BROWNE, George (c.1583-1631), of the Middle Temple, London; Symondsbury, Dorset and Taunton Castle, Som.
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Family and Education
b. c.1583, 2nd s. of Sir John Browne (d.1627) of Frampton, Dorset and Jane, da. of Sir Henry Portman of Orchard Portman, nr. Taunton, Som.; bro. of John II*.1 educ. Magdalen Coll. Oxf. 1598, aged 15, BA (Univ. Coll.) 1602;2 M. Temple 1602, called 1609.3 m. 1612, Joan (d. by 1631), da. of Christopher Darby of ?Askerswell, Dorset, wid. of Arthur Fowkes (d.1610) of Symondsbury, s.p.4 d. 22 Apr. 1631.5
The younger son of a major Dorset gentleman, Browne trained as a lawyer. His background doubtless helps to explain how he became recorder of Lyme Regis after only two years at the bar. Browne’s prominent local status in turn presumably accounts for his election there in 1614. However, he was possibly also recommended by the 2nd Lord Russell (Sir Francis Russell*), a Lyme Regis Member in 1610, who commissioned Browne to report on the state of his family’s funeral monuments at Dorchester after a major fire in 1613.13
Probably the first of his line to enter the Commons, Browne is not distinguished in the Addled Parliament’s records from John Browne I, though the latter apparently made little impact on the House. Assuming that Browne was the more active Member of the two, he attracted up to six committee appointments, of which three involved legislation on the recovery of small debts, the protection of property rights, and the disqualification from the magistracy of common brewers and tipplers (11 and 31 May). He certainly took an interest in the bill to enable his father’s neighbour, Herbert Pelham* of Fordington, Dorset, to sell his Sussex estates. Named to the committee on 17 May, he unsuccessfully defended the measure at its third reading debate six days later.14 Browne defended his constituency’s interests on 21 May, when he attacked the bill introduced by Walter Earle* to develop the harbour at Axmouth, Devon, just three miles along the coast from Lyme Regis. Condemning the project as both unnecessary and impractical, given the nature of the site, he further complained that the terms Earle sought would unfairly prejudice Lyme’s trade. However, his argument that new havens should not be created without a royal licence was not well received in the House, and the bill was committed, though it failed to complete its passage.15
Before the next election Browne moved to Somerset to become clerk of Taunton castle, and never represented a Dorset borough again. Like his mother’s family, the Portmans, he attached himself to the faction of Sir Robert Phelips*, thereby incurring the enmity of the latter’s opponents. Indeed, while sitting as deputy custos rotulorum after the county election of 1625, he received such ‘ill language’ from John Stawell* that it became a Star Chamber matter.16
In the following year Browne was returned for Taunton on the Phelips and Portman interests. John Browne I was also present in the 1626 Parliament, but once again seems to have contributed little or nothing to proceedings. On that basis, Browne himself was probably named to 11 committees, and made 16 speeches. Appointed on 27 Feb. to scrutinize the bill to enable his patron’s cousin, Sir Thomas Phelips*, to sell Barrington manor, Somerset, he reported this measure on 4 March. He also chaired the committee for the bill to suppress unlicensed alehouses, which he reported on 5 May.17 Genuinely concerned about the well-being of the poor, he called on 25 Apr. for tax reform. Rather than have Parliament grant ever larger numbers of subsidies, he argued for a revised approach to their assessment, with the poor exempted entirely, and the rich paying double.18
True to his Phelips connections, Browne was markedly hostile to the Court during this session. On 23 Feb. he was added to the committee of inquiry into the detention of the St. Peter of Le Havre, after producing evidence that this legally dubious act was the sole cause of the current trade embargo in France. Although he eventually concluded on 1 May that the ship’s second arrest did not constitute a grievance that could be used against the duke of Buckingham, he was also keen to seek out those to blame for England’s recent military disasters.19 On 8 Mar. he backed calls for a debate on the Council of War’s refusal to discuss its actions. More significantly, on 22 Apr. he sought to define a legal framework within which the Commons might bring charges against Buckingham on the basis of common fame. While conceding that under normal circumstances such accusations would be classed as defamation, he argued that in a parliamentary context this tactic was permissible: ‘libere licet accusare, where the place is proper for the accusation. ... The accusation in this House is proper. ... This [is] the only place wherein to question great men’.20
On 3 May Browne was appointed to help John Pym draft one of the impeachment charges against the duke, apparently the accusation that he had wasted the Crown’s revenues. Once the hearings in the Lords got underway, he was also named to the committee to consider how to request the Upper House to imprison Buckingham (9 May).21 Following the arrest of Sir Dudley Digges* and (Sir) John Eliot* over their role in the impeachment, Browne affirmed on 12 May that this represented a major breach of the Commons’ privileges. Five days later he elaborated his position, insisting that the royal prerogative and subjects’ privileges were both equal. While the king could legally do no wrong, he might make mistakes if misinformed, as Charles I had now conceded had happened in Digges’s case. Ultimately, the king must govern according to the law, which stated that he ‘cannot detain anyone in prison above 24 hours without the showing the cause of his imprisonment if it be demanded’. Accordingly, Members were entitled to demand an explanation for Eliot’s continuing detention.22
Such statements raised Browne’s profile in the House, and on 25 May he was appointed to committees to help draft a bill to regulate alnage and to marshal the Commons’ grievances.23 However, five days later he was unexpectedly summoned home by news that his wife was seriously ill, and did not return to Westminster until 3 June. He sought further leave of absence, presumably for the same reason, on 12 June, but later that day delivered one final broadside before his departure. Responding to the king’s recent threat to adopt ‘other resolutions’ if the Commons did not quickly grant him supply, Browne declared that until Charles received the Members’ latest Remonstrance against Buckingham, and agreed to act on it, fresh subsidies were out of the question: ‘we must have a care ... to our liberties. And if we shall give away the people’s money with[out] having redress of our grievances, the country will blame us’.24 Predictably, he was one of the Somerset magistrates removed from the commission of the peace after the dissolution.25
In 1627 Browne became recorder of Taunton, thereby significantly strengthening his local standing, and he was again returned for the borough in the following year. This time he was joined in the Commons by both John Browne I and his own brother, John Browne II, though the former was probably inactive as usual, while the latter’s election was declared void on 12 April. The evidence points to this Member as the ‘Mr. Browne’ who appears in the records of the 1628-9 Parliament, in which case he attracted four appointments and made 22 speeches during the first session alone. Nominated to the committee for privileges, Browne’s immediate priority during the early debates on the liberties of the subject was the grievance of arbitrary imprisonment. On 28 Mar. and 1 Apr. he reiterated at length his belief that the king was bound to rule within the law, and that alleged reasons of state were no justification in themselves for detaining people without charge.26
On 2 Apr. Browne complained to the House of recent events in Taunton, where unruly soldiers had been billeted in the houses of leading residents, including Browne himself, whose wife and children had fled for their own safety. The matter was referred to the committee investigating abuses by deputy lieutenants, and Sir Walter Earle’s report on 19 Apr. amplified Browne’s already lurid account, suggesting that this billeting was an act of revenge by Sir John Stawell on those who had declined to support him in the Somerset election. The Commons, suspecting that Browne’s privilege had been infringed, and concerned at this apparent attempt at electoral intimidation, agreed to summon Stawell and another Somerset deputy lieutenant, William Walrond.27 However, when they arrived a few weeks later, they emphatically denied both charges, insisting that the mayor had requested them to reorganize the town’s existing billeting arrangements, and that Browne’s house had been spared as soon as they realized that he was an MP. Unable to prove that Stawell and Walrond had acted maliciously, Earle’s committee recommended on 15 May that they be discharged, and Browne was obliged to defend the witnesses sent up in support of his allegations.28
Meanwhile, Browne had adopted a surprisingly conciliatory line over taxation. On 4 Apr., while arguing for reform of the Crown’s ordinary revenues, he acknowledged that the king genuinely needed parliamentary supply too, again called for subsidies to be restored to their old value, and proposed a Poll Tax, so that everyone apart from paupers contributed something.29 He adopted a similar line on 2 May, suggesting that Charles was more likely to embrace reforms if the Commons granted him the supply that he had requested. As a lawyer, he considered that the current problems arose not from a shortage of good laws, but the Crown’s failure to honour them. Although the bill of liberties currently under discussion in the House would be a useful extra safeguard, it was more important to persuade the king to rule justly. He therefore favoured accepting Charles’s recent undertaking to do precisely that.30 Evidently disappointed when the king warned on 5 May that he would not accept the bill of liberties if it contained explanatory clauses, it was Browne who moved for the House to adjourn until the next day, so that Members could consider the implications.31
Browne did not contribute to the early debates on the Petition of Right, intervening only after the Lords suggested a series of amendments. He was content for the Forced Loan oath to be described as ‘not warrantable by the laws of the realm’, rather than ‘unlawful’, the meanings being virtually interchangeable.32 However, he baulked at the clause saving the Crown’s sovereign power. Quite apart from the fact that the Commons had not sought to interfere with this, such a saving would wipe out any advantage secured by the Petition. Moreover, the concept of royal authority that was unbounded by law was anathema to Browne, who insisted that supreme power did not allow the king complete freedom of action.33 Doubtless dismayed by Charles’s ambiguous first answer to the Petition, he moved on 3 June for it to be read in the House, initiating debate on the Commons’ response.34
This was Browne’s last comment on the session’s major issues, possibly because he was now preoccupied with legislation. That same day he reported the bill to suppress unlicensed alehouse keepers, despite not being one of the original committee members.35 The next day he was appointed to help scrutinize the bill to restore Carew Ralegh† in blood, and also chaired this committee, reporting the measure on 18 June. Despite this, he welcomed a further amendment to the bill on the following day, which would safeguard the earl of Cork’s interests in Munster.36
In the 1629 session Browne received four more nominations, but made only two speeches. On 23 Jan. he was named to the committee for the bill to promote easier attendance at sermons.37 Most of his remaining business concerned the dispute over Tunnage and Poundage, and the seizure of John Rolle’s* goods for non-payment of these taxes. While aware that Rolle’s difficulties stemmed from Parliament’s failure to grant Tunnage and Poundage to Charles I, Browne on 12 Feb. took a less constructive view than usual of the Crown’s financial needs: ‘they do the king the greatest disservice, that persuade the king to take that against the good will of the subjects which they are willing to give in a legal course’. Two days later he was appointed to help consider the Exchequer barons’ continuing refusal to order the release of Rolle’s goods, while on 20 Feb. he was added to the committee of inquiry into Rolle’s case. The next day he adopted a hard line over whether the king had any interest in the confiscated merchandise, the point which would determine if Rolle could recover it using parliamentary privilege. Browne considered that the privilege claim was justified, simply because Charles had no legal right at present to collect Tunnage and Poundage: ‘where the king hath no title, though he granted letters patent, yet the parties who enter are wrongdoers’. The king shortly demonstrated his disdain for such niceties by dissolving Parliament.38
In October 1629 Browne was assaulted at the Middle Temple by a young law student, the son of Sir Thomas Thynne*, who first insulted him, then ‘struck him a dangerous blow in the eye’, followed by others to his mouth and nose, ‘so that blood followed in abundance’. Thynne was duly expelled from the inn, but readmitted a month later at his victim’s request.39 Browne died in April 1631. In his will, made on 23 Feb. that year, he requested burial at Orchard Portman with his mother’s family. He left £20 to the poor of Taunton and Symondsbury, and two standing pots to Taunton corporation to perpetuate his memory as the borough’s first recorder. His brother Robert, who already held the reversion to the clerkship of the castle, was his executor and residuary legatee.40
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball
- 1. Vis. Dorset Addenda ed. Colby and Rylands, 8.
- 2. Al. Ox.
- 3. M. Temple Admiss.; MTR, 512.
- 4. Vis. Dorset Addenda, 8; Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 243; PROB 11/159, f. 378.
- 5. William Whiteway of Dorchester (Dorset Rec. Soc. xii), 115.
- 6. Dorset RO, B7/B6/11, p. 11.
- 7. Inf. from Mr. R.J.E. Bush.
- 8. C231/4, ff. 48, 67, 265; William Whiteway of Dorchester, 78; T.G. Barnes, Som. 1625-40, p. 313.
- 9. Dorset RO, B7/B6/11, p. 11.
- 10. M. Weinbaum, Brit. Bor. Charters 1307-1660, p. 104; CD 1628, ii. 564.
- 11. Readers and Readings in Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 178.
- 12. MTR, 731, 776.
- 13. G.S. Thomson, Fam. Background, 94-5.
- 14. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 206, 267, 319, 394.
- 15. Ibid. 308, 313.
- 16. Barnes, 297.
- 17. Procs. 1626, ii. 134, 197; iii. 167.
- 18. Ibid. iii. 62.
- 19. Ibid. ii. 104, 109; iii. 114
- 20. Ibid. ii. 230, 232; iii. 46, 50.
- 21. Ibid. iii. 140, 201.
- 22. Ibid. 245, 251, 271, 277.
- 23. Ibid. 330, 332.
- 24. Ibid. 368, 423-5.
- 25. Barnes, 313.
- 26. CD 1628, ii. 29, 172-3, 176, 180, 230, 233, 235.
- 27. Ibid. 254, 264, 564, 570, 573.
- 28. Ibid. iii. 419-21, 424, 426.
- 29. Ibid. ii. 298-9, 304-5, 314-15.
- 30. Ibid. iii. 210-11, 215, 227.
- 31. Ibid. 256.
- 32. Ibid. 494, 500.
- 33. Ibid. 531-2, 536-7, 547, 551.
- 34. Ibid. iv. 68.
- 35. Ibid. ii. 507; iv. 59.
- 36. Ibid. iv. 83, 360, 375, 382.
- 37. CJ, i. 921b.
- 38. Ibid. 930a, 931b; CD 1629, pp. 201, 231.
- 39. MTR, 758, 760.
- 40. PROB 11/159, f. 378.