Unmatched Antiquary

Blair Worden

  • Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631: History and Politics in Early Modern England by Kevin Sharpe
    Oxford, 293 pp, £12.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 19 821877 X

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.