(1605 - 1682)


Wee are no way doubtfull that there are witches . . .
 Thomas Browne was 56 years old at the time of the Assize in 1662.  He was born in Cheapside, London on October 19, 1605, the son of Thomas Browne, a mercer.  His father died when he was 8 years old leaving him and his three sisters with not an inconsiderable legacy.

Just before his eleventh birthday he was admitted to Winchester College, the oldest of England's public schools - described as "a place of strict discipline and order".  On December 5 1623 he matriculated at Broadgates Hall, Oxford as a "Gentleman Commoner".  A year later Broadgates Hall was renamed Pembroke College.  During his six years at Pembroke he studied the usual subjects together with natural philosopy, moral philosophy and metaphysics.  He obtained his BA on June 31, 1626 followed by an MA on June 11 1629.  For the next three years he studied medicine in France at the famous Montpellier Faculty of Medicine and at Padua in Italy.  He also studied at the medical faculty at Leyden University in Holland where he obtained his MD on December 3, 1633.  Returning to England early in 1634 he took up residence at Upper Shibden Hall, Yorkshire where he had his first medical practise.  In July 1637 he received his English MD at Oxford at which time he had moved to Norwich upon the persuasion of a friend Sir Nicolas Bacon of Gillingham.  Here he set up his permanent medical practise

In 1641, aged 36, Browne married Dorothy Mileham, the fourth daughter of Edward Mileham of Burlingham St. Peter, Norfolk.  She was 20 years old.  They set up their household in St. Georges parish, Tombland, Norwich.  A few years later he moved to a large house in the Haymarket and here he lived, in what has been described as "a sumptuously appointed abode", with his growing family,  for the rest of his life.  Browne's attitude to  women was misogynisitically quaint to say the least.  In an essay written at Shibden Hall, he had written:

" . . . I was never yet once, and am resolved never to be married twice . . . The whole Woman was made for man, but the twelfth part of man for woman:  man is the whole world and the breath of God; woman the rib and crooked piece of man.  I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition . . . I speak not in prejudice, nor am I averse from that sweet sexe, but naturally amorous of all that is beautifull. . . . "

Browne obviously overcame his adversion to that "triviall and vulgar way of coition" from time to time because in the 18 years following his marriage Elizabeth would bear him 12 children!  He soon built up a reputable practise as a doctor and he was, according to his first biographer "much resorted to . . for his admirable skill in physick. . . "  and established the leading medical practice of his day in East Anglia.  In his Norwich house was his "elaboratory", as he called it, for his chemical experimants and studies in natural history: it contained his notable collection of birds' eggs, maps and medals and housed his library of around 2,000 volumes.  Browne was attracted to anything of antiquity and was also an accomplished naturalist. During his life he corresponded with the leading intellectuals of his time both in England and abroad, but it is interesting to note that a neighbour and friend of his describes who "delighted not in controversies".

In 1664, two years after the witch trial, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians as a man of "eminently embellished with literature and virtue".  In September  1671, during the visit of King Charles II to Norwich, Browne received his knighthood.  It is said that the King's chief desire when in Norwich was to meet Browne, whom he described as "that famous scholar and physitian."

Thomas Browne died at Norwich on his birthday, 1682 and was buried in the church of St. Peter Mancroft just a stone's throw from his home.  On the tercentenary of his birth in 1905, a large statue was erected to his memory in Norwich.  However, the taint of his involvement in the condemnation of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny was still there and at the time a brisk exchange of  letters appeared in the local press, urging that another statute should be erected nearby commemorating these two unfortunate women.  Needless to say this never happened!

Browne was a man of many words and could speak most European Languages; he was fluent in Latin and Greek and could get by in Arabic and Hebrew.  He wrote and had published a number of books - and is often hailed for his arcane, idiosyncratic and sumptuous prose.  His first and perhaps most famous work Religio Medici was probably written in 1635 - an unauthorised version was published in 1642, followed by the first authorised edition in 1643.  Religio Medici, the exploration of his own religion, has since been published in eight languages and over a hundred editions.   It is in Religio that Browne makes quite clear his thoughts about witches and witchcraft; he writes:  ". . . for mine owne part, I have ever beleeved, and do now know, that there are witches: they that doubt of these, do but onely deny them, but spirits;  and are obliquely and upon consequence of a sort, not infidels, but atheists . . "

Ironically, this was followed by the publication, in 1646, of Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly perceived Truths, which examined prove but Vulgar and Common Errors.  In this work Browne seeks to set humankind straight about faulty knowledge, inadequate logic and the consequences of ignorance!!!  Exhorting readers to exorcise "credulity . . . whereby men often swallow falsities for truth . . . "

In 1658 Browne published in one volume Hydriotaphia or Urne-Burial; a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk and The Garden of Cyrus; or the Quincuncial Lozenge, network plantations of the Ancients.  This latter work is the most fantastic of Browne's works. It traces the history of horticulture from the Garden of Eden onwards and leads him to discuss the quincunx which he supposes to have been in use from the remotest antiquity, diversifying into a long discourse on the mystical properties of the number five!  This latter treatise is particularly interesting because in The Epistle Dedicatory, Browne refers the "worthy Sir Edmund Bacon, prime Baronet, my true and noble friend . . ."  This is the same person, the magistrate, who sent Amy Denny and Rose Cullender for trial . . . . . .


Select Bibliography:

Jeremiah J. Finch: Sir Thomas Browne - A Doctor's Life of Science and Faith. New York, 1950.
Frank Livingstone Huntley: Sir Thomas Browne - A Biographical and Critical Study.  University of Michigan, 1962.
Edmund Gosse: Sir Thomas Browne. London, 1905.