To continue our celebration of literary heroes from the area, we turn our attention to writer, philosopher, and polymath Sir Thomas Browne. Whether you’re quite well-informed or barely know who he is, here’s his story in a nutshell…
Image: Sir Thomas Browne, (1605–1682). Oil on panel by unknown artist, late 17th century
Though Thomas is strongly associated with Norwich and did indeed spend most of his life in this city, he was actually born in Cheapside, London in 1605. He was the son of a mercer but his father died when he was eight, leaving a third of his estate to Thomas and his sisters. He was sent to Winchester College at ten years old and stayed there until he was eighteen, when he attended the Universities of Montpellier and Padua, and he was graduated M.D. at Leiden in in 1633.
In 1637 he was back in England, having travelled for a while, and settled in Norwich. He established a successful medical practice and, in 1647, married Dorothy Mileham. She was 17 years younger than Browne - quite an age gap, but they seemed happy together; their marriage lasted 47 years right until Thomas’s death in 1682. There is a portrait of the pair in the National Portrait Gallery.
Thomas wrote Religio Medico, a meditative essay often described as a prose-poem which expressed his religious and spiritual beliefs. This is often thought of as the most famous of his writings, which was actually ‘leaked’ by a London printer who somehow got hold of an anonymous copy and printed two editions, in 1642, before Browne realised what had happened!
Image: Religio Medici Monro 13 1736 edition frontispiece and title-page
Sir Kenelm Digby, an English diplomat and philosopher, read Religio Medici and was so impressed that he wrote Observations upon Religio Medici, which was published at the same time as a revised copy of Thomas's text. It became an overnight success and was translated it into latin, with copies being sold all over Europe and further translations into Dutch and French. The text is out of copyright so there are various versions available online, if you wish to read his work for yourself.
Around the time of Religio Medici’s official publication, in 1643, the Civil War had begun and its effects were soon apparent in Norwich; many extremists destroyed Anglican places of worship, and damaged Norwich Cathedral. As Browne was a loyal Anglican and Royalist, he tried to help the church and the Cathedral’s bishop as much as possible. Browne was, at this time, working on his second book, Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors (published in 1646) and this was followed in 1658 by Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial.
Thomas Browne was known far and wide for his writing, but in Norwich he was more respected for his skills as a physician; he was knighted by Charles II who visited Norwich, and Browne had an elaborate mantelpiece created to celebrate his knighthood, which he proudly displayed in his home in the Haymarket, in the parish of St Peter Mancroft. Sadly the house is no longer standing (it was demolished in 1842) but if you’d like to visit the area you’ll see a plaque on the wall to mark the spot.
Image: the statue of Sir Thomas Browne, on Hay Hill in Norwich
Thomas Browne died in 1682, on his birthday: 19 October. He is buried in a vault in the church of St Peter Mancroft, in the city centre. His wife Dorothy also erected a memorial to Thomas in the same church, with latin text summarising his career and character. There is a statue of Thomas on Hay Hill, just around the corner from St Peter Mancroft, as well as various smaller sculptures which commemorate some of his most well-known works - these sculptures were installed here 10 years ago this July! There is a day of celebration planned on Hay Hill in July 2017 as well as plans to establish a Thomas Browne day on 19 October to commemorate his birthday.
Browne also wrote Urne Burial, which artist Paul Nash illustrated many years later (in 1932); some of these illustrations are included in the current Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.
If you fancy combining information on Norwich’s literary heroes with a stroll around Norwich, why not complete the literary trail on the Discover Norwich app? The app (and trail) are free; simply download and off you go! The trail includes places of interest related to writers and authors linked to Norwich such as Amelia Opie, Julian of Norwich and many others – and, of course, Thomas Browne!
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