Knighted by King Charles II in St Andrew’s Hall, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was probably Norwich’s most famous inhabitant of the seventeenth century. He was born in London, the son of a silk merchant and, after being educated in Oxford, Padua, Montpellier and Leiden, settled in Norwich where he practiced as a physician until he died .
He was famed as a polymath whose writings reveal an inquisitive mind that explored subjects as diverse as: the fault line between his training as a physician and the Christian faith (in Religio Medici, 1643); his debunking of myths and falsehoods (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646); the incidence of the number five in patterns in nature (The Garden of Cyrus, 1658); and his celebrated and lyrical musings about death, prompted by the discovery of funerary urns in a Norfolk field (Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, 1658).
This was at a time when modern science was in its infancy. The scientific method, promoted by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), involved framing hypotheses based on observations viewed through the filter of scepticism.
Browne was appropriately sceptical in his examination of Vulgar Errors (Pseudodoxia Epidemica) like: Does a carbuncle give off light in the dark? and, Do dead kingfishers make good weathervanes? Yet this was the ‘person of great knowledge’ whose testimony, that he had heard of similar cases of witchcraft in Denmark, led to two women being hanged in Bury St Edmunds. But the Enlightenment had barely got going and the proto-scientist Browne found himself straddling two worlds that had yet to drift apart – even Sir Isaac Newton sought the philosopher’s stone that would turn base metal into gold.
My first encounter with Sir Thomas was when I was trying to understand how plant cells and other solid bodies pack together . I had gained some insight from another early scientist, Stephen Hales (1677-1761). By squashing a pot of pea seed then counting the number of flat faces impressed onto each seed by its neighbours, Hales came up with the number 12. You can make a dodecahedron by joining together 12 pentagons, making one of only a handful of ‘ideal’ solid bodies (another is a cube made of six squares). Plato knew this .
But in real life, the shapes of plant cells are far from perfect and don’t pack together neatly like Platonic Lego. Instead, they tend, on average, to be 14-sided and each side tends, on average, to be a pentagon . Nevertheless, this idea of fiveness took me back a further century to fellow citizen Thomas Browne.
In The Garden of Cyrus or The Quincuncial Lozenge (1658)  Browne developed his ideas about the quincunx – the X-shape with four points forming a square or rectangle with a fifth point in the centre.
Browne saw this pattern throughout nature; he saw the quincunx on the trunk of the ‘Sachell palme’ and in the fruits of pineapple, fir and pine. In ragweed and oak he also noted that successive leaves followed a spiral, with every fifth lined up along the stem. These were, before the word, explorations into phyllotaxis or the pattern in which leaf buds emerge from the shoot tip (paired, alternating, spiral). Now, more than 300 years later, the spiral pattern is known to be far more complex than the quincunx. The number of intersecting left-handed-and right-handed spirals tend to be successive numbers on the Fibonacci series, usually 5 and 8, or 8 and 13. (Fibonacci’s series is 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 etc, where the next number is the sum of the last two). Browne may not have been correct but he was there in the first flush of modern science and deserves credit for offering a mathematical basis for patterns in nature.
Many of the words from Sir Thomas Browne’s writings have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary; indeed, he stands 25th in the list of contributors . Sadly, ‘retromingent’ – for peeing backwards – never made it into the OED but many others did, including:
electricity, pubescent, polarity, prototype, rhomboidal, archetype, flammability, follicle, hallucination, coma, deductive, misconception, botanical, incontrovertible, approximate, and an early example of ‘computer’.
Despite the scepticism required of a follower of Bacon, and ‘the scandal of my profession‘, Browne remained a convinced Christian who examined his spiritual beliefs in his most famous book, Religio Medici .
He was surprisingly tolerant for his time. In the first unauthorised edition of Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) in 1642, Browne expressed unorthodox religious ideas including the extension of toleration to infidels and those of other faiths. When the authorised version appeared the following year some of the controversial views had been excised but this didn’t prevent its inclusion on the papal list of prohibited books.
Browne’s major works were written in Norwich, at his house near St Peter Mancroft, close to the Norman marketplace.
After posting this article, Wayne Kett of the Museum of Norwich informed me that this overmantel was in storage as part of their collection. One source had indicated that the coat of arms was that of James I but it seems to be that of Charles II, which makes mores sense since – as we will see – it was he who knighted Browne.
In 1671, the royal court of Charles II came to Norwich. The diarist and gardener John Evelyn was part of the entourage and wrote, “His whole house and garden is a Paradise & Cabinet of rarities, & that of the best collection, especially Medails, books, Plants, natural things” … “amongst other curiosities, a collection of the Eggs of all the foule & birds he could procure … as Cranes, Storkes … & variety of waterfoule” . What Evelyn saw was the first attempt at listing the birds of Norfolk.
The house was demolished in 1842 but we know – because a green plaque tells us so –that it stood approximately where Pret a Manger is now housed in Haymarket Chambers, at the junction with Orford Place. Historian AD Bayne confirms that ‘Sir Thomas Browne is supposed to have lived in the last house of the southern end of the Gentleman’s Walk, where the Savings Bank now stands’ . But the bank stood in the way of progress.
To allow the new trams to turn the corner more easily into Orford Place, the Norfolk and Norwich Savings Bank was demolished and replaced with Skipper’s curved design. The corner-cutting is shown on the 1884 OS map that we’ll bear in mind while trying to figure out where Browne’s Garden House lingered on from 1844 to 1961.
According to George Plunkett, numbers 3-5 Orford Place (Little Orford Street on above map), which was demolished in 1956, had a stone inscription stating that this was the site (probably the side) of Thomas Browne’s house . But Plunkett placed Browne’s timber-framed garden house a little distance from the main house, between the Livingstone Hotel (yellow line) and Green’s shop (green star). He said, ‘only the peak of its tall attic gable visible above the roof of the adjacent Lamb Inn’. So it couldn’t have been in Lamb Inn yard, adjacent to the former site of Browne’s house.
Later, Green’s the Outfitters, whose main shop faced the Haymarket, opened a branch next door to the Livingstone in Orford Place and this will furnish us with an eye-witness description of Browne’s Garden House. In 1961, both buildings were demolished to make way for a Littlewoods Department Store, in turn replaced by Primark.
On the opposite (Haymarket) side of this block of buildings, Green’s main branch stood adjacent to Skipper’s Haymarket Chambers. The slight bend in the building line marks where, around 1900, Green’s expanded into the former Star Hotel.
Browne’s main house disappeared long before modern ideas of conservation, but the loss of his garden house in 1961 now seems an inexcusable loss. His botanical garden had been admired by John Evelyn and ‘Fellows of the Royal Society (thought it) well worthy of a long pilgrimage’ . Our Protestant Dutch refugees – who held annual competitions called Florists’ Feasts  – imported a love of plant breeding and it would be surprising if, in such an environment, Browne’s garden was restricted to medicinal plants.
In 1950, Noël Spencer visited Greens when they ‘were using the Livingstone as a shop and, while making a purchase there (i.e., Green’s Orford Place branch), I noticed an ancient building in the yard behind, and obtained permission to draw it .’ This places the Garden House in the yard marked with a blue dot on the 1888 map.
Further confirmation for the location of Browne’s Garden House came after this article was posted. On Twitter, Bethan Holdridge – Assistant Curator at Strangers’ Hall Museum – replied, mentioning that two of Browne’s Garden House doors in the museum were listed as being given by ‘Messrs Littlewood’ 1961. Also, ‘lying behind former Livingstone Hotel, Castle Street; part of premises of Messrs Green, outfitter 9 and 10 Haymarket.’
To supplement his home garden Sir Thomas leased a plot of land from the Cathedral, known as Browne’s Meadow. In his Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, Hugh Aldersey-Williams writes that Browne ‘let it go’, to see what would grow if untended . After Browne died, the ground was used to produce vegetables for the Cathedral, then used as allotments for residents of Cathedral Close. Now it is a car park.
In his book, Urn Burial (1658), Browne explored thoughts prompted by the discovery of funerary urns in a field some 12 miles north of Norwich: ‘Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us’.
This was in the parish of Brampton, near the Pastons’ Oxnead Park where Sir Robert Paston had dug up urns containing ashes and coins (perhaps to pay the ferryman). In the early 1800s the historian Blomefield visited the field where he observed that urns were buried close enough to the surface to have been skimmed by the ploughshare. He observed that this site was near a fortified Roman town and that the Roman name Brantuna meant ‘the place where bodies were burned‘ .
Sir Thomas Browne died on the 19th October 1682, having eaten too plentifully of a Venison Feast . He was buried in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft, some 200 yards from his house.
In 1905, equidistant between his house and church, the city commemorated an adopted son by unveiling one of its rare statues. From his vantage point above the old hay market, Browne holds the base of a Romano-British funerary urn and meditates on death.
Browne asked, “… who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracles of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered? … To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations .” This turned out to be a premonition.
Sir Thomas Browne lay undisturbed until 1840 when workmen are said to have broken the lid of the lead coffin with a pickaxe while digging the grave of Mrs. Bowman, wife of the then Vicar of St. Peter Mancroft. Mr Fitch, a local antiquarian, was suspiciously at hand and it is not clear whether the desecration was accidental or deliberate. Either way, the sexton, George Potter, removed the skull and some hair. The skull came into the possession of the surgeon, Edward Lubbock, upon whose death it passed to the old Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum on St Stephen’s Road (read various explanations of this dubious episode in 12-15). Despite requests from the church, the skull remained on display at the hospital and was only reunited with Browne’s bones in 1922.
At the time of the reinterral the registrar recorded Browne’s age as 317.
Sir Thomas’s coffin plate, which had broken in two during attempts to remove it, had also been ‘mislaid’. One half of this 7×6 inch brass plate lies with other Browne memorabilia in a glass case in the St Nicholas Chapel of St Peter Mancroft.
An impression of the coffin plate revealed an inscription probably composed by his eldest son Edward, physician to Charles II, and President of the College of Physicians .
The inscription ends, ‘With the dust of this alchemical body he converts lead into gold’ – something denied even the great Sir Isaac Newton.
Thomas Browne’s knighthood: Ambiguity surrounds the circumstances of Thomas Browne’s knighthood. In 1671 King Charles II and his court came to Norwich where he stayed at the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace off present-day Duke Street (causing the famous indoor tennis court to be converted into kitchens). The corporation paid £900 for a sumptuous banquet at the New Hall (now St Andrew’s Hall) after which the king conferred honours.
According to some accounts Browne was unexpectedly knighted when the mayor, variously named as Henry Herne or Thomas Thacker, ‘earnestly begged to be refused’ and so the honour passed along the line. This played into the idea that a promiscuous monarch with several mistresses was as free in conferring honours as he was lax in his private life. Apparent confirmation of the king’s fickleness came within 24 hours when King Charles knighted 13-year-old Henry Hobart at Blickling. But Trevor Hughes picked out inconsistencies between various accounts, such as uncertainty about the name of the reticent mayor . A more sympathetic interpretation was given by historian Philip Browne who wrote: ‘After dinner his majesty conferred the knighthood on Dr Thomas Browne, one of the most learned and worthy persons of the age. The mayor, Thomas Thacker esq. declined the honour’ . That is, the internationally famed Dr Browne was not accidentally knighted but honoured in his own right.
©2020 Reggie Unthank
Recently reprinted. ‘Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle’ contains much more about the development of the Golden Triangle than covered in my blog posts, including photographs of the Unthank family.
- Hugh Aldersey-Williams (2015). The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century. Pub: Granta. Highly recommended.
- Clive Lloyd (1991). How does the cytoskeleton read the laws of geometry in aligning the division plane of plant cells? Development, Supplement 1, pp 55-65.
- Peter S Stevens (1976). Patterns in Nature. Pub: Peregrine Books.
- Ruth Scurr (2016). https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/thomas-browne/
- AD Bayne (1869). A Comprehensive History of Norwich. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44568/44568-h/44568-h.htm
- Noël Spencer (1978). Norwich Drawings. Pub: Noel Spencer and Martlet Studio
- Francis Blomefield (1807). An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk vol 6. Online at: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol6/pp430-440
- Trevor Hughes (1999). Sir Thomas Browne’s Knighthood. In, Norfolk Archaeology vol XLIII, part 11, pp 326-331.
- Philip Browne (1814). The History of Norwich from the Earliest Records to the Present Time. Pub: Bacon, Kinebrook & Co.
Thanks: I am grateful to Chris Sanham, verger at St Peter Mancroft, for his assistance.