Browne, George (d. c.1556), archbishop of Dublin, began his career as an Augustinian friar, most probably in the early 1520s. An Englishman by birth, he remained a relatively obscure figure until, in 1532, he emerged as prior of the Augustinian friars’ London convent at Throckmorton. His rise to prominence within his order was quickly followed by the achievement of commensurate academic attainments. In July 1532, after ten years of study, he supplicated for his baccalaureate in theology at the University of Oxford. In the following October he received a royal licence to travel overseas. Although abroad for only a short time, he appears to have acquired a doctorate in theology from a foreign university, for which he was incorporated at Oxford on 20 July 1534 and at Cambridge in 1535–6.
Reformer It was as prior of the Augustinian friars in London that Browne's sympathies for the reformist cause were first aroused. Thomas Cromwell, who in the early 1530s had emerged as the executive authority behind the king's ecclesiastical revolution, owned a house within the precincts of the Throckmorton convent. He soon opened discussions with Browne over the purchase of additional land on the site in order to construct a more grandiose residence. Through this interaction, Cromwell was made aware that Browne was willing to give his support to the radical plans that the regime had hatched to break the impasse surrounding the king's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Such support was invaluable to Cromwell at this juncture because Browne was a professional preacher who had access, on foot of Throckmorton's position as a fashionable residential district in London, to a politically and socially influential congregation.
Initially, then, Browne was recruited to the reformist cause as a pulpit propagandist. Throughout the period 1533–5 he was regularly employed by Cromwell to issue official news bulletins and to promote the political ideology and religious thinking of the new order. Among the most important information he disseminated was the news – revealed in a Paul's Cross sermon on Easter Sunday 1533 – that Henry VIII had married Anne Boleyn. Browne was also given direct responsibility for enforcing the new religious settlement. In April 1534 he was appointed provincial of the Augustinian friars by the crown and granted a joint commission with Dr John Hilsey, provincial of the Dominican friars, to carry out a general visitation of the mendicant orders, in which they administered the first oath of succession.
Archbishop of Dublin In the latter half of 1535 Browne's career took a new but related turn when, following the suppression of the Kildare Rebellion, Henry VIII and Cromwell began to make provision for the extension of the Reformation to Ireland. His ardent support for the royal supremacy, and his previous experience in promoting and enforcing it in England, marked him out as a potential contributor. To this end, on 11 January 1536 he was nominated by the king to fill the see of Dublin, which had been vacant since July 1534 following the murder of John Alen (qv) at the hands of the Geraldine rebels. Browne was consecrated by Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury on 19 March 1536, and set foot in his diocese for the first time in the following July.
The opening phase of his episcopate proved to be a difficult experience for Browne. As far as introducing the Reformation was concerned, the new archbishop worked on the assumption that it would be possible to replicate in Ireland the English model of reform in all of its juridical and administrative detail. For Browne, this approach offered the best means of ensuring that the supreme headship of the distant king would be made plainly visible to his Irish subjects. Yet, while the underpinning logic of his favoured strategy was undeniable, conditions on the ground in Ireland conspired against its implementation at the outset of his episcopate. Because Henry VIII's authority was largely confined to the four shires of the English Pale, it was not considered possible to put in place on a country-wide basis the kind of structures and processes – e.g. an Irish equivalent of Cromwell's vicegerential office or a royal visitation of the Irish church – that had been utilised to enforce the Henrician settlement in the parishes and religious houses of the provinces of Canterbury and York. Instead, the king and Cromwell expected Browne to exploit his episcopal jurisdiction to achieve the same ends.
After an initial period of reticence, lasting upwards of fifteen months, Browne tried gamely to adapt his strategy to fulfil their expectations. Beginning with a visitation of his own diocese and province in the winter of 1537–8, he strove to enforce the new religious settlement throughout a significant part of the English Pale, particularly among the corporate clerical elite, whom he identified as a powerful and influential coterie within the church and society at large. At this juncture, however, his efforts bore little fruit. Not only did he encounter stiff resistance from his clergy, but he was also opposed by leading figures in the Irish administration such as the lord deputy, Lord Leonard Grey (qv), and Bishop Edward Staples (qv) of Meath, who believed that Browne's views on the nature of his own authority were both ludicrously inflated and canonically unsound. Grey, in particular, attempted to undermine Browne's authority by acts of public vilification and humiliation, culminating, in May 1538, in his decision to release from the episcopal jail one James Humphrey, a canon of St Patrick's cathedral, whom Browne had had incarcerated for refusing to read ‘The form of the beads’, the reformist bidding prayers which the archbishop had composed for use in the mass. The Humphrey incident, together with a series of damaging complaints against Browne that reached the ears of the king and Cromwell at court, sapped the archbishop's morale and brought into question his capacity to lead the Reformation campaign in Ireland.
Browne came through this troubled period with the support of a group of allies who were united by their opposition to Lord Deputy Grey and to the pro-Geraldine and papist ideology which they believed the latter upheld. The group, which included figures such as Sir John Alen (qv) (d. 1561), the lord chancellor of Ireland, and the Butlers of Ormond, actively sought to rehabilitate Browne's reputation at court throughout the latter part of 1538 and early 1539, most notably through the organisation of a journey through the ‘four shires above the Barrow’ (S.P. Hen. VIII, iii, 111). In the course of this ‘journey’ the archbishop presided over a series of impressively staged reformist events in towns such as Clonmel and Waterford, during which he preached before large crowds, distributed key reformist texts, and swore in bishops from the Munster region to the royal supremacy. The ‘journey’ and other related activities restored Browne's reputation before Cromwell, with the result that he was placed at the centre of a new drive to enforce the Reformation in the spring of 1539. Specifically, he was appointed as one of a triumvirate of deputies to Cromwell in the latter's capacity as vicegerent in spirituals to the king (3 February) and included on two high-powered commissions, for the suppression of images (3 February) and for the dissolution of the monasteries (7 April). These commissions, and the various measures that they implemented in 1539–40, especially the destruction of the religious houses of the English Pale, resulted in the Henrician Reformation making significant headway after a stuttering start, and represented the highpoint of Browne's career as a reformer.
St Leger viceroyalty In the summer of 1540, however, the process of religious change was brought to an abrupt halt with the demise of its principal sponsor and Browne's patron, Thomas Cromwell, who was overthrown by his conservative religious enemies in a deadly coup at court. Contrary to the received wisdom, Browne did not fade into obscurity as a result of Cromwell's fall. Rather, he swiftly acquired an alternative patron in the shape of Sir Anthony St Leger (qv), the new lord deputy of Ireland, who had come to power in 1540 by engineering the destruction of his predecessor and Browne's great enemy, Lord Leonard Grey, in the same coup that had engulfed Cromwell. After assuming power St Leger introduced a radical new political reform strategy in Ireland, which was grounded upon the constitutional innovation of changing Henry VIII's style from lord of Ireland to king of Ireland, and which sought to bring about an end to the ethnic and factional divisions that had traditionally bedevilled Irish politics by fostering island-wide support for the crown. These aims accorded well with Browne's political principles. Thus he gave his wholehearted support to the deputy and his reform project in the ensuing years, and remained a key figure in St Leger's administration for much of the remainder of Henry VIII's reign.
Browne's support for St Leger also had another basis. In 1541–2, Henry VIII attempted to legislate against clerical incontinence in the Irish parliament by means of a bill that was linked to the English Act of Six Articles. Archbishop Browne was particularly vulnerable to this impending legislation as in the late 1530s he had secretly married a young woman named Katherine Miagh and subsequently fathered three sons: Anthony, George junior, and Alexander. St Leger, mindful of the archbishop's predicament, succeeded in stymieing the king's efforts to have the legislation passed, and oversaw the brokering of a deal with Browne's former enemies among the chapter of St Patrick's cathedral through which the archbishop's marital status was regularised in line with the requirements of the English Act of Six Articles. Under this settlement, Browne was divorced from Katherine Miagh, who was subsequently remarried to one of his servants, Robert Bathe, while his three sons were placed in the care of the cathedral clergy. These developments, which were ultimately rooted in the conservative religious reaction that had emerged in England in the late 1530s, ensured that the religious settlement associated with St Leger's reform project had a conservative thrust, and that it served as a basis for a general religious consensus which brought together former religious radicals such as Browne and religious conservatives such as the clergy of St Patrick's cathedral.
The consensus was short-lived, however. In the period 1544–6 the smooth operation of St Leger's viceroyalty was put under increasing strain as his relationship with James Butler (qv), 9th earl of Ormond and ally of Archbishop Browne, deteriorated. Browne was implicated, probably undeservedly, in the plotting of Ormond and his allies against St Leger at this time, and he suffered accordingly. To reassert his authority over the archbishop, in January 1547 the deputy suppressed his cathedral of St Patrick, a move which Browne considered unjust and which destroyed his relationship with St Leger. The cathedral's dissolution also reawakened fears that a radical and destructive Reformation was about to return after the relative calm of the 1540s, fears that were soon confirmed by the succession of Edward VI in the same month and the subsequent introduction of a protestant religious settlement by his regime.
Edward VI's reign The reemergence of a radical religious agenda under Edward VI is generally thought by historians to have rekindled Browne's reforming instincts. However, his support for Edwardian protestantism, evinced in such actions as his proposal for the foundation of a university out of the revenues of the dissolved cathedral of St Patrick or the resumption of his relationship with Katherine Miagh, was fitful and ambivalent. Indeed, all of his ‘protestant’ actions at this time can be interpreted either in a conservative light or as intended to undermine the now hated St Leger, whose two brief spells as deputy under Edward VI provide the essential context for understanding Browne's apparent return to the reformist fold. This was certainly the case with Browne's university proposal, which was not only critical of the original dissolution of St Patrick's cathedral by St Leger in Henry VIII's reign, but also sought to have the cathedral reestablished in the guise of a university church. Moreover, committed protestant reformers, such as Bishop John Bale (qv) of Ossory, were of the view that Browne's reforming zeal had been snuffed out in the early 1540s and that it had never returned subsequently. Writing in the 1550s, Bale described Browne as ‘a dissembling proselyte’ who had once prayed for Ireland's Reformation, but ‘now . . . commandeth her to go a whoring again, and to follow the same devil that she followed before’ (Bale, 56, 68).
Final years By the 1550s, then, Browne was a considerably different figure from the person who had succeeded John Alen as archbishop of Dublin in 1536. A Cromwellian reformer by background and instinct, he had been forced by circumstance to abandon his reformist ideals and to throw in his lot with the indigenous clerical elite in the 1540s and to accept and practise the old religion that they favoured. This transformation was completed on the accession of the catholic Queen Mary in 1553. Although Browne was deprived of his archbishopric in the summer of 1554 because of his ill-fated marriage, he chose to become a full member of the local elite by securing from Reginald (later Cardinal) Pole, on 13 March 1555, a pardon for his previous misdemeanours, and by accepting a prebend in the restored cathedral of St Patrick. It was here, as prebendary of Clonmethan and as a fully reconciled member of the catholic church, that he died in about 1556. He was survived by his former wife, Katherine, who died c. 1593, and by at least one of his sons, Alexander, who died c. 1578.