Cotton, Sir Robert Bruce

, an eminent English antiquary, “whose name,” says Dr. Johnson, “must always be mentioned with honour, and whose memory cannot fail of exciting the warmest sentiments of gratitude, whilst the smallest regard for learning subsists among us,” was son of Thomas Cotton, esq. descended from a very ancient family, and born at Denton in Huntingdonshire, Jan. 22, 1570; admitted of Trinity college, Cambridge, where he took the degree of B. A. 1585; and went to London, where he soon made himself known, and was admitted into a society of antiquaries, who met at stated seasons for their own amusement. Here he indulged his taste in the prosecution of that study for which he afterwards became so famous; and in his 18th year began to collect ancient records, charters, and other Mss. In 1600 he accompanied Camden to Carlisle, who acknowledges himself not a little obliged to him for the assistance he received from him in carrying on and completing his “Britannia;” and the same year he wrote “A brief abstract of the question of Precedency between England and Spain.” This was | occasioned by queen Elizabeth’s desiring the thoughts of the society of antiquaries upon that point, and is still extant in the Cotton library. Upon the accession of James I. he was created a knight; and during this reign was very much courted and esteemed by the great men of the nation, and consulted as an oracle by the privy counsellors and ministers of state, upon very difficult points relating to the constitution. In 1608 he was appointed one of the commissioners to inquire into the state of the navy, which had lain neglected ever since the death of queen Elizabeth; and drew up a memorial of their proceedings, to be presented to the king, which memorial is still in his library. In 1609 he wrote “A discourse of the lawfulness of Combats to be performed in the presence of the king, or the constable and marshal of England,” which was printed in 1651 and in 1672. He drew up also, the same year, “An answer to such motives as were offered by certain military men to prince Henry, to incite him to affect arms more than peace.” This was composed by order of that prince, and the original ms. remains in the Cotton library. New projects being contrived to repair the royal revenue, which had been prodigally squandered, none pleased the king so much as the creating a new. order of knights, called baronets; and sir Robert Cotton, who had been the principal suggester of this scheme, was in 1611 chosen to be one, being the thirty-sixth on the list. His principal residence was then at Great Connington, in Huntingdonshire; which he soon exchanged for Hatley St. George, in the county of Cambridge.

He was afterwards employed by king James to vindicate the conduct of Mary queen of Scots, from the supposed misrepresentations of Buchanan and Thuanus; and what he wrote upon this subject is thought to be interwoven in Camden’s “Annals of queen Elizabeth,”“or else printed at the end of Camden’s” Epistles.“In 1616 the king ordered him to examine, whether the papists, whose numbers then made the nation uneasy, ought by the laws of the land to be put to death, or to be imprisoned? This task he performed with great learning, and produced upon that occasion twenty- four arguments, which were published afterwards in 1672, amongCotton! Posthuina.“It was probably then that he composed a piece, still preserved in ms. in the royal library, entitled,” Considerations for the | repressinge of the encrease of preests, Jesuits, and recrusants, without drawinge of blood.“He was also employed by the house of commons, when the match between prince Charles and the infanta of Spain was in agitation, to shew, by a short examination of the treaties between England and the house of Austria, the unfaithfulness and insincerity of the latter; and to prove that in all their transactions they aimed at nothing but universal monarchy. This piece is printed among” Cottoni Posthuma,“under the title ofA remonstrance of the treaties of amity,“&c. He wrote likewise a vindication of our ecclesiastical constitution against the innovations attempted to be brought in by the puritans, entitled,” An answer to certain arguments raised from supposed antiquity, and urged by some members of the lower house of parliament, to prove that ecclesiastical laws ought to be enacted by temporal men.“In 1621 he compiledA relation to prove, that the kings of England have been pleased to consult with their peeres, in the great councel and commons of parliament, of marriadge, peace, and war;“printed first in 1651, then in 1672 among” Cottoni Posthuma,“and then in 1679 under the title of” The antiquity and dignity of Parliaments." Being a member of the first parliament of Charles I. he joined in complaii: -g of the grievances which the nation was said in 1628 to groan under‘; but was always for mild remedies, zealous for the honour and safety of the king, and had no views but the nation’s advantage.

Ill 1629 the remarkable transaction happened, which gave rise to the following very curious particulars:

Letter from Dr. Samuel Harsnet, archbishop of York, to sir Henry Vane, ambassador at the Hague, dated London, Nov. 6, 1629.

"On Saturday in the evening there were sent Mr. Vicechamberlain and others to seal up sir Robert Cotton’s library, and to bring himself before the lords of his majesty’s council. There were found in his custody a pestilent tractate, which he had fostered as his child, and had sent it abroad into divers hands; containing a project how a prince may make himself an absolute tyrant. This pernicious advice he had communicated by copies to divers lords, who, upon his confession, are questioned and restrained my lord of Somerset sent it to the bishop of London the lord Clare to the bishop of Winchester; and | the lord Bedford I know not well to whom. Cotton himself is in custody *. God send him well out!

I am, &c."

The same, to the same, dated Nov. 9. "Yesterday his majesty was pleased to sit in council with all the board, and commanded that devilish project found upon sir Robert Cotton to be read over unto us. For my own part, I never heard a more pernicious diabolical device, to breed suspicious, seditious humours amongst the people. His majesty was pleased to declare his royal pleasure touching the lords and others restrained for communicating that project; which was, to proceed in a fair, moderate, mild, legal course with them, by a bill of information preferred into the star-chamber, whereunto they might make their answer by the help of the most learned counsel they could procure. And though his majesty had it in his power most justly and truly to restrain them till the cause was adjudged, yet, out of his princely clemency, he commanded the board to call them, and to signify unto them to attend their cause in the star-chamber. They were personally called in before the lords (the king being gone) and acquainted by the keeper with his majesty’s gracious favour. Two never spoke a word expressing thankfulness for his majesty’s so princely goodness; two expressed much thankfulness, which were my lord of


This account (as was afterwards observed by a correspondent in —Gent, Mag. 17G7, p 388) seems in some respects doubtful, in others defective for “among some records in the paperoffice is A warrant for the commitment of sir Robert Cotton, so early as the year 1615, being suspected of a corrcspondence with the Spanish ambassador, prejudicial to the affairs of governrnent. From this confinement, it is, however, probable, he was soon released, and that he had his library, which was at that time shut up, restored to hrm not long after his enlargement but I have reason to believe, but that after his last confinement in 1629, he never had his library restored; for I have seen a letter which mentions his death in 1631, in which it is said, ”That before he died, he requested sir Henry Spelmau to signify to the lord privy seal, and the rest of the lords of the council, that their so long detaining of his books from him, without ren­ dering any reason for the same, had been the cause of his mortal malady upon which message, the lord privy seal came to sir Robert, when it was too late, to comfort him from the king $ from whom the earl of Dorset likewise came, within half an hour after sir Robert’s death, to condole with sir Thomas Cotton, his son, for his death, and to tell him from his majesty, that as he loved his father, so he would continue to love him. That sir Robert had entailed, as far as law could do it, his library of books upon his son, who makes no doubt of obtaining the same for all these court holy-waters, says the writer, I, for my part, for a while suspend my belief." From this it would appear, that the government was in possession of sir Robert’s library at the time of his death, and that it was even doubtful whether it would ever be restored to his posts* rity.

| Bedford and sir Robert Cotton. St. John and James are still in prison; and farther than unto these the paper reachetb not in direct travel, save to Selden, who is also contained in the bill of information. I tear the nature of that contagion did spread farther; but as yet no more appeareth. I am of opinion it will fall heavy on the parties delinquent.

I am, sir, &c."

Sir Symonds D’Ewes’s account of this affair, in his manuscript life, written by himself, and still preserved among the Harleian Mss. will give further light to this very interesting fact.

Amongst other books,” says he, “which Mr. Richard James lent out, one Mr. St. John, of Lincoln’s-inn, a young studious gentleman, borrowed of him, for money, a dangerous pamphlet that was in a written hand, by which a course was laid down, how the kings of England might oppress the liberties of their subjects, and for ever enslave them and their posterities. Mr. St. John shewed the book to the earl of Bedford, o.r a copy of it; and so it passed from hand to hand, in the year 1629, till at last it was lent to sir Robert Cotton himself, who set a young fellow he then kept in his house to transcribe it; which plainly proves, that sir Robert knew not himself that the written tract itself had originally come out of his own library. This untrusty fellow, imitating, it seems, the said James, took one copy secretly for himself, when he wrote another for sir Robert; and out of his own transcript sold away several copies, till at last one of them came into Wentworth’s hands, of the North, now lord deputy, of Ireland. He acquainted the lords and others of the privy-council with it. They sent for the said young fellow, and examining him where he had the written book, he confessed sir Robert Cotton delivered it to him. Whereupon in the beginning of November, in the same year 1629, sir Robert was examined, and so were divers others, one after the other as it had been delivered from hand to hand, till at last Mr. St. John himself was apprehended, and, being conceived to be the author of the book, was committed close prisoner to the Tower. Being in danger to have been questioned for his life about it, upon examination upon oath, he made a clear, full, and punctual declaration that he had received the same manuscript pamphlet of | that wretched mercenary fellow James*, who by this means proveed the wretched instrument of shortening the life of sir Robert Cotton; for he was presently thereupon sued in the star-chamber, his library locked up from his use, and two or more of the guards set to watch his house continually. When I went several times to visit and comfort him in the year 1630, he would tell me, ‘ they had broken his heart, that had locked up his library from him.’ I easily guessed the reason, because his honour and esteem were much impaired by this fatal accident; and his house, that was formerly frequented by great and honourable personages, as by learned men of all sorts, remained now upon the matter desolate and empty. I understood from himself and others, that Dr. Neile and Dr. Laud, two prelates that had been stigmatized in the first session of parliament in 1628, were his sore enemies. He was so outworn, within a few months, with anguish and grief, as his face, which had been formerly ruddy and well coloured, (such as the picture I have of him shews), was wholly changed into a grim blackish paleness, near to the resemblance and hue of a dead visage. I, at one time, advised him to look into himself, and seriously consider, why God had sent this chastisement upon him; which, it is possible, he did; for I heard from Mr. Richard Holdesworth, a great and learned divine, that was with him in his last sickness, a little before he died, that he was exceedingly penitent, and was much confirmed in the faithful expectation of a better life.

It may be necessary, in order to elucidate this matter still farther, to take notice, that one of the articles in the attorney-general’s information against sir Robert Cotton was, “that the discourse or project was framed and con­* This was Richard James, fellow of three years before hi* death, he beCorpus Christ! college, in Oxford, born stowed the custody of his whole library at Newport, in the Isle of Wight, and on him and he being a needy sharkauthor of several sermons, both in La- ing companion, and very expensive, tin and English. H-- died at the house like old sir Ralph Starkie when he of sir Thomas Cotton, bart. in the be- lived, let out, or lent out, sir Robert ginning of Dec. 1636. Sir Symcmds Cotton’s most precious manuscripts for D’Ewes gives a very severe character money, to any that would be his cusof him; an atheistical profane scholar, tomers; which,” says sir Symonds, “I but otherwise witty and moderately once made known to sir Robert Cotton, learned; and he adds, that he had so before the said James’s face.” But this screwed himself info the good opinion appears to be in some essential points of srt- Robert Cotton, “that whereas incorrect, as will be shewn when we at first he had only permitted him the come to the article of Richard James, use of his books, at last, some two or | trived within five or six months past here in England;” but sir David Foulis testified upon oath, being thereunto required, that it was contrived at Florence seventeen years before, by sir Robert Dudley; upon which most of the parties were released, and sir Robert Cotton had his library restored to him soon after.

The other works of.sir Robert Cotton, not already mentioned, are, 1. “A relation of the proceedings against Ambassadors, who have miscarried themselves, and exceeded their commission.” “2. That the sovereign’s person is required in the great councils or~ assemblies of the states, as well at the consultations as at the conclusions.” 3. “The argument made by the command of the house of commons, out of the acts of parliament and authority of law expounding the same, at a conference of the lords, concerning the liberty of the person of every freeman.” 4. “A brief discourse concerning the power of the peers and commons of parliament in point of judicature.” These lour are printed in “Cottoni Posthuma.” 5. “A short view of the long life and reign of Henry III. king of England,” written in 1614, and presented to king James I. printed in 1627, 4to, and reprinted in “Cottoni Posthuma.” 6. “Money raised by the king without parliament, from the conquest until this day, either by imposition or free gift, taken out of records or ancient registers,” printed in the “Royal treasury of England, or general history of taxes, by captain J. Stevens,” 8vo. 7. “A narrative of count Gondomar’s transactions during his embassy in England,London, 1659, 4to. 8. “Of antiquity, etymology, and privileges of castles.” 9. “Of towns.” 10. “Of the measures of Land.” 11. “Of the antiquity of Coats of Arms.” All printed in Hearne’s Discourses, p. 166, 174, 178, 182. He wrote books upon several other subjects, that remain still in ms. namely, Of scutage; of enclosures, and converting arable land into pasture; of the antiquity, authority, and office of the high steward and marshal of England; of curious collections; of military affairs; of trade; collections out of the rolls of parliament, different from those that were printed under his name, in 1657, by William Pry nne, esq. He likewise made collections for the history and antiquities of Huntingdonshire; and had formed a design of writing an account of the state of Christianity in these islands, from the first reception of it here to the reformation. The first part of | this design was executed by abp. Usher, in his book “De Britannic-arum ecclesiarum primordiis,” composed probably at the request of sir Robert Cotton, who left eight volumes of collections for the continuation of that work. Two of sir Robert’s speeches are printed in the Parliamentary History. ATreatise of the Court of Chancery,” in ms. by sir Robert Cotton, is often cited in disputes concerning the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery, and the authority of the Master of the Rolls, as a ms. in lord Sorners’s library. A copy of it, however, is in Mr. Hargrave’s Collection of Law Mss. The “Cottoni Posthuma,” so often mentioned above, was published by James Howell, fol. 1651, 1672, and 1679. The first of these editions contains a life of Henry III. omitted in the subsequent editions. Mr. Petyt, however, terms this a fictitious work (Petyt’s ms. vol. II. p. 281.), yet it contains several valuable and curious particulars.

But, without intending to derogate from the just merits of this learned and knowing man as an author, it may reasonably be questioned, whether he has not done more service to learning by securing, as he did, his valuable library for the use of posterity, than by all his writings. This library consists wholly of Mss. many of which being in loose skins, small tracts, or very thin volumes, when they were purchased, sir Robert caused several of them to be bound up in one cover. They relate chiefly to the history and antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland, though the ingenious collector refused nothing that was curious or valuable in any point of learning. He lived indeed at a time when he had great opportunities of making such a fine collection: when there were many valuable books yet remaining in private hands, which had been taken from the monasteries at their dissolution, and from our universities and colleges, at their visitations when several learned antiquaries, such as Joceline, Noel, Allen, Lambarde, Bowyer, Elsinge, Camden, and others, died, who had made it their chief business to scrape up the ^scattered remains of our monastical libraries: and, either by legacy or purchase, he became possessed of all he thought valuable in their studies. This library was placed in his own house at Westminster, near the house of commons; and very much augmented by his son sir Thomas Cotton, and his grandson sir John (who died in 1702, aged 71). In 1700 an act | of parliament was made for the better securing and preserving that library in the name and family of th\ Cottons, for the benefit of the public; that it might not be sold, or otherwise disposed of and embezzled Sir John, great grandson of sir Robert, having sold Cotton -house to queen Anne, about 1706, to be a repository for the royal as well as the Cottonian library, an act was ma le for the better securing of her Majesty’s purchase of that house; and botli house and library were settled and vested in trustees. The books were then removed into a more convenient room, the former being very damp; and Cotton-house was set apart for the use of the king’s library-keeper, who had there the royal and Cottonian libraries under his care. In 1712 the Cottonian library was removed to Essex house, in Essexstreet; and in 1730 to a house in Little DeanVyard, Westminster, purchased by the crown of the lord Ashburnham; where a fire happening, Oct. 23, 1731, 111 books were lost, burnt, or entirely defaced, and 99 rendered imperfect. It was thereupon removed to the Old Dormitory belonging to Westminster-school; and finally, in 1753, to the British Museum, where they still remain.

It is almost incredible how much we are indebted to this library for what we know of our own country: witness the works of sir H. Spelman, sir W. Dugdale, the “Decem Scriptores,” dean Gale, Burnet’s History of the Reformation, Strype’s works, Rymer’s F cetera, several pieces published by Hearne, and almost every book that has appeared since, relating to the history and antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland. Nor was sir Robert Cotton less communicative of his library and other collections in his lifetime. Speed’s History of England is said to owe most of its value and ornaments to it; and Camden acknowledges, that he received the coins in the Britannia from this collection. To Knolles, author of the “Turkish History,” he communicated authentic letters of the masters of the knights of Rhodes, and the dispatches of Edward Barton, ambassador from queen Elizabeth to the Porte; to sir Walter Raleigh, books and materials for the second volume of his history, never published; and the same to sir K. Bacon, lord Vernlam, for his History of Henry VII. Selden was highly indebted to the books and instructions of sir Robert Cotton, as he thankfully acknowledges in more places than one. In a word, this great and worthy man was the | generous patron of all lovers of antiquities, and his house and library were always open to ingenious and inquisitive persons.

Such a man, we may imagine, must have had many friends and acquaintance: and indeed he was not only acquainted with all the virtuosi and learned in his own country, but with many also of high reputation abroad; as Gruterns, Sweertius, Duchesne, Bourdelot, Puteanus, Peiresk, &c.

He died of a fever, at his house in Westminster, May 6, 1631, aged 60 years, three months, and 15 days. He married Elizabeth, one of the daughters and coheirs of William Brocas, of Thedingworth in the county of Leicester, esq, by whom he left one only son, sir Thomas the second baronet, who died 1662, and was succeeded by sir John the third, and he, 1702, by his son John, who died in the life-time of his father, 1681, leaving two sons, of whom the elder, John, succeeded his grandfather, and died without issue 1731. The title and part of the estate went to his uncle Robert, by whose death, at the age of 80, July 12, 1749, the tide became extinct. He had one son, John, who died before his father; and one grandson, John, who died of the small-pox, on his return from his travels, in 1739. 1

1 Biog. Brit. Preface to the? Cottonian Catalogue, published 1802, folio; and Life prefixed to Dr. Smith’s Catalogue, Oxford, 1696, fol. Nichols’s Leicestershire History of Hinckley Life of Bowyer; and —Gent. Mag. 1767. Brit!;,'­uian’s Legal Bibliography.