Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Browne, Robert
BROWNE, ROBERT (1550?–1633?), the earliest separatist from the church of England after the Reformation, and now claimed as the first exponent of their principle of church government by the modern congregationalists in England and America, was born at Tolethorpe in Rutland about the middle of the sixteenth century, though the exact date of his birth is unknown. The family from which he sprang had been settled at Stamford in Lincolnshire since the fourteenth century. They had amassed considerable wealth, filled positions of trust and importance, and were recognised county magnates before the fifteenth century had closed. One of them, John Browne, a merchant of the staple, and a rich alderman of Stamford, built the church of All Saints in that town at his sole expense, and a brass in memory of him and his wife still exists in the church he erected. This man's son, Christopher Browne of Tolethorpe, was high sheriff for the county of Rutland in the reign of Henry VII, and his son, grandfather of the subject of this article, received a curious patent from Henry VIII, allowing him to wear his hat in the royal presence when he pleased. Robert was the third child of Mr. Anthony Browne of' Tolethorpe, by Dorothy, daughter of Sir Philip Bote er of Watton Woodhall, Hertfordshire, and was coimected more or less closely through both parents with some of the most wealthy and influential families in England, In Cecil, lord Burghley, whose family had been connected with Stamford for generations, and who on more than one occasion acknowledged Browne as a kinsman, he found a friend indeed when he most needed his protection and support.
Browne is said to have entered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1570, and to have taken his B.A. degree in 1572. Both statements can hardly be true, and—as he certainly did take the B.A. degree in 1572, when his name was placed eightieth on the list-it is probable that he matriculated first at some other college and migrated to Corpus for some reason which must remain unknown to us. Thomas Aldrich, one of the leaders of the puritan party at Cambridge, was master of Corpus at this time, having been elected, on the recommendation of Archbishop Parker, 3 Feb, 1569-70. The college was in a flourishing condition, due in a great measure to the favour shown to it by the primate, who had himself held the mastership from 1544 to 1558. It is hardly conceivable that Browne between the time of his entry at Corpus and the taking of his degree should have been admitted to the household of the unfortunate Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, still less that he should in any sense have been the duke’s domestic chaplain in June 1571, as Strype asserts he was. The duke at this time was deeply pledged to the papal party, of which he was soon to be acknowledged as the ostensible leader, and he was the last man just at this time to have extended his patronage to a young firebrand, like Browne, whose violent denunciation of all that was ‘popish' was quite ungovernable and at any rate unrestrained. It is far more probable that Strype has confused Robert Browne with another man of the same name upon whom Cecil doubtless had his eye-the man who two months later was implicated when the Ridolfi conspiracy was discovered, and who was to be the bearer of the bag of money which was intended for Lord Herries but never reached his hands. After taking his degree Browne appears to have gone to London, where he supported himself as a schoolmaster, and delivered his soul on Sundays by preaching in the open air in defiance of the rector of Islington, in whose parish it was that his auditors assembled. About 1578, the plague being more than usually violent in London, his father ordered him to return to Tolethorpe; but unable to remain long without active employment, he grew tired of the quiet home, and again went up to Cambridge, probably with a view to taking the higher degrees, or on the chance of a fellowship falling to him. At this time he came under the influence of Richard Greenham, rector of Dry Drayton, six or seven miles from Cambridge, a clergyman of great earnestness and conspicuous ability, who had remarkable influence upon the more devout and ardent young men in the university then preparing for holy orders. Browne was probably placed for a while under Greenham as a pupil in his family, and the elder man soon perceived that the younger one had gifts of no ordinary kind. Beginning by allowing him to take a prominent art in the religious exercises of his household, which was a large one, he went on to encourage him to preach in the villages round, without taking the trouble to get the bishop's license, though it is almost certain that he must have been previously ordained. Soon the fame of his eloquence and enthusiasm extended itself, and he was invited to accept the cure of a parish in Cambridge, probably St. Benet’s, adjoining his own college, where he preached fervently and effectively for some months; at the end of that time he ‘sent back the money they would have given him, and also gave them warning of his departure.' His congregation were not ‘as yet so rightly grounded in church government’ as they should be. In other words, he could not persuade them to follow him as far as he desired to do. It was at this point in his career that he first became possessed with the notion that the whole constitution of ecclesiastical government was faulty and needed a radical reform. Ordination, whether episcopal or presbyterian, was to his mind an abominable institution: to be authorised, licensed, or ordained, by any human being was hateful. When his brother obtained for him the necessary license from Cox, bishop of Ely, and paid the fees, Browne lost one of the necessary documents, threw the other into the fire, and proceeded openly to preach in Cambridge, wherever he had the opportunity, ‘against the calling and authorising of preachers by bishops,’ protesting that though he had been fortified with the episcopal license, he cared not one whit for it and would have preached whether he had been provided with it or not. If the ecclesiastical government of the bishops in their several sees was bad, not less objectionable did the whole structure of the parochial system seem to him, harmful to religion and a bondage from which it was high time that the true believers should be set free. ‘The kingdom of God,' he proclaimed, ‘was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather by the worthiest, were they never so few.’ Already he had persuaded himself distinctly that the christian church, so far from being a corporation comprehensive, all-embracing, and catholic, was to be of all conceivable associations the most narrow, exclusive, and confined in its influence and its aims. It was to be a society for a privileged and miraculously gifted few, a witness immeasurably less for divine truth than against the world, which was lying in wickedness, and which Browne seems to have considered he had little concern with, little call to convert from the errors of its ways.
While vehemently and incessantly proclaiming this new theory of ecclesiastical polity—and at this time it was a very new theory—his health broke down, and while still suffering from illness he was formally inhibited from preaching by the bishop. Browne, with characteristic perversity, told the bishop's officer that he was not in a position to preach just then; if the circumstances had been different, ‘he would no whit less cease preaching’ for the episcopal inhibition. Soon after this he heard that there were certain people in Norfolk who were ‘very forward' in their zeal for a new reformation, and consumed by his desire to spread his views of the importance of a separation of the godly from the ungodly, he felt called to go down to East Anglia. It was just at this time that a former acquaintance and fellow-collegian of his, one Robert Harrison, returned to Cambridge, or paid a brief visit to the university. Harrison, who was Browne’s senior by some years, had recently been dismissed from the mastership of Aylsham school in Norfolk for some irregularity or nonconformity, but had been fortunate enough to obtain another resting-place as master of St. Giles's [?] Hospital in the city of Norwich. Harrison's visit to Cambridge resulted in a renewal of an old intimacy and in a closer union between two enthusiasts who had much in common. It ended by Browne leaving Cambridge and taking up his residence for a time in Harrison’s house at Norwich. Gradually Browne, gaining ascendency over his friend, used him as a coadjutor, the two working together—pretty much as Reeve and Muggleton did a century later—and round them there soon gathered a small company of believers who, accepting Browne as their pastor, called themselves ‘the church,’ as others have done before and since, and separated from all other professing christians, who ‘were held in bondage by anti-christian power, as were those parishes in Cambridge by the bishops.' The disciples became generally known as Brownists. Edmund Freake was bishop of Norwich at this time, and it was not long before he took action against the new sect. On 19 April 1581 he forwarded certain articles of complaint ‘against one Robert Browne’ to Lord Burghley, in which he set forth that ‘the said party had been lately apprehended on complaint of many godly preachers, for delivering unto the people corrupt and contentious doctrine,' and further that he was seducing ‘the vulgar sort of people, who greatly depended on him, assembling themselves together to the number of one hundred at a time in private houses and conventicles to hear him, not without danger of some evil effect.’ It was not at Norwich but at Bury St. Edmunds that Browne had produced this effect, and it is probable that he had been led to move into Suffolk by finding that at Norwich the power of the bishop was too strong for him, or that the clergy of the city, then deeply affected with Genevan proclivities and as a body very zealous in their ministerial duties, were by no means willing to befriend or co-operate with a sectary who began by assuming that they were all in the bonds of iniquity. Lord Burghley returned a prompt reply to the bishop's letter of complaint, but as promptly sent back his kinsman to Bury with a kindly excuse for him, and a suggestion that his indiscretions proceeded ‘of zeal rather than malice.’ Browne was no sooner released than he returned to the old course, and the bishop every day received some fresh complaint and became more and more irritated. In the following August he again wrote a strong letter to the lord treasurer, in which he said that his duty ‘enforced him most earnestly to crave his lordship's help in suppressing’ this disturber of his diocese. Again Burghley stood his friend, and when, a little after, Browne was brought before the archbishop, even the primate could not keep his prisoner, and he was set at liberty only to return to his followers with his influence over them increased tenfold. The truth is that the time was hardly favourable for exercising exceptional severity against a zealot of this character, who was for ever declaiming against papistry and Roman errors. The Jesuit mission to England had only just collapsed by the apprehension of Campion on 10 July. Parsons was still at large, and the rack was being employed pretty freely in the Tower upon the wretched men who, if they had succeeded in nothing else, had succeeded in rousing the anti-papal feelings of the masses and the alarm of such statesmen as looked with apprehension upon a revival of catholic sentiment. Nevertheless it became evident that the little congregation, the ‘church’ which prized above all things human the privilege of having their ‘pastor’ present with them, could hardly continue its assembly if Browne were to be continually worried by citations and imprisonment at the will of one after another of the stiff sticklers for uniformity; and when they had sought about for some time for a retreat where they might enjoy liberty of worship unmolested, they emigrated at last in a body to Middleburg in the autumn of 1581. Cartwright and Dudley Fenner were the accredited ministers of the English puritan colony at Middleburg, but Browne and his exclusive congregation were in no mood to ally themselves with their fellow-exiles. All other professing Christians might come to him, he certainly would not go to them. To the amazement and grief of Cartwright he found in the newcomers no friends but aggressive opponents, and a paper war was carried on, Browne writing diligently and printing what he wrote as fast as the funds could be found. Harrison too rushed into print, and the books of the two men were sent over to England and circulated by their followers so sedulously—for not all the Norwich congregation had emigrated—that a royal proclamation was actually issued against them in 1583, and two men were hanged for dispersing the books and one for the crime of binding them!
Meanwhile the violent and imperious character of Browne led him into acts and words which were not favourable to harmony even in his own little company of devoted followers, and that which any outsider who watched the movement must have foreseen to be inevitable happened at last; the Middleburg ‘church’ broke up, and Browne towards the close of 1583 turned his back upon Harrison and the rest, and set sail for Scotland accompanied by ‘four or five Englishmen with their wives and families,’ so much already had the ‘church’ shrunk from its earlier proportions.
Arrived in Scotland Browne began in the old way, denouncing everything and everybody concerned in matters religious or ecclesiastical, and he had scarcely been a month in the country before he was cited to appear before the kirk of Edinburgh, and on his behaving himself with his usual arrogance and treating the court with an insolent defiance he was thrown into the common gaol till time should be given to two theologians who were appointed to examine and report upon his books. Meanwhile some secret influences had been brought to bear in his favour, and just when it was confidently expected that this mischievous troubler would be condemned and silenced, to the surprise of all he was set at liberty, why, none could explain. Browne appears to have remained some months or even longer in Scotland, but he made no way, left no mark, and gained no converts. In disgust at his reception he delivered his testimony against the Scotch in no measured terms, shook off the dust of his feet against them, and setting his face southwards was once more printing and publishing books in the summer of 1584. Once more he was thrown into prison and kept there for some months, and once more Burghley interposed, became security for his good conduct, effected his release, and actually interceded for him in a letter to his father, who was still alive. Browne returned to Tolethorpe much broken in health by his long imprisonment. On recovering his strength his former habits and temper returned, and old Anthony Browne, vexed and provoked by his son's contumacy, applied to Burghley and obtained his sanction for his son's removal to Stamford, possibly under the eye of some relatives, members of the Browne or Cecil families. But such men as this are incorrigible. In the spring of 1586 he had left Stamford and was preaching as diligently as ever at Northampton—as diligently and as offensively—and on being cited by Howland, bishop of Peterborough, to appear before him, Browne took no notice of the citation, and was excommunicated for contempt accordingly.
This seems to have been the turning-point of his strange career. Whether it was that Browne was prepared to suffer in his person all sorts of hardships, but had never thought of being cast out of the church from which he gloried in urging others to go out, and thus was startled and confused by the suddenness and unexpected form of the sentence that had been pronounced; whether his disordered imagination began to conjure up some vague, mysterious consequences which might possibly ensue, and on which he had never reflected before; or whether his fifteen years of restless onslaught upon all religions and all religious men who would not follow nor be led by him, had almost come to be regarded by himself as a conspicuous failure, and he had given up hope and lost heart, it is impossible to say. Certain it is that from this time he ceased to be a disturber of the order of things established, and his ‘church’ or ‘churches’ were compelled to seek elsewhere for their ‘pastors’ and guides. In November 1586 Browne was elected to be master of Stamford grammar school, certain pledges being exacted from him for good behaviour, and certain conditions being extorted for the restraining him from troubling the world with the expression of his peculiar views. To these conditions he affixed his signature, and he began at once to discharge his new duties. He continued master of Stamford school for five years, and resigned his mastership only on his being presented to the rectory of Achurch in Northamptonshire, a benefice which was in the gift of Lord Burghley, who two years before had made interest, but to no purpose, with the Bishop of Peterborough to obtain some preferment for his kinsman. At Achurch Browne continued to reside for more than forty years, doing his duty in his parish with scrupulous fidelity and preaching frequently and earnestly to his people; and though doubtless many unfriendly eyes were watching him, he never again brought upon himself the charge of nonconformity or of being a disturber of the peace of the church. His end was a sad one; it must be read in the words of Thomas Fuller, the facts of the narrative having never been disputed or disproved: ‘… As I am credibly informed, being by the constable of the parish (who chanced also to be his godson) somewhat roughly and rudely required the payment of a rate, he happened in passion to strike him. The constable (not taking it patiently as a castigation from a godfather, but in anger as an affront to his office) complained to Sir Rowland St. John, a neighbouring justice of the peace, and Browne is brought before him. The knight, of himself, was prone rather to pity and pardon, than punish his passion; but Browne's behaviour was so stubborn, that he appeared obstinately ambitious of a prison, as desirous (after long absence) to renew his familiarity with his ancient acquaintance. His mittimus is made; and a cart with a feather-bed provided to carry him, he himself being too infirm (above eighty) to go, too unwieldy to ride, and no friend so favourable as to purchase for him a more comely conveyance. To Northampton gaol he is sent, where, soon after, he sickened, died, and was buried in a neighbouring churchyard; and it is no hurt to wish that his bad opinions had been interred with him’ (Fuller, Church History, bk. ix. sect. vi.). Fuller is wrong in the date of Browne's death; an entry in his hand is still to be seen in the parish register of Achurch, made on 2 June 1631, and his successor in the living was not instituted till 8 Nov. 1633. His burial-place is unknown.
Browne's wife was Alice Allen, a Yorkshire lady; by her he had four sons and three daughters. The hateful story that he ill-used his wife in her old age is in all probability an infamous slander. Browne was very fond of music, and besides being himself ‘a singular good lutenist,’ he taught his children to become performers. On Sundays ‘he made his son Timothy bring his viol to church and play the bass to the psalms that were sung.’ Browne's issue eventually inherited the paternal estate at Tolethorpe, and his last descendant died on 17 Sept. 1839, as widow of George, third earl Pomfret.
That so powerful and intelligent a body as the congregationalists should desire to affiliate themselves on to so eccentric a person as Browne, and to claim him as the first enunciator of the principles which are distinctive of their organisation, will always appear somewhat strange to outsiders. Into discussions; on church polity, however, it is not our intention to enter. The last three works quoted among the authorities at the end of this; article will give the reader as full a view as he can desire of the congregationalist standpoint. Mr. Dexter's most able and learned volume contains an exhaustive account of the literature and bibliography of the whole subject, and his elaborate monograph on Browne's life has materially added to our knowledge of the man's curious career. Here too will be found by far the most complete list of his writings and some valuable extracts from hitherto unknown works which prove him to have been a man of burning enthusiasm and one who, as we might have expected, could at times burst forth mto passages of fiery and impetuous eloquence which must have been extraordinarily effective in their day, however much they may appear to us no more than vehement rhetoric.
[Blore's Hist, and Antiq. of the County of Rutland, 1813, p. 93, &c.; Fuller's Worthies (Rutland); Lamb's Masters's Hist. of Corpus Christi Coll. Cambridge, pp. 123 et seq., 460; communication from Dr. Luard, Registrar of Camb. Univ.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1547-1580. p. 421; Froude's Hist. Engl. x. 289-90; Strype's Parker, ii. 68; Cooper's Athenæ Cantab. ii. 177, 178; Fuller's Church Hist. bk. ix., cent. xvi., sect, vi., §§ 1-7, 64-9; Lansdowne MSS., quoted by all modern writers, No. xxxiii. 13, 20; Hanbury's Historical Memorials relating to the Independents, 1839, vol. i. ch. ii.; John Browne's Hist. of Congregationalism in Norfolk and Suffolk (1877), chs. i-iii.; Dexter's Congregationalism of the last Three Hundred Years, as seen in its Literature, New York, 1880.]