The Cotton or Cottonian Library

A bust of Robert Cotton by Louis-François Roubiliac ~ Public Domain ~,_1st_Baronet,_of_Connington#/media/File:Robert_Bruce_Cotton_bust_BM_1924_0412_1.jpg

Keeping with Wednesday’s post on Circulating Libraries, I thought I might mention a library some, especially in the U.S. have not considered. The Cotton Library was founded by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet (1571-1631) of Conington Hall in Huntingdonshire, England. Cotton was an MP (Member of Parliament) but his importance, at least, the the subject of this post, he was an antiquarian who founded the Cotton Library.

Educated at Westminster School, where he was a pupil of Willian Camden, a renown antiquarian of his time, Cotton began collecting rare manuscripts as well as collecting information on the history of Huntingdonshire as early as age 17. Later, he studied first at the The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge and later entered the Middle Temple to study law. The library which he began to amass eventually surpassed those in royal manuscript collections.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland, many ancient manuscripts which had belonged to the monastic libraries came to be disseminated among a number of owners, many of whom had no idea of their cultural actual value to the nation. Cotton located, purchased, and preserved many of these documents, including items by Francis Bacon, [1st Viscount St Alban, an English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, but for today’s topic of libraries, Bacon led the advancement of both natural philosophy and the scientific method], Sir Walter Raleigh [authored The Historie of the World, In Five Books and a type of poetry that resisted the Italian Renaissance influence], and James Ussher [most famous for his identification of the genuine letters of the church father, Ignatius of Antioch, and for his chronology that sought to establish the time and date of the creation as around 6 P.M. on 22 October 4004 BC].

Cotton employed scholar and poet Richard James as his librarian. The library is of special importanace for having preserved the only copy of several works, such as with Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

While doing some research into the history of the great Cotton Library for another project I have taken on, I came across a most excellent book on the topic, Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History, by Matt Kuhns. It is a great read, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of old library collections. Below is the book blurb from Amazon, if anyone is interested.

“Cotton’s Library” reveals what can happen to a museum-quality collection before it reaches the safety of a museum (and sometimes, even after).

Discover the story of an embryonic British national library assembled more than 400 years ago by Sir Robert Cotton. 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 as well as many less-famed but still priceless historic records, Cotton’s library was and is an irreplaceable 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.

Overcoming war, repression, greedy heirs, intriguing rivals and disastrous fires, they ultimately succeeded, to our own great benefit. “Cotton’s Library” tells how they did it.

Cotton House, in which the library was first housed, was located right in the middle of Westminster in the seventeenth century. Thus, it became the first de facto library of Parliament, the free use of which Cotton granted to all MPs. This so annoyed King Charles I he eventually “confiscated” the library, by actually putting guards in Cotton’s house, to prevent anyone from using it. Which is a great part of the library’s story.

Lest you think I digress, in order to show how close Cotton House actually stood to the Houses of Parliament at that time, The author Matt Kuhns includes a plan of the area of Westminster which shows the location of Cotton House. Even better, on the plan he includes the location of the Houses of Lords and Commons, along with Westminster Hall in the seventeenth century, the same locations they had during the Regency era, for those of us who dabble in Regency based tales. He also includes the footprint of the new, current Houses of Parliament. (see the link at the bottom of the page)

Matt Kuhns also has posted high-resolution .PNG files of some of the illustrations he used in his book at his blog. And one of those illustrations is the plan of Cotton House in Westminster, which includes the location of the House of Lords and the House of Commons as they were during the Regency, with the footprint of the new building overlaid.

If you would like to have a look, you can find it here:

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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