Cotton’s Library by Matt Kuhns

I debated for some time whether or not I would write this review, since this book does not deal primarily with a Regency topic. But it does deal with two of my other favorite topics, books and libraries, so I have given into the temptation to tell you about this lovely little gem of a book. Nor do I think you will be disappointed when you read this review and understand the amazing tale this book tells. A tale which may well spark a host of ideas for authors writing stories set in the Regency.

Why I think you will like Matt Kuhns’ story of the great Cotton Library . . .

The full title of this book is Cotton’s Library:   The Many Perils of Preserving History. Over the years, dozens of books have been written about this amazing library, many of them quite scholarly, and usually about the books which made up the collection. Topics of great interest to many academics, but perhaps not to the general reader. Matt Kuhns takes a different tack, blending the story of the collection with the men who built and cared for it over time. Libraries today may generally be calm and quiet places where nothing particularly exciting ever happens. But such was not the case in the in the first couple of centuries of the Cotton collection. The story of those times makes for some rather exciting reading.

The library was founded by Sir Robert Cotton, beginning at the end of the sixteenth century. He continued to collect into the early decades of the seventeenth, and later both his son and his grandson added to and cared for the library into the eighteenth century. Sir Robert Cotton was an educated man who had a keen interest in books and antiquities and was an avid collector of both. He was also a long-time member of Parliament and believed in the power of knowledge to improve government. Therefore, he made his library available to all members of Parliament. Since Cotton House, his London home, was situated in Westminster, between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, his library was readily accessible to all MPs. Many prominent members took advantage of Sir Robert’s generosity to study the numerous important works in his collection.

For many years, under the reign of James I, the members of Parliament made good use of Sir Robert’s library. They continued to do so under the reign of the king’s son and successor, Charles I. The new king was particularly sensitive about his power and right to kingship. When Sir Robert circulated a pamphlet which had been written years before by Sir Robert Dudley, King Charles had Cotton arrested and imprisoned. Though Sir Robert was eventually released, the king "confiscated" his great library by placing guards in Cotton House. Those guards refused access to anyone who wished to use Sr Robert’s library. Though Sir Robert petitioned for the return of his library, King Charles refused, and it was not until after Sir Robert’s death that the king released it to his son.

Confiscation by the king was just one of many adventures to which the Cotton library was subject as the centuries passed. Over the years, Sir Robert and his son were very generous in loaning books from their collection to scholars. In some cases, those books would not be returned for generations. The Cotton collection was subject to even more severe vicissitudes over the course of its long life, all of which are delineated by Matt Kuhns. Nevertheless, it miraculously survived, essentially intact, to become the foundation of the British Museum Library. Some of the important works in the Cotton collection include the Lindesfarne Gospels, an original copy of the Magna Carta, as well as the only known copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among many others.

However, books are not the only focus of Kuhns’ story. He also provides profiles of several of the men who cared for this great collection over the centuries. Sir Robert Cotton, as well as his son and his grandson, all took a personal interest in this great collection and all of them added to it over the years. But the care of this massive collection of important materials was more than any one man could handle. Therefore, Sir Robert and his descendants hired men of letters to care for and catalog their ever-growing collection. Some of these men were as dedicated to the survival of the library as were the Cottons, but there were others who took advantage of their position to feather their own nests. The history of the Cotton Library is not a dull tale of piles of books and the scholars who cared for them. It is laced with bribery and intrigue, larceny and danger. It is also a story of the discovery of hidden treasure, for Sir Robert Cotton bound a number of smaller works in with others. As time passed, many of these works were forgotten, only to be rediscovered when the collection was cataloged.

Matt Kuhns’ story spans the more than four centuries of the history of the Cotton Library. Though there is only a brief portion of the book specifically devoted to the period of the Regency, many Regency authors may find this book a most useful resource. Should a Regency romance include a great family library or antiquarian collection as a plot point, understanding the development of such a collection and the personalities of the men who built and cared for it will be invaluable in creating an authentic portrayal of its origins. Kuhns also explains how the Cotton Library was catalogued, also information which might aid a Regency author in framing the story of such an effort during the Regency, a time before modern cataloging came into use.

Even authors who are not planning a story centered around an important family library may find this book of interest. As noted above, Cotton’s home in London was situated near the Houses of Parliament in the seventeenth century. Those were the same Houses of Parliament which were still in use during the Regency. To enable his readers to better understand how close Cotton House was to Parliament, Kuhns has included a plan of the Westminster area. This plan shows the location of Cotton House and the original buildings used by the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Even better, this same plan has an overlay of the footprint of the modern Houses of Parliament, which were erected on that same site after the fire which destroyed the original buildings. Authors writing scenes which take place in the Westminster area or the Houses of Parliament in use during the Regency will appreciate this clear and well-drawn plan, based on research by Colin Tite.

I discovered recently that Matt Kuhns has most generously placed high-resolution images of the plan of Westminster, along with the Cotton family tree, and a diagram of the library when it was located in Cotton House, on his blog. Even more generously, he has made these images available for free download by anyone, with his permission to use them as they please. You can find these images at the Cotton’s Library art, charts and maps post at Matt Kuhns blog.

Cotton’s Library:   The Many Perils of Preserving History by Matt Kuhns is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Even though it does not focus on the Regency period, there is a great deal of information in this book which may inspire Regency authors who are planning stories on large old family libraries or antiquarian collections and how they fare over time. The plan of Westminster which shows the original buildings used by the House of Lords and the House of Commons will also help Regency authors who are setting scenes in the Westminster area better understand the lay of the land there. Truth is often stranger than fiction, so, if you love books, libraries, the history of collecting, or the intrigues which are sometimes associated with same, treat yourself to Cotton’s Library:   The Many Perils of Preserving History.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Cotton’s Library by Matt Kuhns

  1. A very generous man, and shame on Charles I who probably deserved everything he got from Cromwell [an age of idiots aspiring to be moronic tyrants, I fear]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I don’t have much use for either Charles I or Cromwell. Charles I was an educated man, but I think he was rather insecure, being a second son. He was also quite arrogant and full of himself. Cromwell was no better, being appallingly self-righteous and hidebound in his attitudes. No wonder most people were sick of him and ready to have Charles II back on the throne!


  2. helenajust says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for including this review.

  3. elfahearn says:

    How fascinating! I grew up in a library, so the idea that one could be the center of intrigue is very cool and an unexplored trope I’d like to try.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If you like libraries, I think you will really enjoy this book, since it is about one of the greatest collections of all time. It also gives you some idea how people in earlier times considered collections of books and other printed materials. Though there are parts which may make you cringe, when you read about some of the terrible things that happened to this collection over time.


  4. Ms. Kane, I really cannot thank you enough for this incredibly generous review. I am humbled by your interest, and very glad that you enjoyed the book!

  5. Pingback: Kathryn Kane reviews Cotton’s Library | Matt Kuhns

  6. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Seriously, all I want is a quiet weekend, and a team of well-equipped movers.

    The background in how these astounding collections grew and were preserved could be very useful in a Regency. Your character (male or female)is hired to straighten out the unwieldy collection the new Lord Seldane has inherited … maybe finding a lost critical document, an unusually valuable book, or just to make the universe work. Please, do NOT try to use the Dewey Decimal system!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are right, there are a number of plot options available to a Regency author in a substantial family library. Just about anything could make an appearance in such a collection.

      The Dewey Decimal system was nearly a century off during the Regency. As noted in the article, most libraries at that time which were large enough to need cataloging used the pressmark system. However, that system did work quite well for at least a couple of centuries, including during the Regency.



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