THE manuscript collection that was founded by Sir Robert Cotton in the 1580s passed by inheritance first to his son, Thomas, and then to his grandson, John. In 1702, on the death of John and in accordance with the intentions of Sir Robert, it became national property, and fifty years later it entered the British Museum as one of the foundation collections. This orderly succession, disturbed only by the damage wrought by fire in 1731, does not appear to provide occasion for the haemorrhaging that often occurs in a great collection on the death of its founder or the immediate heirs. In consequence, little attention has been given to the losses that the Cotton library suffered while in private ownership and, although a few instances are well known, the reputation of Sir Robert asa collector who was certainly acquisitive and perhaps greedy, and of his successors asmen who regarded themselves as custodians of a holy relic, has conveyed the impression that the manuscript library remained substantially inviolate.
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