An Excerpt from Cotton’s Library

Please enjoy the following sample chapter from Cotton’s Library. (You may also download a PDF preview with the introduction, chapters one and two, plus the first Ex Libris featurette!)

Chapter 2: The Collector

Some years after John Dee joined his late queen, his legendary library found itself broken up for sale. It was a sad irony given Dee’s alarm on behalf of collections scattered by the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his petition for a national sanctuary for their fragments. But the decline in Dee’s fortunes from their Elizabethan peak had left behind a deeply indebted estate. With no national library to extend them shelter, his thousands of volumes were fair game for both creditors and fellow collectors. Sir Robert Cotton, knighted by King James in 1603, hoped for a nobler fate for his own library despite having gotten no further than Dee with petitioning for a national repository. But first, he needed a library worth preserving. In building such a library he felt no hesitation picking over the collections of fellow bibliophiles, ironies or no.

Much of the Cotton library was assembled through such scavenging. Authors frequently quote John Aubrey on how “manuscripts flew about like butterflies” in England, at the turn of the 17th century, and important work remained for those motivated to recapture them. But 60 years had passed since the Dissolution’s initial crisis and opportunities. By the time Cotton began collecting he had missed out on the first wave of salvage buying. As a second generation collector, his own great opportunities were often dependent on deaths among the previous generation.

In this, Cotton does indeed seem to have come along at “exactly the right time.” Beginning around the time of Dee’s death at least six more major collectors followed the late mystic in as many years, just as Cotton was enjoying heightened connections and resources thanks to court patronage. In 1609, Cotton managed to secure a few items from Lord Lumley’s collection, although in competing against Prince Henry a number of choice items understandably escaped. The prince’s own early death just three years later presented a second chance, however. That same year saw off William Dethick, followed two years later by Cotton’s great patron the Earl of Northampton, both collectors of note.

Estate sales were by no means Cotton’s only source. The fate of his acquisitions from Northampton points toward another, which may have been the most important of all. Colin G.C. Tite, among the leading scholars of the Cotton library, notes that a prayer book handwritten by Northampton himself is today part of the preserved collection of his nephew Thomas Howard; as Earl of Arundel, he was the major patron of Cotton’s later career. Tite suggests that Cotton, “ever an eye to the main chance,” likely passed it along knowing from experience that generosity had done more for his library than greed. Though the Cotton collection benefitted often from timely death, its development into not only a great but an active, living library, depended most of all on good friends.

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Over the years, in collecting for his library, Cotton acquired books by nearly every means fair or foul. A rumor alleged that before his death Dr. Dee had buried manuscripts of his work in a field—and that Cotton subsequently bought part of Dee’s estate in order to dig for them. Though almost certainly apocryphal, the tale recorded by Aubrey in Brief Lives is fully consistent with Cotton’s passion for the chase. His library served many purposes, even in his own lifetime, but one of the most important reasons for its existence is undoubtedly its owner’s simple joy in assembling it.

The records of Cotton’s library transactions, assembled in turn by the patient work of modern scholars, are familiar to anyone who has been or known an eager collector. Cotton had his “want lists.” He engaged various “spotters” to extend his quest through his own country, and abroad; Sjoerd Levelt has documented how a number of Dutch manuscripts came to the Cotton library via the commercial consul for the Netherlands, Emanuel van Meteren. Cotton arranged trades with other collectors. He certainly paid out of pocket for manuscripts, if needed, and his rent books confirm that he had the means to buy in bulk in an era when notable manuscripts might still turn up as packing material in a shop from time to time. Cotton also pursued manuscripts that collectors had already recognized and become correspondingly more demanding in selling. Occasionally Sir Robert was outmaneuvered on a key deal, sometimes even by a good friend.

Much more often, though, Cotton was receiving books from friends rather than losing out to them. For Sir Robert Cotton, 1586–1631, Kevin Sharpe reviewed surviving records and found surprisingly little evidence of purchased material in the library, concluding that “with the evidence we have, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Cotton, like Matthew Parker, acquired the bulk of his library by gift rather than by purchase.” Plenty of anecdotal evidence supports the possibility. His scholarly correspondent de Peiresc sent copies of the latest works off the presses of France. His friend John Weever wrote of discovering manuscripts in a chandler’s shop, once, and promptly turning them over to “the onely repairer of ruined antiquitie whom I knew.” The ill-fated Greek Genesis was a gift to Cotton, as were both copies of Magna Carta that his library eventually boasted. Donors had no shortage of reasons to enrich Cotton’s library; Weever’s confidence in the library as a safe store was shared by many, while Mirrlees has suggested that at least a few items may have represented “peace offerings from guilty borrowers.” Whether from guilt or gratitude, Cotton’s generous lending and assistance with research certainly inspired many friends to offer gifts. Few of them would have struggled to think of something he would like.

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As attested by the opening pages of too many period books to record, friends to Cotton and his library were everywhere among early Stuart literati. Camden dedicated an edition of Britannia to Cotton, who supplied much of its source material. The jurist John Selden dedicated multiple works to him, praising Sir Robert’s “inestimable library” as well in The Historie of Tithes. Francis Bacon’s Historie of the Raigne of King Henry the Seventh credits Cotton’s assistance. Edmund Bolton, a poet as well as a historian, observed to Cotton that “The world sees that no worthie monument of witt and learning comes forth but with honourable acknowledgement of help from you…” Hope Mirrlees notes more prosaically that “there are very few Jacobean books on history or antiquities which do not contain some expression of gratitude to Cotton or to his library.”

The tremendous value of Sir Robert Cotton’s collection to contemporaries, and their resultant gratitude, are perhaps best appreciated within the context of the larger history of England’s libraries. Prior to the Dissolution the great collections of books and manuscripts were almost exclusively those of monasteries. Though these had numerous shortcomings as public libraries, they did provide known places to turn, and even engaged in some limited lending. But the visitations of Henry VIII’s commissioners brought all of that to a swift end.

The libraries of Oxford and Cambridge survived, as institutions. But even after they began rebuilding from the depredations under Henry’s son, they too remained very limited resources. Both universities restricted in-person access to their collections, and borrowing material was an actual physical impossibility within a “chained library.” J.N.L. Myres explains in The English Library Before 1700 that such a library’s books were “chained to the presses of sufficient length to enable them to lie open on the desks but not to be removed to any other part of the room.” Myres adds that the printing press, by dramatically reducing the labor required for book production, effectively made such systems obsolete by the mid-16th century… yet as J.C.T. Oates points out in the same anthology, Cambridge delayed a general unchaining of books until after 1627, while Oxford “kept its chains until late in the eighteenth century…”

Cotton, by contrast, not only lent books but often neglected to make any bother about recovering them. His was a private library, and if a complete stranger knocked on the door Cotton could have and may well have sent him packing. But on the whole the Cotton library was a champion of accessibility, not least because of its location. Sir Robert and his books moved around a few times before settling in Cotton House, as close as any place has come to being the physical location for the Cotton library. But just being in London made the library far more accessible to the capital’s scholarly and political community than either of the universities could be, in an age of slow overland travel. Once the library settled in Cotton House, around 1622, it could scarcely have been more centrally located anywhere in the city. In the middle of the Palace of Westminster grounds, amid various official record offices and close by the Houses of Parliament, Cotton was able to establish a national library almost literally by the back door.

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Well before the Cotton library moved to Westminster, Cotton himself was becoming nearly an honorary resident. He entered Parliament for the first time in 1601, and at the Earl of Northampton’s direction performed some modest service for Elizabeth’s government. Under King James, both Northampton and Cotton then began to ascend the ladder of favor and influence even higher, from the new king’s first day.

Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, was connected in one way or another to most of the important people, groups and government projects of his era. In the 1590s, he briefly aligned himself with the dynamic Earl of Essex, before prudently moving to Robert Cecil’s camp in time to avoid Essex’s downfall; he and Cecil then collaborated on the tricky project of planning for a succession that was officially treasonable to discuss. Their gamble paid off when James moved swiftly to occupy the throne of England. While Northampton’s relationship with the new king was often strained, he wielded considerable influence at court for the rest of his life. James wryly captured both of these aspects in dubbing Northampton, Cecil, and Howard’s nephew the Earl of Suffolk his “Trinity of Knaves.”

For Northampton’s own close advisor, relations with the new sovereign were in many ways warmer still. The Scottish James was an awkward outsider suddenly thrust into the very center of England’s turbulent court, and Robert Cotton offered a small measure of kinship, figuratively and even literally. Cotton was a descendant of Scotland’s revered king Robert the Bruce, and if it was a distant connection, Cotton’s new enthusiasm for this shared heritage apparently pleased James who took to calling him “cousin” in addition to including him among the many knighthoods awarded in 1603. (Cotton himself took to signing his name “Robert Cotton Bruceus,” thereafter.) Beyond this, James was himself a credible amateur scholar. As the man who eventually gave both patronage and his name to the Anglophone world’s most enduring translation of the Bible, and once avowed that “Were I not a king, I would be a university man,” he likely recognized a deeper kinship with “cousin” Robert.

Despite shared interests, King James’s friendship with Cotton did not extend to the Society of Antiquaries or its projects. The proposed academy and national library remained a dream. If another clue to its rejection were needed, in addition to cost and inertia, one might readily be found in the Society’s general decline under James. By 1607, London’s first Society of Antiquaries ceased formal meetings, and an attempted revival several years later proved abortive. In both instances royal disapproval played a significant role.

Details of the Society’s history are sometimes uncertain, but most sources support the conclusion of Sir Henry Spelman, who wrote some years after its demise that “his Majesty took a little Mislike of our Society.” Amateur antiquaries discussing etymology and topography must appear, at this distance, a harmless club of eccentrics, hardly material for a “treasonous cabal.” But by the early 1600s, the Society had in fact strayed some way into contemporary politics. Several members of Parliament had joined, including vocal critics of royal prerogative. More to the point, perhaps, in English politics of their era the distant past was generally inseparable from contemporary arguments.

One of the few things Parliament and crown could reliably agree on even as other differences sharpened was the importance of precedent. For James, an organized society of MPs and lawyers scrutinizing questions of precedent likely seemed distinctly unnecessary, particularly once direct questions into law and Parliament joined the relatively nonpolitical agenda of earlier days. The Society’s closed proceedings probably did little to help; whatever their reasoning, they certainly courted suspicion in advising members that “Yt is desyred that you bringe none other with you, nor geue anie notive unto anie, but to such as haue the like somouns.”

Some evidence points to a last minute attempt to foreswear subjects of political controversy and assuage royal mislike, but it apparently came too late. Though a Society of Antiquaries did return to London eventually, it was not for nearly a century. In the meantime, Cotton may have been disappointed by its disbanding but he had plentiful compensations, not least the king’s exemption of Sir Robert’s own research into matters of precedent. James and his “knaves” were quite content to support an individual antiquarian or two, as long as he labored under their supervision. Throughout the Stuart dynasty’s early years in England, Cotton was kept busy marshaling arguments for one royal project after another. He eagerly produced evidence for James’s personal claim to the crown, as well as the sovereign’s general claim to preeminence over Parliament. He aided Bacon on James’s desired union of England and Scotland (without success), and Northampton on peace negotiations with Spain (with better results, including a minor triumph in defending English trading activity in the Americas). In all these projects and more besides, Cotton was constantly drawing on documents from not only his personal library, but government archives; significantly, he did not always concern himself with maintaining a distinction between them.

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The Cotton library of today most often enjoys attention for the Beowulf manuscript, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta and other “crown jewels.” For much of Cotton’s lifetime, though, many of these items were either absent from his library or else unrecognized as noteworthy. Both his copies of King John’s great charter were late acquisitions, while Beowulf’s ascent to literary fame only began in the 19th century. In the era of its founding the Cotton library’s reputation owed considerably more to documents that seem relatively mundane, at least from the perspective of the uninitiated.

The extensive state papers collection among the Cotton manuscripts nonetheless offers its own claims to interest. For students of English history or heraldry, 200 volumes of records from Henry VIII through James I offer an invaluable resource. Tite declares that the collection as a whole traces “the transactions and preoccupations, major and minor, of English government at the time,” transactions in some instances recorded nowhere else. For more general audiences, though, Sir Robert Cotton’s state papers archive may hold greater interest for how he came by it.

Thomas Wilson, appointed the first keeper of the state paper office by James I, saw Cotton’s private archive as little short of grand larceny. Wilson repeatedly criticized the ongoing drift of government papers into Cotton’s library. More than once, he actively sought to contest it. When Robert Cecil died Wilson sought to secure the late secretary of state’s papers before Cotton could get hold of them. In this, and a similar struggle for the papers of his colleague Arthur Agarde, Wilson met with no more than partial success; in general, his efforts must be regarded as a signal failure. Yet for what it may be worth, Wilson had a point.

Cotton certainly did help himself to the records of England’s government, not only those that might be deemed privately held and therefore fair game, but those on deposit in official archives, as well. Kevin Sharpe notes that Cotton’s library was as indispensable to heraldry as the College of Arms, “if only because Sir Robert had much of the material… which should more properly have been deposited there.” Few such proprieties ever restrained Cotton. Through the Society of Antiquaries, of course, he knew many of the heralds and record keepers personally. He could bolster acquaintance with formal credentials, after he began regular work as a court researcher under James. In this pursuit, in particular, it seems Cotton developed a habit of taking his work home. Tite sums up the controversy over Cotton’s state paper collection memorably, observing that “There is an impression that every time he visited the various archives of government he came away with his pockets crammed with booty.”

At the same time, Tite is one of multiple authors who have rallied to Cotton’s defense. Cotton’s contemporaries recognized and shared much of their reasoning. Even among the official record keepers, Cotton’s accumulation of state papers mostly met with acquiescence and even active support because, in most instances, Sir Robert seemed a better custodian of them than the state itself.

A typical tourist’s itinerary for London can reveal a good deal about their reasons. Into the 19th century, government scattered its records among makeshift stores anywhere that offered room. Careful visitors to Westminster Abbey will note that its Chapter House was once a state archive. The Tower of London’s exhibits note that Tower Records Office only closed in 1858, and that complaints of “the poor state” of records recurred regularly throughout most of its history. Chancery records were divided between archives at the Tower, the Abbey, the Rolls House in Chancery Lane, and individual court offices. The records of important minsters were, as noted, often treated as personal papers.

By Elizabeth’s time people recognized the chaos and began efforts to introduce a system into it. But formal progress remained elusive long afterward. In the meantime, as with a national library Sir Robert Cotton was ready to supply the want of an ordered, central archive for England’s state papers, and friends among the clerks and archivists and political class were ready to support him. Sir Thomas Parry, ambassador to France in James’s early years, donated papers to Cotton. Very likely other courtiers followed suit, as Cotton proved himself a capable and open-handed librarian. Thomas Wilson could warn against permitting one of Cotton’s cronies to replace Arthur Agarde at the office of the exchequer, after Agarde passed away, but as usual his attempts were sabotaged by his own side.

Like Wilson, Agarde was a reformer who devoted himself to ordering and protecting his office’s papers; unlike Wilson, Agarde saw no conflict between this and Cotton’s private collecting. After Agarde’s death, Wilson petitioned the king himself to secure the late archivist’s own valuable files, but Agarde had made perfectly clear his desire that many choice items go to none other than his close friend, and fellow Society of Antiquaries alumnus, Sir Robert.

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Tite’s image of a gentleman plunderer, stuffing manuscripts into his pockets with permission or without, is still difficult to efface. More than one chronicler records how Cotton once borrowed an ancient manuscript of Bede from St. John’s College, Oxford, seemingly with every intention of keeping it. Cotton entered the volume into the catalog of his own library, and there part of it remains. Sir Robert surrendered back the volume after desperate pleas for its return and, finally, even promises of “recompense” by Archbishop Laud, who brokered the loan; even then, Cotton took the liberty of tearing out an entire section to hold back for himself. A similar story involving a large compendium borrowed from the City of London does not aid Cotton’s reputation, nor does his employing as librarian one Richard James, who once boasted of having “gott away many of those manuscriptes from ye good olde man [Oxford scholar T. Allen] and conveyed them away to London to Sir Robert Cotton’s studie…” Reading of a friend once warning Cotton, in advance of a meeting with Sir Thomas Bodley, that he should hide away any valuable tomes that might be easily concealed owing to Bodley’s reputation for helping himself to such items, one must wonder which man should have been more on his guard.

Yet Bodley did not shun Cotton, and very few others did, either. Throughout his life Cotton enjoyed the friendship and frequent praise of exactly the sort of scholars and collectors most likely to have items on one of his want lists. While making some allowance for his charm and political connections, Cotton was never a true royal “favorite,” either. Wilson notwithstanding, instances of outright thievery must realistically have been few and forgivable, at least in context of the countless transactions Cotton made over his career as bibliophile. Taking was constantly twinned with giving, including to Bodley; Sir Robert was one of the first donors to Bodley’s planned library at Oxford, by his own choice rather than any unwitting loss.

Sir Robert Cotton was, in the end, simply a contradiction that cannot be entirely resolved. He unquestionably pursued books, manuscripts and other “ancient monuments” with passion, and regularly with aggressiveness that at least brushed the bounds of theft. At the same time, he was so generous with his own collection as to confound any idea of a rapacious hoarder. Reviewing Cotton’s policies as librarian, one is left with the strange but inescapable impression that getting back a book of one’s own from Sir Robert was frequently more difficult than obtaining the loan of even the most valuable of his.

An episode reported by Mirrlees reinforces that impression while offering a perfect vignette of Cotton’s habits in all their amusing, infuriating, yet oddly consistent splendor. In 1620, nearly 50 years old, Sir Robert Cotton found himself being scolded by his uncle John for loaning out a manuscript borrowed from their mutual acquaintance Sir George Buc. Cotton had promised Buc to “keep it always in [my] own possession and where it should be ready at all times, if it were called for,” a promise Buc had insisted on before parting with it for very good reason. He was correspondingly so anxious for the manuscript’s return as to enlist familial guilt for the same reason: he himself had only been borrowing the book from another friend before charming, earnest, endearing old Cotton had somehow talked it away from him.

Continued in the pages of Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History