Sir Thomas Browne (1683) Certain Miscellany Tracts. Tract IX: Of Artificial Hills, Mounts, or Burrows in Many Parts of England, pp. 151-156.





In many pars of


What they are, to what end raised, and by what Nations.

My honoured Friend Mr. E.D.1 his Quære.

“In my last Summer’s Journey through Marshland, Holland and a great part of the Fenns, I observed divers artificial heaps of Earth of a very large magnitude, and I hear of many others which are in other parts of those Countries, some of them are at least twenty foot in direct height from the level whereon they stand. I would gladly know your opinion of them, and whether you think not that they were raised by the Romans or Saxons to cover the Bones or Ashes of some eminent persons?”

My Answer.

Worthy Sir,

Concerning artificial Mounts and Hills, raised without Fortifications attending them, in most parts of England, the most considerable thereof I consider to be of two kinds; that is, either signal Boundaries and Land-marks, or else sepulchral Monuments or Hills of Interrment for remarkable and eminent persons, especially such as died in the Wars.

As for such which are sepulchral Monuments, upon bare and naked view they are not appropriable unto any of the three Nations of the Romans, Saxons or Danes, who, after the Britaines, have possessed this Land; because upon strict account, they may be appliable unto them all.

For that the Romans used such hilly Sepultures, beside many other testimonies, seems confirmable from the practice of Germanicus, who thus interred the unburied Bones of the slain Souldiers of Varus;2 and that expression of Virgil, of high antiquity among the Latins,3

—— facit ingens monte sub alto
Regis Dercenni terreno ex aggere Bustum.

That the Saxons made use of this way is collectible from several Records, and that pertinent expression of Lelandus,4 Saxones gens Christi ignara, in hortis amœnis, si domi forte ægroti moriebantur; sin foris & bello occisi, in egestis per campos terræ tumulis, (quos Burgos appellabant) sepulti sunt.

That the Danes observed this practice, their own Antiquities do frequently confirm, and it stands precisely delivered by Adolphus Cyprius, as the learned Wormius hath observed.5 Dani olim in memoriam Regum & Heroum, ex terra coacervata ingentes moles, Montium instar eminentes, erexisse, credibile omnino ac probabile est, atque illis in locis ut plurimum, quo sæpe homines commearent, atque iter haberent, ut in viis publicis posteritati memoriam consecrarent, & quodammodo immortalitati mandarent. And like Monuments are yet to be observed in Norway and Denmark in no small numbers.

So that upon a single view and outward observation they may be the Monuments of any of these three Nations: Although the greatest number, not improbably, of the Saxons; who fought many Battels with the Britains and Danes, and also between their own Nations, and left the proper name of Burrows for these Hills still retained in many of them, as the seven Burrows upon Salisbury Plain, and in many other parts of England.

[MS. Sloan. 1827 continues with the following: And whereas these are observed in the fen lands, it is not impossible that some hereof may be the monuments of the noblest of the Girvii, or fen inhabitants; for that there were princes and mighty men among them, you cannot doubt, from historical records, and while you read of Tombert, prince of the Southern Girvii, or fen men, whose daughter Audrie was married to the Northumbrian King, and whose name is yet observable in these and other parts.6

[However, probable it is that this part of the land hath been the seat of many notable exploits, not only since the Normans, but in the time of Saxons, Danes, and also of the Romans in their conquest of the Britons, and their own civil dissentions; this being a fast and retiring place in all ages.

[Nor wholly improbable that the dust of Boadicea, the famous queen of the Iceni, may lye about these quarters, whither after her overthrow by the Romans she might best retreat,7 and where not long after, the surviving Britons might honorably inter her, although not after this hilly and submontaneous sepulture; for according to the account of … the historian, before the battle she told the Britons that if they went against them, they would retire into the fens where the enemy should neither take nor find them; and that they should be able to swim over those rivers and waters which the Romans could hardly pass with boats.]

But of these and the like Hills there can be no clear and assured decision without an ocular exploration, and subterraneous enquiry by cutting through one of them either directly or crosswise. For so with lesser charge discovery may be made what is under them, and consequently the intention of their erection.

For if they were raised for remarkable and eminent Boundaries, then about their bottom will be found the lasting substances of burnt Bones of Beasts, of Ashes, Bricks, Lime or Coals.

If Urns be found, they might be erected by the Romans before the term of Urn-burying or custom of burning the dead expired: but if raised by the Romans after that period: Inscriptions, Swords, Shields and Arms after the Roman mode, may afford a good distinction.

But if these Hills were made by Saxons or Danes, discovery may be made from the fashion of their Arms, Bones of their Horses, and other distinguishing substances buried with them.

And for such an attempt there wanteth not encouragement. For a little Mount or Burrow was opened in the days of King Henry the Eighth upon Barham Down in Kent, by the care of Mr. Thomas Digges and charge of Sir Christopher Hales; and a very large Urn with Ashes was found under it, as is delivered by Thomas Twinus De Rebus Albionicis,8 a learned Man of that Country, Sub incredibili Terræ acervo, Urna cinere ossium magnorum fragmentis plena, cùm galeis, clypeis æneis & ferreis rubigine ferè consumptis, inusitatæ magnitudinis, eruta est: sed nulla inscriptio nomen, nullum testimonium tempus, aut fortunam exponebant: and not very long ago, as Cambden delivereth,9 in one of the Mounts of Barklow Hills in Essex, being levelled there were found three Troughs, containing broken Bones, conceived to have been of Danes, [and therefore, though some might conceive that these hills might be raised in this low drowned country, as a retiring place unto men and cattle, upon great flood and inundations, yet, in regard of the former customs of the forementioned nations, we rather entertain them in the acception of sepulchral and funereal mountains:]10 and in later time we find, that a Burrow was opened in the Isle of Man, wherein fourteen Urns were found with burnt Bones in them; and one more neat than the rest, placed in a Bed of fine white Sand, containing nothing but a few brittle Bones, as having passed the Fire; according to the particular account thereof in the description of the Isle of Man.11 Surely many noble Bones and Ashes have been contented with such hilly Tombs; which neither admitting Ornament, Epitaph or Inscription, may, if Earthquakes spare them, out last all other Monuments. Suæ sunt Metis metæ. Obelisks have their term, and Pyramids will tumble, but these mountainous Monuments may stand, and are like to have the same period with the Earth.

More might be said, but my business, of another nature, makes me take off my hand. I am

Yours, &c.


Original marginalia are in green.

1 E.D.: thus 1683; but certainly William Dugdale, whose answer to the tract is preserved, and whose History of Embanking and Draining uses parts of this tract. Wilkin: Dugdale “has transcribed the quotations from Leland and Wormius in illustration of the Saxon and Danish mode of sepulture; and has given almost verbatim the passage referring to Germanicus.”

2 See Tacitus Annales I.60-63 on these rather gruesome events.

3 Aeneid 11:849-50, “fuit” for “facit”.

4 Leland. in Assertione Regis Arthuri. Assertio inclytissimi Arturij Regis Britanniæ (1544) by British antiquarian John Leland (ca. 1500-1552), a defence of the historicity of the Arthurian legends, particularly against the attacks of Polydore Vergil.

5 Wormius in Monumentis Danicis. Danicorum monumentorum libri sex (1642) of Ole Worm (1588-1654).

6 According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Audrey (= Etheldreda = Æthelthryth) was the daughter of Anna, king of the East Angles. She was married first to Tombert or Tonbert, who died soon after their marriage, and then to Egfrid (Ecgfrith etc.), but refused to lay with him as his wife. Eventually she retired to a monastery, then founded her own abbey at Ely. On her death, she was buried in a wooden coffin; but sixteen years later, her successor (and sister) Sexberga thought it more proper to have her re-interred in a stone coffin. Sexberga sent men to find an appropriate stone, which men found a marvellous white stone coffin, exactly suited to the purpose. When Audrey's body was dug up, it was incorrupt, and certain wounds that had been made by the physician attempting to save her life had healed. Various other miracles followed.

7 Boadicea is said to have poisoned herself and her daughters immediately after the final massacre of her troops. An alternate version has her escaping and dying soon after. Various locales claim both/either the battle and/or the grave in various combinations, including Wales, Towcester, and Kings Cross Station, London, where she may be buried under platform 10, the battle having taken place at Fenny Stratford on Watling Street (a Roman road possibly overlying in parts a pre-Roman track).

8 In John Twyne "Bolingdvnensis" (ca. 1500-1581), De rebus albionicis, britannicis atqve anglicis, commentariorum libri duo, edited by his son Thomas and published in 1590. The book (and the urn) is mentioned in Hydriotaphia, Chapter II (as is to be expected, much of this tract is similar to parts of Urn-Burial). The Barham Down area is very rich in archeological finds: “human remains” were found in the mid-eighteenth century which turned out to be Saxon warriors; and the chance finding of the “Kingston Brooch” in 1847 led to the discovery of more than a dozen burial mounds of the sixth century. Henry VIII is said to have been engaged in his second favourite pursuit, that of money, looking for a “golden calf” or a treasure buried by the Britons.

9 Camb. Brit. p. 326.

10 Text in square brackets is from MS. Sloane 1827.

11 Published 1656 by Dan. King. A short treatise of the Isle of Man, digested into six chapters, published along with several other works in William Smith & William Webb's The vale-royall of England, or, The county palatine of Chester illustrated; it is variously attributed.

This page is by James Eason.