Robert Cotton

It is unknown what happened with the Utrecht Psalter after the twelfth century, when it left Canterbury and how it got into the hands of the famous book collector Robert Cotton (1570-1631). Cotton belonged to the landed gentry, his family lived in Huntingdonshire. He went to Westminster School, where he became a pupil of the antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623). This sparked off an interest in history, antiquities and books. He was also an early member of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, and would later go with Camden on field trips, as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Before and after the death of queen Elizabeth, which happened in 1603, Cotton showed himself a staunch supporter of the ascension to the throne of the Scottish king James. He even claimed Scottish decent himself, and began to sign documents as Robert Bruce Cotton, after Robert de Bruce, the medieval Scottish monarch he regarded as his ancestor. From the king he received a knighthood and the title of baron of Conington.

Collecting manuscripts

Robert Cotton started collecting medieval manuscripts from at least 1588 onwards. In 1599 he acquired the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript from around 750 which was probably made in Canterbury. He placed it in the library of his house in the Blackfriars in London. In 1621 a begin was made with a more or less systematic cataloguing of Cotton’s library. The inventory of the still expanding collection was written in a manuscript now London, British Library, Harley 6018. On 146 folios numbers 1 to 413 are recorded, in various hands and over a couple of years. On folio 98r the entry no. 207 is added with lead pencil:

Psalmi Davidis Latine literis Romanis (que in usu circa imperii inclinatis tempora) exarati, iisque maiusculis, cum schematis non impari vetustate passim intertextis.

The psalms of David in Latin, written in Roman letters (which were in use about the time of the downfall of the empire), and these in majuscules, with old unadorned drawings continuously interspersed.

This is the earliest extant literary reference to the Utrecht Psalter, and it shows that it was thought that it belonged to the period of the Late Roman Empire.

From Canterbury to London

It is likely that the Utrecht Psalter came into the hands of collectors somewhere after the dissolution of Christ Church abbey in 1539. If so, Cotton acquired it without or with only a few intermediaries, for he first bound it with a charter of king Hlotar of Kent to the Benedictine abbey at Reculver dated to 679, as is written in the list of contents in the manuscript itself. Reculver had later been claimed by the archbishops of Canterbury, to whom it was finally given by king Eadred in 949. The charter thus provides a clear link between the Utrecht Psalter and Canterbury, and it is likely that Cotton acquired the Utrecht Psalter and the charter from the same source.

At the binder

When the Utrecht Psalter was at the binder its edges were trimmed but afterwards Cotton had the charter removed. He stored it separately in a portfolio which later received the pressmark Augustus II (the Reculver charter is nr. 2). The remainder of the Utrecht Psalter, adjoined by fragments of a Northumbrian gospel book (see ch. 12), was bound in a morocco binding with Cotton’s own crest in gold. Various other manuscripts, mostly the more precious ones, were bound in a similar manner.

Emperor Valentinian

Robert Cotton also wrote his signature on one of the flyleaves. Another hand wrote the list of contents, which he only did in Cotton’s most important manuscripts. The hand is not identified, so it is referred to as the ‘stylized hand’. After a summary of the contents of the psalter the unknown scribe adds that the figures are all illustrated in the Roman fashion (Romano habitu), and that they date from the time of emperor Valentinian. The Utrecht Psalter contains the Gallican version of the Vulgate translation of the psalms made by Jerome in the 380s at the request of pope Damasus, so we can be certain that the scribe had Valentinian III (emperor 425-55) in mind. He also noted the pressmark Claudius C.7. These notations were probably made in the late 1620s, after the Utrecht Psalter had been borrowed and returned by James Ussher (1581-1656).

James Ussher borrows the Utrecht Psalter

Ussher lectured theology at Trinity College, Dublin, where he also became the vice-chancellor. In 1621 he became bishop of Meath, but often stayed in England for his studies. On 12 July 1625, a few months after he had been nominated as the new archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, Ussher wrote a letter to Cotton, stating that he had received a number of books from him, including four old psalters. One of these is certainly the Vespasian Psalter, the other three are simply named Gallican psalters. In one of Ussher’s notebooks (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Add. A. 91) we find a more detailed description of the psalters in question. It includes a psalter which Ussher thinks is the oldest copy he knows of, written in majuscule letters before 1000 years ago. He notes that each psalm has been decorated by ‘very old drawings in a truly Roman expression’ (pictura antiquissima et vere Romana expressione). This manuscript can be no other than the Utrecht Psalter. It is certain that Ussher studied the content of the Utrecht Psalter in some detail, but he would publish the results as late as 1647, and by that time the manuscript was considered lost (see ch. 13).

A suspect library

Around this time, Cotton’s library was moved to a house – which was henceforth called Cotton House – which was part of the Palace of Westminster. Many scholars and noblemen borrowed manuscripts and books from the library, which added to Cotton’s reputation. This offered him opportunities to extend his scholarly and political networks, and to advice on many matters, political or otherwise. Yet documents from his library were also used to attack the position of James favourite courtier, Charles Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. This earned him a dangerous enemy. In 1625 James was succeeded by his son Charles, and Buckingham now rose to the pinnacle of power, practically dictating politics. Within a year, one of his main rivals, Thomas Howard (1585-1646), Earl of Arundel, was imprisoned in the Tower for two years. Arundel was a vivid collector of art, especially of paintings and drawings of old and contemporary masters, and had become a close friend and a patron of Cotton. Even during his confinement he borrowed books from his library.

Political rivalries

Cotton initially remained in the king’s favour, and the publication in 1627 of Short view of the long life and reign of King Henry the Third, and of The dangers wherein the kingdom now standeth, and the remedye a year later showed that he tried to solve the political crisis of his time. He urged the king to summon parliament, to heed their advice and to avert factionalism. This plea was well received by the court: Arundel was released and parliament was summoned. But in August 1628 Buckingham was murdered by a disgruntled officer, and late in 1629 Villiers’ supporters hit back by charging Cotton with circulating a pamphlet which advocated an absolute monarchy. This was hardly a cause Cotton would support, and he was certainly not the author of it. The pamphlet was actually based on an old document, which Cotton had lent to another man to be copied. Cotton claimed to have no knowledge of this and its use. Cotton was soon released, but his library remained closed, and some papers were confiscated. It was still regarded as a storehouse of sources which could support anti-royalist tendencies.

The Earl of Arundel borrows manuscripts

It is probably against this background that we have to view the borrowing of seven books from Cotton’s library by Arundel in the beginning of 1630. Five of these he had already borrowed before, and their contents reflect the interests of Arundel himself, such as the office of royal marshall (which Arundel occupied at the time), chivalric orders (Rubens painted him with the insignia of the Order of the Garter), travel, the coronation of Henry III, and the realm during the reign of Elizabeth. Somewhat of an outsider is the illuminated Lovell Lectionary of the early fifteenth century. The other two manuscripts are named first on the list, in similar descriptions:

  1. An auncient coppie of Genesis in Greeke in capitall letters and pictures, bound in redd lether with Sir Robert Cottons armes.  fol.
  2. An auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures. Bound in redd lether with Sir Robert Cottons armes.  fol.

The first is the Cotton Genesis (now London, British Library, Cotton Otho B 4).  In the 1621 catalogue of Cotton’s library it is described as:

Genesis grece literis maiusculis et ornatur figuris Romanorum habitum pretendentibus. Liber quondam divi Originis.

Genesis in Greek majuscule letters and decorated with figures ostensibly in the Roman fashion. A book once of the divine Origen.

Indeed, so sure he was of this dating that in 1625 he ordered Cornelius Janssen to paint him while holding the manuscript. The inscription on the painting dates it to circa annum Domini CC, and adds that the codex had been Origen’s († 253/4), but was now in the Cottonian Library. Cotton himself related that the two Greek bishops who had given the manuscript to Henry VIII claimed it had belonged to Origen.

The oldest manuscripts in the collection

The Cotton Genesis is now dated to the late fifth century, and we know that it was in Venice for several centuries before it was brought to England by an Englishman. Yet it is clear that Cotton considered it to be the oldest of his decorated manuscripts. And no doubt the Utrecht Psalter came second, although the dating was here even further off. It is thus hardly a coincidence that we find the two named consecutively in the list of manuscripts Arundel borrowed after the library was closed and Cotton’s future looked bleak. It has been argued that Cotton lent the Genesis manuscript to Arundel as a means of extricating it from his sequestered library. If so, this would equally have applied to the Utrecht Psalter. One can imagine that these two were, on account of their old age, decorations and state, regarded as the most venerable manuscripts in his entire collection, and that Cotton entrusted them to his good friend Arundel for safekeeping in these uncertain times. Arundel was interested in classical art, but not specifically in manuscripts from that period, even if his own collection contained a number of old exemplars as well.

Borrowed or stolen?

In the course of 1630 Arundel was regaining the king’s favour, but Cotton’s library remained closed until a commission had examined it. In the end of November 1630 their decision was favourable to Cotton, and he was admitted to royal favour. Yet it was too late: due to all the troubles Cotton had fallen ill, and died in May 1631. It appears that Arundel never returned the Cotton Genesis and the Utrecht Psalter (and perhaps other manuscripts) to the library. Although there is no hard evidence, scholars agree that Arundel kept them in his possession when he went to the Continent in 1642 (see ch. 13). Apart from a three-months’ stay in London in 1873 (see ch. 15), the Utrecht Psalter would never return to Britain again.

Further reading

For the main part, this article is based on:

Bart Jaski, ‘The oldest datings of the Utrecht Psalter: rudimentary palaeography in the early seventeenth century’, Quaerendo 45 (2015), pp. 125-143.

See also:

Katherine Birkwood, ‘“Our learned primate” and that “rare treasurie”: James Ussher’s use of Sir Robert Cotton’s manuscript library, c. 1603-1655’, in: Library & Information History 26 no. 1 (2010), pp. 33-42.

Michelle P. Brown, ‘Sir Robert Cotton, collector and connoisseur’, in: Illuminating the book: makers and interpreters. Essays in Honour of Janet Backhouse, eds. Michelle P. Brown & Scot McKendrick (London 1998), pp. 281-298.

R. Buick Knox, James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (Cardiff 1967).

James Carley, ‘Thomas Wakefield, Robert Wakefield and the Cotton Genesis’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 12 no. 3 (2002), pp. 246-265.

Mary F. S. Hervey, The life, correspondence and collections of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (Cambridge 1921; repr. New York 1969).

Koert van der Horst, ‘The Utrecht Psalter: picturing the psalms of David’, in The Utrecht Psalter in medieval art: picturing the psalms of David, eds. K. van der Horst, W. Noel & W. C. M. Wüstefeld (’t Goy 1996), pp. 22-84.

Koert van der Horst & Jacobus H. A. Engelbregt, Utrecht Psalter. Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe  […]: Kommentar (Graz 1984).

Kevin Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: history and politics in early modern England (Oxford 1979).

Colin G. C. Tite, ‘The early catalogues of the Cottonian Library’, British Library Journal 6 (1980), pp. 144-157.

Colin G. C. Tite, The manuscript library of Sir Robert Cotton. The Panizzi Lectures 1993 (London 1994).

Colin G. C. Tite, ‘“Lost or stolen or strayed”: a survey of manuscripts formerly in the Cotton Library’, in: Sir Robert Cotton as collector. Essays on an early Stuart courtier and his legacy, ed. C. J. Wright (London 1997), pp. 262-306.

Colin G. C. Tite, The early records of Sir Robert Cotton's library: formation, cataloguing, use (London 2003).

Kurt Weitzmann & Herbert L. Kessler, The Cotton Genesis. The illustrations in the manuscripts of the Septuagint 1 (Princeton 1986).