Cotton, Robert Bruce (DNB00)

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COTTON, Sir ROBERT BRUCE (1571–1631), antiquary, was eldest son of Thomas Cotton of Connington, Huntingdonshire (M.P. for Huntingdonshire in 1557), by his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Francis Shirley of Staunton-Harold, Leicestershire. Thomas Cotton was a rich country gentleman, descended from a family of well-ascertained antiquity, originally settled in Cheshire. In the fourteenth century William, son of Edmund Cotton or de Cotun, acquired by marriage the extensive Ridware estates in Staffordshire, which descended to the eldest branch. In the fifteenth century a younger son of this branch, William, was slain at the second battle of St. Albans in 1461, and lies buried in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster. He married a wealthy heiress, Mary, daughter of Robert de Wesenham, and from this marriage the antiquary was directly descended. Mary de Wesenham was granddaughter and ultimate heiress of Sir John de Bruis or Bruce, who claimed descent from the Scottish kings and owned the manors of Connington, Huntingdonshire, and Exton, Rutlandshire. Sir Robert always insisted with pride on his ancestral connection with the royal line of Scotland, and added his second name of Bruce to keep it in memory. Mary de Wesenham married a second and a third husband, Sir Thomas Billing [q. v.] and Thomas Lacy, and died in 1499, but was buried at St. Margaret's with her first husband, and bequeathed the estates of Connington, Huntingdonshire, and Exton, Rutlandshire, to Thomas Cotton, her eldest son by him. In 1500, 1513, and in 1547, the antiquary's immediate ancestors, all named Thomas Cotton, were high sheriffs of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire.

Sir Robert was born at Denton, three miles from the family seat at Connington, on 22 Jan. 1570–1, and was baptised five days later. Soon after their marriage his parents had removed to a small house at Denton, which was pulled down early in this century, in order ‘to be more at liberty from the incommodiousness of their own seat arising from a great accession of new domestics’ (Collins, Baronetage, 1720, p. 187; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vi. 449–51). A younger son, Thomas, born a year later, was always on most affectionate terms with the antiquary. His sisters were named Lucy, Dorothy, and Johanna. The mother died while her children were young, and the father married as his second wife Dorothy, daughter of John Tamworth, of Hawsted, Leicestershire, by whom he had six other children—three sons, Henry (d. 1614), Ferdinand, and John; and three daughters, Catherine, Frances, and Rebecca.

Robert, the eldest child, was sent at an early age to Westminster school, where William Camden [q. v.] was second master, and under his influence Cotton doubtless first acquired his antiquarian tastes. On 22 Nov. 1581 he matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, and proceeded B.A. in 1585. Former accounts represent Cotton to have taken his degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1575, when his age could not have exceeded four years! A student named Robert Cotton undoubtedly graduated at Trinity in that year, but it is obvious that the entry in Jesus College register can alone refer to the antiquary (R. Sinker in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vi. 533). Subsequently Cotton settled in a house in Westminster, near Old Palace Yard, with a garden leading to the river. Part of the House of Lords now occupies its site (J. T. Smith, Antiquities of Westminster). Cotton's passion as a collector of manuscripts, coins, and all other kinds of antiquities, soon manifested itself here. With conspicuous success he engaged in this pursuit throughout his life, and the library of Cotton House became the meeting-place of all the scholars of the country. When about twenty-two years old he married Elizabeth, daughter and coheiress of William Brocas of Thedingworth, Leicestershire. His eldest child, Thomas, was born in 1594.

In early life Cotton took no part in public affairs. He joined about 1590 the Antiquarian Society (founded 1572), which met at stated intervals for learned discussion. There he renewed his intimacy with Camden, and made the acquaintance of Sel- den, Sir John Davies, Speed, Richard Carew of Antony, and other men of learning. The meetings of the society were held at Cotton's house at the end of Elizabeth's reign, and many proofs are extant of his liberal treatment of his antiquarian guests. Dr. Dee enjoyed good cheer there in 1596; Sir John Davies, who writes to him as ‘Sweet Robin,’ sent him a present of sweetmeats in 1602, and arranged for a joint visit to Cambridge (Wright, Queen Elizabeth, ii. 493). In June 1601 Sir Thomas Bodley received a contribution of manuscripts ‘to furnish the university library’ at Oxford. Before the Antiquarian Society, which ceased to meet regularly after 1604, Cotton read many papers. Eight of them have been published, and treat of the antiquity in England of castles, towns, heraldry, the offices of high steward and constable, the ceremonies of lawful combat, and the introduction of christianity. All show much heterogeneous learning, chiefly derived from manuscript sources. Other readers of papers are profuse in their acknowledgment of indebtedness to Cotton's library, and they spread his fame as a master of precedents so far that in 1600 the queen's advisers referred to him a question of precedency which had arisen between Sir Henry Neville, an English ambassador, and an ambassador from Spain, who were together at Calais discussing the terms of an Anglo-Spanish treaty. Cotton in an elaborate paper decided in favour of his own countryman. On 25 Nov. 1602 Henry Howard, lord Northampton, invited him to supply a list of precedents respecting the office of earl marshal. In 1600 Cotton accompanied Camden on an antiquarian tour to Carlisle, and brought back many Pictish and Roman monuments and inscriptions, some of which a descendant deposited at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1753 (Stukeley, Memoirs, i. 52). Camden was benefiting at the time by Cotton's assistance in preparing a fifth edition of his ‘Britannia,’ which was duly acknowledged in print. No account of Cotton's travels to the continent is preserved, but he speaks in one of his early tracts of having visited Italy, and it seems probable that he undertook a foreign tour before the close of the sixteenth century.

At the time of James I's accession Cotton was intimate with most of the leading statesmen as well as the leading writers. Bacon and Ben Jonson were often in his library. The former entered in his notebook in 1608 the advisability of making himself better acquainted with its contents, and in 1604 sought a private interview to learn Cotton's opinion about the union of Scotland and England. When the king arrived in England the antiquary was at his country house at Connington, and Ben Jonson and Camden were his guests (Drummond and Jonson, Conversation Shakspeare Soc. p. 20). He had just completed the rebuilding of Connington House; had purchased the whole room in which Mary Stuart had been beheaded in Fotheringay Castle, and had fitted it up in his mansion. On presenting himself at court he was knighted (11 May 1603), and was complimented by the king, who called him ‘cousin,’ on his descent from the Bruces. Henceforward Cotton signed himself ‘Robert Cotton Bruceus,’ and designated himself Robert Bruce Cotton.

James's tastes lay somewhat in the same direction as Cotton's. The antiquary was taken immediately into the royal favour, and became very friendly with the favourite Somerset. On 18 Feb. 1603–4 he re-entered parliamentary life as M.P. for Huntingdon. On 26 March following he drew up a pedigree of James from the Saxon kings, and a few years later wrote for Prince Henry, at the king's request, a history of Henry III, and ‘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 was appointed to inquire into abuses in the administration of the navy. His report was approved by the king, and although it was not adopted he was invited to attend the privy council when it was under discussion. In 1613 his influence led to a renewal of the investigation, but with little result. In 1611 James seems to have discussed with Cotton the question of increasing the royal revenues, and the antiquary wrote a tract on the various means adopted by former kings in raising money (Cottoni Posth. 163–200). He at the same time strongly supported, if he did not originate, the proposal to create the new rank of baronets. He argued in vain that baronets should have precedence of barons' sons, but was one of the second batch upon whom the honour was conferred (29 June 1611), and his was the thirty-sixth baronetcy created. In 1612 he carried a ‘bannerol’ at Prince Henry's funeral.

Meanwhile Cotton was giving very much assistance to two of his friends, John Speed and Camden, both of whom were engaged on elaborate historical treatises. Speed's ‘History of England,’ which was published in 1611, was revised in the proof-sheets by Cotton in 1609, and Cotton supplied for it the lists of the revenues of the abbeys and full notes on Henry VIII's reign, besides lending innumerable manuscripts and the many valuable coins which are engraved in the volume. His association with Camden's ‘History of Elizabeth’ involves matters of controversy. In 1610 he showed a manuscript copy of it to Bacon, who regarded it as Cotton's compilation, and suggested some additional sentences respecting his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon. Early in 1612 a similar copy, forwarded by order of James I to De Thou, was described as the joint work of Camden and Cotton. When the first part, bringing the reign down to 1588, appeared in 1615, Camden did not acknowledge any assistance from Cotton beyond the loan of autograph letters, but it was still freely quoted as Cotton's compilation. Late in James I's reign, and after Camden's death, Conway (25 June 1624) ordered the Stationers' Company to abstain from reissuing the first part or publishing the second, which was then in the press, until the whole had been revised by Cotton with the king's assistance. Camden's first drafts of the book are now in the Cottonian Library, and show little signs of revision; but it is probable that the story of Mary queen of Scots, about which James was chiefly anxious, was largely inspired by Cotton, and that, although Cotton's share in the undertaking was exaggerated by his contemporaries, Camden worked immediately under his direction. Cotton, who, as Chamberlain wrote (13 July 1615), ‘hath ever some old precedents in store,’ often discussed antiquarian topics with the king, and a special order was issued to enable him to collect autographs in 1618. James I implored him to write a history of the church of England down to the reformation, but Cotton does not seem to have seriously begun it, and, when Archbishop Ussher took up the subject, freely lent him books and manuscripts. In 1622 Cotton was in treaty for the purchase of the Barocci Library at Venice, but it was unfortunately sold ultimately to a London bookseller and dispersed. After Raleigh was committed to the Tower in 1605 he applied to Cotton for a loan of manuscripts. Bacon worked up his materials for the ‘Life of Henry VII’ in Cotton's library, although admission was denied him by order of the government after his disgrace in 1621. In 1623 Camden died and bequeathed to Cotton a valuable collection of papers.

A feeling was taking shape in James I's reign 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 another intimate friend, Arthur Agard [q. v.], 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 palæographical knowledge could be put. His intimacy with Somerset was disastrous to him. In 1615 he was induced by Somerset to seek a private interview with Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, for the purpose of informing the envoy that the favourite was resolved, contrary to the policy of other advisers of the king, on an alliance with Spain. On another occasion Cotton told Sarmiento that he was a catholic at heart, a phrase to which we are less ready than Mr. S. R. Gardiner to attach any serious importance. Meanwhile Somerset's enemies were closing round him, and in anticipation of the worst he prevailed on Cotton to draw up a general pardon that should be both prospective and retrospective. Cotton modelled the document on one that Henry VIII had given to Wolsey, but Ellesmere, the lord chancellor, positively declined to seal it (20 July 1615), an action which Somerset attributed to Cotton's want of tact. In September Somerset and his wife were in the Tower on the charge of murdering Overbury, and Cotton tried to protect his patron. He obtained a number of incriminating letters in Somerset's handwriting from the Earl of Northampton and handed them to Somerset, who promptly burned them. Other of Somerset's letters were forwarded to Cotton, who set to work to change the dates, so as to substantiate Somerset's plea of innocence. In October Cotton was himself arrested, and many of his books and papers were carried to Whitehall. When examined before the council he confessed all—his negotiation with Sarmiento as well as his manipulation of Somerset's correspondence. After nearly eight months' imprisonment he was freed from custody without trial (13 June 1616), and a pardon was granted him in July. James I showed no resentment, and employed him in 1621 to search Sir Edward Coke's papers; but signs were soon apparent that Cotton had lost his sympathy with the court.

His friendship with Gondomar, Sarmiento's successor, was notorious, but it is erroneous to ascribe his change of political attitude to that connection. A pamphleteer states that Gondomar obtained 10,000l. from Cotton and his friends (Scott, Vox Populi, 1620), but it is not possible to attach much political significance to this rumour. Cotton had little liking or aptitude for diplomacy, but Gondomar had literary tastes, and, like Casaubon (Ephemerides, p. 1036) and other learned foreigners, was doubtless a welcome guest at Cotton House mainly on that account. Of Gondo- mar's knowledge of the contents of Cotton's library the same pamphleteer has much to say, and represents Gondomar as suggesting that ‘an especial eye should be had upon the library of Sir R. C. (an ingrosser of antiquities), that whensoever it came to be broken up (eyther before his death or after), the most choice and singular pieces might be gleaned and gathered up by a catholique hand.’ That no real sympathy with the Roman catholics inspired Cotton's political action is proved by a paper which he compiled about 1616, regarding the treatment which popish priests ought to receive. Although he argues for and against the punishment of death, he adopts most of the current calumnies. As a matter of fact, Cotton was interesting himself solely in domestic politics, and 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. His studies inclined him towards the parliamentary opposition. About 1620 he became friendly with Sir John Eliot, and he soon found that their political opinions coincided at nearly all points. In 1621 he wrote a tract to show that kings must consult their council and parliament ‘of marriage, peace, and warre’ (Cott. Posth.)

Cotton appeared in the House of Commons for the third time as member for Old Sarum in James I's last parliament (2 March 1623–1624), and he was returned to the first parliament of Charles I's reign as M.P. for Thetford (May 1625). Here he first made open profession of his new political faith. On 10 Aug. the discussion on supply was proceeding, and Eliot's friends made a determined stand against the government, then practically in the hands of Buckingham. Neither Eliot nor Cotton spoke in the debate, but the latter handed to Eliot an elaborate series of notes on the working of the constitution. The paper was circulated in the house in manuscript, and was worked up by Eliot into an eloquent essay. Mr. Forster believed that this was delivered as a speech (Life of Eliot, i. 244–6), but Mr. Gardiner shows conclusively that Eliot never intervened in the debate (Hist. of England, v. 425–6). Cotton's notes came to Buckingham's knowledge, and he took a curious revenge. In the following February it was arranged that the king, on proceeding by water from Whitehall to Westminster for coronation, should land at the steps leading to Cotton's garden. The garden was for a long period before and after these events a favourite promenade for members of parliament (cf. Clarendon, Hist. i. 477). The Earl of Arundel, earl marshal, Cotton's intimate friend, helped him to make elaborate preparations for the king's reception, and early in the morning Cotton and a few friends awaited the arrival of the royal barge. He held in his hand ‘a book of Athelstan's, being the fower Evangelists in Latin, that king's Saxon epistle prefix'd [now MS. Cott. tit. A. II.], upon which for divers hundred years together the kinges of England had solemnlie taken their coronation oath.’ (It is not apparent by what right Cotton had obtained possession of the volume, and he was summoned to deliver it shortly afterwards to a king's messenger, but it subsequently returned to his library.) The royal barge, however, to Cotton's dismay, ‘bawked’ his garden; the king landed elsewhere, and the insult was rightly ascribed to the circulation of the obnoxious notes (Symond D'Ewes to Sir Martin Stuteville, in Ellis, Orig. Lett., 1st ser. iii. 215; D'Ewes, Autob. i. 291–2). To the second parliament of the reign Cotton was not returned. 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. In December he was appointed anew a commissioner to inquire into abuses in the navy. But the court was not reconciled to him, and when it was reported that he was printing his ‘History of Henry III,’ in which he freely criticised the policy of one of Charles I's predecessors, a prosecution of the printers was threatened. The book, however, duly appeared (13 Feb. 1626–7). In May 1627 he drew up an elaborate account of the law offices existing in Elizabeth's reign. Early next year the 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 under the title of ‘The Dangers wherein the Kingdom now standeth, and the Remedye,’ where he drew attention to the dangers threatened by the growing power of the emperor, and to the sacred obligation of the king to put his trust in parliaments. He was returned to Charles I's third parliament as M.P. for Castle Rising, Norfolk. Before the house met (March 1627–8), 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, and throughout the two sessions was in repeated correspondence with Eliot.

After the dissolution Cotton was treated by the court as an avowed enemy, and an opportunity of crushing him was soon found. In November 1629 there fell into the hands of Wentworth, who had just changed sides, a manuscript tract entitled ‘A Proposition for his Majesty's Service to bridle the Impertinency of Parliaments’ (printed in Rushworth). Its authorship was unknown at the time, and although it proved to have been written seriously it was treated by the king's friends as ironical, and a parody of recent statements of their own policy. A copy was shown to Cotton by the Earl of Clare, father of his friend Denzil Holles. He declared that he knew nothing about it; regarded it as a royalist manifesto; and prepared notes by way of answer. The council, where Laud was ‘a sore enemy,’ took the matter up, and placed Cotton, St. John, and the Earls of Bedford, Somerset, and Clare, all of whom were known to have read the pamphlet, under arrest. St. John was examined, and stated that the original was in Cotton's house. Orders to seal up Cotton's library were issued; a search was made there and the obnoxious document found (20 Nov. 1629). Cotton denied all knowledge of it, and the case was referred to the Star-chamber. On investigation it proved that the original manuscript in Cotton's library was the work of Sir Robert Dudley, titular earl of Northumberland [q. v.]; that it had been sent by Dudley as early as 1614 to Sir David Foulis, in order to restore the author to the favour of James I; that Cotton's librarian, Richard James [q. v.], who was also arrested, had allowed the parliamentary lawyer, Oliver St. John, to read it and to copy it; that St. John had lent his transcript to the Earl of Bedford, who passed it on to the Earls of Somerset and Clare; and that Flood, a young man living in Cotton's house, and reputed to be his natural son, finding the tract likely to be popular, had sold copies of his own making at high prices. On the day fixed for hearing (29 May 1630) an heir to the throne (Charles II) was born, and Charles I announced that proceedings would be stayed and the prisoners released in commemoration of the event. But Cotton's library was not restored to him. An order had been previously made that he might visit it in the presence of a clerk of the council; a commission was now issued to search the library for records to which the king had a right (12 July), and a catalogue was begun but never completed. On 2 Oct. a further instruction to the commission ordered them to note especially everything in the library which concerned state affairs. Cotton was thus practically dispossessed of his most cherished property, and his health began to fail. Twice in May 1631 he pathetically petitioned the king for pardon and for restitution of his books. In the second petition, in which he was joined with his son Thomas, he stated that the documents were perishing from lack of airing, and that no one was allowed to consult them. But before these petitions were answered the antiquary was dead. Anguish and grief, according to his friend Sir Symond D'Ewes, had changed his ‘ruddy and well-coloured’ countenance into ‘a grim blackish paleness, near to the resemblance and hue of a dead visage.’ He died on 6 May 1631, and was buried at Connington. A funeral sermon was preached by one Hughes. Sir John Eliot wrote from the Tower to the author on receipt of a copy: ‘He [i.e. Cotton] that was a father to his countrymen, chariot and horseman to his country, all that and more to me, could not but be sorrowed in his death, his life being so much to be honoured and beloved.’ Richard James wrote an elegy on his death.

To the last Cotton was adding to his library and helping scholars. In 1627 Sir James Ware sent him a manuscript register of St. Mary's Abbey, Dublin; in 1628 Ussher gave him a Samaritan Pentateuch. In 1629 Augustine Baker requested him to help in furnishing the library of the Cambray convent (Ellis, Orig. Lett. 1st ser. iii. 256). Sir Robert's liberality in lending books did his library some inevitable injury. D'Ewes, whose gossip usually bears traces of malice, states that Richard James, the librarian, was ‘a wretched, mercenary fellow,’ who disposed of many of his master's books. Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson, a better authority, asserts that many works lent to Selden were never returned (Aubrey, i. 23). Cotton himself was at times unwilling to give up books that had been lent him, and Laud complained bitterly of his retention of a volume which he had borrowed from St. John's College. His antiquarian zeal is attested by the story that when he heard, after Dr. Dee's death in 1608, that the astrologer had buried many manuscripts in a field, he straightway purchased the land and began excavations, which were not without success (Aubrey, ii. 311). Colomiès states that he discovered by accident in a London tailor's shop an original copy of the ‘Magna Carta’ (Disraeli, Curiosities). Cotton interested himself in all manner of learning. He owned the skeleton of an unknown fish which he dug up at Connington, and many years later (1658) Sir Thomas Browne begged Dugdale to procure him the loan of it. 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, and his Hebrew and Greek manuscripts greatly advanced biblical criticism. Original authorities for every period of English history were in his possession. His reputation was European. De Thou was one of his warmest admirers, and Gruterus, in his edition of Cicero, describes him as one of the most learned men of the age. Duchesne, Bourdelet, Puteanus all acknowledged obligations to him. Bishop Montague calls him ‘the magazine of history,’ and among his own countrymen, besides Camden, Speed, Selden, and Raleigh, whom we have already mentioned, Spelman, Dugdale, Sir Henry Savile, Knolles, Gale, Burnet, Strype, and Rymer, the compiler of the ‘Fœdera,’ all drew largely on his collections.

Cotton wrote nothing that adequately represented his learning, and it is to be regretted that he did not concentrate his attention on some great historical work. 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. But numerous other pamphlets were widely circulated in manuscript.

Many of his tracts were issued as parliamentary pamphlets at the beginning of the civil wars, among them the following: 1. ‘Serious Considerations for repressing the Increase of Jesuits,’ 1641; ‘An Abstract out of the Records of the Tower touching the King's Revenue,’ 1642; ‘The Troublesome Life … of Henry III,’ 1641, and twice in 1642, once separately and once with Hayward's ‘Henry IV;’ ‘The Form of the Government of the Kingdom of England,’ 1642; and ‘The Dangers wherein the Kingdom now standeth,’ 1643. In 1657 James Howell collected fourteen of Cotton's tracts, under the title of ‘Cottoni Posthuma,’ dedicated to Sir Robert Pye. This included the ‘History of Henry III,’ the arguments on the revenue and diplomatic precedents, and the notes for Eliot's speech of 1625. In editions of 1672 and 1679 the ‘History of Henry III’ was omitted. The tract on peace written for Prince Henry was reissued separately in 1655, and together with the reign of Henry III, by Sir John Cotton, third baronet, in 1675. The tract on the king's duty to consult parliament, written in 1621, was reissued (from the ‘Cottoni Posthuma’) separately in 1680, under the title of ‘The Antiquity and Dignity of Parliaments,’ and appeared in the Harleian Miscellany (1744 and 1808). ‘A Discourse of Foreign War’ was twice printed alone, in 1657 and 1690. Eight papers read by Cotton before the Antiquarian Society are printed in Hearne's ‘Curious Discourses’ (1771). Manuscripts of all these works abound in public and private libraries—in the Cottonian, Lansdowne, and Harleian collections, at the British Museum, and in very many of the libraries whose manuscript contents are calendared in the reports of the Historical MSS. Commission. In 1657 William Prynne printed a catalogue of the records in the Tower from 12 Edward II to 1 Richard III, ‘collected (as is generally voiced and believed) by that most industrious collector … Sir Robert Cotton’ (pref.) A better claimant to the authorship of the volume is, however, William Bowyer, and Robert Bowyer also helped in its compilation.

A new edition of Scott's ‘Vox Populi,’ issued in 1659 under the title of ‘A choice Narrative of Count Gondomar's Transactions … in England, by that renowned antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton,’ is not to be reckoned among Cotton's authentic works. It is reprinted in Smeeton's ‘Tracts’ (1820), vol. i.

It is impossible to describe very definitely Cotton's personal character. While numerous letters addressed to him by his friends are extant in his library, few of his own letters are known to be in existence. Two, dated 1624, in the Public Record Office, addressed to his brother Thomas, in which he calls himself David and his correspondent Jonathan, give an attractive picture of his domestic virtues. A little of his correspondence with Sir John Eliot is still at St. Germans, and proves him to have been an admirable friend. A few other of his letters are in the British Museum.

Engraved portraits of Cotton are prefixed to Smith's Catalogue (from a painting by C. Johnson, dated 1629) and to the 1655 edition of his treatise on peace (by T. Cross). The best portrait is that engraved by George Vertue from a picture by Paul Van Somer, in the Society of Antiquaries' ‘Vetusta Monumenta,’ i. plate lxvi. A painting by an unknown artist, presented to the British Museum in 1792, is now in the National Portrait Gallery. A bust by Roubiliac was placed in Trinity College Library, Cambridge, in 1750.

Sir Thomas Cotton, the second baronet (1594–1662), Sir Robert's only surviving child, made great efforts for the restitution of his father's library. D'Ewes states that he showed no sorrow for his father's death. On 23 July 1631 the council ordered the catalogue to be continued; but in September Sir Thomas announced that it had been again interrupted, and begged to be allowed to retain possession of the books. This request was ultimately granted, although the date is uncertain. Sir Thomas was the intimate friend and correspondent of Sir John Eliot, and was entrusted by his influence with the representation of St. Germans (Eliot's native place) in the third of Charles I's parliaments. He was M.P. for Huntingdon in the short parliament of 1640, but took no active part in politics. Like his father, Sir Thomas gave scholars free access to his library. Dugdale from an early age was very often there, and obtained there much of his material for his ‘Monasticon.’ In 1640 Sir Thomas lent his father's collection of coins to Sir Symond D'Ewes, a loan which the recipient hardly deserved after having written in his autobiography (ii. 43) ‘that Sir Thomas was wholly addicted to the tenacious increasing of his worldly wealth, and altogether unworthy to be master of so inestimable a library.’ Sir Thomas seems to have taken no part in the civil wars, but, knowing the suspicions which his library excited in all political parties, he removed the greater part in 1650 to a villa at Stratton which belonged to his son's wife (Stukeley, Itin. Curiosum, v. 78; Lysons, Magna Brit. i. 87). His house at Westminster was left at the disposal of the parliament, and Charles I slept there during his trial. He died at Connington on 13 May 1662, and was buried with his father. He married, first, Margaret, daughter of William, lord Howard, of Naworth Castle, Cumberland, by whom he had one son, John; second, Alice, daughter and heiress of Sir John Constable of Dromanby, Yorkshire, widow of Edmund Anderson of Stratton and Eyworth, Bedfordshire, by whom he had four sons. (The second son, Robert, was M.P. for Cambridgeshire, was knighted, was commissioner of the post office, and friendly with Evelyn.)

Sir John Cotton (1621–1701), the eldest son of Sir Thomas by his first wife, showed himself more of a scholar than his father. His letters (1680–90) to his friend, Dr. Thomas Smith, who first catalogued Sir Robert's library, indicate a real love of learning and wide reading. They are interspersed with Latin and Greek quotations, original Latin verses, and criticisms of ancient and modern writers, besides exhibiting deep reverence for his grandfather's memory. In one letter he states that he was engaged on his autobiography (Aubrey, Letters, i. 20–6). Sir John, who edited two of his grandfather's tracts, added to the library, and allowed Dugdale, who introduced Thomas Blount to his notice, to make whatever use he pleased of it. Evelyn knew him well, and Pepys slightly; the former describes him as ‘a pretended great Grecian, but had by no means the parts or genius of his grandfather’ (Diary, 2 July 1666, ii. 197). By his first wife he became possessor of a villa at Stratton, Bedfordshire, where he lived in his later years. In 1700 Sir John made known his intention of practically giving the Cottonian Library to the nation, but died 12 Sept. 1702, aged 81, before any final arrangements for the public use of the library were made. His portrait was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and has been engraved. Sir John married, first, Dorothy, daughter and heiress of Edmund Anderson of Stratton and Eyworth, Bedfordshire, his stepmother's daughter; and, second, Elizabeth (d. 3 April 1702), daughter of Sir Thomas Honywood of Mark's Hall, Essex. By his first wife he had an only son, John, who died before him in 1681, and by his second wife another son, Robert.

The third baronet's immediate successor was his grandson (son of his elder son), John (1679–1731). He was elected M.P. for Huntingdon in 1705, was unseated on petition, and was M.P. for Huntingdonshire Dec. 1710 to 1713. In 1708 he married Elizabeth (d. 11 Feb. 1721–2), daughter of James Herbert of Kingsey, Oxfordshire, granddaughter of the Duke of Leeds, and died 5 Feb. 1730–1, being buried in Lamb's Conduit Fields. He carried out his grandfather's wishes respecting the library. His uncle Robert (1669–1749) became fifth baronet. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, was twice married, and died 12 July 1749. His son, Sir {{sc|John}, sixth baronet, died without issue on 27 March 1752, and the title became extinct. The sixth baronet was a friend of Dr. Stukeley (Stukeley, Memoirs, i. 216–20). Connington House was pulled down in 1753.

Meanwhile the Cottonian Library had passed entirely out of the hands of the family. In 1700, in accordance with the wishes of the third baronet, who died in 1702, an act of parliament (12 and 13 Will. III, cap. 7) was passed declaring that ‘Sir John Cotton, in pursuance of the desire and intention of his father and grandfather, is content and willing that his mansion house and library should continue in his family and name, and that it be kept and preserved by the name of the Cottonian Library for public use and advantage.’ In April 1706 Sir Christopher Wren was directed to fit up the library for public use, and reported that Cotton House had fallen into complete decay. William Hanbury, the fourth baronet's brother-in-law, was appointed keeper (June 1706), but soon afterwards Dr. Bentley, the royal librarian, and his deputy, David Casley, claimed full control. In 1707 an act of parliament (6 Anne, cap. 30) recited that, to increase the public utility of the library, Cotton House, with the library and garden, should be purchased of Sir John Cotton for 4,500l., and vested in the queen and her successors for ever, and a new building should be built for the library. The new building was never erected, and the ruinous condition of Cotton House necessitated the removal of the library to Essex House in the Strand in 1712. It remained there till 1730, when Ashburnham House in Little Dean's Yard, Westminster, was purchased to receive it, together with the royal library. On 23 Oct. 1731 the Cottonian library was partially destroyed by fire (Gent. Mag. 1731, p. 451). Exaggerated reports of the damage done were circulated, and Hearne speaks of the irreparable loss in the preface to his ‘Benedictus Abbas’ (p. xiv). The House of Commons ordered a committee to examine the remains of the library in the next year, and their valuable report, published in 1732, states that out of a total of 958 volumes of manuscripts, 746 were unharmed, 114 totally destroyed or injured, and 98 partially injured. Some measures were taken to repair the injured volumes, which were deposited with the rest of the library in a new building intended to be a dormitory for Westminster School, but nothing very effectual was done. In 1753, on the foundation of the British Museum, the library was removed to its present home in Bloomsbury. In 1824 a new attempt was made to restore the burnt fragments, but it was not till 1842 that a successful method of repairing them was applied. Under Sir Frederick Madden's care 100 volumes on vellum and 97 on paper were renovated, and among them the valuable fourth-century manuscript of Genesis, and the chronicle of Roger of Wendover, both of which were assumed to have been destroyed.

The first catalogue of the library drawn up by Dr. Thomas Smith was published in 1696. It does not fully describe the contents of all the volumes, and the 170 volumes of state papers and small tracts are practically overlooked. A history of the library is added, and some notices of it are given from learned works. An unprinted class catalogue of about the same date is in MS. Harl. 694, No. 21. A more satisfactory catalogue than either of these was issued with the parliamentary report of 1732. But the one now in use was compiled by Joseph Planta, librarian of the British Museum, in 1802. The books were arranged in the original library in fourteen presses, each of which was surmounted by a bust. The busts included the twelve Roman emperors, together with Cleopatra and Faustina, and each press was named after one of these personages. This nomenclature is still retained. Humphrey Mosley drew up several papers of rules for the guidance of students, which are extant in the Lansdowne MSS. (814, No. 56; 846, Nos. 65, 70; 841, No. 28).

[Cotton's life has never been fully written. Dr. Thomas Smith prefixed a memoir to his catalogue of 1696, and he received some assistance from Sir Robert's grandson, but although interesting, it is not complete. The notices in the Biog. Brit. (Kippis) and in Hearne's Curious Discourses are not more satisfactory. The contemporary authorities are Sir Symond D'Ewes's Autobiography (ed. Halliwell, 1845, 2 vols.); the Calendars of State Papers, 1591–1631; the Parliamentary Journals; Nichols's Progresses of James I; the letters addressed to Cotton on antiquarian topics, many of which are printed in Letters of Eminent Lit. Men (Camd. Soc.), and the official lists of members of parliament. Valuable notices appear in Gardiner's Hist.; in Forster's Life of Sir John Eliot; in Spedding's Bacon; and in Nichols's Leicestershire, ii. 835–8. Mr. Sims gives a general account of the library in his Handbook of Brit. Mus.; the catalogues mentioned and the Calendars of Treasury Papers, 1702–19, supply details. Nichols's Anecdotes and Illustrations give some facts. Collins's Baronetage, i. 128–41, Luttrell's Relation, Aubrey's Letters, and Dugdale's Autobiography, are useful for the lives of Sir Robert's descendants.]

S. L. L.