The subject of this essay is a tract written by the noted antiquary, legalist, parliamentarian and sometime courtier, Sir Robert Cotton. Entitled, “Twenty-Four Arguments,” and composed sometime between March, 1617 and early January, 1618, it dealt with the problems posed to the English State and Church by the Roman Catholics and concerned itself, in particular, with the question of whether Popish priests should be executed or imprisoned for life.
The “Twenty-Four Arguments” appeared under that name in the Cottoni Posthuma, a collection of Cotton's writings, published in three editions between 1651 and 1679. However, the first actual publication of this treatise occurred in 1641, when it was put out independently by two printers, each giving it a different title. In addition, it is quite likely that the tract circulated in manuscript before it appeared in printed form.
This brief excursion into the publication history of the “Twenty-Four Arguments” indicates that it was the subject of interest at an important moment in English history. Thus, while admittedly a lesser known and minor work of the period, it is worthy of our consideration. In fact, to the historian the “Twenty-Four Arguments” presents, I think, three important features which make it of real significance. First, it is the product of one of the outstanding lay minds in early seventeenth century England. Sir Robert was, of course, a man of intense learning who displayed a scholar's love for knowledge in his search and accumulation of manuscripts and books, in his concern with antiquities and legal history, and in his close association with such brilliant contemporaries as Sir Francis Bacon and John Selden.