C.J. Wright, ed. Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy. London and Toronto: The British Library and U of Toronto P, 1997. viii+470pp, 80 b&w illustrations. ISBN 0 7123 0358 8.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of Sir Robert Cotton as Collector." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 9.1-9 URL:

  1. As C.J. Wright correctly observes in his cogent Foreword to this remarkable collection of seventeen essays, the Cotton Library can well claim to be recognized as the single most significant gathering of manuscripts brought under one roof by one citizen, and beyond the manuscripts, which include, for instance, the Lindisfarne Gospels, two examples of Magna Carta, Beowulf, and state papers from the Tudor and Stuart periods crucial to an understanding of policy and politics, Cotton (1571-1631) also collected a splendid array of printed books, along with inscribed Roman stones (e.g., altars, tombstones) as well as coins, medals, and seals. The Roman material alone is of immense value to students of classical antiquity. Sir Robert was, by career, a statesman; he was also a landowner, an assiduous and scholarly collector with a very sharp view with respect to the importance of his acquisitions, and a generous lender of some of his material to his contemporaries. Indeed, his willingness to share items in his keeping resulted in some losses, a peril to which any collection not strictly policed is exposed (even today); given two catastrophic fires as well (Ashburnham House, 1731, and Sir Anthony Panizzi's House, 1865) it is remarkable that so much has survived. Given to the care of Sir Thomas Cotton (his son), and then to that of Sir John Cotton (Sir Robert's grandson), the material was left as a gift to the country by the latter, and the manuscript work represents a major treasure within the British Library's present holdings. This book, given that Cotton's importance was clearly recognized long ago in some quarters at least, comprises a most welcome, thoughtful study of Cotton's work and legacy, detailing the collection and its fortunes from his day to the present. The essays, including eight written for this book, are in every respect careful and considerate examinations of the various issues with which they deal. The result is a volume not only about Cotton's material, though; it is about the founding of a national collection, about cataloguing and bibliographic practices, techniques of conservation, literary detective work, and so on; it will attract a wide range of readers and ought to be on the Required List for every serious librarian, antiquarian, and bibliographer, as well as for many literary and historical scholars.

  2. Kevin Sharpe's splendid "Introduction: Rewriting Sir Robert Cotton" sets the reader nicely on the path, describing the political, cultural, and social context, the nature of the growing collection, and the tendency to lend items, even ones of particular value. Sharpe also raises a number of pointed questions with respect to losses, sources of printed items, etc., and argues for further work and the preparation of a catalogue raisonné. In Sharpe's view, Cotton was a far better scholar than he has often been regarded; indeed, it is fair to suggest that this self-appointed, private national librarian (not an unfair label) could not have amassed and organized his finds without particular academic acuity and perseverance, and that the arguments that Cotton's own writings and political views are inconsiderable and that he was merely a kind of research assistant to William Camden will not stand.

  3. Essays by David Howarth ("Sir Robert Cotton and the Commemoration of Famous Men"), and Nigel Ramsay ("Sir Robert Cotton's Services to the Crown: A Paper Written in Self-Defence") follow, the first detailing Cotton's funerary monuments, his establishment at Conington, and Joshua Marshall's monument to Cotton (All Saints, Conington), and the second exploring in detail the fragment of an apologia, particularly important in view of the apparent disappearance of most of the personal papers and the fact that Cotton fell into ill favour (such were the vicissitudes of the Stuart court) towards the end of his life. Cotton had become the private keeper/owner of many state documents, and Charles I actually closed Cotton's library (in 1629) in order to suppress political debate relying on historical sources. Indeed, Cotton's extensive knowledge of Parliamentary history, for which he was revered by many of his acquaintances, was a potential source of danger for the Stuart political agenda, as Graham Parry also suggests in "Cotton's Counsels: The Contexts of Cottoni Posthuma," a collection of tracts assembled by James Howell and published in 1651 (republished in 1674 and 1679), clearly opposing Buckingham and Charles I's anti-Parliamentary attitudes.

  4. Roger Manning's "Sir Robert Cotton, Antiquarianism and Estate Administration: A Chancery Decree of 1627" offers a clearly documented look at a Cottonian defense against complaints by copyholders of the Manor of Glatton and Holme, Huntingdonshire, and, as well, an insight into the workings of the Court of Chancery -- an edited text of some forty percent of PRO, C.78/300/1, Marsilian Sampson et al. vs. Sir Robert Cotton, bt., et al. is included. David McKitterick's "From Camden to Cambridge: Sir Robert Cotton's Roman inscriptions, and their Subsequent Treatment" returns the reader to the collector's intellectual/antiquarian pursuits, which, as noted, included inscribed Roman stones, coins, etc., -- most of the stones (some did not survive) are now in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge. These items were, as McKitterick observes, complementary to the collection of manuscripts and printed books, after the fashion of the times. The influence of -- and travels with -- Camden, and the original locations of the stones for Cotton's collection are well-documented, along with the latter's role in the preparation of Camden's Britannia and the visit of Ben Jonson to Conington in 1603. Glenys Davies' complementary "Sir Robert Cotton's Collection of Roman Stones: A Catalogue with Commentary" follows, offering significant detail with respect to surviving pieces, and leads to Gay van der Meer's "An Early Seventeenth Century Inventory of Cotton's Anglo-Saxon Coins," focusing on Nicolas Claude Fabri de Pieresc's work and partial list (c.1606) of the Anglo-Saxon pieces (there were, in addition, Greek, Roman, ancient British, Norman, and English coins in the Cottonian trove) and revealing the vulnerability of such collections and the sleuthing necessary to establish a notion of the original profile and, where possible, restore missing items. Here, as elsewhere, the accompanying illustrations and extensive documentation in the notes are invaluable.

  5. While the chief glory of the Cotton library is the manuscript collection, Sir Robert clearly had a significant collection of printed material -- some of it now scattered in the general collection of the British Library. However, as Colin G.C. Tite points out in "A Catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton's Printed Books?" at least one has a list -- "Catalogus librorum Robert Cotton" in BL Add. MS. 35213 -- which, though it offers some problems (a challenge to an editor), is probably something of a guide, a compilation of some items which Cotton absorbed into his library. E.C. Teviotdale's "Some Classified Catalogues of the Cottonian Library" follows logically; after initial remarks about Cotton's habit of gathering manuscripts after acquisition (giving rise to his famous emperor classification), Teviotdale details, with considerable acumen, eight lists: a parchment document, a fragment of a paper codex, and six seventeenth-century paper codices with established provenance. The sources and relevant data are clearly presented and lead to the suggestion that a classified list may well have been compiled by Sir William Dugdale, drawing on an emperor-order list, and that the paper codices were copied from that, the parchment list coming later, perhaps at the time of the national bequest by Sir John Cotton in the eighteenth century. In the sequential piece, "The Royal Library as a source for Sir Robert Cotton's Collection: A Preliminary List of Acquisitions," James P. Carley examines, through detailed study, the provenance of a number of Cottonian MSS which were clearly in the collection at Westminster in 1542 -- even royal gatherings were subject to wandering items, especially when interested private persons were in the vicinity to borrow and to acquire duplicate or other material, even by way of exchange. Cotton's collecting was purposeful -- his interest was essentially historical -- and, as Carley observes, individual items commanded more respect than the group (or gathering) of texts of which they were a part. Migration of individual pieces was a fact of sixteenth and seventeenth-century life. Indeed, it is with utterly good cause that Janet Backhouse's eloquent though relatively brief "Sir Robert Cotton's Record of a Royal Bookshelf" follows, a study of a list in Cotton's hand (Cotton MS. Vespasian B.IV, f.25) of seven items Cotton found in the privy closet during one of his visits to Whitehall fairly early in the reign of James I, pieces which no doubt piqued his scholarly interest (and as Backhouse intimates, latent envy) and provides a glimpse of the varied nature of royal acquisitions, such as an English New Testament (revised Wycliffite) given as a New Year's gift to Elizabeth by her Chaplain, John Bridges (Royal MS. 1A. XII), and Marcel Brion's Tresample description de toute la Terre Saincte, given to Henry VIII c. 1540 (Royal MS. 20 A. iv). A second list, in an unknown hand, offers a neat, timely parody of the first, including such items as "Ten tomes of Rabloys in prayse of Tobacco dust" and "A comparison betwixt Sr Jhon Canberreys wealth and his wit," and, as Backhouse notes (p. 237, n. 27), given James I's interest in fruit, tobacco, etc., it may offer some clue as to the appropriate time of the inclusion of the lists in Vespasian B.IV.

  6. Elizabeth C.M. van Houts's "Camden, Cotton and the Chronicles of the Norman Conquest of England" returns the reader to the Camden/Cotton teacher- pupil/collaborator relationship and, for instance, the use Camden made of manuscripts in the Cotton collection in preparing Anglica, Normannica (1602) and the somewhat free access to the material which was of benefit to the scholars. Again, van Houts's careful account of loan and loss -- "mysterious disappearance" is an apt phrase here, perhaps -- will have seasoned bibliographers shaking their heads in sad recognition of an all too-familiar story. Important, too, in all this is the breadth of Cotton's intellectual circle -- his correspondence with European historians and bibliophiles was extensive -- and the next essay, Elizabeth Hallam's "Arthur Agarde and Domesday Book," explores Agarde's ground-breaking work on the Domesday Book, his antiquarian interests, his role as Deputy Chamberlain of the Exchequer (1570-1615) in which he became celebrated not only as a record-keeper but as a reorganiser, cataloguer, and conservationist, and his connections with Cotton.

  7. A further essay by Colin Tite, "'Lost or Stolen or Strayed': A Survey of Manuscripts Formerly in the Cotton Collection," delivers with scholarly flourish exactly what its title promises -- another well-documented story of lending, borrowing, exchanging, and giving. Manuscripts came, and many went; for example, Patrick Young (Royal Librarian) turns up in the narrative again in reference to exchanges, and James Ussher (Archbishop of Armagh) figures here as well, acquiring items for the recently founded Trinity College, Dublin. Indeed, the term "migration" when applied to manuscripts (and, of course, books) takes on an altogether new meaning: bibliographic flight paths are always irregular.

  8. The penultimate essay in the volume is Hilton Kelliher's "British Post-Mediaeval Verse in the Cotton Collection: A Survey and Handlist" (including verse which appears in miscellaneous sources, e.g., state papers); the handlist is a carefully worked piece, and is followed by (a) an index of first lines and refrains and (b) an index of authors and attributed authors. The final piece, fittingly, is Andrew Prescott's "'Their Present Miserable State of Cremation': The Restoration of the Cotton Library," which involves an extended discussion of the Ashburnham House and Panizzi House fires and the various attempts to restore parts of the collection -- much of the story more than enough to send a nearly mortal chill through the lamenting bibliographer's already tormented frame. Here are reports of damage beyond losses already attributed to disposition, etc. Remarkably, the Ashburnham conflagration saw only thirteen manuscripts totally destroyed, though many were seriously damaged. Prescott details this effort of early conservation, notes that some manuscripts were separated and rebound, and describes the work of William Whiston (attempts at restoration were allegedly on a level with primitive surgery), the foundation of the British Museum (through the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane), the move of the Cotton collection to Great Russell Street, and the subsequent attempts at restoration, including the efforts of Josiah Forshall and Henry Gough. Did the Museum's Trustees of the day really understand the treasure they had in charge? Apparently not -- money for repairs was not freely disbursed. Here, too, is a really vivid outline of the efforts of Sir Frederic Madden in his attempt to assess the collection and to ascertain its needs, of his terrible setback with the Panizzi house fire (with more damage), his resignation, and the more recent work with respect to conservation. Two appendices follow: (a) the reports of Matthew Maty and Henry Rimius on the condition of the Cotton Library, July 1756, and (b) a description in chronological order of the lists of damaged Cotton Manuscripts in Add. MS. 62576. An index (alas, there is no bibliography) with page numbers of principal references (not end-of-essay notes) closes this volume.

  9. This is indeed a story of perils and preservation. To some it may come as a surprise that such a gripping tale could emerge from the scholarly accounts of Robert Cotton's collection. Fate -- carelessness, even -- made the opportunity for total destruction at some points seem almost inevitable. Young ladies in old movies are, one is led to believe, only tied to the railway track or confronted with the buzz-saw but once in their fragile lives, and the hero always arrives in time. Britain's national treasure was beggared, scratched, bruised, and maimed -- serially, sometimes by would-be-helpers --and emerged not entirely intact but still breathing because of good fortune, assiduous care by individuals, and the equivalent of modern plastic surgery and reconstructive techniques. Certainly, C.J. Wright's collection of essays does not read like a novel, but it comes close at times. This group of essays reflect first-rate scholarship on a major topic. Inevitably, the book raises questions, as fine work always does: quite simply, there is more research to be done. But Wright, his contributors, and the British Library can be proud of this -- for the story itself, its thorough documentation, and the lessons it imparts.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).