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The English politician, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, began collecting original manuscripts in 1588, an activity which continued until his death in 1631. The library was catalogued by Thomas Smith and published in Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecae Cottonianae, in Oxford in 1696. Cotton housed his collection in a room 25 ft (7.62 m) by 6 ft (1.83 m) filled with bookcases. Each bookcase had a bust of a figure from antiquity on the top.

The collection was classified by the name of the figure on the bookcase, followed by a letter which designated the shelf and a Roman numeral indicating the position of the manuscript counting from the left. Thus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Nero B.iv, was the fourth manuscript from the left on the second shelf (shelf B) of the bookcase under the bust of Nero. This rather odd method of cataloguing is still used to refer to manuscripts from the Cottonian Library, so that the manuscript of Beowulf is designated Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv, and the manuscript of Gawain and the Green Knight is Cotton MS Nero A.x.

Cotton’s library was described as the largest collection of manuscripts formed by a private individual and formed an important part of the British Museum collection, which later became the British Library.

In 1700 the collection was willed to the nation and was moved to Ashburnham House in Westminster. However, on 23 October 1731 a disastrous fire broke out. 114 of the 958 manuscripts were “lost, burnt or intirely spoiled” and another 98 were damaged enough to be considered defective.

A contemporary account describes the librarian, librarian, Dr. Bentley, leaping from a window with the priceless Codex Alexandrinus under one arm.

The Beowulf manuscript was damaged and was reported in The Gentleman’s magazine.

Among the manuscripts totally destroyed were Asser’s Life of Alfred and the sole copy of The Battle of Maldon which had fortunately been transcribed by the keeper of the collection, John Elphinstone (or possibly his assistant, David Casley), but the front and back pages were already missing from the manuscript (possibly around 50 lines each) – an earlier catalogue described it as fragmentum capite et calce mutilatum (‘mutilated at head and heel’).

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton
image: Wikimedia

The first page of Gawain and the Green Knight
image: Wikimedia