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The books of Bishop Cosin

Cosin was a great lover of books, as demonstrated by the motto he had put above the entrance to his library: “non minima eruditionis est bonos nosse libros” not the least part of learning is to know good books). It is unclear when exactly he began collecting books, but we know that he kept a collection at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and gathered a great many volumes while exiled in France. When he became Bishop of Durham after his return to England, one of his main priorities was the building of the library. In fact, within a few weeks of his arrival at Durham in 1628 he drew up a new Act of Dean and Chapter for the reform and restauration of their library. He also acted as de facto librarian, at least until 1633-34, when Elias Smith, minor canon, was first paid as keeper of the books, and office which he performed until 1676. In 2005, the library was awarded Designated status by the MLA (the predecessor of Arts Council England) in recognition of its national and international significance.  

Once the library was finished, Cosin merged his various collections and began stocking its shelves. It is listed in his will that the entirety of his book collection was worth £2000 at the time of his death (approximately £227,557 in present day currency). These days, however, the library shelves not only contain books purchased and donated by the Bishop, but also the collections of his successors and early donors, such as Cosin’s agent George Davenport, who added some of the medieval manuscripts, Bishop Edward Maltby (1770-1859) and Thomas Masterman Winterbottom (1766-1859), a physician from South Shields.  

Library contents

The total number of books in Cosin’s library is approximately 4400, containing 5457 editions, of which more than three-quarters came from Cosin or in his time. There are 75 volumes of medieval manuscripts, though only 5 belonged to Cosin himself. Furthermore, there are 21 volumes of post-medieval manuscripts, apart from those which contained his letters and documents, records of the library, and antiquarian collections acquired at a later time. The collection also contains 8 incunabula. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, books acquired by Bishop Cosin were mostly religious in nature, and his library is home to over 50 bibles and biblical commentaries. His collection also contains the original copy of the Convocation articles signed by Bishop John Overall (for whom Cosin worked as a secretary and librarian when he was at Cambridge).

Did you know?

A detailed description of all books and manuscripts in Cosin’s Library collection can be found in the online Durham University Library catalogue. Click here to access the catalogue and browse the collection.