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Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)

He was born in London and educated at Winchester and Pembroke College, Oxford. After a tour of Ireland he studied medicine at Montpellier and Padua. He settled in Norwich in about 1637 - after he had already written Religio Medico. In 1671, he was knighted by Charles II when the King visited Norwich. Browne's other well known works include: Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors), Hydriotaphia, Urne Burial and The Garden of Cyrus or The Quincuncial.

Sir Thomas Browne portrait

Portrait of Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne's Skull

He lived in a house which stood at the junction of Orford Yard and the Haymarket. The house was demolished in 1842 - but there is a commemorative plaque on the wall to mark the site. A mantle piece from the house is held by the Norwich Castle Museum.

In addition to being a medical doctor, Browne was also a keen naturalist and delighted in collecting curiosities - which included, at one time, a live bittern and a stuffed dolphin. He was visited in his house by the diarist John Evelyn on 18th October, 1671 who described it thus:

'Next morning I went to see Sir Thomas Browne (with whom I had sometime corresponded by letters tho never saw before) whose whole house & garden being a paradise and cabinet of rarites, & that of the best collection, especialy medails, book, plants, natural things, did exceedingly refresh me after last nights confusion: Sir Thomas had amongst other curiosities,a collection of the eggs of all foul and birds he could procure, that country (especialy the promontorys of Norfolck) being (as he said) frequented with the severall kinds, which seldome or never, go farther into the land, as cranes, storkes, eagles etc. and a variety of water-foule.'

In the following paragraph from Notes on the Natural History of Norfolk  Browne describes a strange bird that was brought to him:
'A kind of stork was shott in the wing by the sea neare Hasburrowe and brought alive unto mee; it was about a yard high, red head, colourd leggs, and bill, the clawes resembling human nayles, such as Herodotus describeth in the white Ibis of AEgypt.'

Browne was also the first person to document the Norfolk dialect. In his tract entitled: Of Languages and Particularly of the Saxon Tongue he identified words such as 'mawther' (meaning woman or girl), 'stingy' (meaning mean) and 'bunny' (meaning bruise or swelling). Some of the words he identified, however, had become obsolete by the time the Rev Robert Forby (see Fincham) wrote his famous Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830).

Browne is buried in the chancel of St. Peter Mancroft Church which stands close by. In 1840 Browne's coffin was accidentally opened and his skull was removed. It was presented to the Museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital - where it remained until 1922 when, after a number of casts were taken, it was returned to his grave in St. Peter Mancroft. Ironically, Browne wrote: 'to be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls and our bones turned into pipes is a Tragical abomination'. Little did he know that this would be his own fate.

Samuel Johnson wrote a biography of Browne which was published in 1756. In The Rings of Saturn W.G.Sebald meditates at length upon Browne's life and work and also includes photographs of Browne's skull and of his famous 'Quincunx' pattern.

In 1905 a statue to Browne was erected on Hay Hill to mark the tercentenary of his birth. The sculpture captures Browne contemplating a broken burial urn - an artefact which would have inspired his Hydriotaphia (see Great Walsingham).

Norwich City Council has recently commissioned the artists Anne and Patrick Poirier to produce a 'Homage to Thomas Browne' - which features a marble eye and brain and various seats and benches which have been located in front of his statue. Browne's statue also crops up in the The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley - because it is here that Leo Colston waits for Marian on their shopping trip to Norwich.

Browne's Tomb in St Peter Mancroft Church

Statue of Thomas Browne at Norwich Haymarket

Sculpture dedicated to Sir Thomas Browne Norwich

Plaque on wall in Norwich

See also Great Walsingham and Felbrigg.




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