Cotton’s Library Press Kit

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After 400 years, the remarkable full story of one of the greatest collections in the history of English letters has finally been pieced together.

Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History by Matt Kuhns traces the collection of Stuart-era courtier Sir Robert Cotton, whose books and manuscripts are today among the crown jewels of the British Library. The highlights of Cotton’s collection include some of the most important documents of Anglophone civilization. The sole manuscript sources of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two of four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, and the masterfully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels all reached the present day as part of the Cotton library.

Yet Cotton and his collection remain relatively little-known despite the renown of many individual contents, as well as a story both during and after Sir Robert’s time that almost defies belief.

If the Cotton library is a scholar’s or collector’s fantasia, the history of the library often approaches a bibliophile’s horror story. Cotton served time as a prisoner in the Tower of London twice, on dubious charges concealing royal discomfort with the library’s prominence among critics. King Charles I ordered the library itself locked up in 1629; it remained sealed when its brokenhearted founder expired two years later.

Through the centuries that followed, Cotton’s library experienced nearly every threat imaginable, often more than once. War, theft, neglect, squabbling heirs and corrupt library-keepers all menaced the collection. In 1702, the British government accepted the Cotton library as a national trust, only to preside over its partial incineration in a disastrous fire years later. Even when the surviving manuscripts joined the British Museum upon its foundation in 1753, an astonishing number of the same perils recurred for more than a century.

With some exceptions, however, the Cotton library has survived them all. The story of its often narrow escapes is a tale of heroes as well as villains, 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 the history of history,” the author suggests. “Monasteries are widely recognized for their role in preserving knowledge through the Middle Ages, but England’s monasteries ceased to exist in the 16th century. The preservation of priceless documentary history between then, and the advent of responsible public museums and libraries more than 200 years later, was a largely volunteer and occasionally desperate effort. Chronicling that effort has been enlightening and fascinating, and I hope readers will enjoy the experience as well.”

Scholars have documented the people and events of the library’s history in fantastic detail, but the greater epic has remained untold, until now. Kuhns’s is the first book-length telling of the collection’s whole magnificent story. From Sir Robert and his peers’ efforts to salvage the scattered libraries of England, to his 21st-century inheritors’ ongoing reconstruction and reappraisal of Cotton’s own collection, Cotton’s Library provides a lively overview of this great collection’s adventures and misadventures. In addition, ten featurettes examine the greatest treasures within the library, including the Beowulf, Magna Carta and the diary of King Edward VI.

Cotton’s Library will be released November 17, long celebrated in England as Elizabeth’s Accession Day, in honor of the Elizabethan origins of the library and its founder. Cotton’s Library is published by Lyon Hall Press, and will be available in hardcover, paperback and e-book editions.

Author Matt Kuhns lives in Lakewood, Ohio, where he operates a graphic design studio, Modern Alchemy LLC. He is also the author of Brilliant Deduction: The Story of Real-Life Great Detectives.


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