Haymarket is a street continuing the line of Exchange Street and Gentleman's Walk up to Red Lion Street, scoring the bottom of the market.
Haymarket, pre-pedestrianisation. Photo courtesy of Sprowston History.
The pedestrianised street gives onto a tiered square behind the church of St Peter Mancroft. The square is dominated by a statue of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th century polymath: a doctor, antiquary, botanist, proto-psychologist, and philosopher. Browne lived and worked as a physician on Haymarket, and his statue looks toward the site of his house smiling wistfully. I wonder if the statue would still be smiling if it knew the site is now a Pret A Manger.
Browne's writings encompass all the different disciplines he was interested in—which is to say, basically everything. His most famous work is Urn Burial, full title Hydriotaphia, Urn-buriall or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, published in 1658. Browne had heard of the discovery of some Saxon burial-urns at Walsingham, and uses this as the jumping-off point for some incredible meditations on life, death, religious rites, human impermanence and human vanity.
'Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.'
Browne's prose is rather eccentric, even by 17th century standards, with sentences going on for whole pages, a mire of clauses, sub-clauses, random capitalisations and esoteric language. His multi-disciplinary writing required him to invent lots of new words to describe the ideas he was exploring: he gave us the words electricity and hallucination. His other works include the wonderfully named The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunciall Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Myftically Confidered, with Sundry Obfervations. The book explores the idea of the 'quincunx' shape recurring in nature—Browne was writing at the same time as scientists (also appropriately called 'natural philosophers' in those days) were first exploring the idea of microscopic cell structure.
Unfortunately Browne was also a zealous believer in the existence of witches. He attended the 1662 witch trials at Bury St Edmunds, where his testimony helped condemn two elderly women, Rose Cullender and Amy Duny. It is worth noting that even at the time, belief in witches was considered highly controversial: we know about the trial from the testimony of an eyewitness who chose to remain anonymous, and did not publish their account until twenty years later. The publisher chose to remain anonymous too. So Browne was not necessarily just 'a product of his time'. The two women were convincted and hanged, and the trial was later used as an example by judges during the Salem mania in 1692.
Ironically for someone who wrote so much about death and funeral rites, Browne did not rest easy. His grave in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft was disturbed by workmen in 1840. One of them, a sexton called George Potter, stole Browne's skull and sold it to the surgeon Edward Lubbock. After Lubbock's death the skull was bequeathed to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum, where it was put on display. The Hospital Governors repeatedly refused St Peter Mancroft's requests to purchase the skull back, but finally relented in 1922. Browne was re-interred, and his burial was noted in the parish register, which gave his age as 317 years. A plaster cast of the wandering skull is on display in a side-chapel in the church today, along with various artefacts recovered from the church and its grounds.
To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.
- Sir Thomas Browne
The 1905 statue of Sir Thomas is complemented today by a series of surreal sculptures, collectively known as the Homage to Sir Thomas Browne, by the French artists Anne and Patrick Poirier. The sculptures are scattered around the square, incorporating seats and stools, with references to quincunxes and urn-burial. Buskers, pigeons and flâneurs use the statuary as a vantage point to watch the world go by.