Happy birthday Sir Thomas, physician, philosopher, polymath, born in London 19 October 1605*, who died in Norwich 19 October 1682 and celebrated each year by the Thomas Browne Society. Sadly, this year we have no physical events for Thomas Browne Day, mainly due to lack of capacity and a bit of ill-health but there has been plenty going on to let you know about to celebrate Sir Thomas Browne Day this year.
Thomas Browne Annual Essay by Kevin Faulkner
As is customary Browne scholar Kevin Faulkner has published a new essay on his blog the Aquarium of Vulcan, found at https://aquariumofvulcan.blogspot.com/. This year’s essay is called 'In the bed of Cleopatra' Thomas Browne’s Egyptology. The link will go live on 19 October at midday.
The essay looks at Browne's lifelong interest in Egyptian artefacts and reveals how literary symbolism involving Ancient Egypt links and unites his diptych discourses, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658). On Kevin’s blogsite you can also read essays from previous years as Kevin has tackled various subjects about Browne’s thinking and writings Kevin has spent many years reading Browne’s works and promoting awareness of them.
NB For those who are interested in Egyptology, this essay is a natural partner for the Visions of Ancient Egypt exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre which runs until 1 January 2023. www.scva.ac.uk
The Sir Thomas Browne Colo-rectal Unit at Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital
On Thursday 20 October 2022, the Sir Thomas Browne Colo-rectal Unit at NNUH will be officially blessed with its adopted name three years after opening. In the meantime the unit has become the acclaimed front-runner in robot-assisted colo-rectal and pelvic surgery, enabling delicate operations to be performed without major incisions in the patient which means less trauma, quicker recovery and also better for the NHS as the beds are freed up more quickly - so a win for everyone. The blessing is part of a conference for professionals and researchers.
Richard Wharton, Regional Director of the Royal College of Surgeons (East of England) and Consultant Colorectal Surgeon said ‘I heard about Browne when I listened to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time about Browne in 2019. I knew he was from Noriwch and this made me want to find out more. I realised that it was perfect to name the Unit after him - he would have no doubt have approved of the advances that we have made. We already have a Thomas Browne library and he was a truly original thinker with a thirst for knowledge. I really do believe that it is time that more people recognised what a treasure we have in Browne as a son of Norwich’
If you would like to know more about the work of the Unit, please follow this link:
Article about NNUH and Dr Thomas Browne
Coinciding with Browne’s annual day and to celebrate 250 years of the Norfolk & Norwich hospital, journalist Rowan Mantell has written an article about the origins of the hospital and its collections and archives. ‘Over the past two-and-a-half centuries, spanning treatments with leeches and herbs to robotic surgery and cancer immunotherapy, the hospital has acquired a fascinating archive, including the world’s largest collection of bladder stones and the skull of the man who coined the words coma, computer, electricity, hallucination and medical, plus many more that we use in our everyday live in the 21st century.
Full disclosure, the skull is a replica – but it was once the real, stolen, skull of the great Norwich scientist Thomas Browne until the hospital returned the original for reburial exactly a century ago. You can read the whole article here: https://www.edp24.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/norfolk-and-norwich-hospital-history-9326120
Update on Professor Claire Preston’s work on a new edition of the Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne, funded by AHRC and a new work from Dr Gavin Francis due 2023
There is an ongoing project to edit a new Complete Works of Thomas Browne. Chief editor Professor Claire Preston took early retirement from her full-time role at Queen Mary University in 2020, to concentrate on her research, writing, editing and overseeing the new Browne edition, with the first volume appearing in the next few months – vol 1, Religio Medici in three distinct versions, edited by Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti. There will be more news and a publication date in the new year. http://www.thomasbrowne.qmul.ac.uk/
Dr Gavin Francis, GP and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Royal College of General Practitioners has also a has written a new book Sir Thomas Browne :The Opium of Time which will be published in summer 2023 by Oxford University Press. We hope that Gavin will be able to come to Norwich to do a talk in October 2023 following the launch of the book.
He is the author of seven award-winning books of non-fiction including Adventures in Human Being, Island Dreams, and Recovery: the Lost Art of Convalescence. His work has been translated into eighteen languages. You can read more here https://global.oup.com/academic/product/sir-thomas-browne-9780192858177?lang=en&cc=gb#
Re-siting of the public artwork ‘Homage to Thomas Browne’ from Hay Hill, Norwich
Earlier in 2022, Norwich City Council made a decision to refurbish Hay Hill, a square in the centre of Norwich which commemorates Browne, set as it is between the site of the house that he lived in for most of his adult life as a physician and the church, St Peter Mancroft, where he is buried. Hay Hill would have been his ‘patch’, the place that he wandered his way out to visit a patient or back home to rest, write and experiment, a space he would have crossed to go to church to worship and pray for his family and patients.
In 1905, to celebrate the tercentenary celebration of Browne’s birth, a statue of Browne was installed in the centre of Hay Hill commissioned from sculptor Henry Alfred Pegram. Thousands of people turned out to see it unveiled (see photo on last page). It has been moved onsite a number of times, but he continues to survey the square from his high pedestal, often accompanied by a pigeon or two. See photos on last page.
In 2005 a new public artwork was commissioned from French artists, Anne and Patrick Poirier, who live near Montpelier in the south of France, one of the universities that Browne studied at during his medical training. The artwork was installed on 4 July 2007 as a ‘living room for the city’ conceived as a place for people to sit and ponder the world in the centre of a busy place. Consisting of 20 pieces of stone sculpture and 22 lights set into the paving, the arrangement is based around a quincunx, a five-poined shape that Browne wrote about in The Garden of Cyrus. A large marble brain and eye line up with the quincunx tracing a line between the site of his house, and his burial place and many of the pieces are inscribed with the titles of his works and other references.
The sculptures have been well-used on Hay Hill in the way the artists intended, as street furniture to sit on, to meet friends and pass the time of day, eat their lunch, for children to climb on, teenagers to congregate on. Now the council want to clear the space and re-shape the steps and walkways, plant it and add a water feature. They have decided to relocate the sculptures - the new home is yet to be decided. There is nowhere that will be as suitable - the site-specific work was designed especially for Hay Hill but hopefully they will find somewhere that will be accommodate it. The Pegram sculpture on Hay Hill will be more prominent and there are plans for other kinds of interpretation. They have yet to apply for planning permission to move the artwork but hope to start work early in 2023. Keep an eye on www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk for updates and more about the artwork here.
St Peter Mancroft Church
Thomas Browne’s home was on Gentleman’s Walk moreorless where Pret a Manger stands now in 2022 and he workshipped in St Peter Mancroft Church, adjacent to Hay Hill (see photo on last page). His house was demolished many years ago but there are still a number of artefacts in the church including a replica of his skull which was reburied after being accidentally dug up by workmen many years before and sold to a local doctor who kept it until it was finally reunited with Browne on 4th July 1922. The church is open every day and you are welcome to go and see his portrait, memorial plaque, his wife Dorothy’s stone as well as books and documents related to Browne.
A walk with Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich
Writer and science journalist Hugh Aldersey Williams, also author of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, (ISBN 978-1847089021) a really good primer for anyone wanting to know the Browne basics as well as the relevance to contemporary living. In 2020, Hugh was commissioned by the National Centre for Writing to create a walk in Norwich as part of a series of literary walks called Walking Norwich. It takes you on a route from Hay Hill to Pull’s Ferry in the Cathedral Close passing spots that would have been of interest to Browne including Browne’s Meadow where he used to grow medicinal plants. You can download a map and find out more here:
A Quincunx for Sir Thomas Browne - a film
In case you havent seen it, there is a very lovely and informative film about Browne made by the Royal College of Physicians to accompany an exhibition, 'A cabinet of rarities' : the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne' in London in 2016. It is a very good source of accessible basic information about the man, his life and his works and how he fits into both 17th century and contemporary living.
'A cabinet of rarities': the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne' explores RCP physician, philosopher, collector and polymath Thomas Browne’s curious approach to the world through his writing and his collection. Browne (1605–1682) saw the extraordinary in the ordinary, and introduced over 700 new words to the English language, while inspiring literary greats such as Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe. His collection reveals a fascinating perspective on 17th-century scientific and medical research.
About the exhibition http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/museum
Watch the film https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPu_43Mtbzs
If you have anything to report about Browne, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add it to the website www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk where there is a wealth of information about Browne.
Finally, an obituary for Barbara Miller OBE who was a long term parishioner of St Peter Mancroft and a Thomas Browne Champion, delivering a tour and talk of St Peter Mancroft Church and its Browne artefacts every year. Sadly she passed away on 1 December 2021 and is greatly missed, although she made excellent use of her long and active life. RIP Barbara. You can read an article about her life here.
Sir Thomas Browne Day Events in October 2019
Sir Thomas Browne Day is an annual celebration of the life and work of the 17th century physician and polymath, who lived in Norwich for most of his adult life until his death on 19th October 1682. The events on and around his birth- and death-day, 19 October, are a chance to find out more about this interesting and ‘curious’ man, partnering this year with the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library, St Peter Mancroft and Fairhurst Gallery. Full details and directions can be found on the website www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk.
Monday 14 October-Sunday 20 October
Display of a selection of Browne’s books and papers in the Heritage Centre in the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library - look for a glass case and pop-up banners
Tuesday 15 October 7pm-9.30pm
The Chapel, 64 Park Lane, Norwich NR2 3EF
A double-bill of talks - see other side of flyer for details
Julie Curl http://www.sylvanusservices.com/
Kevin Faulkner http://aquariumofvulcan.blogspot.com
Chaired by Dr Nick Warr, https://people.uea.ac.uk/n_warr
Pay-what-you-can. Book your seat at www.sirthomasbrownedaytalk.eventbrite.co.uk
Saturday 19 October – Sir Thomas Browne Day
10am-12pm Cleaning the sculptures on Hay Hill
Maggie and Marion will be on Hay Hill for the annual birthday clean of the sculptures ‘Homage to Sir Thomas Browne’ by international artists Anne and Patrick Poirier and available to talk to people about Thomas Browne and the work on Hay Hill.
11am-12pm Performance on Hay Hill
Norwich-born Browne scholar Kevin Faulkner performs in costume (subject to weather).
1-2pm Thomas Browne Concert in St Peter Mancroft Church
Marcos Garrido Jiménez Trombone and Neil Jones, piano. Donation to St Peter Mancroft
2.30pm Tour of St Peter Mancroft Church by local Browne expert and Mancroft parishioner Barbara Miller: A tour of the artefacts kept in the church where Browne and his family are buried. Free/donation to St Peter Mancroft Church
Until 29 October 2019
Fairhurst Gallery, Bedford Street, Norwich NR2 1AR
Quin : An exhibition of new work by Tazelaar Stevenson, an artist who is fascinated by grids and whose work is influenced by Thomas Browne and the Quincunx.
Visit the Gallery and Quin exhibition Tuesday to Friday 9.30am-5.30pm, Saturday 10am-4pm
FrIday 22 November 2.30-3.30pm
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norwich Castle
Thomas Browne’s Retreat to Earth
A talk by Professor Claire Preston, Queen Mary University (London)
One of a series of talks in relation to an exhibition celebrating the work of the author W.G. Sebald on the 75th anniversary of his birth; at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in collaboration with The University of East Anglia until 5 January 2020.
Tuesday 15 October 2019
The Chapel, 64 Park Lane, Norwich NR2 3EF
6.30pm for 7pm start
A double bill of speakers : Julie Curl and Kevin Faulkner
Chaired and introduced by Dr. Nick Warr, historian and curator of the current
WG Sebald : Lines of Sight exhibition at Norwich Castle
Talk 1 : Julie Curl, archaeologist and illustrator
‘Sir Thomas Browne, research from the past affecting the future’.
The work of Sir Thomas Browne is something that I frequently quote in my archaeological faunal research, particularly his work on birds. His research can add to my findings to help current and future plans to reintroduce some species, such as the White-Tailed Eagle, where there is consideration given to archaeological records and documentary evidence. Approx 40 mins
Talk 2 : Kevin Faulkner, Norwich-based scholar of Thomas Browne and western esotericism
‘The alchemy of Sir Thomas Browne’
The alchemy of Browne: A brief look at the diptych discourses of 1658, Urn-Burial and the Garden of Cyrus and their relationship to each other with reference to the contents of his library, literary symbolism and esotericism during the 1650s. Approx 40 mins
Pay-what-you-can on the door, suggestion £5
Book here please so that we know numbers - no payment required to reserve a place
Press enquiries call Marion Catlin 07946 261651 or email email@example.com
About Sir Thomas Browne Day
Sir Thomas Browne is an overlooked character in Norwich heritage. Most people don't know who he was and yet they pass him most days in the city centre. He was a Norwich man 1605 - 1682, there is a statue of him on Hay Hill just outside Next, people often know him as the he lived where Pret a Manger is now and he is buried in St Peter Mancroft Church. The brain and the eye sculptures are part of a Homage to Sir Thomas Browne.
Sir Thomas Browne Day is an annual series of events centring around the date of 19 October as it is the anniversary of both his birth and his death. The Thomas Browne Project is a volunteer-led small group of people whose aim is to increase awareness and knowledge of Browne, his life and his work, to maintain a website as a central place for information about Browne and any events associated with him and to encourage new work on the ‘Brownean’ principles of curiosity and experimentation. Many writers, artists, scientists and thinkers are inspired by his work. The website is www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk
About Sir Thomas Browne
Sir Thomas Browne was a 17th century physician and polymath who lived in Norwich for most of his adult life, in the Hay Hill area of the city. He died aged 77 on his birthday in 1682, on 19 October which is now Sir Thomas Browne Day.
· There is a statue of him on Hay Hill and also a set of sculptures that relate to his life and work.
Sir Thomas Browne features on Radio 4's 'In Our Time' programme with Melvyn Bragg this Thursday 6 June 2019
Sir Thomas Browne features in Melvyn Bragg's
In Our Time
on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 6 June 2019 at 9am
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the range, depth and style of Browne (1605-82), a medical doctor whose curious mind drew him to explore and confess his own religious views, challenge myths and errors in science and consider how humans respond to the transience of life. His first publication Religio Medici became famous throughout Europe and his openness about his religion, in that work, was noted as rare when others either kept quiet or professed orthodox views.
His most reprinted book Pseudodoxia Epidemica challenged popular ideas, whether about the existence of mermaids or if Adam had a navel, and his treatise Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial was a meditation on what matters to humans when handling the dead.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth." He also contributed more words to the English language than almost anyone, such as electricity, indigenous, medical, ferocious, carnivorous ambidextrous and migrant.
Professor of Renaissance Literature at Queen Mary, University of London
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Professor of English at the University of York
Talk by Dr Kevin Killeen: The cusp of life and death: Sir Thomas Browne and the religion of a physician
A talk by Dr Kevin Killeen
6.30pm for 6.45pm start
The cusp of life and death: Sir Thomas Browne and the religion of a physician
Collector of curiosities, debunker of myths, inspiration to writers and doctors alike, coiner of words, owner of a live ostrich and expert witness at a witch trial. Sir Thomas Browne is probably the greatest British genius the vast majority of British people have never even heard of. He was also a renowned physician, wrote some of the most beautiful prose in English and has long figured in the history of medicine and the humanities. His most famous work, Religio Medici, 'the Religion of a Physician', deals with the relation between the body and soul, the cusp of life and death.
In his talk Dr Kevin Killeen will address Browne's intellectual world, his experiments and how he understood the mesh of science, humanities and the religious.
The talk will be approximately 45 minutes with time for questions and discussion afterwards, plus tea, coffee and biscuits (and maybe a little wine!)
Pay what you can on entry - suggested £3-£5. Proceeds to the Chapel
The Chapel is a lovely intimate venue in Park Lane Norwich, halfway down on the right handside from Unthank Road or on the left from Earlham Road. There is no parking at the Chapel apart from limited on street spaces, although the Black Horse pub on Earlham Road provides excellent food and drink and also has a car park! Buses run regularly along Unthank Road, and of course taxis are handy if you are too far to walk or cycle. The Chapel is a 5-10 minute walk from the city centre in the Golden Triangle area of Norwich
About Dr Kevin Killeen
Dr Kevin Killeen is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of York. He is one of the editors of the Oxford Works of Sir Thomas Browne. He has written several books, on Browne, on seventeenth century politics and religion and on the history of science including a new edition of Sir Thomas Browne in paperback published earlier this year.
New Edition of Sir Thomas Browne
For many years now it has been difficult to find the writings of Thomas Browne, except in second hand shops. A new edition of Browne has recently come out in paperback from Oxford University Press, at a wholly affordable price. Thomas Browne, Selected Writings, edited by Kevin Killeen, contains all of Browne’s major writings, Religio Medici, Urn-Burial, and The Garden of Cyrus, and generous selections from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, as well as a selection of writings published after his death. The volume is part a new series, ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’, and is ‘lightly modernised’ – the original spelling is generally retained, but punctuation is clarified when necessary. It includes an introduction to Browne, explanatory notes and commentary at the end of the book.
Kevin Killeen is part of the team editing The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne, in 8 volumes, also from Oxford University Press, albeit in expensive format. He has written extensively on Browne, including the prize-winning Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern Culture: Thomas Browne and The Thorny Place of Knowledge (2009).
The Chapel | 64 Park Lane | NR2 3EF Norwich | United Kingdom
Wednesday, 27 June 2018 from 18:30 to 21:30 (BST)
New Edition of Sir Thomas Browne by Kevin Killeen in paperback
For many years now it has been difficult to find the writings of Thomas Browne, except in second hand shops. A new edition of Browne has recently come out in paperback from Oxford University Press, at a wholly affordable price of £14.99. Thomas Browne, Selected Writings, edited by Kevin Killeen, contains all of Browne’s major writings, Religio Medici, Urn-Burial, and The Garden of Cyrus, and generous selections from Pseudodoxia Epidemica, as well as a selection of writings published after his death. The volume is part a new series, ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’, and is ‘lightly modernised’ – the original spelling is generally retained, but punctuation is clarified when necessary. It includes an introduction to Browne, explanatory notes and commentary at the end of the book.
Kevin Killeen is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of York, and is part of the team editing The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne, in 8 volumes, also from Oxford University Press, albeit in expensive format. He has written extensively on Browne, including the prize-winning Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern Culture: Thomas Browne and The Thorny Place of Knowledge (2009).
Sir Thomas is the Johann Sebastian Bach of English prose. Like other major authors such as Jonathan Swift and Horace Walpole, he was an amateur who wrote to amuse himself.
Though Sir Thomas did not do a lot of writing, the stylistic range is impressive. It is no big deal for him to go from the organ tones of the closing section of the Urn Burial to the Pliny like compilations of the Pseudodoxia and the miscellaneous scientific treatises. Sir Thomas at times wrote in a lurid purple prose which has long since gone out of fashion though some later writers have been able to imitate and extend it, e g Thomas De Quincey in the three part account of his drug addiction and Melville in Moby Dick. Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) has also written some tolerable purple prose in Look Homeward Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935). In general, purple prose runs the risk of bombast and embarrassing pomposity.
The canon of Sir Thomas' writings can be best appreciated in the context of the seventeenth century which was the age of Baroque prose. The prose of the late sixteenth century e g Sidney's Arcadia and Lyly's Euphues, had been highly mannered and contorted. These writers as well as Shakespeare in the prose parts of the plays were influenced by the Italian, Spanish, and Dutch painters (including Michelangelo and El Greco) who thrived on the distortion of form whereas the early Baroque painters like Caravaggio and Rubens restored the integrity of form. The prose writers of the seventeenth century - Bacon, Burton, Taylor, Donne, Milton, Browne, the early Swift, Pascal, Descartes, Moliere - likewise aimed at three dimensional effects. They used the verbal equivalent of foreshortening and light and shadow.
Sir Thomas' work needs to be seen in the light of Baroque art-- like "Areopagita" and Paradise Lost, the plays of Corneille and Racine and the satires of Dryden.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams has shown how Sir Thomas was as much a believer in witchcraft as James I or the authors of the Malleus Malificarum-- or Montague Summers in the first half of the twentieth century! This is helpful and important, because it reminds us that an author's environment can be both formative and limiting.
Sent in by Steve Harvy
Extract from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/skullnotes.html
WE SAW on the Sir Thomas Browne's Skull page, we have pictures of a part of Sir Thomas Browne that he never saw himself. A series of communications in my favorite Notes and Queries addresses this question.
In NQ, 8th series, VI, July 28, 1894, 64-65, a "W.B. Gerish" of Great Yarmouth submits an article from the Yarmouth Mercury of December 23, 1893:
The Skull of Sir Thomas Browne. — "Considerable interest has been excited in Norwich by a dispute concerning the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, the writer of 'Religio Medici'. His body was interred in the chancel of St. Peter Mancroft Church, about a couple of centuries ago; and in 1840 some unknown person, in digging a vault, broke the lid of the coffin. His remains were examined by a local antiquary, who ordered the coffin and its contents to be re-interred. It appears, however, that the sexton took possession of the skull, which was purchased by a celebrated Norwich surgeon, and on his death was handed over to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum, where it now remains. Recently the attention of the Vicar of St. Peter Mancroft was called to the circumstances, and naturally regarding the removal as an act of desecration and dishonor, the Vestry requested the Hospital authorities to restore the skull of this illustrious man to its resting place. This application, however, has been refused; and at another vestry meeting it was agreed by eight votes to six, that no further steps should be taken. The vicar has expressed his intention of consulting Sir Walter Phillimore on the subject."(Sir Walter, a celebrated canon lawyer, was then Dean of Arches.)
In 8th ser. VI 233-234 (September 22, 1894), James Hooper of Norwich returned to the subject:
The Skull of Sir Thomas Browne— The leaden coffin of Sir Thomas Browne was found when workmen were digging the grave of Mrs. Bowman, wife of the then Vicar of St. Peter Mancroft, in August, 1840. The shield-shaped coffin-plate bore the following; --
" Amplissimus Vir Dns. Thomas Browne, Miles, Medicinæ, Dr. Annos Natus 77 Denatus 19 Die mensis Octobris, Anno. Dni. 1682, hoc Loculo indormiens. Corporis Spagyrici pulvere plumbum in aurum Convertit. "Mr. Fitch, a local antiquary, who was present when the coffin was found, wrote a description of the skull and hair to the Society of Antiquaries, and the communication is quoted in the Gentleman's Magazine for January, 1841.
It is said that the coffin-plate was placed in the parish chest; but it is not now to be found. Mr. Fitch directed the sexton to restore the remains to the grave; but the sexton removed the skull and a portion of the hair, which he sold to Dr. E. Lubbock, in whose collection they remained till his death in 1847, when they were handed over to the Museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where they now are.
The present Vicar of St. Peter Mancroft, the Rev. Pelham Burn, was a member of Pembroke College, Oxford, Sir Thomas Browne's college, and was for a time on the Hospital Board of Management, but was moved to take action for the recovery of the skull by the remark of some gentleman in London on the matter. Mr. Pelham Burn naturally considers that the theft of the skull, &c., was a very gross act of sacrilege, and that the hospital authorities ought, as Christian men, to restore the remains for reburial; he also urged that the skull is an ordinary one, of no scientific interest. The doctors, however, have the skull, which was duly paid for, and refuse to part with it.
Whether Sir Thomas Browne would call the episode "a tragical abomination," or side with the fraternity of which he was a member, who shall say?
Charles Williams, also of Norwich, continues the theme (8th s., VI, 269-70, October , 1894):
In December, 1893, the vicar of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich, was requested by the Vestry to write to the Board of Management of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and desire them to restore to the parish the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, in order that it might be reinterred in the chancel of that church as near as possible to the place in which it was originally laid. This request was occasioned by the fact that its removal from the coffin in 1840 was considered by the Vestry as a wanton act of sacrilege, and they thought every means should be attempted to undo so great a sin.
The Hospital Board, after a prolonged and careful consideration of all the circumstances which pertained to the request of the Vestry, in the end, by a unanimous vote, refused to relinquish the precious relic, and they urged, among others, the following reasons:— That as there is no legal title to, or property in, any such relic, so there can be no question that this and all other specimens in the Hospital Museum belong inalienably to the Governors. That no instance is known of such a claim for restitution having been made after nearly half a century on any museum, and were the Governors to yield to this request they might be unable to resist similar claims. That the presence in a museum of such a relic, reverently preserved and protected, cannot be viewed as merely an object of idle curiosity; rather it will usefully serve to direct attention to, and remind visitors of, the works of the great scholar and physician. At a subsequent meeting of the Vestry it was decided by a majority to take no further steps in the matter, and thus the subject was allowed to rest.
Whether the coffin was broken open accidentally or not in August, 1840, will never be known; certain it is that the workmen were making a grave for the wife of the then incumbent (Rev. John Bowman), when, it is asserted, they accidentally fractured with a blow of the pickaxe the lid of the coffin and thus exposed the skeleton. They then sent for a well-known antiquary, living near the church, and still living near the city, who generally displays a certain reticence when questioned on this particular subject. At any rate, the skull was abstracted by the sexton, one George Potter, by whom it was offered to the late Mr. G. W. W. Frith, one of the surgeons to the hospital. On his refusing to purchase it, the late Dr. Edward Lubbock became its possessor, and he, in 1845, deposited in the pathological museum of the hospital, in which place it has been carefully preserved to the present day. For obvious reasons no minute of the gift was entered in the hospital books, so that the exact date of its acceptance is unknown.
The coffin-plate of brass commemorative of Sir Thomas Browne measured 7 in. by 6 in., and was broken lengthwise into two nearly equal halves. It was in the form of an heraldic escutcheon, and bore the remarkable lines most probably written by his eldest son Edward, the physician to Charles II. and President of the College of Physicians. This is said to have been placed in the parish chest, but is not now to be found. A portion of his beard is to be seen in a glass vessel close to the skull.
Sir Thomas Browne died October 19, 1682, in his seventy-seventh year, on his birthday, as did two other illustrious men, Shakespeare and Raphael. [That is, they died on their birthdays, of course, not on Sir Thomas's (nor in 1682, for that matter, nor at 77).] [Rev. William] Stukeley tells us Sir Thomas Browne "dyed after eating too plentifully of a Venison Feast."
When Sir Thomas Browne's skeleton was exposed by the "accidental" opening of his coffin, it is stated on the authority of Mr. Fitch (Proccedings of the Archæological Institute, 1847) that the hair was seen to be "profuse and perfect, and of a fine auburn color." It is more than probable that this hair was not his own natural hair, but the remains of a wig. All the portraits of Sir Thomas Browne represent him as wearing one, and it was the fashion of that day to do so, and he would unquestionably be buried in it. It is difficult to believe that a man of seventy-seven, who must have suffered much anxiety and worry in an arduous practice of over forty years, and who had lost all his teeth, could have possessed a large amount of hair "of a fine auburn colour." It is much more likely to have been artificial. The alveolar ridges of his jaws are quite absorbed; the only socket remaining is one in the lower jaw.
Of the three portraits of this great man I will ask you to insert a note at a future time.
For more on the history, the present whereabouts, and pictures of casts of hte skull, and a bibliography, see The Royal Society of Medicine's Feature of the Month – September 2014.