1584-1598 Childhood

On a cold December morning in 1584, Roland Cotton comforted his first born son, John, in the hope that his wife would get the rest needed to recover fully from having given birth. New to Derby and struggling to establish a law practice, Roland worried about providing for his growing family. Life in sixteenth-century England was a struggle thatfavored the highborn. Although Roland had been born to wealth, soon after his father’s death, one or more of the administrators of his father’s Will defrauded him of his inheritance.

His father, George Cotton, had been a well to do London lawyer whose death was noted by the diarist, Henry Machyn,1The 26th day of October (1558) was buried (at Saint Gile’s) without Cripplegate, Mr. Cotton, a great  rich man of law, with two great candelabras and 12 (torch candles) and 4 great taper candles, and many mourners; and after a great dinner.”2 A century and a half later, Roland’s great-grandson, Cotton Mather, wrote, “by some injustice, deprived of great revenues, Mr. Roland Cotton, had the education of a lawyer bestowed by his friends upon him, in hopes of his being the better capacitated thereby to recover the estate, whereof his family had been wronged; and so the profession of a lawyer was that unto which this gentleman applied himself all his days.3

At the time of his father’s death, Roland was but a child of four or five and under British law,4 Roland, his younger brother, Thomas, and older sister, Tymothy, were in their minority.5 Having died a widower, George Cotton’s Will anticipated as much:6 I ordaine make and constitute my Saide two Sonnes Rowlande Cotton and Thomas Cotton myne executors of this my testament and laste will to whom I give all my goods … I will and ordaine that my trustie and well beloved friend John Cotton of the Inner Temple in London gentleman Raffe Hawle of London Scrivener and xrofer Robinson of London shall have the administracon and orderinge of all my goodes … untill such a tyme as one of my Saide Executors shalbe of lawfull age to take uppon hym the execucion of this my Testament.7

Soon after George Cotton’s Will was probated, a cleric named Robert Cotton challenged the Will in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.8 For the challenge to have had any chance of success, this Robert Cotton must have been a close relative- perhaps even a brother. As the only remaining record of the case is the verdict, details of Robert’s challenge are unknowable.9 The court, however, ruled against Robert in favor of the three administrators named in George Cotton’s Will: John Cotton, Ralph Hall, and Christopher Robinson.10 Though specifics of Roland Cotton’s lost inheritance remain a mystery, one or more of the administrators of his father’s Will had to have been involved.

George provided for his sons’ education in his Will saying, “kepe my sayde two Sonnes at learninge untill they be some thinge entred into theire grammer. And afterworde in suche place… conveniente to putt them to farther learninge… untill the time of their saide ages.11  The goal of grammar school in sixteenth-century England was eventual entry to university or one of the Inns of Court.12 As Roland Cotton lived in the parish of St. Giles-without-Cripplegate, he likely completed grammar school at nearby St. Paul’s School. Students entered St. Paul’s School in the First Form at age six after having learned to read and write at home and graduated from grammar school at the age of fourteen after completing the Eighth Form.13

At age fourteen, with guidance from his mentors, Roland was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps and entered the Inner Temple to study law.   At such a young age, it is likely he first enrolled in one of the Inns of Chancery under Inner Temple control.14 Though schooled in Latin, it was of little use to Roland as an aspiring barrister since legal French was the distinctive working language of the bar.15The dialect was a remnant of Old Norman French that had been used in English courts from the time of William the Conqueror.16 Within the Inns of Court, the dialect survived and by the sixteenth century had morphed into the legalese by which barristers were required to recite their pleadings before the King’s Bench in the Royal Courts of Law.17 To master legal French, aspiring barristers participated in moots and many gained experience by obtaining placement with a practicing barrister to observe the law in action.18

Because no set criteria for admission to the bar existed in sixteenth-century England, the time it took to become a practicing barrister most often was left to those with power over the bar. As a result, admissions were influenced by favoritism and patronage. Once a member of the bar, barristers primarily argued cases in the Court of the King’s Bench and the elite nature of barristers stemmed from the fact that the King’s bench only heard cases of interest to the Crown. Most aspiring barristers did not expect to achieve the bar until midlife and earned their way representing clients in the Court of Chancery or the Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Chancery adjudicated matters of equity including trusts, land law, the administration of estates, and guardianship matters while the Court of Common Pleas heard civil cases.19

Ultimately, not all who aspired to the bar became barristers, and it was not uncommon that a would-be barrister settled as a common lawyer to represent clients in civil and estate matters. This seems to have been the case for Roland Cotton, who at age twenty-six abandoned redress of his lost inheritance and moved one hundred and thirty miles north of London to the East Midlands where he opened a law office in the town of Derby, married Mary Hulbert, and fathered four children, Mary, John, Roland, and Thomas.20

The Cotton family lived on Full Street in the heart of Derby within a ten-minute walk of St. Alkmund’s Church and five minutes of the Derby School.21 The Derby School was founded in the twelfth century but closed in 1536 following the Dissolution of the Monasteries to then reopen under Queen Mary in 1554. Roland Cotton valued education and prepared his firstborn son, John, for entry to the Derby School by teaching him how to read and write both English and Latin. In the late sixteenth century, only one in every four hundred English children were fortunate enough to attend grammar school.22 In 1593, at age eight, John Cotton entered the Derby School to study under its headmaster, Richard Johnson. Concurrent to serving as headmaster of the Derby School from 1590 to 1610,23 Richard Johnson attended Trinity College, Cambridge from 1591 to 1608.24 While at Trinity, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in 1595, a master’s degree in 1598, a bachelor of divinity degree in 1608, and served as a Fellow from 1597 until his 1604 marriage to Katharine Smith.25

As young Cotton neared the end of studies at the Derby School, his father solicited Richard Johnson’s help in finding John a place at Trinity College. Roland Cotton aspired for his firstborn son to study law, and at the time, England’s principal incubator of royal and public servants was legal studies at Trinity College.26 Knowing from experience that young Cotton had what it took to succeed at Trinity, Johnson willingly obliged. The fact that Johnson was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1597, the very year Cotton completed his studies at the Derby School, helped facilitate John’s matriculation the following year.27

Aspirations similar to those of Roland Cotton were manifest throughout England, as few periods in English history have fostered a more conspicuous enthusiasm for education. So much so that Oxford, Cambridge and the Inns of Court in London were stretched to their limits.28 The demand for lawyers in England was on the rise. From the late fourteenth century to the early seventeenth century, the number of lawyers in England grew eightfold from one for every twenty-thousand to one for every twenty-five hundred.29 By the dawn of the seventeenth century, it was common that would-be barristers graduated from Oxford or Cambridge before seeking admission to one of the Inns of Court.30

©  by Barry A. Cotton


  • Machyn, Henry. 1848. The Diary of Henry Machyn. Edited by John Gough Nichols. London: The Camden Society. 177
  • Henry Machyn (1498 – 1563) was an English clothier and diarist in 16th century London.  His Chronicle (written between 1550 and 1563) is primarily concerned with public events like state visits, insurrections, executions, and festivities. The original Machyn text reads, “The xxvj day of October was bered [at Saint Giles’s] withowt Crepullgatt master Cottun, a grett rich man of law, with ij grett whytt branchys and xij [torches] and iiij gret tapurs, and mony morners; and after a gret dener.”
  • Mather, Cotton. 1855. Magnalia Christi Americana. Vol. I. Hartford: Silas Andrus and Son. 253
  • One’s minority ended at age eighteen in 16th century England.
  • Kirkpatrick, Kenneth W, and John A Brayton. 1999. “Cottoniana or That Cotton-Pickin’ Somerby!.” The New Hampshire Genealogical Record 16 (4). Dover: 145–70.
  • See Appendices for a full transcription of George Cotton’s Will.
  • Cotton, George. 1560. Will of George Cotton, Gentleman of Saint Giles Without Cripplegate, City of London. Edited by Mellershe (Register). Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).
  • Haddon, Walter, LLD. 1559. Verdict on Challenge to Will of George Cotton 1559. Translated by Katherine M Longley. Canterbury.
  • See Appendix for a full transcription of the verdict.
  • 10 This John Cotton may have been a relative of George Cotton but certainly not a sibling, or he would have been referred to as ‘brother’ in George’s Will.
  • 11 Cotton, George. 1560. Will of George Cotton, Gentleman of Saint Giles Without Cripplegate, City of London. Edited by Mellershe (Register). Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).
  • 12 The Inns of Court functioned as a ‘3rd university’ (after Oxford and Cambridge) to provide legal education to aspiring barristers. According to Wilfred Prest in The Rise of the Barristers. roughly twenty percent of barristers followed in the footsteps of their fathers in the 17th century. The Inns of Court had a monopoly on legal training up until the 19th century as until then the only law taught in English universities was ecclesiastical cannon law. The four institutions comprising the Inns of Court are: Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Grey’s Inn.
  • 13 Mead, Hugh. 2006. “A Brief History of the St. Paul’s School.” London. http://www.oldpaulinelodge.org.uk/School.htm.
  • 14 The Inns of Chancery or “lesser inns” offered training in the writing and employment of writs and other procedures in use in the common laws court. The three inns under control of the Inner Temple were Lyon’s Inn, Clifford’s Inn and Clement’s Inn.
  • 15 Prest, Wilfrid R. 1986. The Rise of the Barristers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 16 Kelham, Robert. A Dictionary, of the Norman or Old French Language, London, 1779.
  • 17 By the end of the 17th Century, Legal French was more and more neglected as Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth removed much of the relics of archaic ritual from legal and government processes. However, terms from Legal French are still in use today. Bailiff, defendant, force majeure, jury, larceny, mortgage, parole and voir dire are a few of the more common examples.
  • 18 Baker, J H. 2015. “Inner Temple History.” Inner Temple Admissions Database. London. Accessed April 24.www.innertemplearchives.org.uk/index.asp.
  • 19 Prest, Wilfrid R. 1986. The Rise of the Barristers. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 8-9
  • 20 The St. Alkmund’s Church Register: 1550-1650 in the Diocese of Lichfield records the August 16, 1582, Roland Cotton’s marriage to  Maria Hulbert. A little over a year later on September 1, 1583 the baptism of Marya fil Rolandi Cotton was recorded and about three weeks later on September 23, 1583 another baptism of Maria fil Rolandi Cotton” was recorded. One or both of these entries document the birth of Roland Cotton’s daughter, Mary.  Alternately, it is possible that either before or after daughter Mary’s birth, Roland’s wife, Mary, was also baptized. The next Cotton entry in the St. Alkmund’s registry recorded the baptism of Roland’s firstborn son, Johannes fil Rolandi Cotton, on December 15, 1584, followed by the baptism of his namesake, Rolandi fil Rolandi Cotton on March 17, 1587, and Thomas fil Rolandi Cotton on May 19, 1594.
  • 21 Tacchella, B, ed. 1902. Derby School Register. London: Bemrose & Sons, Ltd.
  • 22 Brown, J. Howard. 1972. Elizabethan Schooldays. New York: Benjamin Bloom Inc.
  • 23 Tacchella, B, ed. 1902. Derby School Register. London: Bemrose & Sons, Ltd.
  • 24 Trinity College was formed in 1546 when King’s Hall, Michael House, and seven other hostels were merged under the influence of Catherine Parr, 6th wife of Henry VIII.
  • 25 Venn, John. 2015. “Alumni Cantabrigienses.” Cambridge University Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 26 Roach, John Peter Charles, ed. 1959. A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. London: Oxford University Press.
  • 27 Venn, John. 2015. “Alumni Cantabrigienses.” Cambridge University Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • 28 Wrightson, Keith. 2000. English Society 1580 -1680. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 184-185
  • 29 Wrightson, Keith. 2002. Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain. London: Yale University Press.
  • 30 Prest, Wilfrid R. 1986. The Rise of the Barristers. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 112