The Cotton Library Fire That Destroyed Unique Literature from History
If it had not been for the efforts of one man, several more manuscripts would have been lost from history.
On a cold October night, Dr Richard Bentley, the librarian of one of the most extensive collections of original manuscripts, was settling down. A fire had been lit in some rooms, but the warmth did not penetrate the floors above where the books were.
It was then that he smelt smoke stronger than what would have been expected from a regular fireplace. The smoke increased, and then the flames arrived.
The man had little time to think. The flames were approaching some of the most unique works in literature. All would be lost if he did not do something, he started throwing the volumes out of the window.
His efforts were not in vain; he saved many essential works from destruction. The collection belonged to Sir Robert Cotton and was known as the Cotton Library.
Sir Robert Cotton
Cotton was born in 1571 and became among the greatest British literature collectors ever. His library was vast, spanning many walls, and contained some of the nation's most significant works.
Cotton collected original manuscripts and boasted in his collection of two copies of the Magna Carta, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and state papers belonging to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
When he died seventy years later, his manuscripts were given to the nation, forming the first foundation collection in the New British Museum.
The manuscripts and books were originally housed at Essex House on The Strand. Ironically, the location was deemed a fire hazard, and the books were transferred to Ashburnham House. Many have stated what an unfortunate name this was.
On the night of 23rd October 1731, a terrible fire broke out. It is thought that the fireplace on the floor below the library caused this.
Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and several others who tried to rescue the books, many of them were severely damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish the fire.
Some of the volumes were destroyed. One of these was the Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex.
The following day, the Westminster school boys were seen gathering fragments of manuscripts floating in the air. Some of these survive to this day.
During the 19th Century, the British Museum completed a vast restoration project. Burnt volumes were carefully separated, their pages flattered and inlaid in paper mounts and rebound.
One of the surviving volumes was a copy of King John's Magna Carta from 1215. This is the only copy with the Great Seal fixed; sadly, the seal has been rendered illegible due to the fire and the efforts to save the text.
Although a little burned around the edges, the pages of Beowulf had been inlaid and rebound.
Most of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire and are entirely intact; Dr Bentley rescued many more from doom, dressed in only a wig and a nightgown, who acted so quickly.
The Cotton Library contained over 950 manuscripts, and it is estimated only twenty were lost to the fire, thanks to the actions of one man.
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