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Robert Bruce Cotton, 1571-1631

Librarian, record-keeper, one of the founders of modern government and rule by precedence and common-law.

His 1000-book library significantly changes history.  [image]

Son of Thomas Cotton of Huntingdonshire (original family name was probably de Cotun). Family had profited well by the dissolution of the monasteries and by marriage. They were neighbors and `kinsmen' of the Huntingdonshire Montagus (that is, the Duke of Manchester), and distant relatives of Robert the Bruce of Scotland (original family name was probably de Bruis, de Broix, de Brois, etc).

Entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1581 and received his BA in 1585. Had begun `antiquarian studies' under William Camden at Westminster School before going to Cambridge. He began collecting notes on the history of Huntingdonshire county when he was seventeen and never stopped collecting information, specifically old government documents. His collection of records surpassed that of the government. He effectively established the first public law library, open government `public records', and what we might call today a scholarly `think-tank'. The DNB puts it thus: the library of Cotton House became the meeting-place of all the scholars of the country.

C.J. Wright, of the British Library, puts it as follows:

"The Library of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) is arguably the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual. Amongst its many treasures are the Lindisfarne Gospels, two of the contemporary exemplifications of Magna Carta and the only surviving manuscript of `Beowulf'. Early on in his career, Cotton had advocated the foundation of a national library of which his collection would form a part... he was always generous in the loans he made other scholars.

... the Restoration and the revival of a political culture in which disputes were solved by precedent rather than violence placed the Cottonian library again at the centre of the overlapping circles of scholarship and politics." (SRCC)

In 1590 joined the Antiquarian Society (renewing contact with Camden) and presented a number of papers based on old manuscripts. He also collected Roman monuments, coins, fossils, etc. At the end of the reign of Elizabeth, the Society was meeting at Cotton's house and his collection of manuscripts had gained fame within the Society. In 1600 the queen's advisors contacted him on a question of official protocol with respect to Spanish ambassadors. He assisted Camden in preparing Camden's Britannia. Francis Bacon and Ben Johnson often used his library.

When king James arrived from Scotland, he knighted Cotton in 1603 and called him `cousin' (after which Cotton always signed his name Robert Cotton Bruceus). He became a favorite of James, represented Huntingdon in Parliament, drew up a pedigree (family tree) of James, wrote a history of Henry III, and wrote tracts such as `An Answer to such motives as were offered by certain military men to Prince Henry to incite him to affect arms more than peace.' In 1608 he investigated abuses within the Navy, and was invited to attend the Privy Council (this was important since this was really the ruling body of England, no doubt his role was that of an `expert witness').

King James seems to have consulted with him on schemes for increasing government revenue, and he wrote a survey of the various mechanisms by which previous Kings had raised money. He strongly supported (if not invented) raising money by establishing a new feudal rank, the baronet (this was a new `feudal' rank below that of baron; essentially you could just buy it if you had the money. This was widely used (not that different from political fund-raising today)).

Collaborated on Speed's History of England and Camden's History of Elizabeth, perhaps to the point where he should be credited (Francis Bacon considered him the author of History of Elizabeth; when Camden died he willed much of his material to Cotton). King James wanted him to write a history of the Church of England, but Cotton provided all the material to Archbishop Ussher. When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower, he borrowed manuscripts from Cotton. Francis Bacon wrote the Life of Henry VII in Cotton's library.

People were beginning to fear Cotton's library. The DNB puts it thus:

"A feeling was taking shape... that there was danger to the state in the absorption into private hands of so large a collection of official documents as Cotton was acquiring. In 1614... a friend, Arthur Agard, keeper of the public records, died, leaving his private collection of manuscripts to Cotton. Strong representations were made against allowing Cotton to exercise any influence in filling up the vacant post. The Record Office was injured, it was argued in many quarters, by Cotton's `having such things as he hath cunningly scraped together.' In the following year damning proof was given of the evil uses to which Cotton's palaeographical knowledge could be put. ..." (DNB)

He was involved in dealing with the Spanish ambassador on behalf of Somerset, an enemy of Buckingham. He confessed everything and spent eight months imprisoned without a trial, after which he was pardoned. He was then employed searching Sir Edward Coke's library.

The DNB provides a feel for the interaction of his library and politics:

"... Cotton ... was studying the records of the past in order to arrive at definite conclusions respecting those powers of parliament which the king was already disputing.... In 1621 he wrote a tract to show that kings must consult their council and parliament `of marriage, peace, and warre'. ...

Cotton appeared in the House of Commons for the third time as member for Old Sarum... and was returned (ed, as representative to Parliament in 1625). Here he first made open profession of his new political faith. ... Eliot's friends made a determined stand against the government, then practically in the hands of Buckingham. ... (ed, Cotton did not speak in the debate) but ... handed to Eliot an elaborate series of notes on the working of the constitution. The paper was circulated in the house in manuscript...

In September 1626 he protested, in behalf of the London merchants, against the proposed debasement of the coinage, and his arguments, which he wrote out in A Discourse touching Alteration of Coyne chiefly led to the abandonment of the vicious scheme. ... he drew up an elaborate account of the law offices existing in Elizabeth's reign... the (Privy) council invited his opinion on the question of summoning a new parliament, and he strongly recommended that course... In 1628 he published a review of the political situation ... The Dangers wherein the Kingdom now standeth, and the Remedye, where he drew attention to the ... sacred obligation of the king to put his trust in parliaments. (ed, in 1628) the opposition leaders Eliot, Wentworth, Pym, Selden, and Sir E. Coke, met at Cotton's house to formulate their policy. In parliament Cotton was appointed chairman of the committee on disputed elections..." DNB

After this, Cotton was an enemy of the king, and was destroyed. Essentially, Cotton was framed on charges of `treason', and the library seized by Charles I (on the instigation of Buckingham). Cotton died of a broken heart, but everyone understood that the library had been seized for political reasons. Upon the Restoration, Cotton's `national library' was restored, pretty much along the lines of Cotton's original vision.

A particularly good overview of Robert Cotton and the historical impact of his library is Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England, by Keven Sharpe (Oxford U. Press). The following is an extended extract that I hope well serves Sharpe's material:

"To understand how Cotton used his own library, we must investigate how he bound, stored, and catalogued his books. ... Cotton viewed his library as a working collection and adopted an arrangement that was utilitarian rather than bibliographically correct by modern standards... Things were bound together that were consulted together....

... the library was arranged under the famous busts of the emperors of Rome (ed. Cotton's library was about 26 feet by 6 feet. Each bookcase had a Roman Emperor on top, and thus books were cataloged by Emperor. Sharpe provides a diagram of the layout of the library.)

... in the absence of a catalogue ... Cotton's knowledge of the library's contents was all the more important. ... he knew the contents and the use of his own books very well. ... The full description required by the Privy Council when it ordered a catalogue (ed. from Cotton, which he provided), suggests how well, in the absence of such an index, Cotton knew his manuscripts and books.

... Cotton was assisted by his librarian, Richard James, who, despite D'Ewes's accusation that he sold his master's papers, seems to have served Cotton well. ... if we are to believe .... gossip ... Cotton (also) enjoyed the help of one of his bastard sons.

Why was Cotton's library so important in the intellectual and political history of James I's reign? Apart from the Royal Library, the collections of the Inns of Court and the College of Arms, London libraries were predominantly ecclesiastical. ...

... the library ... seems frequently to have shifted... It was probably not until 1622... that the library was located ... at Westminster, next to the Houses of Parliament. ...

... Several grateful borrowers commented on the freedom with which Cotton allowed all to consult his material. ...

The importance of the collection was not due to its size. With less than a thousand volumes, it did not compete favourably in size with other private libraries of the period. But the Cottonian collection was essentially a library of manuscripts, possessing a monopoly of the most important material for early English history.

But Cotton's loan lists show that many with literary interests wider than the purely historical borrowed...

For lawyers and judges, the library was a storehouse of the case law which it has been argued (with considerable exaggeration) dominated their attitudes. Sir Henry Montagu sought to borrow the civil law collections against Hanse privileges; Coke required abridgments of parliamentary records. ... Cotton's legal friends who were former members of the Society of Antiquaries continued to use ... their colleague's collection...

For those in government positions, the library acted as a state paper office and research institute, providing a better service than the unsatisfactory official collections and repositories in the Tower and Exchequer. Clement Edwards, a clerk of the Privy Council, went to Cotton for the Council books... Henry Montagu , when Lord Treasurer in 1620, used Cotton's collection of notes on ways of increasing royal revenue; ...

The list of those borrowing... reads like a Who's Who of the Jacobean administration: it includes the King and Queen, Attorney Francis Bacon... leading court noblemen often sought deeds to prove claims of land, especially title to property...

... the loan lists yet illustrate clearly the pure quest for knowledge and the breadth of interest of some of those who were active in political life. Such evidence is a firm warning against limiting the outlook of early seventeenth-century men. ... the lawyer's of Cotton's acquaintance continued an interest in history ... William Camden was no mere herald, but a scholar in the widest sense; Bacon's writings were by no means the creation of one who was but the king's solicitor. ...

The strife of court factions seems much more subdued when seen through the world of exchange of books. Neither are there indications of rival cultures of `court' and `country' in the names of those borrowing from Cotton's library. ... Cotton's library, ... as far as the evidence suggests, stayed open to all as a public institution.

Perhaps the very existence of the library as a public collection accounted for its stormy history. Though a storehouse of official papers and arcana imperii, the library was open to all, and the failings of divine monarchs were laid bare to lowly mortals. ... Cotton's library seemed to substantiate criticism of royal policy. The arguments from precedent were won by the antiquaries and lawyers of the House of Commons.

... By 1622, Thomas Wilson, Keeper of the Records, was worried about official papers remaining in Cotton's hands. ...

.... In 1626 Buckingham advised Charles I to close the library...

In 1629 the library was closed by order of the king. ... Charles I thought it time to investigate Cotton's library... The Council ordered that the library be searched by Sir Henry Vane and, ironically, Sir Edward Coke, whose own collection had been scrutinized by Cotton some years earlier.

... (William) Boswell was instructed to supervise the drawing of a catalogue which was commenced with Cotton's assistance. ... the library was never returned to Cotton in his lifetime. ...

... Cotton's friends... understood the partisan nature of the arrests and the closure of the library. Montagu and Arundel defended Cotton against what Arundel openly called the `pretence' of the investigating committee.

... the Privy Seal, the Earl of Manchester (a Montagu, ed.) ... and others, having examined Cotton's library, reported to Charles I the efforts Cotton had expended in building the library and his readiness to serve the king. Manchester was Cotton's kinsman ...

But it was too late: in May 1631 Cotton died ... King Charles sent Manchester to comfort Cotton on his deathbed. ..." Sharpe

Sharpe also provides an interesting look at the politics of the day, involving the Montagu's:

"The Earl of Manchester wrote to Edward Montagu that the examination of his kinsman Cotton `makes a great noise in the country'. ...

No lawyer, Cotton yet possessed a knowledge of the law sufficient for him to be consulted ... on legal questions. ...

It is evident of Cotton's standing in the House of Commons that though he did not sit in the Parliament of 1614, he was consulted on the most important issue. ...

Cotton's assistance was crucial... On 20 May, Sir Edward Montagu and Henry Cotton went with William Hakewill and Sir Roger Owen to research in Cotton's library. ...

(In the Parliament of 1621) ... Both Sir Edward and Sir Henry Montagu sought their kinsman Cotton's advice during the parliament, but the Montagu influence was not exercised, or was exercised unsuccessfully, on his behalf at the hustings.

It is excellent evidence of Cotton's importance that he was again consulted on many of the issues for which that parliament has been remembered. ... " Sharpe

Sidney Montagu (neighbor of Cotton's Conington estate) is on record as promising to return some books. I wonder if he ever did? Wright writes:

"... it seems that Conington Castle may have been a second major repository for the Cottonian collection. ... Camden refers to Cotton's `cabinet' at Huntingdon... He evidently kept state papers and documents at Conington, and may have had books there: Sidney Montagu promised to return borrowed books to Conington..." Wright

Bishop Richard Montague, a library borrower, called Cotton's library a `Magazine of History' (presumably using `magazine' in the sense of a storehouse).

Part of the DNB summary of his work is as follows:

"... His collection of coins and medals was one of the earliest. Very many languages were represented in his library. His rich collection of Saxon charters proved the foundation of the scholarly study of pre-Norman-English history... Original authorities for every period of English history were in his possesion. His reputation was European. ...

Cotton wrote nothing that adequately represented his learning... His English style is readable, although not distinctive, and his power of research was inexhaustible. Only two works, both very short, were printed in his lifetime, The Raigne of Henry III, 1627, and The Dangers wherein the Kingdom now standeth, 1628. ...

Many of his tracts were issued as parliamentary pamphlets at the beginning of the civil wars .... In 1657 James Howell collected fourteen of Cotton's tracts, under the title Cottoni Posthuma. ... Eight papers read by Cotton before the Antiquarian Society are printed in Hearne's Curious Discourses (1771)."

Sir Edward Coke is considered one of the important figures in the history of common law.

A letter from the Inner Temple Library (reproduced in Sharpe), containing Cotton's response to the request for Parliament to use his library in 1614 while he was ill:

"I held it my bownden dutie to that House (to which I owe my service & life) to preferre to their satisfactions before my owne safetye. And for that purpose adventured to my house, that I might recomend unto yor hands (as the principall servant of that bodye) the use of all such collections of parliament as I had (out of my duty to ye publique) taken paines to gather those gatheringes that may properly bee of use this time are sorted together under the title of parliament bookes and had my memorye (now distracted by infirmitye) beene soe ready I could wishe I should have beene able to make that searche shorte which I must now humbly recomend to the labour of such as the house shall leave the charge to. let me I pray you soe far beg of your love and the bounty of the house that Sir Edward Montagu (one amongst them) and Mr Cotton of the Middle Temple my brother may see the deliv[er]y out of such bookes as the House shall require ffor I have been intrusted with most of the mayne passages of state and to suffer those secretts to passe in vulgar may cause much blame to me and little service to the House. Besides let me presume to begg that the labours of my life (wch I am most ready to offer to all publique service) may not be prostitute to private uses. And that only such thinges as concerne the pointe now in question may be extracted and the rest left unto that servant of the house wch hopeth shortly to give his dutiful attendance at their further pleasures." Cotton

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