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The Cotton Library

 Today’s post is the first in a series about surviving manuscripts from the Dark Ages. Look for posts in this series to appear on a regular basis. This series will join the other series I am currently exploring, called Society News, about the different classes of people who make up Anglo-Saxon society in 7th century England. I hope you enjoy!

I have often written here on the blog about the dearth of manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages, and it is true, there is not a lot of original material surviving from this time. There are likely three main reasons for this:

  1. While not everyone was illiterate, there were still relatively few who could both read and write. So there is not a lot of people actually producing manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts produced during that time were done at the hand of the monks. These were not all religious texts or Scripture, however. In general the Celtic Christian monks had a high view of learning, and held in their monasteries copies of works that survived from the ancient world, the accumulated knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. This is quite remarkable considering these works were not necessarily Christian. But the monks saw their value nonetheless, and preserved this knowledge at a time when much of that knowledge was being lost on the Continent after the collapse of Rome. Copies of these works were sent to various monasteries in Britain, and back to the Continent on their missionary journeys there.
  2. The Vikings invasions. Lindisfarne, on the north-east coast of England, was the first monastery to be attacked by the raiders in 767 AD. The monks were basically defenceless, and their monastery contained many beautiful items used in their worship, including silver chalices, bowls, and other such items. The Vikings knew a good thing when they saw it, and kept coming back, to Lindisfarne as well as to other monasteries. The raiders weren’t looking for books, particularly, but often Bibles or Gospel books would have jewel-encrusted covers, so the books, if not destroyed, would certainly be damaged. And of course fires were a risk during these attacks, as well. I have no idea how the monks at Lindisfarne managed to save their beautiful Gospel book during that first, chaotic, attack, but save it they did, and continued to keep it safe in the centuries that follow, so that we have it today.
  3. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII, in his embrace of Protestantism, decided that the English Church needed reforms and that the monasteries, nunneries, priories, convents, and friaries had to be disbanded and destroyed (it was part and parcel of a whole wave of reforms sweeping across the Continent in the wake of the Reformation). It was also a way for the considerable wealth of the church, both monetary and land wealth, to be transferred to the Crown. Manuscripts which had been held safely by the Church through the centuries now entered private hands, and many were lost. For example, Worcester Priory had 600 books in its collection at the time of the Dissolution, only six have survived to this day.

And here enters the hero of our story, Sir Robert Cotton.

Born in 1570, heir of Thomas Cotton of Conington, Sir Robert was educated at Westminster School and studied under the antiquarian William Camden. He began to study antiquarian topics and began his life-long love of collecting historical objects; in particular, manuscripts.

As he progressed through his education, finally graduating as a lawyer, Cotton continued to amass his collection of ancient works, often by purchasing the estates of others who had amassed collections.  He entered Parliament in 1601, representing Newtown, Isle of Wight. Later he helped devise the rank of baronet, and was made baronet himself. He held various seats in Parliament throughout his life, but his major interest and most enduring legacy is of his wonderful library.

Along with his mentor, William Camden, Cotton was an early member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in the 1580s, and eventually revived the Society in 1598. He was much revered as an antiquarian (basically a gentleman historian) during his lifetime. Cotton’s house, near the Palace of Westminster, housed the ever-growing library and became the headquarters of the Society of Antiquaries. Unusual for the time, he allowed other scholars, such as Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh, to use his library. He even loaned some manuscripts to others (also a rare occurrence at the time), with the result that some which belonged to his collection are now housed in other collections around the world (every library has a problem with returns, I guess!).

Cotton managed to amass a huge number of manuscripts, including some of the most rare and precious manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon era, including the Lindisfarne Gospels,  and the only copy (!) we have of Beowulf.


Part of the Beowulf manuscript. Can you see the word “beowulf” on the same line as the big “D”?

The library was housed in a room twenty-six feet long by six feet wide, filled with book presses (an early form of bookcase) holding the manuscripts. Each press was surmounted by a bust of a figure from antiquity, namely the twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies. Cotton categorized each manuscript by the bust on top of the case, the shelf letter, and the position of the manuscript on the shelf.  The British Library continues that tradition, even though of course the books are not now stored in the same fashion. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels are designated Cotton Nero D .iv, designating the fourth manuscript (iv – the letter four in Roman numerals) on the shelf fourth (D) from the top of the book press with Nero’s bust on it.


First page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the only surviving manuscript of this 14th century poem, acquired by Sir Robert and added to his collection.

Cotton lived in perilous times, when the Crown and Parliament were wrangling over many disputes. Sir Robert got caught up in these wrangles when in 1629 he was arrested for supposedly circulating a seditious pamphlet (actually written fifteen years prior, by someone else). Even thought he was released and then exonerated, his library was closed., thus keeping all the official documents and historical manuscripts  he had amassed  safe from prying eyes who might want to use them to support rebellion, I suppose.


Sir Robert in 1629, the year the library was forced to close. Image from Wikicommons

Sadly, Cotton never got to open the library again, as it stayed closed until 1631 AD, when it was restored to his heir, Sir Thomas Cotton. He added to the collection and expanded it, and passed it on to his heir, Sir John Cotton. At his death in 1702, he donated the entire collection to the British nation, and it formed the basis of what is now called the British Library. Interestingly, as early as 1598 Robert Cotton had petitioned the Queen to join his library with the royal collection, to form a national library, but the Queen refused.

It’s a good thing that Sir John donated the library to the nation. If it had continued to be passed along to the heirs it’s uncertain what would have happened to it. His grandsons, unlike the rest of the literary Cotton family, were both illiterate, and perhaps would not have seen the value of the treasures they owned, and could have starting selling it off to help finance their lifestyles.

Thankfully, the library was kept safe….but was it?

The collection found a home in Ashburnham House, along with the royal manuscripts, watched over by the royal librarian Richard Bentley, a theologian and scholar. But in October of 1731 disaster struck in the form of a fire. Up to a quarter of the collection was either damaged or destroyed. Bentley escaped, clutching the precious Codex Alexandrinus under his arm, a fifth-century manuscript of the Greek Bible which is one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible that we have.

The manuscript of the Battle of Maldon* was destroyed, and Beowulf was heavily damaged. Thankfully these and others had been copied by this time, but not all of those destroyed had been copied. In the intervening centuries,  attempts have been made to restore and fix the damaged manuscripts, with some success.


One of the manuscripts damaged, more by water than fire. The parchment has shrunk at the edges where it was exposed to water, and so it has been cut to allow it to be pressed flat again and fastened to paper.

Today the Cotton collection at the British Library contains 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls, and seals, dating from the 4th century to the 1600s.

And all thanks to the tireless efforts of one man. Here’s to you, Sir Robert!

*A tenth-century poem celebrating the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD, in which Anglo-Saxons unsuccessfully fought against Viking raiders.

Featured Image: Sir Robert Cotton, in a painting commissioned in 1626, by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen. Image from Wikicommons.