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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries

§ 1. Sir Thomas Browne

THE THREE writers to whom it is proposed to devote the bulk of the present chapter, more particularly Sir Thomas Browne and Fuller, agree in being men who, while showing a lively interest in the present, devoted especial attention to the past; they agree still more—and here without any qualification—in being, though in ways distinctly different, exponents of that extraordinary gift of prose-writing which distinguished the mid-seventeenth century in English literature. The fourth, Sir Thomas Urquhart, had great schemes for the improvement, as he thought it, of the future; but he, also, “catched the opportunity to write of old things”; and, with a special Scottish differentia, represented the learned and intensely anti-“modern” quaintness of the time in thought and style.

The first and greatest of them—who has been held by certain good wits to have hardly a superior in one kind of English prose, and whose matter, as is not always the case, fully matches his manner—was of a good Cheshire family; but his father had gone into trade as a mercer, and Thomas Browne was born in London on 19 October, 1605, in the parish of St. Michael-le-Quern, Cheapside. His mother was Anne Garraway, of a Sussex family. There were three other children, but the father died early, and the mother married again, her second husband being Sir Thomas Dutton, apparently the opponent and slayer of Sir Hatton Cheke in a fierce, and rather famous, duel on Calais sands. It is said that the youthful Thomas was defrauded by his guardian; but his stepfather seems to have been guiltless in the matter, and there are not at any time in Browne’s life any signs of straitened means, though, towards the close, he complains, like other rich fellows enough, of losses. He was admitted to a scholarship at Winchester on 20 August, 1616; and, in 1623, being then eighteen, went, not to New college, but to Broadgates hall, Oxford, which, during his own residence, was erected into Pembroke college. Here, he graduated B.A. on 30 June, 1626, and M.A. on 11 June, 1629. Somewhere about this time, he seems to have accompanied his stepfather to Ireland, where Dutton held a post as inspector of fortresses.

The future author of Religio Medici began his professional studies at Oxford, and is said to have actually practised in the county; but this must have been later. Then, and for long afterwards, it was customary to supplement home training in physic by visits to famous foreign schools; and to the two most famous of these, Montpellier and Padua, Browne proceeded—as well as later to the younger school of Leyden, where he took his first doctor’s degree. He was abroad three years in all, spending, probably, a year at each place; and he returned home in 1633. After an unknown interval—which may have been occupied by the Oxfordshire practice above referred to—he established himself in a dale south-east of Halifax in Yorkshire, in a house, no longer in existence, named Upper Shebden hall. Here he is supposed to have written or finished Religio Medici; but the circumstances of his books will be dealt with later. On 10 July, 1637, he took his M.D. degree at Oxford; and, in the same year (apparently at the suggestion of some old Oxford friends), he moved to Norwich, where he passed the rest of his life. Two years earlier, while at Halifax, he had become a member of the college of physicians; and, four years later, in 1641, he married Dorothy Mileham, daughter of a Norfolk gentleman, with whom he lived for more than forty years and who survived him. Of their numerous children—ten, or eleven, or, according to the best authorities, twelve—only one son, Edward Browne, himself a man of distinction, and three daughters, survived their father. Few details of his life are known, though we have a relatively large number of letters from and to him; but the chief biographical points may be conveniently separated from the story of his books. The civil war broke out shortly after his marriage; Browne was a royalist, and a sincere one, refusing subscriptions for parliamentary purposes at the beginning, and rejoicing heartily in the restoration at the end. But a man of his temperament could hardly have been a violent partisan, or an extravagant self-sacrificer; and it was, perhaps, lucky for him that the district in which he lived was so generally disaffected as to make overt royalist enterprise almost impossible; while his personal popularity, and the respect in which he was held, prevented any persecution of him for mere opinion. For the better part of twenty years he seems to have practised, read, collected and written in the most even tenor of life; and during this time all his principal finished work was executed. From the restoration to his death, we hear a little more of him. His younger son Tom, after some business experience in France, entered the royal navy, and distinguished himself in the Dutch war: what became of him later we do not know. In 1664, came the famous trial at Bury St. Edmunds in which, before Sir Matthew Hale, Browne incurred the indignation of certain persons by giving—not on his own motion but when directly appealed to by the judge—testimony as to his belief in the reality of witchcraft, an expression of belief in which ninety-nine out of every hundred of his best educated contemporaries in England would probably have agreed with him. At the end of that year, he was made honorary fellow of the college of physicians, receiving his diploma next year; and, in the year after, 1666, he made a present of fossil bones to the Royal Society, of which, however (contrary to what used to be stated), he was never a fellow. On 28 September, 1671, Charles II, visiting Norwich, knighted him. Eleven years later, on his birthday, 19 October, 1682, he died and was buried in the church of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

Browne had thus enjoyed nearly half a century of quiet professional life, and five and forty years of it in the same place. He was well off; he had plenty of books and collections round him; and he was in correspondence with many learned men of tastes similar to his own—Evelyn being the chief of them so far as England was concerned, though even Iceland was reached by his curiosity. He had read very widely; to speak disrespectfully of Browne’s learning would be more than a little rash, and might provoke doubts as to the coextensiveness of the speaker’s own erudition. Above all, he had an intense idiosyncrasy of mental attitude, and a literary gift hardly surpassed in its own special way. It was impossible that such a combination of gift and circumstance should not find its expression.