Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Willis, Browne
WILLIS, BROWNE (1682–1760), antiquary, born at Blandford St. Mary on 14 Sept. 1682, was grandson of Thomas Willis (1621–1675) [q. v.], and eldest son of Thomas Willis (1658–1699) of Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, who married, at Westminster Abbey on 26 May 1681, Alice (b. 2 June 1663), eldest daughter of Robert Browne of Frampton and Blandford in Dorset. Thomas Willis died on 11 Nov. 1699, aged 41; his wife died of grief on 9 Jan. 1699–1700. Both were buried in the chancel of Bletchley church, and out of regard for their memory their son spent on the church the sum of 800l. between 1704 and 1707.
Browne Willis was educated at first by the Rev. Abraham Freestone, master of the endowed school at Beachampton, Buckinghamshire. Then he was sent to Westminster school, which he left on his mother's death, and his intense love of antiquities was implanted in him by his schoolboy rambles in Westminster Abbey. He was admitted gentleman-commoner of Christ Church, Oxford, matriculating on 23 March 1699–1700, and in 1700 he became a student of the Inner Temple. At Oxford his tutor was Edward Wells [q. v.], and on leaving the university he lived for three years under the training of Dr. William Wotton [q. v.] at Middleton Keynes, a few miles from Bletchley. Several years later Willis published anonymously a tract of ‘Reflecting Sermons Consider'd, on discourses in Bletchley Church by Dr. E. Wells, rector, and Dr. E. Wells, curate.’
Willis possessed large means, owning Whaddon Hall, the adjoining manor and advowson of Bletchley, and the manor of Burlton in Burghill, Herefordshire. At Burlton he frequently met John Philips the poet, who alludes to him in his poem on ‘Cider’ (Cooke, Herefordshire, ‘Grimsworth Hundred,’ p. 55). From December 1705 to 1708 he sat in parliament for the borough of Buckingham, a town for which he had a peculiar affection; he was returned by the casting vote of a man brought from prison. After that date he was immersed in the study of antiquities. His property was augmented in 1707 by his marriage to Katharine, only child and heiress of Daniel Eliot of Port Eliot (bur. St. Germans, Cornwall, on 28 Oct. 1702). She brought him a fortune of 8,000l.
Willis's industry and retentive memory were subjects of general praise. He had visited every cathedral except Carlisle in England and Wales, and was one of the first antiquaries to base his works on the facts contained in records and registers, but he was very inaccurate in detail. He was a great oddity and knew nothing of mankind. Through his charitable gifts, his portions to his married children, and the expenditure of 5,000l. on the building of Water Hall at Bletchley, he ‘ruined his fine estate,’ and was obliged towards the end of his days to dress meanly and to live in squalor, becoming very dirty and penurious so that he was often taken for a beggar. He took an active part in 1717 in reviving the Society of Antiquaries, and was formally elected F.S.A. in April 1718. By diploma from the university of Oxford he was created M.A. 23 Aug. 1720, and D.C.L. on 10 April 1749. He was a member of the Spalding Society.
After an illness of some months Willis died at Whaddon Hall on 5 Feb. 1760, and was buried beneath the altar in Fenny Stratford chapel on 11 Feb., where there is an inscription to his memory. His wife died at Whaddon Hall on 2 Oct. 1724, aged 34, and was buried under a raised table-tomb at Bletchley. Of their ten children, eight were alive in 1724, but only the twin-daughters Gertrude and Catherine survived in 1760, and they both died in 1772. His grandson took the name of Fleming and lived at Stoneham. Willis appointed his eldest grandson and heir the sole executor, and left him all his books and pictures, except Rymer's ‘Fœdera,’ which he gave to Trinity College, Oxford, and the choice of one book to the Rev. Francis Wise [q. v.] His manuscripts were to go within three months to the Bodleian Library. They consisted of fifty-nine folio, forty-eight quarto, and five octavo volumes, of much value for ecclesiastical topography and biography, the history of Buckinghamshire and that of the four Welsh cathedrals. He left to Oxford University his ‘numerous silver, brass, copper, and pewter coins, also his gold coins, if purchased at the rate of 4l. per ounce,’ which was at once done. In 1720 he gave to that library ten valuable manuscripts and his grandfather's portrait, and between 1739 and 1750 he had given other coins. Many of his letters are among the Ballard and Rawlinson manuscripts (Macray, Bodleian Libr. pp. 221, 259–60, 483–4; Madan, Western MSS. iii. 578, 602). Large collections of letters and papers by or relating to him are in the British Museum, especially among the Cole manuscripts. Willis's benefactions included the revival in 1702 of the market at Fenny Stratford, a hamlet contiguous to Bletchley, and the raising, in concurrence with his cousin Dr. Martin Benson (afterwards bishop of Gloucester), of money for building there between 1724 and 1730 the chapel of St. Martin. It was a memorial of his grandfather, whose portrait was placed over the entrance, and, as he died on St. Martin's day 1675, Willis left a benefaction for a sermon in the chapel every year on that day. He contributed materially towards the rebuilding of part of Stony Stratford church in 1746; in 1752 he gave 200l. for the repairs of Buckingham church, and in 1756 he restored Bow Brickhill church, which had been disused for nearly 150 years. The chancel of the church at Little Brickhill was repaired through his liberality, and he erected at the cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford, a monument for Canon Iles, who had helped his grandfather at the university. The celebration at Fenny Stratford of St. Martin's day, regularly maintained by Willis during his life, is still observed by its inhabitants.
The foibles and appearance of Willis were satirised in lines written by Dr. Darrell of Lillingston-Darrell. They were printed in the ‘Oxford Sausage’ and, with Cole's notes ‘when out of humour with him,’ in ‘Notes and Queries’ (2nd ser. vi. 428–9). A sarcastic description of his house is in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature’ (i. 682–4). Hearne wrote ‘An Account of my Journey to Whaddon Hall, 1716,’ which is printed in ‘Letters from the Bodleian Library’ (ii. 175–83).
Willis's portrait was etched in 1781 at Cole's request from a drawing made by Rev. Michael Tyson of the original painting by Dahl. It is reproduced in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (viii. 219) and Hutchins's ‘Dorset’ (2nd ed. iv. 335). Portraits of his father, mother, and other members of the family were at Bletchley.
Among the literary works of Willis are included surveys of the four Welsh cathedrals, viz. St. David's (1717), Llandaff (1719), St. Asaph (1720), and Bangor (1721); but the description of St. David's is signed ‘M. N.,’ and was drawn up by Dr. William Wotton (the initials being the concluding letters of his names), and that of Llandaff, which was also compiled by Wotton, has his name in full. Willis published in 1727 two volumes of ‘A Survey of the Cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle, Chester, Man, Lichfield, Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester and Bristol,’ and he issued in 1730 a third volume on ‘Lincoln, Ely, Oxford, and Peterborough.’ Thomas Osborne, the bookseller, purchased the unsold copies of this impression and advertised his issue in 1742 as a new edition containing histories of all the cathedrals, whereupon Willis denounced the proceeding in the ‘London Evening Post,’ 5–8 March 1743. The volumes of the 1742 issue at the British Museum have copious notes by William Cole [q. v.], and transcripts of Willis's additions in his own copy. One impression at the British Museum of the volume on Llandaff Cathedral has many notes by Gough, and an edition of the survey of St. Asaph, enlarged and brought down to date, was published in 1801. The account of the ‘Cathedral of Man’ is reproduced in Harrison's ‘Old Historians’ of that isle (Manx Soc. xviii. 126–51), the survey of Lincoln Cathedral formed the basis of a volume on ‘The Antiquities in Lincoln Cathedral’ (1771), and a ‘History of Gothic and Saxon Architecture in England’ (1798) was compiled from his works and those of James Bentham [q. v.] Willis also wrote: 1. ‘Notitia Parliamentaria; or an History of the Counties, Cities, and Boroughs in England and Wales,’ 1715, 3 vols., 1716, 1750; 2nd ed. with additions, 1730, 1716, 1750 (but the last two volumes are of the original edition). A single sheet of this work on the borough of Windsor was printed in folio in 1733, and is now very scarce. 2. ‘History of the Mitred Parliamentary Abbies and Conventual Cathedral Churches,’ 1718–19, 2 vols. (cf. Rel. Hearnianæ, ed. Bliss, 1857, i. 428). He had previously drawn up ‘A View of the Mitred Abbeys, with a Catalogue of their respective Abbots,’ for Hearne's edition of Leland's ‘Collectanea’ (1715, vi. 97–264), the Latin preface of which is addressed to him. Both the preface and the paper on the abbeys and abbots are reprinted in the 1770 and 1774 editions. 3. ‘Parochiale Anglicanum; or the Names of all the Churches and Chapels in thirteen Dioceses,’ 1733. 4. ‘Table of the Gold Coins of the Kings of England, by B. W.,’ 1733, small folio a hundred copies, and the same number on large paper, which are said to have been printed at the expense of Vertue; it was included in the ‘Vetusta Monumenta.’ 5. ‘History and Antiquities of the Town, Hundred, and Deanery of Buckingham,’ 1755. Cole's copy, with notes copied from those by Willis, is in the Grenville Library, British Museum. Cole also transcribed and methodised in two folio volumes, now with the Cole manuscripts at the British Museum, his ‘History of the Hundreds of Newport and Cotslow’ to match this volume on Buckingham. Willis had circulated queries for information on the county in 1712.
In 1717 Willis published anonymously ‘The Whole Duty of Man, abridged for the benefit of the Poorer Sort,’ and in 1752 an anonymous address ‘To the Patrons of Ecclesiastical Livings.’ Editions of John Ecton's ‘Thesaurus rerum Ecclesiasticarum,’ with corrections and additions by Willis, came out in 1754 and 1763. He assisted in Samuel Gale's ‘Winchester Cathedral’ (1710), W. Thomas's ‘Antiquities of Worcester’ (1717), Tanner's ‘Notitia Monastica’ (1744), and Hutchins's ‘Dorset.’ He also aided and corresponded with Francis Peck [q. v.] Early in life he had made some collections on Cardinal Wolsey (Hearne, Collections, ed. Doble, i. 71, ii. 261), and communications from him on antiquarian topics are inserted in the ‘Archæologia’ (i. 60, 204, viii. 88–110).
John Nichols possessed numerous letters of Willis, including a thick volume of those to Dr. Ducarel. Many communications to and from him are printed in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature’ (i. 811–12, ii. 796, 806–7, iii. 485–6, 532–3, iv. 113), ‘Letters from the Bodleian Library’ (1813), and in Hearne's ‘Collections’ (Oxford Hist. Soc.).[Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, ii. 35, vi. 120, 186–211 (mainly from a memoir by Dr. Ducarel, read before Soc. of Antiquaries, 22 May and 12 June 1760, and printed in eight quarto pages), viii. 217–23; Hutchins's Dorset, 2nd ed. i. 100, 104–105, iv. 327–37; Lipscomb's Buckinghamshire, iv. 10–14, 18–37, 55, 75; Hearne's Coll. ed. Doble, i. 117, iii. 350; Misc. Geneal. et Heraldica, ii. 45–6; Chester's Westminster Abbey, p. 20; Halkett and Laing's Anon. Lit. pp. 2106, 2535, 2601, 2811; Biogr. Britannica; Rel. Hearnianæ, ed. Bliss, ii. 579–81, 609.]