustained in the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

The story of the Cotton library fire has been told elsewhere. Essentially, the Cotton collection was  presented to the British nation in 1702, upon the death of Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson. It had ultimately been taken for safekeeping to the (inappropriately named) Ashburnham House, located near Westminster School in London. When the fire took hold, desperate efforts were made to save the books from the flames. The next morning, the Westminster schoolboys were reported to have collected scraps of burnt parchment, which were blowing in the breeze.

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The Marvels of the East: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

A miraculous and pioneering programme of restoration, carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, managed to preserve the burnt Cotton volumes for posterity. The manuscripts seem to have been soaked in a 'solution of wine', enabling their pages to be separated, and then they were often inlaid (like Beowulf and Gildas) in paper mounts. This whole process has been documented meticulously in Andrew Prescott's seminal article, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454.

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The Æthelstan Psalter was singed in the Cotton fire: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

Below is a full list of the Cotton manuscripts and charters on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. To their number, we could also add the magnificent Utrecht Psalter, which was alienated from Cotton's collection in the 1620s, and which ultimately made its way to the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht in the 18th century.

The Cotton collection was recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. We feel sure that you would agree that, without the enterprise of Sir Robert Cotton himself, and without the endeavours of those who salvaged the damaged manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period — as well as our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — would be much the poorer.

Cotton Charter VIII 16 (grant of King Æthelstan and the will of Wulfgar)
Cotton Charter VIII 38 (will of Wynflæd)
Cotton MS Augustus II 2 (grant of King Hlothhere of Kent, AD 679)
Cotton MS Augustus II 3 (grant of King Æthelbald of the Mercians)
Cotton MS Augustus II 18 (letter of Bishop Wealdhere of London)
Cotton MS Augustus II 20 (Council of Kingston)
Cotton MS Augustus II 61 (decree of a synod of Clofesho, 803)
Cotton MS Caligula A VIII (Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu)
Cotton MS Caligula A XIV (Caligula Troper)
Cotton MS Claudius B IV (Old English Hexateuch)
Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII (Old English coronation oath)
Cotton MS Domitian A I (Isidore, De natura rerum)
Cotton MS Domitian A VII (Durham Liber Vitae)
Cotton MS Faustina A X (Ælfric's Grammar)
Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (Æthelstan Psalter)
Cotton MS Julius A VI (Julius Work Calendar)
Cotton MS Julius E VII (Ælfric's Lives of Saints)
Cotton MS Nero A I (law-code of King Cnut)
Cotton MS Nero D IV (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Cotton MS Otho A VI (Boethius)
Cotton MS Otho C I/1 (Old English gospel-book)
Cotton MS Otho C V (Otho-Corpus Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A II (Æthelstan or Coronation Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A III (Regularis concordia)
Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B)
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII (Liber Wigorniensis)
Cotton MS Tiberius B I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C)
Cotton MS Tiberius B IV (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D)
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 (Marvels of the East)
Cotton MS Tiberius C II (Tiberius Bede)
Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (Tiberius Psalter)
Cotton MS Titus D XXVII (Ælfwine’s Prayer Book)
Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Vespasian Psalter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII (New Minster Charter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV (letter-book of Archbishop Wulfstan)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIX (Libellus Æthelwoldi)
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI (Gildas)
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (Beowulf)
Cotton MS Vitellius C III (Old English herbal)
Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1 (St Augustine's martyrology)

Our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

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Julian Harrison

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