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Cotton, Sir Robert Bruce

COTTON, SIR ROBERT BRUCE, Bart. (1571-1631), English antiquary, the founder of the Cottonian library, born at Denton in Huntingdonshire on the 22nd of January 1571, was a descendant, as he delighted to boast, of Robert Bruce. He was educated at Westminster school under William Camden the antiquary, and at Jesus College, Cambridge. His antiquarian tastes were early displayed in the collection of ancient records, charters and other manuscripts, which had been dispersed from the monastic libraries in the reign of Henry VIII.; and throughout the whole of his life he was an energetic collector of antiquities from all parts of England and the continent. His house at Westminster had a garden going down to the river and occupied part of the site of the present House of Lords. It was the meeting-place in the last years of Elizabeth's reign of the antiquarian society founded by Archbishop Parker. In 1600 Cotton visited the north of England with Camden in search of Pictish and Roman monuments and inscriptions. His reputation as an expert in heraldry led to his being asked by Queen Elizabeth to discuss the question of precedence between the English ambassador and the envoy of Spain, then in treaty at Calais. He drew up an elaborate paper establishing the precedence of the English ambassador. On the accession of James I. he was knighted, and in 1608 he wrote a Memorial on Abuses in the Navy, that resulted in a navy commission, of which he was made a member. He also presented to the king an historical Inquiry into the Crown Revenues, in which he speaks freely about the expenses of the royal household, and asserts that tonnage and poundage are only to be levied in war time, and to "proceed out of good will, not of duty." In this paper he supported the creation of the order of baronets, each of whom was to pay the crown £1000; and in 1611 he himself received the title.

Cotton helped John Speed in the compilation of his History of England (1611), and was regarded by contemporaries as the compiler of Camden's History of Elizabeth. It seems more likely that it was executed by Camden, but that Cotton exercised a general supervision, especially with regard to the story of Mary queen of Scots. The presentation of his mother's history was naturally important to James I., and Cotton himself took a keen interest in the matter. He had had the room in Fotheringay where Mary was executed transferred to his family seat at Connington. Meanwhile he was enlarging his collection of documents. In 1614 Arthur Agarde (q.v.) left his papers to him, and Camden's manuscripts came to him in 1623. In 1615 Cotton, as the intimate of the earl of Somerset, whose innocence he always maintained, was placed in confinement on the charge of being implicated in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury; he confessed that he had acted as intermediary between Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, and Somerset, and had altered the dates of Somerset's correspondence. He was released after about eight months' imprisonment without formal trial, and obtained a pardon on payment of £500. His friendship with Gondomar, Spanish ambassador in England from 1613 to 1621, brought further suspicion, probably undeserved, upon Cotton, of unduly favouring the Catholic party. From Charles I. and Buckingham Cotton received no favour; his attitude towards the court had begun to change, and he became the intimate friend of Sir John Eliot, Sir Simonds d'Ewes and John Selden. He had entered parliament in 1604 as member for Huntingdon; in 1624 he sat for Old Sarum; in 1625 for Thetford; and in 1628 for Castle Rising, Norfolk. In the debate on supply in 1625 Cotton provided Eliot with full notes defending the action of the opposition in parliament, and in 1628 the leaders of the party met at Cotton's house to decide on their policy. In 1626 he gave advice before the council against debasing the standard of the coinage; and in January 1628 he was again before the council, urging the summons of a parliament. His arguments on the latter occasion are contained in his tract entitled The Danger in which the Kingdom now standeth and the Remedy. In October of the next year he was arrested, together with the earls of Bedford, Somerset, and Clare, for having circulated, with ironical purpose, a tract known as the Proposition to bridle Parliament, which had been addressed some fifteen years before by Sir Robert Dudley to James I., advising him to govern by force; the circulation of this by Parliamentarians was regarded as intended to insinuate that Charles's government was arbitrary and unconstitutional. Cotton denied knowledge of the matter, but the original was discovered in his house, and the copies had been put in circulation by a young man who lived after him and was said to be his natural son. Cotton was himself released the next month but the proceedings in the star chamber continued, and, to his intense vexation, his library was sealed up by the king. He died on the 6th of May 1631, and was buried in Connington church, Huntingdonshire, where there is a monument to his memory.

Many of Cotton's pamphlets were widely read in manuscript during his lifetime, but only two of his works were printed, The Reign of Henry III. (1627) and The Danger in which the Kingdom now Standeth (1628). His son, Sir Thomas (1594-1662), added considerably to the Cottonian library; and Sir John, the fourth baronet, presented it to the nation in 1700. In 1731 the collection, which had in the interval been removed to the Strand, and thence to Ashburnham House, was seriously damaged by fire. In 1753 it was transferred to the British Museum.

See the article Libraries, and Edwards's Lives of the Founders of the British Museum, vol. i. Several of Cotton's papers have been printed under the title Cottoni Posthuma; others were published by Thomas Hearne.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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