In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Unmatched AntiquaryBlair Worden
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England 
by Kevin Sharpe.
Oxford, 293 pp., £12.50, November 1980, 9780198218777
Show More
Show More

In the early 17th century, more perhaps than in any period of our history, political argument was argument about the past: about precedents and about pedigrees. Sir Robert Cotton, an antiquary in politics, is a perfect focus for a study of the connections between antiquarian research and political conflict. History, an anchor in the choppy seas of political and social change, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversy: Cotton, as Mr Sharpe shows, became to monarchs and parliaments alike the arbiter of controversial historical evidence. A distinguished 18th-century antiquary recalled without exaggeration that Cotton had been ‘consulted as an oracle by the privy councillors and greatest men in the kingdom upon every difficult point relating to the constitution’. Cotton’s friend Sir Simonds D’Ewes called him ‘that unmatched antiquary’, ‘the famous antiquary of Europe’.

His fame derived principally from his library, that unrivalled collection of manuscripts, books, coins and inscribed statues which he so liberally made available to his contemporaries, and which was to become a cornerstone of the library of the British Museum. ‘The list of those borrowing from the library,’ observes Mr Sharpe in an excellent chapter on the Cotton collection, ‘reads like a Who’s Who of the Jacobean administration.’ Men sought Cotton’s company as well as his books. In his youth, a friend noted, his London home was ‘the rendezvous of all good and honest spirits ... it seemed a kind of university.’ John Selden and the historian John Speed acknowledged their profound debts to him. Among many literary acquaintances, Ben Jonson was a close friend over a long period. Like Cotton, Jonson was a pupil at Westminster of the great historian William Camden, with whom Cotton formed perhaps the most important friendship of his life.

Any age can mock the values of another. Cotton’s antiquarianism is at times a tempting target. Member of Parliament for the archetypal rotten borough of Old Sarum, devoted historian of the offices of Earl Marshal and Warden of the Cinque Ports, he traced his ancestry to Robert the Bruce, called himself Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, and rebuilt the Bruce castle on his Huntingdonshire estate. His first political commission, in 1601, was to produce a tract which would demonstrate the claim of the English ambassador at the French court to precedence over the Spanish ambassador. Mr Sharpe (who creditably resists temptation) remarks that ‘the political thought of Elizabethan antiquarianism was well summarised’ in the pamphlet Cotton produced: ‘The English nation commanded precedence as the older political unit and earlier Christian kingdom. Castile was scarcely more than five hundred years old, where England could boast a thousand years of monarchy. Joseph of Arimathea had planted Christianity throughout England shortly after the Passion of Christ; not until the days of Ferdinand and Isabella was Spain fully christianised ...’

Mr Sharpe’s book, the fruit of accomplished and enterprising research, is (if we exclude an eccentric biography by Helen Mirrlees published in 1962) the first detailed study of Cotton since the 17th century. For all the skill and tenacity with which Mr Sharpe has combed the sources, Cotton remains a hard man to know. The preface reminds us that the book ‘is not a biography’. Possibly it should have been: possibly Mr Sharpe, who rightly suspects that ‘a strict narrative of Cotton’s life’ would not have brought out his full significance, has mistaken the problems of a chronological approach for the pitfalls of a biographical one. There certainly seems something unduly austere about a study of Cotton which does not disclose the year of his birth or tell us whom or when he married. There is no mention of Cotton’s journey to Italy. The vexed question of Cotton’s religious persuasions is bypassed, and his plea for a return to the evangelical Protestantism of Archbishop Grindal finds no place.

Even a straightforwardly biographical approach, however, would have encountered the dearth of revealing contemporary comment about Cotton’s aims and character. We have to try to understand him through his deeds and his writings. Mr Sharpe has seen that Cotton, by virtue of the range of his connections, can lead the historian to a host of prominent contemporaries. At its best, the book is like a spotlight roaming back and forth along a rich gallery of Jacobean portraits. Cotton himself, however, remains largely in the shadows. Mr Sharpe respects Cotton’s antiquarian concerns, but he cannot bring them to life.

Perhaps, to have done so, he would have needed to share them. Take, for example, Cotton’s contribution, particularly as a numismatist, to the composition of Camden’s Britannia, a contribution which became especially important when the two men visited the North together in 1599. Why is Britannia, even today, so magnetic a book? At least part of the answer lies in Cotton’s equation of his country’s identity with its history, in his application of new techniques of archaeology, etymology and topography to unveil that history, and in his use of those techniques to separate fact from myth. Mr Sharpe legitimately questions whether the separation was as complete as is sometimes supposed. But unless the reader has a stronger sense of the freshness and excitement of discovery than he is given here, Cotton’s antiquarian pursuits are bound to seem a little bloodless.

Those pursuits are not, for Mr Sharpe, Cotton’s only claim to a prominent place in the history of ideas. We are presented with a picture of Cotton as a member of the European avant-garde, as an exponent of the new ‘politic history’, and as a follower of the French legist-historians and of Machiavelli and Botero. The evidence for these claims seems decidedly thin. What was it about Cotton that English scholars like Camden, Speed and Ussher, and their Continental counterparts like Casaubon and Peiresc, so admired? They enjoyed his company and his correspondence, his ‘peculiar courtesy’ and his ‘utmost civility’; they were profusely grateful for access to his library; and they profited beyond measure from the expertise which he brought to the study of manuscripts, coins, medals and inscriptions. But on other matters? Mr Sharpe does show, most interestingly, that Cotton probably had a greater role than has been realised, and Camden a correspondingly smaller one, in the story of James I’s attempt to commission a history of the reign of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, which would exonerate her from complicity in the Darnley murder. Yet what evidence is there to support the assertions that Cotton ‘played an important part’ in Camden’s adoption of the philosophy of ‘civil history’, and that he was the ‘central influence’ in Speed’s adoption of a historical approach ‘in which here and there the pre-occupations of the present were evident in the portrait of the past’?

Mr Sharpe seems to me to exaggerate the extent to which Cotton absorbed the ideas of Hotman, of Bodin (from whom, Mr Sharpe suggests, Cotton acquired the concept of indivisible sovereignty) and of other modern French writers. That is a matter of judgment. But the claim that Cotton ‘introduced’ Selden and Spelman to the influence of those writers appears to be no more than an optimistic guess. The treatment of Cotton’s indebtedness to Classical literature and to its Renaissance interpreters is scarcely more persuasive. Cotton’s ‘values and ideas’, we are told, ‘owed much to the ideals of classical Rome’. At a superficial level, that was true of most Jacobean intellectuals. If we want to locate the springs of Cotton’s thought, we need to make a distinction, which is not made here, between the common language of the age and the original or penetrating idea, between that which is conventionally recited and that which is urgently felt. Mr Sharpe gives us to understand that Cotton derived from his studies the belief that the Roman Empire had been ‘a pattern of best government’. The phrase proves to be no more than a decorative aside in Cotton’s discussion of the stability of the coinage.

Much is made of a manuscript list of ‘maxims’ by Cotton which also appear in his History of Henry the Third, and which Mr Sharpe calls ‘Machiavellian’. The Jacobean period is the great age of the maxim, of Baconian aphorism and country-house Tacitism. Are Cotton’s specimens particularly surprising or impressive? They seem less impressive than the source from which Mr Sharpe shows Cotton to have derived some of them: the papers of his patron, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton. The earl (who did unambiguously grasp the theory of indivisible sovereignty) could intelligently weigh the authority of Polybius against that of Aristotle, Bodin’s against that of Tacitus. No one would describe Howard as a profound or original thinker, but his response to new intellectual influences seems to have been sharper than his client’s.

There is no evidence that Cotton read Machiavelli. There is no evidence either that he read Botero. Here Mr Sharpe’s method of argument becomes disconcerting. His source is a manuscript ‘Topographical Description of England’, the anonymous author of which refers to Cotton in passing as ‘my noble assister in this work’. The context suggests that Cotton was being thanked, as he was so often thanked, for technical advice, in this instance on ancient stones. Mr Sharpe is intent on giving Cotton a larger role in the composition of the document. Having first persuaded himself, by reasoning which is not explained, that Cotton was the ‘co-author’ of the work, he then gently extracts the pen from the anonymous author’s hand and places it in Cotton’s. The way is thus prepared for the statement that ‘in a marginal reference ... Cotton acknowledged the work of Giovanni Botero.’ The marginal reference would, as it happens, tell us little even if Cotton could be shown to have been responsible for it. Mr Sharpe acknowledges that it does not point to the work of Botero which he would most like Cotton to have read. Yet, before we know where we are, we are informed that ‘Botero was clearly an important influence on Cotton.’ The point is clinched for Mr Sharpe by the fact that ‘like Botero, Cotton saw the necessity for order and sovereignty; like him he saw in the classical past the models for a great ruler.’ Faint and predictable parallels, mere reminders of the everyday intellectual currency of the age, become in Mr Sharpe’s eyes decisive evidence of direct influence.

The enthusiasm which has sometimes spurred Mr Sharpe to run ahead of his evidence in his assessment of Cotton’s importance in the history of ideas has produced happier results in the two chapters which describe Cotton’s political career. Committing himself at the right moment to James I’s succession, Cotton subsequently enjoyed a rapid political ascent as the factotum of Northampton, on whose career Mr Sharpe gives us fresh light. Perhaps Cotton learned bad habits from that unscrupulous patron. The antiquary stole manuscripts, forged dates on incriminating documents during the Overbury scandal, and appears to have had the knack of deserting allies when they most needed him.

But Mr Sharpe, whose view of Jacobean political morality is benevolently tolerant, attaches greater significance to Cotton’s more constructive activities. In the opening years of James I’s reign we watch Cotton making significant contributions to the formation and implementation of foreign policy, to government initiatives concerning Roman Catholics and enclosures, to the scheme for union with Scotland, and to the work of Northampton’s commission to investigate abuses in the Navy. Northampton saw in the commission an opportunity to discredit his rival Salisbury, and in 1610 Northampton and Cotton collaborated again to try to outbid Salisbury’s Great Contract. Mr Sharpe credits Cotton with a further attempt to relieve the Crown’s financial embarrassment, the successful proposal for the sale of baronetcies in 1611.

After Northampton’s death in 1614 Cotton continued to cultivate the Howards, and consequently became a member of the Arundel circle – although Mr Sharpe subtly brings out Cotton’s ability to keep his distance from his patrons when it suited him. Cotton’s role in the politics of the 1620s is often as elusive as that of most politicians in a decade distinguished by complex alliances and by anguished changes of heart. The evidence gives out at critical moments. But Mr Sharpe shows clearly Cotton’s commitment to ‘good counsel’, his fear of over-mighty subjects, and his belief in strong and effective government. In certain circumstances, parliaments could be instruments of good rule: in others, they might become instruments of faction. Mr Sharpe shows, too, the importance of Cotton’s library, situated as it was within yards of the House of Commons, as an arsenal of parliamentary precedents, and demonstrates Cotton’s growing willingness, as political tension mounted, to compromise his scholarly standards in pursuit of political strategies.

Yet Cotton could be courageous: nowhere more so than in his political pamphlets. Occasionally those documents present problems. Some of the difficulties are bibliographical, and Mr Sharpe could perform a helpful service by publishing a list of Cotton’s writings. Other difficulties concern Cotton’s motives. His brief History of Henry the Third, a bold and transparent analogy with his own times, was published in 1627 as an attack on Buckingham. But it seems to have been written in 1614 or 1615, and its criticisms of royal prodigality and favouritism and of the influence of ‘strangers’ in politics contrast curiously with Cotton’s support for Somerset. The circumstances of Cotton’s arrest after the parliament of 1629 and of the government’s closure of his library, ostensibly punishments for Cotton’s publication of a manuscript favouring arbitrary rule, likewise remain mysterious. Mr Sharpe’s treatment of these matters is a little tentative. What one sometimes misses in his political analysis is the pulse of political activity and conflict. It is not always easy to tell, amidst fair but bland phrases about the ‘values’ of Cotton and his friends, quite why politicians got so angry with each other. Nevertheless, one must applaud the dexterity with which Mr Sharpe has found his way round the maze of Jacobean and Caroline politics. He has succeeded impressively in drawing Cotton’s antiquarian and constitutional preoccupations together and in placing them, as they deserve to be placed, in the centre of the political stage.

In an age of rising printing costs and declining printing standards we have come to expect a sprinkling of misprints in academic books, but not quite as many as we find in this most useful contribution to early Stuart studies.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 2 No. 5 · 20 March 1980

SIR: Your reviewer Blair Worden (LRB, 21 February) has a name for flaying historians of eminent reputation to within an inch of their lives. A young scholar escaping lightly with a few strokes might, therefore, be expected to express relief. But a feeling of relief in the author should not override a duty to the reader – and it is the reader of Dr Worden’s review of Sir Robert Cotton who is most abused.

Dr Worden takes most exception to my claims for Cotton’s importance in the history of ideas. He argues – correctly – that it is impossible to prove the direct influence of classical and Italian histories upon his thought. But he neglects to inform the reader that Cotton turned from detailed antiquarian investigations to lighter ‘politic histories’ containing aphorisms and political lessons. To Dr Worden Cotton’s maxims are not ‘impressive’. This is a curious term. A student of the history of ideas should surely seek to understand and analyse ideas, not, as Dr Worden seems to desire, award marks for novelty or progressiveness. Cotton may not have been an original or always incisive thinker, but his attitudes are no less (perhaps they are more) important for that.

Dr Worden misses, too, in my account ‘the pulse of political activity and conflict’. But a study of Cotton reveals a world of less division and conflict than historians have supposed – or than Dr Worden would like. Dr Worden suggests, justifiably, that in parts I might have adopted a different approach. But he also reveals an (unhistorical) wish that Cotton had been otherwise than he was.

Kevin Sharpe
Department of History, Southampton University

Vol. 2 No. 6 · 3 April 1980

SIR: I suppose that, lest silence be taken for assent, I must reply to Mr Sharpe’s sorry letter (Letters, 20 March). In my review I emphasised the virtues of his able and valuable book. I also argued, civilly, that there are points of substance where his thesis is weak. On none of those points does Mr Sharpe offer an answer. Indeed, he now seems to have shifted his ground so far that it is hard to see why he thinks that the reader, for whose welfare he professes so edifying a concern, has been ‘abused’ by my review rather than by his book. His sole reply is to attribute to me, and to attribute my objections to, views to which I would no more subscribe than he would.

As for ‘conflict’, I can only think that Mr Sharpe, whenever he sees the word, associates it with a particular view of early 17th-century politics with which I was not, in fact, concerned. There is ample evidence of conflict – or, if he prefers, of intense factional rivalry – in Mr Sharpe’s book. My point, which was politely made, was that at times he might have done more to bring it to life. But I can see how so straightforward an observation could be misunderstood by an author resolved to interpret respectful criticism as personal vindictiveness.

Blair Worden
St Edmund Hall, Oxford

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.