A Fire in the Library
On October 23, 1731, a man stumbled out of one of the great homes of London, wearing a night robe and clutching the most valuable possession in his care. He was Dr. Bentley. The house was Ashburnham House, which was unfortunately well named, because it was burning up. The book was a copy of the Bible that had been hand-written twelve hundred years before.
Dr. Bently was the librarian for the Cotton Library, which was burning up with the house. Choosing one book to save must have been as painful for him as choosing one child to live. The library held so many irreplaceable treasures that it was itself an irreplaceable treasure.
At first, it was the personal collection of Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet, (1570/71 to 1631) that he kept in a room 26 by 6 feet (7.9 by 1.8 metres). At one end of each bookshelf was a printing press with a carved head of some famous person from Classical times: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the minor Roman emperor Vitellius, and eleven more. To find a book, one would be directed to the bookshelf marked by a particular head, a specific shelf designated top to bottom by a letter, and a book indicated by a number showing its position on the shelf. For example, a book might be catalogued as Cotton Nero D iv: the fourth book on the fourth shelf from the top of the bookshelf with the Emperor Nero beside it. At the time Robert Cotton's death, the library had almost a thousand volumes.
The books and manuscripts on those shelves were, in many cases, ones that had been sold when King Henry VIII had confiscated the property of the monasteries throughout the United Kingdom between 1536 and 1541. Some of these monasteries had been founded in Anglo-Saxon times, many others in the Middle Ages, so their libraries held most of the surviving books in Old English and Middle English. A few items were saved for the King by John Leland, and others by a few private collectors, but others were sold individually for the value of the precious metals and stones on their covers, and the rest sold in bulk. According to John Bale, writing in 1549, pages from these were used as toilet paper, to clean candlesticks or to polish boots. Still, many valuable books and manuscripts had been neither destroyed nor collected in Robert Cotton's time, and he set out to locate and purchase them.
Cotton became a politician in 1601, during the reign of James I. His dual love of books and politics caused problems for both himself and his library. Although the library was popular with lawyers, scholars, and politicians, studying it deeply convinced Cotton that kings should trust parliament's advice in matters “of marriage, peace, and warre.” Writing this opinion in 1628 put Cotton on the enemies list of King Charles I. He was, therefore, charged with treason in 1629, and his library was closed to all use in 1630. Cotton died, according to some “of a broken heart,” in 1631.
The library was not returned to his family until after the English Civil War, the reign of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of Charles II. In 1700, Cotton's heirs donated it back to the government and country, which did not demonstrate much gratitude by looking after the gift. Cotton House slid into ruin, so the library was then moved first to Essex House, which was judged to be a fire-trap, and then Ashburnham House, which was one.
Dr. Bentley woke up to the smell of smoke on that 23 October 1731. The librarians had to smash bookcases and throw books and manuscripts out of the window to save as many as possible. About a quarter of the collection was destroyed or damaged. One of the damaged ones, luckier than most, was Vitellius A.xv. Its pages were smoke-damaged and their edges, blackened, crumbling, and sticking together. Parts of some words are missing at the ends of lines. However, this book is the only source we have of the long poem Beowulf.