Beowulf: Ashburnham House Fire
The Beowulf manuscript was damaged in a fire in Ashburnham House on October 23, 1731.

It may have been kept in monasteries from when it was created in the early eleventh century until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536-1540, which may have caused it to eventually be acquired by Laurence Nowell, dean of Lichfield, who then apparently gave it to Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, who lived from 1571-1631. In 1700 Robert Cotton's grandson John Cotton gave the Cotton Library to the British people. It was cared for by a committee which included Humfrey Wanley, who mentioned it in his 1705 Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. The manuscript was stored in Sir Robert Cotton's house until 1722, then transferred to Essex House, and then to Ashburnham House. Hand-transcriptions of the manuscript were made 56 years after the fire in 1787 and 1789 by Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin and his assistants. It was described by the historian Sharon Turner in his 1805 book The History of the Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language, of the Anglo Saxons. A partial translation of it was published by John Josias Conybeare in 1826. An Old-English transcription of it was published by John Mitchell Kemble in 1835, who also published a translation in 1837. Eight years later (114 years after the fire), in August, 1845, the 70 pages of the manuscript were each mounted in paper frames by Henry Gough.

Here is the "full record display" information, transcribed from the British Library Public Catalog, for the The Gentleman's Magazine issues from 1731. The British Library website address is, and the BLPC website is

Title: The Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer ... By Sylvanus Urban. vol. 1. no. 1-12. Jan.-Dec. 1731.
Additional headings: URBAN. Sylvanus. pseud.
Publication details: London: the author, 1731. 8o.
Shelfmark: C.123.fff.5.
Notes: The imprints vary. The numbers for Jan.-June and Aug.-Nov. are of the earliest edition. No. 1 has no separate titlepage; this has been replaced by a collective titlepage for 1731, bearing the title as above, and the imprint "London: printed, and sold at St. John's Gate, by F. Jefferies in Ludgate-street, and by the booksellers in town and country, 1732".

Here are images of three pages from the October, 1731 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine. The announcement about the Ashburnham House fire is at the bottom of the third page.

Here is a text version of page 451 from the October, 1731 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine. The paragraph at the bottom of the page relates to the Ashburnham House fire. The name of Dr. Bently is spelled in the magazine as it is on this page: as Bently, and then as Bentley.

Vol. I. Preferments, Marriages and Casualties 451

    Dr. Francis Hare, Bp of St Asaph, elected Bp of Chichester.
    Mr John Pennington, presented to the Rectory of All Saints, and St
Mary's, in the Town of Huntingdon.
    Mr Henry Bland, presented to the Rectory of Gadmay, in the Diocese
of Lincoln.
    Mr Lavington, Prebendary-treasurer of Worcester, appointed one of the
Residentiaries of St Paul's; and,
    Dr Powel, appointed Dean of St Asaph; both Places vacant by the
Death of Dr Stanley.
    Mr Ilive of Kensington, presented to the Vicarage of Hesson, near Houn-
sow, in Middlesex.
    Dr Lee, Brother to Mr Justice Lee, made Official of Canterbury, in
the Room of the late Dr Sayer.
    Dr Tyrwhit, Son-in-Law to the Bp of London, instituted in the Arch-
deconry of London.
    Mr Lawrence Cook, presented to the Vicarage of Hornsey.
    Dr Foulkes, Canon of Christ-church, install'd Præcentor of the Cath-
edral Church of Exeter.
    Mr Fursman, Canon of Exeter, install'd Chancellor of that Church.
    Dean Lynch, collated to the Sine Cure of Eynsford in Kent.
    Mr Harewood, Curate of Belsond, presented to the Rectory of Shepper-
ton, in Middlesex.
    Dr Stedman, Chaplain to the Bp of London, made a Prebendary of
St Paul's.
M A R R I A G E S.

    --------- Barrett, Esq; to Miss Baker, Daughter of Captain Baker, a
10,000 £. Fortune.
    The Ld John Russel, to the Lady Diana Spencer at Marlborough House St
James's. He has a Fortune of 30,000 £. down, and is to have 100,000£. at
the Death of the Dutchess Dowager of Marlborough, her Grandmother.
    Robert Arbuthnot, Esq; to Miss Sedgewick.
    Henry Dawson, Esq; to Miss Clough of Buttermere, Berkshire.
    John Willard, aged 84 to Sarah How, both of Cranbrook in Kent. Wil-
lard was one of the 22 of that Parish, (the youngest above 72 Years old)
who about 4 Years ago play'd a Match at Cricket.
C A S U A L T I E S.
Oct. 3. T Cockthorpe in Norfolk, a Fire broke out which consumed the
greatest part of the Town.
   A Blacksmith at Gravesend, having parted from his Wife, sent for her,
designing 'twas thought to be reconcil'd to her, but a Piece loaded
with Shot, Hob-nails and pieces of Iron, shot her in the Shoulder and
Breast, of which she died in two or three Days.
   4.    On the Road betwixt Bath and Bristol, the Body of a Man was
found, with all his Limbs cut off and mangled, and the Skin stript off
his Face, supposed to be done to prevent his being known.
   23.   A Fire broke out in the House of Mr Bently, adjoining to the
King's School near Westminster Abbey, which burnt down that part of the
House that contained the King's and Cottonian Libraries: almost all the
printed Books were consumed and part of the Manuscripts. Amongst the
latter, those which Dr Bentley had been collecting for his Greek Testament,
for these last ten Years, valued at 2000£.

Of this October 23 notice in The Gentleman's Magazine, Andrew Prescott has written:

This short note, tucked away between reports of the discovery of a disfigured corpse near Bath and an accidental shooting at Hackney, records what was perhaps the greatest bibliographical disaster of modern times in Britain. It is difficult to quantify the scale of the losses to the Cotton library as a result of the fire at Bentley's residence, Ashburnham House.

There is very detailed information about the history of the Cotton library, the fire, the attempts to restore the Cotton manuscripts, and the eventual binding of the Beowulf manuscript by Henry Gough and Charles Tuckett, on Andrew Prescott's page at

The following is an excerpt from another one of Andrew Prescott's papers entitled "The Electronic Beowulf and Digital Restoration," published in 1997. Both papers are available on the web, and on Kevin Kiernan's Electronic Beowulf CD. Anyone interested in the history of the physical manuscript should definitely read both of Andrew Prescott's papers.

The gift of the Cotton library to the nation in 1700 had embarassed the government, which was unwilling to meet the costs of providing adequate accommodation or other administrative expenses. It was left in Sir Robert Cotton's decaying house at Westminster. In 1717, John Elphinstone, the Keeper of the Library, petitioned the Treasury, pointing out that, at the time of the gift, 'King William of glorious memory did promise that a sufficient allowance should be paid to those imployed to attend the said library; which was not done in his said Maiesties Reign'. Not only had Elphinstone not been paid for attending the Library himself, but he had been forced to pay for cleaning and so on out of his own pocket. At the time of George I's coronation, 'Cotton House and Gardens were thought a convenient place, for dressing the dinner, and preparing other necessaries', so that Elphinstone, 'fearing any accident that might happen by the many fires made there, was at the charge of setting up a bed and attending day and night in the said extraordinary trouble and charge.' (British Library, Additional MS. 61615, f. 81).

When Cotton House finally fell into a completely ruinous state, the manuscripts were moved to Essex House near the Strand. Essex House was, however, thought to be a fire risk, so the manuscripts were transferred again to Ashburnham House in Little Dean's Yard at Westminster. On 23 October 1731, Dr Bentley, the former Keeper of the Royal Library, staying at Ashburnham House with his son, the then Keeper, was woken up by the smell of smoke. While the librarians busied themselves trying to rescue the manuscripts, the fire spread to the presses, so that it was necessary to break open the cases and throw volumes out of the window.

The morning after the fire, Little Dean's Yard must have been a sad sight, littered with fragments of burnt manuscripts, which the boys of Westminster School picked up and kept as souvenirs. Vitellius A. xv. was comparatively lucky. It was badly singed around the edges, and left smoke stained and brittle. Water from the fire engines had stained many of the folios, causing the ink to run in some places. The heat had caused some edges of the manuscript to stick together, and it seems from the introduction to his edition that when Thorkelin looked at it fifty years later he had to force some of the leaves apart (Bjork 1996, pp. 312-3). The conservation technology of the eighteenth century was not equal to the task of stabilising the condition of a heat-damaged vellum manuscript such as this one. It is possible that some rudimentary conservation work was undertaken on the manuscript just after the fire, to dry it out and prevent the growth of mould, but basically it was left unconserved, and was transferred in this state to the British Museum in 1757.

The following excerpt is taken from Kevin Kiernan's book Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, pages 66-7:

     The name Cotton Vitellius A. xv. dates from the 17th century, when the composite codex was assembled, and derives, as is well known, from the system of cataloguing used when the book belonged to the vast MS holding of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The press in which the book was kept was surmounted by a bust of the Roman Emperor Aulus Vitellius; the book itself was kept on the first shelf (A), in the fifteenth position (xv). The Cotton collection became the principal MS collection of the British Museum, when the museum was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1753 (36 Geo. II, c. 22).

     The history of the codex in the first third of the 18th century explains its unusual physical appearance and the need to replace Cotton's original binding with a 19th-century one. The Cotton collection was presented to the British people in 1700 (12 & 13 William III, c. 7) by Sir Robert's grandson, Sir John Cotton. A committee of the House of commons became the trustees of the library, with the speaker, Robert Harley, as the chief trustee. The trustees appointed a commission in 1703 to report on the state of the library, and Humfrey Wanley, whom Harley later chose to collect and preside over his own splendid library, was providentially chosen as a member of the commission. Wanley's unparalleled expertise and thoroughness have preserved for us a trustworthy record of the original collection, which sadly was about to be greatly diminished. Cotton House was then dilapidated, and Wanley reported that "in ye Room above the Library...there are not only a good quantity of printed Books, but some Manuscripts; very many Originall Charters of different Ages, as high as ye Conqueror's time, and a very great Number of Originall Letters & Writings of value which have already suffered great hurt, & will be utterly spoiled if care be not taken of them" (Bodleian MS Add. D. 82, fol. iii). A new building to house the collection was planned and endorsed by an Act of Parliament in 1706 (6 Anne, c. 30), yet nothing was done. By 1722, Cotton House was in such bad shape that the collection had to be removed to Essex House, Strand, where it remained for the duration of a seven-year lease, which was not renewed because Essex House was considered a firetrap. So Cotton's library was moved to another interim home, and another firetrap, ominously named Ashburnham House, in Little Dean's Yard, Westminster.

The following excerpt is taken from Kevin Kiernan's book Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, page 68. He in turn took it from "A Narrative of the Fire which happened at Ashburnham-House, Oct. 23, 1731 and of the Methods used for preserving and recovering the Manuscripts of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries" (BL MS 24,932, p. 11) (the full text of which is available in "The Abby Newsletter," Volume 25, Number 4, Dec 2001 at

On Saturday Morning October 23, 1731. about two o'Clock, a great Smoak was perceived by Dr. Bentley, and the rest of the Family at Ashburnham-House, which soon after broke out into a Flame: It began from a wooden Mantle-Tree's taking Fire, which lay across a Stove-Chimney, that was under the Room, where the MSS. of the Royal and Cottonian Libraries were lodged, and was communicated to that Room by the Wainscot, and by pieces of Timber, that stood perpendicularly upon each end of the Mantle-Tree. They were in hopes at first to have put a Stop to the Fire by throwing Water upon the Pieces of Timber and Wainscot, where it first broke out, and therefore did not begin to remove the Books so soon as they otherwise would have done. But the Fire prevailing, notwithstanding the Means used to extinguish it, Mr. Casley the Deputy-Librarian took Care in the first Place to remove the famous Alexandrian MS. and the Books under the Head of Augustus in the Cottonian Library, as being esteemed the most valuable amongst the Collection. Several entire Presses with the Books in them were also removed; but the Fire increasing still, and the Engines sent for not coming so soon as could be wished, and several of the Backs of the Presses being already on Fire, they were obliged to be broke open, and the Books, as many as could be, were thrown out of the Windows.

John Earle's translation published in 1892 (and widely referenced by translators for decades afterwards) includes a ninety-page Introduction with the following passage related to the fire:

     The existence of this poem was unknown to the learned world until the year 1705, when it was for the first time noticed in Wanley's Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. It is a good illustration of the wide difference between the poetry and the prose of our early period, that Wanley, who was able to give a very good account of a prose manuscript, was quite at a loss in examining the Beowulf. He was right, in calling it 'Poeseos Anglo-Saxonicæ egregium exemplum' -- but he was very wide of the mark in supposing it to be a description of wars between Denmark and Sweden. It is the more to be deplored that his discovery should have been so imperfect, and his description so uninviting, as the Manuscript was at that time still entire, and so continued to be for twenty-six years after the appearance of Wanley's Catalogue. During this period a complete copy might have been taken, had Wanley's notice afforded any hint of the importance of the poem.

     After Wanley, the first mention of the Beowulf in literature was by Sharon Turner, who in 1807, in his History of the Anglo-Saxons, gave some extracts from it, with such a translation as he was able to offer. --