Cotton’s Library

Now available! Discover what can happen to a museum-quality collection before it reaches the safety of a museum, and sometimes even after.

The story of an embryonic British Library assembled by Sir Robert Cotton more than 400 years ago, Cotton’s Library reveals how a nation alternately persecuted, turned away, locked up and nearly neglected into extinction many of its modern heirs’ most cherished documents.

Boasting masterpieces of medieval illumination, the sole manuscript sources of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and two of four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta along with less-famed but still priceless historic records, Cotton’s library was and is a treasure of the English-speaking world. Cotton and his successors nonetheless struggled for centuries to preserve his library for, and sometimes from, formal government custodianship. Fire, war, intrigues, neglect, corrupt library-keepers and later collectors’ poaching have all threatened the collection’s ruin repeatedly.

With some tragic exceptions, though, the Cotton library has survived them all. The story of its often narrow escapes is a tribute to unsung heroes of history, beginning with Cotton and continuing into the modern era. Their collective efforts to preserve the library’s great treasures for posterity, set against the sweep of history from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, form an epic worthy of James Michener, all of it real.

Cotton’s Library is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book editions.