Sir Thomas Browne's Skull

AS 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, 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 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.