We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation.
A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r
Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.
A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1
The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r
The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).
The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2
After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.
Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r
The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83
Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.
In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r
Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. Read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide.
The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r
Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v
You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.
Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r
Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r
The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. Access the full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.
Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.