J.M. Stone.

Studies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries online

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of them in the time of Mass and divine service. And this did argue not
only their gratitude, but also a most divine and charitable affection
to the souls of their benefactors as well dead as living, which book is
yet extant, declaring the said use in the inscription thereof." *

* The Ancient Rites and Monuments of the Monastical and Cathedral
Church of Durham, collected out of ancient manuscripts about the time
of the Suppression.

These examples may suffice as a glimpse into the nature of this
treasure-house, but where so much is rare and costly, it is not easy to
make a selection that shall be fairly representative.

With regard to the peculiar designation of the places occupied by the
books, Sir Robert Cotton arranged them in fourteen presses, each press
being surmounted by a bust of one of the twelve Roman emperors, the two
last supporting those of Cleopatra and Faustina. The contents of each
press were placed in boxes or portfolios, or were bound up in volumes,
each box, portfolio, or volume being designated by a letter of the
alphabet, each document having a special number.

After the death of its founder the library remained for some time in
sequestration, to the great annoyance of the new baronet, Sir Thomas
Cotton, who complained bitterly that he was shut out from his study,
the best room in his house. A schedule was at length drawn up,
consisting of a large vellum roll still extant in the collection,
showing that it contained nothing that did not belong to him, and
ultimately he gained admission.

Sir Symond D'Ewes made no secret of his opinion 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." We
cannot altogether agree with this verdict, since Sir Thomas avenged
himself by lending D'Ewes his father's collection of coins; and it is
but fair to add that he appears in general to have been no less
liberal, one might almost say careless, in lending than his father.
Rancour may, however, have set in later on, for Dugdale, writing to
D'Ewes in 1639 says, "I am in despair to obtain the books of Sir Thomas
Cotton which you desire." Richard James, librarian, fell under the same
condemnation as his master, for D'Ewes describes him as "a wretched
mercenary fellow."

Sir Thomas Cotton died in 1662, and was succeeded by his eldest son,
John, who was somewhat of a scholar. Some respectable Latin verses
written by him occur among Smith's MSS. at Oxford. He married Dorothy,
daughter and coheiress of Edmund Anderson, of Stratton in Bedfordshire,
and it appears that during the civil war the library was removed to
that place for greater safety. This was the beginning of its wanderings
and vicissitudes, which lasted nearly a hundred years.

The first regular catalogue of the Cottonian library was made and
printed at Oxford by Dr. Thomas Smith in 1696. This catalogue is
defective in many ways, especially as regards State Papers and detached
tracts, of which there are no fewer than 170 volumes, which are here
severally entered under one head only, although they each contain on an
average as many as a hundred separate documents on different subjects.
Dugdale, who was allowed to make what use he liked of the library,
discovered 80 of these volumes in loose bundles, and had them bound.
But they were still practically useless for want of proper descriptions
and indices, till Planta, keeper of the MSS. in the British Museum,
published his descriptive catalogue in 1802. Although not without
faults, it has never been superseded.

It is to the third baronet that we are mainly indebted for the
magnificent project of bequeathing the Cottonian library to the nation.
He died in 1702, before the final steps had been taken in this
direction; but his grandson and immediate successor carried out his
wishes which had also been those of his father and grandfather.

The statute, drawn up in the year 1700 (12 and 13 William III.) is
entitled, "An Act for the better settling and preserving the library
kept in the house at Westminster, called Cotton House, in the name and
family of the Cottons for the benefit of the public."

The next step was to have the books carefully inspected, and compared
with Smith's catalogue, now found to be inadequate. Many of the
manuscripts were reported to be in a state of decay, the place where
they were kept not being suitable. In 1706, Sir Christopher Wren was
commissioned to fit up the study for public use, but he declared that
Cotton House was in a ruinous condition; and in consequence of his
report, in the following year, another Act of Parliament decreed that
to increase the public utility of the library, Cotton House should be
purchased of Sir John Cotton for 4500 pounds, and a new building
erected for the collection of books. Still, nothing was done, till the
house, actually threatening to tumble down, the books were removed to
Essex House, in the Strand, where they remained for twenty-eight years.
In 1730, Ashburnham House, Westminster, was purchased by the nation for
the reception of the Cottonian, together with the Royal library. It was
here, in 1731, that the terrible fire broke out in which so many
valuable manuscripts were destroyed.

At about 2 o'clock in the morning of the 23rd October, Dr. Bentley, the
librarian, and his family, who lived at Ashburnham House, were roused
from sleep by a suffocating smoke which soon afterwards burst into
flames. The outbreak was caused by a wooden mantelpiece taking fire, in
the room immediately under the two libraries. It was at first hoped
that the flames might be extinguished by throwing water upon the
woodwork of the room actually on fire, so that they did not begin to
remove the books as soon as they should have done. But seeing that this
was useless, Mr. Casley, deputy librarian, hastened to rescue the
famous Alexandrian MS. in the Royal library, and the books in the
Cottonian press named Augustus, as being considered the most valuable.
These are principally charts, maps, grants, and papal bulls, all
relating to early English history. Several of the presses were then
removed bodily, but as the fire spread with alarming rapidity, and
there was a delay in the arrival of the engines, it was discovered none
too soon, that the backs of some of the presses were on fire. Then the
books were seized and thrown out of windows, after which they were
carried into Westminster School and the Little Cloisters. By permission
of the Dean and Chapter they subsequently found a temporary home in a
new building that had been erected as a dormitory for the school.

A committee was at once appointed by the House of Commons to inquire
into the amount of injury sustained. It was found that a great number
of manuscripts had suffered from the engine-water, as well as from
fire, and the report of the commissioners stated, that out of 958
volumes of MSS. 746 were unharmed, and 98 partially injured.

The press named Otho had suffered the most. In the table drawn up by
Casley in his appendix to the Royal library, not one volume in Otho is
seen to be intact; 16 are marked defective, 55 as lost, burnt, or
defaced so as not to be distinguishable. Vitellius was the next
greatest sufferer, 46 volumes being preserved, 28 defective, and 34
seriously damaged. Vespasian, with its fine collection of historical
materials for the history of England and Scotland, its dramas in Old
English verse, and the famous Coventry Mystery Plays and others happily
escaped altogether.* Casley's figures differ slightly from those of the
commissioners: out of a total of 958 volumes, he notes 748 as
uninjured, 99 as defective, and 111 as lost, burnt, or defaced.

* Narrative of the Fire which happened at Ashburnham House, 23rd
October 1731. Report of the committee appointed by the House of Commons.

On the 1st November the work of restoration began, and was carried out
by Bentley, Casley, three clerks from the Record Office, a bookbinder,
and others. The Speaker of the House of Commons was frequently present.
Some of the MSS. inclined to mildew were dried before a fire. Some
would have rotted if they had not been taken out of their bindings, so
thoroughly had the water permeated. The paper books which had received
stains were taken to pieces and plunged into the softest cold water
that could be procured, and when the stains disappeared they were put
into alum and water, and then hung upon lines to dry.

The best means of stretching vellum to its original dimensions, after
it has been shrivelled and contracted, had not at that time been
discovered, but the restorers did what they could. It was first
softened in cold water, then those leaves, which had become glued
together by the heat melting all kinds of extraneous matter, were
separated by means of an ivory cutter, and the glutinous substances
carefully removed with the fingers, the parchments smoothed with the
palm of the hand, and their backs pressed with a clean flannel.
Fragments were also carefully cleaned and preserved, and upon many of
these with which the original restorers could do nothing, Sir Frederick
Madden afterwards worked wonders. By his method, 100 volumes were
repaired on vellum, and 97 on paper.

Among these mutilated fragments was the priceless fourth century
manuscript of Genesis, Otho, B 6, which was thought to have been taken
abroad as it could not be found after the fire. For a while it was
given up as irrevocably lost, but Sir Frederick Madden discovered the
much burnt remains and pieced them together. This Book of Genesis was
at one time thought to be the oldest Greek MS. in England. It is now
known that the four leaves of the gospel in Greek, Titus, C 15, are as
old or even older. The Oxford librarian, Thomas James, wrote in the
beginning of the volume that it was brought into this country by two
Greek bishops as a present to Henry VIII. They told him that according
to an old tradition it had belonged to Origen, and there was nothing in
the text to make the supposition incredible. This, if true, would carry
the manuscript back 1500 years at least, with a possibility of its
being much more ancient. It had been the subject of a dispute in the
time of the first Sir John Cotton, when it was supposed to have been
lost. All at once it was discovered in the possession of Lady Stafford,
who stoutly maintained that it had belonged to the late earl, her
husband, who had lent it to Sir Thomas Cotton; and that while it was in
his hands he caused it to be newly bound, and his coat of arms fixed
upon it. She said, however, that Sir John might have it for 40 pounds,
but that she would not take a farthing less, adding that he had already
offered her 30 pounds in her own house, but that she had refused the
sum. Mr. Gilbert Crouch, who was negotiating for Sir John, in
explaining the matter to Dugdale, said that if Sir John Cotton had "so
great a mind to the book, he were better give this other 10 pounds than
run the charge and hazard of a suit."*

* Life, Diary, and Correspondence of Sir William Dugdale.

All that now remains of this uniquely beautiful MS., painted on every
page, are eighteen melancholy scraps of no use but as a monument of the
ingenuity with which they have been pieced together, mended, and

The Chronicle of Wendover, which was also believed to have perished,
was found and repaired in the time of Sir Frederick Madden.

A fragment of another MS., marked as missing in Planta's catalogue, has
found its way to the Bodleian library. It consists of ten folios of the
Life of St. Basil, and a note by Hearne says that it came from a
Cottonian MS.

Grand and imposing as the Cottonian library still is, it is painful to
consider how incomparably finer it must have been during the life of
its founder, before it suffered from the ravages of the fire, and from
the carelessness or dishonesty of so many borrowers. Sir John Cotton
avowed that many books lent to Selden were never returned; the Duke of
Buckingham was also guilty in the same respect. A manuscript now in the
Bodleian library (Barlow 49) was borrowed from the Cottonian by Dr.
Prideaux, and never returned. It was afterwards exposed for sale at
Worcester, and bought by Dr. Barlow, who presented it to the Bodleian.
Parliamentary rolls often suffered a like fate, and instances of
similar losses could be largely multiplied. The loss of the Utrecht
Psalter is, however, perhaps the most grievous that the library has
sustained from borrowers.

Some of the manuscripts, injured by the fire at Ashburnham House, were
further mutilated by another fire which occurred on the premises of a
bookbinder on the 10th July 1865.

In 1753 the government purchased the large Natural History and Art
Collection of Sir Hans Sloane, together with a library of 50,000
volumes, which were deposited in Montague House, Bloomsbury, on the
site of the present British Museum Buildings. Hither the Cottonian and
Royal libraries were brought, forming, together with the Sloane
manuscripts, the nucleus of the great national collections of which we
are justly proud, and which, under their present efficient and
courteous management, are rendered so useful to students.

The British Museum was formally opened to the public at Montague House
in 1759. But it grew so rapidly that soon more space was needed, and in
1823 the eastern wing of the present building was erected to receive
the library of George III. presented to the museum by George IV. The
whole building was completed in 1847.


The Royal library is in many ways the most splendid of our national
manuscript collections. Had it been fortunate enough, like the Harleian
library, to number a Wanley among its custodians and biographers, the
history of its formation would read like a fairy-tale. But, unhappily,
we have to depend for our chief data on what Casley, the "dry as dust"
pay excellence of librarians could tell us, and though his knowledge of
the age of MSS. was admirable, he was remarkably uncommunicative
regarding their pedigree, meagre in his descriptions, and apparently
insensible to paleographic beauty. There is scarcely, in the whole
British Museum, a less satisfactory book than his catalogue of the
Royal library. Thus, the student is hampered by the want of a guide,
and must hew paths for himself through the luxuriant growth and
accumulations of many centuries. In point of mere size, the Royal
library ranks third among the four great collections acquired by the
British Museum at the time of its foundation - the Harleian numbering
7639 MSS.; the Sloane, 4001; the Royal, 1950; the Cottonian, 900.

Of the three others we have ample details; their hoards have been
thoroughly ransacked, and there are scarcely any surprises for the
student. We can, without much trouble lay our hands on any fact,
beauty, or excellence to be found in them, for there are hardly any
hidden gems. But with the Royal library it is different. Each student
is his own pioneer, and must make voyages of discovery if he would know
something of the riches which it contains.

Its history is scarcely more complete than its catalogue; although the
nucleus of the collection must be almost coeval with the monarchy.
Before the reign of James I., however, there were no records except the
strangely anomalous ones contained in the Privy Purse Expenses, and in
the Wardrobe and Household Accounts of the various English kings who
have added to the library. It is curious to light, among the sums
disbursed for such items as feather-beds and four-post bedsteads, on
the price paid for a rare manuscript, or for the binding of a choice
codex. Queen Elizabeth's "Keeper of the Books" was also "Court
Distiller of Odoriferous Herbs," and received a better salary as
perfumer than as librarian. But in times when books were more costly,
the office of custodian was considered an honourable one, and a Close
Roll of the year 1252 makes mention of the Custos librorum Regis.

Impossible though it be to fix the exact date or even reign when the
English kings began to collect books, we shall not be wrong if we infer
that the Royal library had already a very real existence in the reign
of Henry II., when a great literary revival took place. Although the
movement originated in the cloister, the court followed in its wake,
and William of Malmesbury had his secular counterpart in Alfred of
Beverley. A favourite of the king's, Walter de Map, who had been a
student in Paris, and Gerald de Barri (Giraldus Cambrensis) divided the
honours between courtly and popular themes, while a number of poets and
romanticists sprang up and wove fantastic myths and legends out of such
material as the Crusades, the Arthurian traditions, and the feats of
Charlemagne. King John, with scarcely a quality which men cared to
praise, was, strangely enough, fond of books and of scholars. A taste
for learning was gradually leavening the barbarous Normanic lump,
spreading downwards from monarch to people. Two years before John's
death Roger Bacon was born, whose opus Majus embraced every branch of
science, and whose life is the whole intellectual life of the
thirteenth century. Matthew Paris, the last of the great monastic
historians, was the intimate friend of Henry III., who delighted in his
scholarship, and loved to visit him in the scriptorium at St. Alban's
where he himself contributed to the famous chronicle, which would alone
have sufficed to make the reputation of the learned Benedictine. Thus,
indirectly, we are led to the Royal library.

In 1250, a French book is mentioned in a State Paper as belonging to
the king, but being actually in the keeping of the Knights Templars,
who are commanded to hand it over to an officer of the Wardrobe, with
the apparent object that the king's painters might copy from it when
painting a room called the Antioch Chamber.

In the reign of Edward I. a part of the Royal library was kept in the
Treasury of the Exchequer, and a few of the books are mentioned in the
Wardrobe Accounts of the year 1302. These included Latin service books,
treatises on devotional subjects, and romances. One book is described
as "Textus, in a case of leather on which magnates are wont to be

All through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there are
occasional allusions to the king's books in the Wardrobe Accounts, and
the Exchequer Inventory of Edward II. enumerates "a book bound in red
leather, De regimine Regum; a small book on the rule of the Knights
Templars, De regula Templariorum; a stitched book, De Vita sancti
Patricii; and a stitched book in a tongue unknown to the English which
begins thus: Edmygaw dorit doyrmyd dinas," and other books and rolls
"very foreign to the English tongue," the scribe, not knowing Welsh
even by sight, whereas, although he might not be able to read them, he
would probably know the look of Greek or Hebrew manuscripts. The list
closes with the Chronicle of Roderick de Ximenez, Archbishop of Toledo,
"bound in green leather."*

* Stapleton's exchequer Inventory, Edward II.

A document, belonging to the year 1419, and printed by Sir Francis
Palgrave, relates to the delivery into the King's Treasury of five
volumes, consisting of a Bible, a copy of the Book of Chronicles, a
treatise, De conceptione Beatae Mariae, a compendium of theology, and a
volume entitled Libellus de emendatione vitae. But in the following
year these manuscripts were given to the monastery at Sheen. In 1426 a
book described as Egesippus, another as Liber de observantia Papa, were
borrowed from the library in the Treasury by Cardinal Beaufort, and
there are subsequent notices of the return and re-loan of the same
volumes to the same borrower. It is interesting to note that a
manuscript called Hegesippus De Bello Judaico, etc., still in the Royal
library, is ascribed by Casley to the eleventh century, and may be
identified with the former of these two books.

In the following years entries occur of works on Civil Law, and of some
others being lent to the Master of King's College, Cambridge, and of
their subsequent presentation to that house, with the assent of the
Lords of the Council.

In the Wardrobe accounts of Edward IV. (Royal MS. 14, C 8), there are
entries relating to "the coveryng and garnyshing of the bookes of oure
saide Souverain Lorde the Kinge," which mark his possession in 1480 of
certain choice MSS., and the same document shows that these were bound
by Piers Bauduyn for the king. Among them were a Froissart, the
binding, gilding, and dressing of which cost 20S., and a Biblia
Historians (now marked 19 D 2 in the Royal library), bound and
ornamented for the same sum. On a fly-leaf is an inscription recording
its purchase for 100 marks by William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,
after the battle of Poitiers. It had been taken as loot among the
baggage of the French king. On his death in 1397, the Earl of Salisbury
bequeathed it to his wife, who, in her will, ordered that it should be
sold for forty livres.

When the king went from London to Eltham his books went with him, and
some were put into "divers cofyns of fyrre," and others into his
carriage. They were bound in "figured cramoisie velvet, with rich laces
and tassels, with buttons of silk and gold, and with clasps bearing the
king's arms." The only reference to books in the will of Edward IV. is
in regard to such as appertained "to oure chapell," which he bequeathed
to his queen, such only being excepted "as we shall hereafter dispose
to goo to oure saide Collage of Wyndesore."*

* Add. MS., Transcript by Rymer, No. 4615.

Henry VII. stands between the Middle Ages and modern times, but his
additions to the Royal library consisted chiefly of Renaissance
literature. Notwithstanding his parsimony in most matters, his Privy
Purse Expenses contain a remarkable series of entries of payments for
books, for copying manuscripts, and for binding them. On one occasion
the sum of 23 pounds was spent on a single book, and there is an item
of 2 pounds paid to a clerk for copying The Amity of Flanders. He
bought a great number of romances in French as well as the grand series
of volumes printed on vellum by the famous Antoine Verard. Bacon
describes Henry VII. as "a prince, sad, serious, and full of thoughts
and secret observations, and full of notes and memorials of his own
hand . . . rather studious than learned, reading most books that were
of any worth, in the French tongue. Yet he understood the Latin."*

* Life and Rein of Henry VII, i., 637.

He had also a taste for finely illuminated books of devotion, and
presented a beautiful Missal to his daughter Margaret, Queen of Scots,
in which he inscribed his own name in enormous letters several times.
This book is now in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire. In the
Royal collection is another Missal which belonged to the same king,
written in a late Gothic hand.

Henry VII. was careful to have his children well instructed, and his
second son, being intended for the Church, received an education
fitting him for an ecclesiastical career. In his youth Henry VIII.
displayed considerable literary talent, posed as a patron of scholars,
and smiled benignly on such geniuses as Erasmus, More, Linacre, and
Grocyn; but in after years he was more keen to destroy other peoples'
libraries than to build up his own. The accounts of his Privy Purse
Expenses contain few entries of disbursements for books, and to take
one short period as a specimen, we find that the whole sum spent on his
library between 1530 and 1532, including not merely all moneys paid for
binding, but also an indefinite amount "to the taylour and skynner for
certeyn stuff, and workmanship for my lady Anne," was only 124 pounds,
16s. 3d. These figures become still more insignificant if we compare
them with those representing the money spent during the same period for
jewels alone, exclusive of plate, which amounted to the prodigious sum
of 10,800 pounds.

But although Henry VIII. did not buy books extensively, he sometimes
borrowed them, and several entries chronicle the lending of books to
him by monastic and other libraries, when he was pestering Christendom
for arguments in favour of his divorce from Katharine of Arragon.

Nevertheless, in spite of adverse circumstances, the Royal library had
been steadily growing in the course of ages, and had by this time
assumed notable proportions. Henry VIII. found himself the possessor of
a collection of books at Windsor, comprising 109 volumes in bindings of
velvet and leather, with silver and jewelled clasps; of another at

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Online LibraryJ.M. StoneStudies from Court and Cloister: being essays, historical and literary dealing mainly with subjects relating to the XVIth and XVIIth centuries → online text (page 24 of 28)