William Browne of Tavistock


William Browne was born on the banks of the Tavy, in or near Tavistock, in about 1590 (when Shakespeare was 26 and John Ford 4). He is believed to have been educated at the grammar school in Tavistock, then at Exeter College, Oxford, and finally went to the Inner Temple in London to study law. In this respect his career closely mirrors what we suppose about John Ford’s early years. Browne must have known Ford although Browne was principally a poet, a disciple of Edmund Spenser with Puritan leanings, who never wrote plays as such. His best-known work isBritannia’s Pastorals, which is largely set around Tavistock and, in spite of its title, champions Devon almost as if it were a separate country. He shows a particular passion for describing the Dartmoor rivers, especially the river Tavy.  It is thought that he gave up writing when comparatively young, by the time he was in his mid thirties. He certainly never finished Britannia’s Pastorals, although the well-known ballad Lydford Journey,  containing the famous lines

Oft have I heard of Lydford Law/ How in the morn they hang and draw/ And sit in judgement after

probably dates from around 1640, when he was fifty. He seems to have spent much of the latter part of his life tutoring for various aristocratic families, often living outside Devon. He died around 1643.

John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, knew and annotated Browne’s work for his own purposes: Browne’s influence can be felt in much of Milton’s early poetry, and not least in Milton’s own masque Comus, where Comus is the son of the same Circe who dominates the action of Browne’s untitled Inner Temple Masque.


As far as we know, Browne’s only dramatic work is The Inner Temple Masque of 1614 on the subject of Circe and Ulysses. From the description which accompanies the text we know it was performed, but in fact there is no discoverable reference to an actual performance in the records of the Inner Temple. Since Browne had the text and details of the performance preserved so carefully, it is possible that it was given performances elsewhere in country houses, possibly even near Tavistock.

As well as containing some very accomplished poetry, this piece is interesting for the completeness of its description of the action, setting and costume – presumably by Browne himself. We don’t get this kind of detailed help in imagining productions of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance. It is also interesting that two Puritan poets, Browne and Milton, felt able to write masques for performance, but not plays. John Ford who, although he wrote at least one masque (The Sun’s Darling with Rowley), concentrated on plays for the public theatres, had Catholic connections.

Mark Beeson