Medieval manuscripts blog

14 October 2023

Cataloguing the Cotton charters

A new project is underway to examine one of the British Library’s oldest and most important collections. The Cotton charters and rolls are being catalogued as part of the Library’s Hidden Collections initiative. Begun by the antiquarian and politician Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), and augmented by his son and grandson, the Cotton collection was the first library to be presented to the nation, in 1702, and it has been part of the British Library and its predecessor, the British Museum Library, since the latter’s foundation in 1753. The Cotton manuscripts, which include some of the most famous volumes to survive from medieval Britain, from Beowulf to the Lindisfarne Gospels, are described already on the British Library’s Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue. The whole collection was entered on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register in 2018.

A portrait of Robert Cotton with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), 1st baronet, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson: courtesy of a private collection

But it's probably fair to say that the 1,500 Cotton charters and rolls, aside from a handful of items such as an original exemplification of the 1215 Magna Carta, one of just four in existence, have been much less studied. The vast majority of them are not yet part of the online catalogue, which this new project sets out to remedy. A handwritten list from the 19th century is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the Library, but this is inadequate for modern needs.

A short passage describing Cotton Ch IV 9 as a receipt for robes delivered to the Tower of London

The handwritten 19th-century catalogue entry for Cotton Ch IV 9

To give one example. Cotton Ch IV 9 is described in the handwritten register as a receipt for delivering robes to the Tower of London for the coronation of King Edward III (1327). This is not in fact correct: the document in question is not a receipt for coronation robes at all but rather for a cup enamelled with the king's arms, a ewer encrusted with pearls, and a golden brooch with pearls and sapphires, each to be used in Edward's coronation.

A small manuscript sheet in French recording the receipt of plate and valuables for the coronation, including a cup enamelled with the king's arms, a ewer encrusted with pearls, and a golden brooch with pearls and sapphires

A receipt that Adam Orleton, bishop of Hereford (1317–1327), has had valuables delivered to the Tower of London for the coronation of Edward III: Cotton Ch IV 9

This project is the first in well over a century to catalogue the entire collection of Cotton charters, rolls and seals to modern standards. It has already uncovered many documents whose significance may have been overlooked. For instance, Cotton Roll IV 61, described in the handwritten register as a historical account of the difficulties faced by Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI, has been identified as a previously-unknown copy of the manifesto of Warwick the Kingmaker and others in their rebellion against Edward IV in 1469.

A manuscript roll in Middle English listing complaints about the counsellors around Edward IV

The manifesto of Richard Neville, 16th earl of Warwick, and others, issued during their rebellion against Edward IV in 1469: Cotton Roll IV 61

Other charters and rolls catalogued for the new project include a set of rules for living in a medieval hospital (Cotton Ch IV 28); a draft set of instructions from Elizabeth I to Sir Francis Drake for his raid upon the Spanish Americas in 1585 (Cotton Ch IV 25); and a seal of William the Conqueror from 1067 (Cotton Ch VI 3/1). There are many discoveries to be made, which we hope will in turn support research into medieval and early modern culture, history, politics and literature. As the project progresses, we will highlight other interesting documents from the collection on this Blog.

A seal, much damaged by fire, showing a king enthroned with a sword in his hand

Seal of William the Conqueror, once attached to a 12th-century copy of a 1067 charter: Cotton Ch VI 3/1

 

Rory MacLellan

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