Sir Robert Cotton


Cottoni posthuma

Cottoni posthuma: Diverse Choice Pieces of that Renowned Antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, Knight and Baronet..., ed. J[ames] H[owell] (London, 1651)


Sir Robert Cotton, politician, writer, antiquary and collector, is remembered most of all for his extraordinary collection of manuscripts – including such priceless items as the unique manuscript of Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and innumerable autograph letters by many of the most prominent European figures of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The exact circumstances in which he acquired these manuscripts are not clear (appropriation from the State Paper Office not being ruled out), but it was a collection famous in his own time, and to which, before its closure by Charles I in 1629, a number of contemporaries were allowed access, including Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Ralegh. This collection – short of a perhaps relatively few papers that perished in a fire in 1731 — forms the principal founding collection of the British Library, established (as the British Museum) in 1753, its wealth of historical and literary material still awaiting proper detailed cataloguing to this day.

In his own day, Cotton was one of the most prominent and most respected public figures in England. It is perhaps only by realising, from the extant examples recorded in the entries below, how many contemporary manuscript copies were produced of his political tracts and speeches that the scale of his status and influence can be measured. From the later years of Elizabeth's reign throughout most of James I's reign (though not in the early reign of Charles I, who was offended by Cotton's A Short View of the Long Life and Reign of Henry the Third, published in 1627), Cotton was something of a political guru, whose advice was sought by monarchs, princes, councillors and peers on a variety of subjects. These ranged from matters of ceremonial or parliamentary procedures to what to do about coinage, how to raise Crown revenues, and whether England should go to war with Spain. Cotton was also one of the earliest members of the Society of Antiquaries, initiated probably in the 1580s.

Manuscript Circulation

The exact nature of the huge manuscript circulation of Cotton's tracts remains obscure. Certainly the majority of copies, at least those made in the 1620s and 1630s, was commercially produced by professional scribes, but it is not clear who originally put them into circulation – Cotton himself, or others, or possibly a mixture of both? One or two were published, presumably with his consent, in his lifetime (though he claimed that his treatise on Henry III, written in 1614, was pirated in 1627). Others (taken from sometimes poor manuscript copies that happened to be at hand) began to appear in print in 1641, following the abolition of the Court of Star Chamber and, for a while at least, of press censorship. Yet others were finally published in the 1650s, most notably in James Howell's compilation Cottoni Posthuma (1651). No attempt has been made to identify, collect and edit all his writings in modern times.

The reason why these and other tracts by Cotton flourished for so long only in manuscript circulation is open to debate, although political considerations must certainly be uppermost. These considerations even extend to all the purely antiquarian essays written by Cotton and his fellow members of the Society of Antiquaries, which on the face of it seem innocuous, arcane, even boring, but which circulated in innumerable manuscript copies. Not unrelated to James's abolition of the Society c.1607 is the fact that such essays probed into the historical foundations of social institutions, including the Crown itself, investigating, for instance, such matters as the monarch's prerogative to tax his or her subjects and the privileges of Parliament. Even essays by Cotton on the principal heraldic offices of the realm had a political dimension, given, for instance, the right of the Earl Marshal of England to deputise for the monarch.

The Canon

The canon of Cotton's writings adopted here is based largely on his published works, including notably Cottoni Posthuma (except for two spurious items added at the end by the publisher), as well as works, some of admittedly uncertain authorship, attributed to Cotton in manuscript copies. To these can be added autograph drafts by Cotton, chiefly among the Cotton papers in the British Library, some of which can be identified with his known tracts, others of which await clear identification. The entries include some official reports in which Cotton was involved (such as his work for the Navy Commission, with Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, in 1608-9). No attempt is made here, however, to identify every extant example of Cotton's or his amanuenses' handwriting, let alone to list all manuscripts owned by Cotton (a number of which are now dispersed beyond the British Library). Much light is thrown on these matters in publications by Colin Tite, including his identification of manuscripts once owned by Cotton that became incorporated in the British Library's Harley Manuscripts (see English Manuscript Studies, 17 forthcoming).

Library Catalogues

A number of early catalogues of Cotton's library and manuscripts survive, in both printed and manuscript form, in various repositories. For details of these sources and of other evidence about books and manuscripts owned by Cotton, see Colin Tite's various articles ‘The Early Catalogues of the Cottonian Library’, British Library Journal, 6, No. 2 (Autumn 1980), 144-57; ‘A Catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton's Printed Books?’, BLJ, 17, No. 1 (Spring 1991), 1-11; ‘A “Loan” of Printed Books from Sir Robert Cotton to John Selden’, Bodleian Library Record, 13, No. 6 (April 1991), 486-90; and ‘“Lost or Stolen or Strayed”: A Survey of Manuscripts Formerly in the Cotton Library’, BLJ, 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1992), 104-47; as also E.C. Treviotdale, ‘Some Classified Catalogues of the Cottonian Library’, BLJ, 18/1 (Spring 1992), 74-87, and Colin Tite, The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (British Library, London, 2003). Three of these articles are reprinted in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, ed. C.J. Wright (British Library, London, 1997).


A few entries below are for copies of tracts by Cotton whose present whereabouts is unknown but which do not appear to correspond to items otherwise recorded. The number of untraced copies would no doubt be increased considerably if all that passed through the hands of nineteenth- and twentieth-century booksellers were included, as well as some recorded in HMC reports. The identification of these is not, however, helped by dealers' occasionally breaking up large volumes for sale as individual units. Examples of unclear identification would include, for instance, some of the Mostyn manuscripts sold at Sotheby's, 13 July 1920, lot 25 (The Manner and Meanes how the Kings of England have from time to time Supported and Repaired their Estates, 45 leaves, in russia gilt, sold to Tregaskis); lot 26 (A Short View of the Long Life and Reign of Henry the Third, King of England, 22 quarto leaves, in contemporary limp vellum (? CtR 421); and lot 127 (A Relation of the Proceedings against Ambassadors who have miscarried themselves, etc. in a 77-leaf folio volume in russia gilt, sold to Levine (? CtR 272)).

Peter Beal