William Browne of Tavistock



Original Poems, never before published, by William Browne, of the Inner Temple, Gent., ed. Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart. K.J. (private press of Lee Priory, 1815).


A.S.G. Edwards, ‘Medieval Manuscripts Owned by William Browne of Tavistock (1590/1?-1643/5?)’, in Books and Collectors 1200-1700, ed. James P. Carley and Colin G.C. Tite (British Library, London, 1997), pp. 441-9


The Poems of William Browne of Tavistock, ed. Gordon Goodwin, with an introduction by A.H. Bullen, 2 vols (London & New York, 1894).


Autograph Manuscripts

Very few examples of William Browne's handwriting are known. The most important occur in a volume now preserved at Salisbury Cathedral. This comprises what was evidently Browne's own printed exemplum of Britannia's Pastorals, Books I and II (London, 1616) (*BrW 5), bound with a scribal fair copy of his unfinished Book III (BrW 16), and with an inserted single bifolium containing a series of autograph drafts and fair copies of particular poems (*BrW 2, *BrW 60, *BrW 241, *BrW 244). The printed text contains various manuscript corrections and minor revisions, certain of them in Browne's own hand.

Other important autograph items are part of the collection of Elias Ashmole (1617-92) now in the Bodleian. A pair of illustrated manuscript emblem books in this collection belonged to Browne (*BrW 257), one of them (including verses which also appeared in Britannia's Pastorals: *BrW 15) being entirely in his hand.


A single letter by Browne can be recorded (BrW 270) — one to Sir Benjamin Rudyard in 1640 from Dorking, where Browne is known to have lived for some years after 1634. Although the text includes some alterations, and was once folded like a letter, the cursive hand and flourished signature do not conform to his normal handwriting, so the document may well be a contemporary copy.

Browne's Medieval Codices

One other notable series of manuscripts, and one printed book, bearing Browne's handwriting, reflects his interest in medieval literature. In The Shepherd's Pipe (Eclogue 1) Browne introduced Thomas Hoccleve's Tale of Jonathas, noting at the end: ‘As this shall please, I may be drawn to publish the rest of his works, being all perfect in my hands’ (Goodwin, II, 119). An Ashmolean manuscript of another of Hoccleve's works, The Regement of Princes (or The Art of Government and Practice of Royal Virtue) (*BrW 258), contains Browne's extensive corrections and additions, providing an example of the concern for ‘perfect’ texts which might have gone into Browne's edition of Hoccleve's works had he completed it. Elsewhere medieval manuscripts of works by Lydgate, Higden, Chaucer and other writers bear Browne's inscriptions (BrW 256.2-269). No doubt he possessed or made use of other medieval texts which have yet to be recorded.

The Lansdowne Manuscript and the Canon

One other manuscript source is of special importance. It is what appears to be a collection of Browne's miscellaneous poems, now in the British Library (part of British Library, Lansdowne MS 777). Folios 1r-62v of this volume are occupied by poems in a scribal hand, concluding with the phrase ‘ffinis W Browne’ and with a title page inscribed — possibly at a later date — ‘Poems by Wm. Brown — of the Inner-Temple Gent. 1650’. There is no evidence that the relevant portion of this composite volume ever belonged to Browne himself, but it is not impossible that it was a transcript (perhaps by or for someone associated with one of the Inns of Court) deriving from Browne's own collection of his unpublished verse at some time between 1637 (the date of BrW 97) and 1650, the date on the title-page. It may be noted that the manuscript includes (f. 60r) a poem by Ben Jonson (JnB 130), but it was not unusual for poets in this period occasionally to copy verses by others in their personal compilations. This inclusion does not in itself negate the claim for Browne's authorship of the rest of the poems, given the explicit and contemporary general attribution on f. 1r and the scribe's clear separation of ff. 1r-62v from the miscellaneous poems by others on ff. 63r-82r. The fact that only three individual poems (BrW 46, BrW 58, BrW 68) are actually subscribed with his name or initials, however, does leave a slight element of doubt about the other poems. The canon established here must therefore be a matter of probability rather than certainty.

Manuscript Circulation

Certain of these and other poems by Brown achieved a wide circulation in manuscript, perhaps originally being known within the Inns of Court and thence among university circles in particular. Miscellanies associated with these circles also include two poems ascribed to Browne which are otherwise unrecorded. They are included below (BrW 71.5, BrW 233.5-233.8) with the usual caveats.

Two untraced items, not given entries below, may be mentioned. Goodwin refers (I, xi-xii) to a manuscript copy in the Bodleian of Browne's Elegy on the Death of Henry Prince of Wales — his information probably deriving from Bullen's article on Browne in the Dictionary of National Biography — but no such manuscript can now be identified. Bullen also mentions (in DNB and Goodwin, I, xxii-xxiii) an apparently lost printed exemplum of the 1625 edition of Britannia's Pastorals ‘containing manuscript additional commendatory verses by friends of the poet’, chiefly members of Exeter College, Oxford. These verses were all printed in William Beloe, Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce Books, 6 vols (London, 1807-12), VI, 58-85.

Dramatic Works

Finally to be recorded are contemporary texts of Browne's notable contribution to festivities in the Inns of Court: namely, his Inner Temple Masque (BrW 254-256), which was performed in 1614. For some manuscript music for dances probably belonging to this masque, see Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Masque, ed. Andrew J. Sabol (Providence, Rhode Island, 1978), Nos. 64, 169-71. 185, 287-91.

Peter Beal