John Browne was elected to a Skirlaw Fellowship at University College on 15 Feb 1574/5, a post he held until his resignation on 22 July 1612.
His early academic career remains uncertain: unfortunately Foster’s entry on him in Alumni Oxonienses is confused. He links Browne with a John Browne, a student at Christ Church in 1572, who became a BA on 19 Feb 1573/4, and an MA on 22 May 1577. However this identification cannot be right: the Account Rolls of University College show that its John Browne, although still identified as a BA in 1575/6, was certainly an MA in 1576/7, whilst John Browne of Christ Church remained there until December 1586.
Two other Oxford men, however, can be linked with the Fellow of University College: one John Browne was admitted BA from St. Alban’s Hall on 7 Apr 1571, and another, whose college is not given, was made a BA on 23 Feb 1571/2. One of these men—we do not know which—then became an MA on 2 Jul 1576, and this MA must be the Fellow of University College.
At least the later academic career of John Browne of University College is clear: he became a BD on 27 Jun 1594 and a DD on 30 Jun 1608. The exercises he disputed in 1608 are listed on Vol. I p.205 of Clark’s Register of the University for 1571–1622.
John Browne was not the only member of his family to come to University College: his brother Richard matriculated here on 1 December 1581 and was a Fellow from 1585–91 (later becoming vicar of Norbury, Derbs.), and Richard’s own son, another Richard, matriculated at University College on 16 June 1610.
Browne played a prominent role within University College: he is known to have served as Bursar in 1580/1 and 1586/7, and may have done so again during periods for which no accounts survive. More importantly for the College he was able to muster benefactions for the College from two of his relations, namely his uncle, Thomas Browne and his cousin John Freeston. This relationship gave him certain privileges: he nominated the Browne exhibitioners for July 1597 and August 1598, and the Freeston scholars for August 1598, May 1603, June 1608 and April 1609. Apart from fighting to secure these benefactions, he also seems to have worked actively for to win some land in Montgomeryshire bequeathed in the vaguest of terms by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
Evidence from the following papers shows that Browne entertained hopes becoming Master of the College in 1597 and 1609. In another period, he might have been successful, but at this period the Master was more or less the personal appointee of the then Chancellor of the University, who on each occasion already had a preferred candidate. Browne seems to have made his peace with George Abbot, Master from 1597, but some of the later letters in this collection suggest a slightly more difficult relationship with John Bancroft, who became Master in 1609.
Browne also lobbied hard for ecclesiastical preferment: a prebend at Ely was promised him, for example, but in the end his only benefice was at Stanford Rivers, Essex, where he was rector from 1611–13 (a living also held by John Crayford, Fellow from 1519–c.1526, and Master 1546–7).
He seems to have died with his affairs in some confusion. George Radcliffe, an undergraduate of the time, wrote to his mother on 11 May 1613 that “Dr. Browne died upon Saturday last [ie 8 May 1613], miserable and fearefullye upon a dead palsey; he is found to be worth 15s 2d and 600 pounde indebted to University College” (T. D. Whitaker, The life and original correspondence of Sir George Radcliffe (London, 1810), pp.93–4). The actual extent of Browne’s debts are not known: certainly the College did not see any of the benefactions promised in his will.
John Browne’s finances may explain why these papers came to the College: they would certainly be consistent with a miscellaneous collection left behind on his death. The reason for their survival is less clear: since William Smith seems to have found them with papers relating to the Freeston estates, it is possible that they were retained in case they provided useful material for the College’s claim. Although William Smith chose to list Browne’s papers with those relating to the Freeston lands, it was decided to list them separately, since they form a discrete unit.
William Smith’s cataloguing of these papers catches him out in a rare error. Having, as he thought, sorted and arranged John Browne’s papers, he was then obliged to note at the end of his catalogue of the Freeston papers that he had “Some papers relating to Dr. Jo. Browne wh. came into my hands after the finishing of ye former Collections, viz. on ye 26 Sept 1705". These “new” papers comprise UC:S13/C1/4–9 & 11–12, UC:S13/C3/8, and UC:S13/W1/9.
The papers form a remarkable collection, providing the only detailed evidence for the activities of a Fellow of University College from this time. Aside from correspondence and papers relating to his ecclesiastical career, the papers also include accounts for his pupils within the College, a piece of evidence rare enough from any College for this period.
The collection is arranged as follows:
UC:S13/C1 General Correspondence with members of University College
UC:S13/C2 General Correspondence
UC:S13/C3 Correspondence and papers concerning Thomas Browne
UC:S13/C4 Correspondence and papers concerning John and William Burdet
UC:S13/F1 John Browne’s Account Book for his Pupils
UC:S13/L1 Papers relating to Browne’s ecclesiastical career
UC:S13/MS1 Papers relating to Browne’s campaigns for the Mastership
UC:S13/MS2 Papers concerning John Freeston’s estates
UC:S13/W1 John Browne’s will, and the administration of his estate
For the complete catalogue of Browne's papers, a pdf version can be downloaded here.