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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne 1605-1682

At a time when religious intolerance was rife, Thomas Brown was rare in his generosity of spirit and toleration of other beliefs.   Although the greater part of his life was spent in Norwich, he  was born in Cheapside in the City of London, the son of a mercer.   When he was eight, his father died and in his will he left one third of his estate to Thomas and his three sisters.  Shortly before his eleventh birthday Thomas was sent to Winchester College where stayed until he was eighteen, at which time he went to Oxford to Pembroke College (then known as Broadgates Hall).

On leaving Oxford, Thomas Browne went to expand his knowledge of medicine by studying at European universities, first to France, to the Medical University of Montpellier which had long associations with Greek, Latin and Arab medicine and was regarded as providing the best preliminary training for medical studies.   After twelve months he moved to Padua, seen as the centre of the scientific world, and he spent his final year at the University of Leyden where he studied chemistry.   Having graduated in 1633, he returned home and took up a position in Shibden in Yorkshire to acquire some  practical experience before being granted his M.D. from Oxford University.

In 1637 he was living in Norwich.   He had several acquaintances in Norfolk including Sir Nicholas Bacon, Justinian Lewyn and Sir Charles le Gros, who had been his contemporaries at Oxford, but it was probably his former tutor, Dr. Thomas Lushington, who had come to Norwich in 1633 as chaplain to Bishop Corbet, who persuaded him to start his professional life in Norwich.    In 1641 Thomas Browne, having established a profitable medical practice, married Dorothy Mileham, daughter of Edward Mileham of Burlingham St. Peter, and the young couple started their married life in the parish of St. George, Tombland.   Despite the groom being 17 years older than his bride, it was a happy marriage and one that was to last forty-one years.   A portrait of the two of them, painted shortly after they were married, can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

It was during his stay in Yorkshire that Browne completed the most famous of his writings, Religio Medici.   He had always jotted down his thoughts and at this point in his life he collected them together in one volume.   Over the next few years he added new thoughts and ideas and made copies  to pass to friends.   At some stage an anonymous copy came into the hands of a London printer, Andrew Crooke, who decided to print it.   It ran to two editions and friends brought it to the author's attention.   The decision as to whether to acknowledge authorship was not as simple as it might appear.   The conflict between the king, Charles I, and Parliament was reaching its climax, and at the same time Parliament itself was keen to introduce censorship of books and political writings.   The decision was precipitated by Sir Kenelm Digby, a flamboyant figure whose widely ranging interests included, among other things, natural science, astrology, magic, cookery and philosophy.   Religio Medici having been recommended to him by a friend, he read it at a sitting and was so impressed that he wrote a tract, Observations upon Religio Medici which was about to be published.  

Browne provided Andrew Crooke with a revised copy of the book and it was published at the same time as Digby's Observations, becoming an overnight success.   A Cambridge student translated it into Latin and took it to Holland where it was put into print.   Latin was the lingua franca of educated people and copies appeared all over Europe, eight editions appearing in Browne's lifetime as well as translations into Dutch and French.

At this time the Civil War had started and it soon made itself felt in Norwich.   The city had declared for Parliament, and zealots vandalised all Anglican places of worship, particularly the cathedral, where they hounded the Bishop from his home and destroyed everything they could.   A staunch Anglican and Royalist, Browne helped the bishop as much as he could.   At this time he was working on his second book, Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors, which was published in 1646.   This was followed by Hydriotaphia:  or Urn Burial in 1658, which was combined with The Garden of Cyrus.

Although his fame as author was worldwide, and he was regarded as an antiquarian and natural philosopher, his reputation in Norwich rested on his abilities as a physician.   In 1671 Charles II visited Norwich and, to the delight of its citizens, knighted their local doctor.   Sir Thomas Browne's pride in this honour may be judged from the fact that he had an elaborate mantelpiece carved for his house, in which was incorporated the royal coat of arms.   At this time he was living in a house in the parish of St. Peter Mancroft, which he had bought from Alexander Anguish.   Visiting him later that year, John Evelyn described his house and garden as 'a paradise and cabinet of rarities'.

Sir Thomas Browne died in 1682 and is buried in a vault in the church of St. Peter Mancroft.

Caroline Beer                    

October 2008