Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Browne, George (d.1556)
BROWNE, GEORGE, D.D. (d. 1556), archbishop of Dublin, the chief instrument of Henry VIII in the Irish reformation, was originally a friar, and first emerges into notice in 1534, when, as provincial of the whole order of Austin Friars, he was employed, in conjunction with Hilsey, the provincial of the Dominicans, to minister the oath of succession to all the friars of London and the south of England (Dixon, Hist. of the Church of England, i. 214). He is said to have recommended himself to the king by advising the poor, who were beginning to feel the distress caused by the religious revolution, to make their applications solely to Christ. Within a year he was nominated to the see of Dublin, vacant by the murder of Archbishop Allen in the rising of Kildare in 1534; but it was not until another year had elapsed that he arrived in Ireland on July 1536 (Hamilton, Cal. of State Papers for Ireland, p. 21; the life of Browne in the Harleian Misc. vol. v. places his arrival in December 1535). The Irish parliament, which had been sitting for two months, accepted all the principal acts by which England had declared herself independent of Rome. The only opposition to these sweeping measures was offered by the clergy, who claimed the power of voting in their own house upon bills which had passed the Irish commons, and carried this obstructive policy so far, under the leadership of their primate Cromer, the archbishop of Armagh, that it was found necessary to deprive them of their privilege (Dixon, ii. 179). A speech made by Browne on this occasion, declaring his vote for the king as supreme head of the Irish church, has been preserved (Harl. Misc. v. 559); and it was through him, as he boasted, that a separate act was passed granting the first-fruits of all abbeys to the King, thus paving the way for the suppression of the Irish monasteries, which quickly followed. By these enactments the English reformation ready made was flung in a mass into the midst of a semi-barbarous and decaying country. Browne held a commission from Thomas Cromwell, the minister and vicegerent of Henry, to further 'the king's advantage;' and in this cause he laboured with diligence, journeying into various parts, preaching, publishing the royal articles and injunctions, and collecting the first-fruits and twentieths of the spiritualties which had been decreed to the king. He put forth a form of bidding bedes, or prayers, which is the earliest document in which the church of Ireland is conjoined with the church of England under royal supremacy (Cal. of State Papers, ii. 504; Collier, Eccl. Hist. Records, No. 40). Browne encountered not only the open hostility of many of his brethren, and especially of Staples, the bishop of Meath, but the detractions and suspicions of the rest of the Irish council. The lord-deputy Grey was his enemy, and treated him with contempt, calling him a 'polshorn friar,' and on one occasion putting him in prison. The king entertained the complaints that were sent to England against him of arrogance and inefficiency, and wrote him a severe letter, menacing him with disgrace; but Browne contrived to explain all accusations, except perhaps the one of receiving bribes. He must have been a man of some sagacity, for he predicted that the alteration of religion would cause 'the English and Irish race to lay aside their national old quarrels, and a foreigner to invade the nation' (Letters to Cromwell, May 1538, Harl. Misc. v. 561).
In the first years of Edward VI the reformation languished. Browne lay at the moment under the cloud of certain accusations of neglect of duty, alienation of leases, and 'undecent' conduct in preaching, which were preferred against him by another member of the Irish council, and seem never to have been fully explained (Dixon, iii. 406). It was not until 1550, after the full publication of the first English Prayer Book in 1549, that the attempt was resumed to impose on Ireland the English alterations of religion. By that time Bellingham had been succeeded by the second administration of Santleger, a man of easy temper, secretly attached to the old system. His instructions were to order the clergy to use the English service. Accordingly he somewhat incautiously summoned a convention of the bishops and clergy at Dublin, and thus brought about the curious scene which was the final protestation of the ancient independent Hibernian church before she assumed her English livery. The lord-deputy read the royal order for the service to be in English. 'Then,' exclaimed the primate Dowdall indignantly, 'any illiterate layman may say mass!' and after a warm altercation he left the meeting, followed by the greater number of his suffragans. Santleger then handed the order to Browne, who now assumed his natural position as head of the conforming party. 'This order, good brethren,' said he to the remaining clergy, 'is from the king and from our brethren the fathers and clergy of England; to him I submit, as Jesus did to Caesar, in all things lawful, asking no questions why or wherefore, as owning him our true and lawful king.' On the Easter day following the English service was used for the first time in the cathedral church of Dublin, Browne preaching the sermon. To the Irish people the change from Latin to English was a change from one unknown tongue to another, for English maintained itself with difficulty even in the pale, though the use of it was commanded by penal statutes. The churches were emptier than ever, and the malcontent clergy were aided by papal emissaries, and the Jesuit missionaries gained ground (Macgeoghan, Hist. of Ireland). The prelates, however, who followed Dowdall gradually conformed; and when, in the middle of the same year, 1550, Dowdall went from his see, declaring that he would not be bishop where there was no mass, none of his brethren imitated his example. His place, after a vacancy of two years, was filled by Goodacre, an Englishman sent by Cranmer, who was consecrated by Browne at Christ Church. At the same time the primacy of all Ireland, the ancient dignity of the see of Armagh, was claimed by Browne, and transferred by royal patent to Dublin.
Browne had complained to the authorities in England of the remissness of Santleger in the reformation (Browne to Warwick, August 1551; Hamilton, Irish Cal. p. 116). But to John Bale, who arrived in Ireland at the same time as Goodacre, Browne himself appeared remiss. The Bishop of Ossory has given him the character of an avaricious dissembler, hints that he was a drunkard and a profligate, and affirms that his complaints against Santleger were a device to get the primacy. 'As for his learning,' says Bale, 'he knows none so well as the practices of Sardanapalus; for his preachings twice in the year, of the ploughman in the winter, by "Exit qui seminat," and of the shepherd in the summer, by "Ego sum bonus pastor," they are so well known in Dublin that when he cometh into the pulpit they can tell the sermon.' Bale was consecrated by Browne; and the bitterness between them began at the ceremony, which Bale affirmed that Browne performed very awkwardly, and desired to have deferred, in order to get the revenue for the see for the year. Their differences were renewed when, on the accession of Queen Mary, Bale was forced to quit Ossory and fly for his life to Dublin. Browne refused to allow him to preach there. 'Sitting on his ale-bench, with his cup in his hand, he made boast that I should not preach in his city' (Bale, Vocation, in Harl. Misc. vol. vi.) Browne's triumph was short. In the revolution under Mary his primacy was revoked, and, Goodacre being expelled from Armagh, Dowdall was reinstated in his see and title of primate of all Ireland, and the superior style afterwards stood firm in Armagh without revocation. By Dowdall Browne was extruded from Dublin as being a married man (Ware, De Praesulib. Hib. 120), and in two years his successor, Hugh Carwin, was appointed, September 1555. The death of Browne followed shortly afterwards. His character, which seems to have been insignificant, has been described by the Irish historians merely in accordance with their own prejudices.
[Besides the authorities above mentioned, see Mant's Hist. of Ireland; Mosheim gives a long account of Browne in his Ch. Hist.; the Life in the Harleian Misc. is also in the Phoenix, a series of scarce tracts in 2 vols., London, 1707; Christian Biography, 2 vols., London, 1835.]