How would you cope if your library was under lockdown? That is the situation Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) found himself in late in his life. We can all probably sympathise — most of us would never have anticipated the events of the past year — but the treasures denied to Cotton, by order of King Charles I, were astonishing. They included the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and a copy of Magna Carta issued in 1215 with King John's seal intact; for Cotton had assembled one of the greatest private libraries ever known. At a time when the British Library's own Reading Rooms and galleries have now reopened, and remembering of course that we have always remained open online, we look back in this blogpost to the events of the 1620s–30s and consider what lessons can be learned from them.
A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, reproduced from the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L.
The temporary closure of Cotton's library is summarised by Colin Tite in The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton (The British Library, 1994). Cotton, a Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire and advisor to King James I (reigned 1603–1625), as well as a prominent antiquary and manuscript collector, had aroused suspicion over a number of years. Cotton's London residence was at Westminster — Members of the House of Lords had to pass through his garden in order to enter their chamber — and his habit of amassing state papers for antiquarian and political purposes (what we would now call 'preserving them for posterity') had earned the mistrust of the new king, Charles I (reigned 1625–1649), and his favourite, the Duke of Buckingham.
As early as 1616 Cotton had been suspected of communicating 'secretts of state' to the Spanish ambassador, for which he was threatened with the confiscation of his papers. Cotton frequently loaned his manuscripts or allowed others to consult them, what we may consider a charitable act but which curried disfavour in certain quarters. One of those borrowers was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the Lord Chancellor of England, until he was impeached, barred from office, fined £40,000 and imprisoned for three days. (Bacon's disgrace, ostensibly for taking bribes, was ultimately the result of a scandal relating to monopolies and patents, for which he was made the scapegoat.) In 1621, as part of his extended punishment, Bacon was forbidden access to Cotton's library, but we know that the two men remained close. Two years later, in 1623, Bacon presented to Robert Cotton the benefactors' book of St Albans Abbey (Cotton MS Nero D VII), as is evidenced by an inscription on its opening page.
The Benefactors Book of St Albans, presented to Robert Cotton by Francis Bacon in 1623: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 1r
The year 1626 witnessed another two incidents that suggested all was not well between Sir Robert Cotton and the new king. First, at Charles's coronation in 1626, Cotton attempted to present him with a gospel-book on which the early kings of England had reputedly sworn their oaths (Cotton MS Tiberius A II). Charles refused the gift and ordered that the royal barge be rowed past Cotton House, where Sir Robert was waiting, book in hand, as a result of which the king had to wade onshore, hardly a good omen for his own rule. Around the same time, the Duke of Buckingham urged that the famous Cotton library be closed, most probably because it contained the historical precedents on which his Parliamentary critics often relied. The library, in other words, had become a battleground for political debate.
A page of the so-called Coronation Gospels, with the signature Ro: Cotton Bruceus: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r
Buckingham may have been assassinated by a discontented soldier at Portsmouth in 1628, but his untimely demise did not remove the heat from Sir Robert Cotton. After an allegedly seditious tract was found among Cotton's papers in 1629, Sir Robert and his associates were arrested and his library was ordered to be closed, with a guard placed on its door. The full impact of its closure may never be known, but the denial of his books to Cotton and his fellow antiquaries cannot be underestimated. The Privy Council appointed commissioners to search the library for state papers and other records that Cotton was suspected of having appropriated, and they drew up a catalogue of its contents (now Add MS 36789) to aid them in that process. The catalogue reveals that the manuscripts were arranged in presses named after the Roman emperors, and also that many of the papers were unbound. Tite also surmised that some items may have been confiscated from the library at this very time, since they are named in that catalogue but no longer form part of the Cotton collection. An example is the 'Survey of the Anne Royall 1626', a reference to the naval ship the Ark Royal, named after Queen Anne of Denmark, that sank in the 1630s.
Sir Robert Cotton was granted only limited access to his own library for the remainder of his life. He died on 6 May 1631, and it remained for his son and successor, Sir Thomas Cotton (1594–1662), to petition the king for the library to be re-opened. But the Cotton collection did not remain dormant in its final years. We know that Robert Cotton continued to receive new acquisitions even after 1629 — one wonders where he kept them — among which was the copy of Magna Carta we cited at the beginning of this blogpost, sent to him by Sir Edward Dering from Dover Castle on 10 May 1630. So the Cotton library may have been physically closed, but it remained an intellectual entity, cherished by Sir Robert Cotton, his family and the leading scholars of his day. It had been Cotton's ambition, essentially, to create a national collection, and his wish was fulfilled when his library was bequeathed to the British nation in 1702 'for Publick Use and Advantage', as confirmed by Act of Parliament (12 and 13 William III, c. 7). The Cotton manuscripts formed one of the foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753, and more recently, in 2018, they were inscribed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.
The letter of Edward Dering, informing Robert Cotton that he was sending him 'the charter of K. John dated att Running Meade', now Cotton Ch XIII 31 A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r
So what can we learn from this sorry episode? First of all, you should never give up, even if you lose access to your books due to circumstances beyond your control. We know that the last sixteen months and counting have been very difficult for so many of our readers, as well as the staff and supporters of the British Library, but we hope sincerely that with time we'll be able to recommence our studies with the benefit of the Library's collections and those of our sister-institutions around the world. Secondly, knowledge is precious. The attempts by the government of King Charles I to suppress the Cotton library were founded on jealousy, mistrust and abuse of process, but ultimately they proved unsuccessful. Finally, Sir Robert Cotton did not have the benefit of having digital surrogates made of his precious books, but today you can view some 312 of his manuscripts, 51 of his charters and 2 of his rolls on our Digitised Manuscripts site, with more items being added on a regular basis. Once again, we hope that Robert Cotton would have approved.
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