"A name, I suspect, of long subsequent date."—Sir Egerton Brydges. Undoubtedly so, in its present modernized guise; but as Le Brun or Brunnus, it frequently occurs in the Norman Exchequer Rolls of the twelfth century, and is several times written in Domesday. William le Brun held in Suffolk; and Bruno (perhaps the same) in Warwickshire: besides "Brun presbyter" in Oxfordshire. Yet it would be presumptuous to pronounce all the Brownes to be of Norman lineage,[1] for they are so preponderant, that in one single year (1838), 5585 births, marriages, and deaths, were registered among them: and twenty-one different families "have received from the Sovereign hereditary titles of nobility."—Sir Bernard Burke.

Of these, the most considerable—that of the Viscounts Montague—was an offset of the great Norman house of La Ferte, who held the barony of La Ferte (now La Ferte Fresnel) near Evreux. Hugh de la Ferte is mentioned by Wace at Hastings. Richard de la Ferte accompanied Robert of Normandy to Palestine in 1096, and his youngest son, Gamel, surnamed Le Brun (according to family tradition to distinguish him from a brother called Le Blond), settled in Cumberland, where he had baronial grants from Waldeve FitzGospatric, and his descendants long flourished, the name gradually changing to Broyne, Broun, or Browne. Anthony, a younger son of Robert le Broun, knight of the shire for Cumberland 1317-1339, settled in London, became a rich merchant, and was created a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Richard II., as a reward for having lent the King a very large sum of money, and then generously cancelled the bond. He left two sons, Sir Robert and Sir Stephen, the latter of whom became Lord Mayor of London in 1439. The eldest, Sir Robert, of Beechworth, in Surrey, was the ancestor of the baronets of Beechworth, extinct in 1690; and of Anthony Browne, the fortunate cadet with whom the promotion of the family began. He was "Standard Bearer throughout the whole realm of England and elsewhere" under Henry VII.: Esquire of the Body to the King, Constable of Queenborough, and carried away one of the chief matrimonial prizes of the day, Lady Lucy Nevill, the fourth of the great Montague heiresses, and widow of Sir Thomas FitzWilliam.

Their son, a second Sir Anthony, was an able and astute courtier, who, throughout the reign of Henry VIII., stood high in the favour and confidence of his master, and served him faithfully and efficiently. "The times," says Lloyd, "were dark: his carriage so too: the waves were boisterous; but he, the solid rock, or the well-guided ship that could go with the tide." He was knighted at the siege of Morlaix in 1523; in 1525 appointed an Esquire of the King's Body; then Master of the Horse for life—"an eminent office" in those days—in 1539, and a Knight of the Garter in 1540. He attended the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where he had the credit of unhorsing the French King in a joust, and was his proxy at the marriage ceremony with Anne of Cleves.[2] At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he received the splendid gift of Battle Abbey, once "the pledge and token of the royal crown," with the lion's share of his possessions. The story goes, that when he was holding his house-warming in the Abbot's Hall with great rejoicings and festivity, a monk suddenly made his appearance in the midst of the guests, strode up to the dais, and pronounced a solemn malediction upon the spoliator of the Church. He warned Sir Anthony that the curse would cleave to his remotest posterity, and foretold the special doom that was to be their temporal punishment. "By fire and water," he cried, "your line shall come to an end, and perish out of the land!" This prophecy sunk deep in the minds of men; for it was still well remembered and current in the county, when it came to pass after the lapse of two hundred and fifty years.

In 1542, another great estate accrued to him by the death of his half-brother, William FitzWilliam, Earl of Southampton, from whom he inherited (with Easebourne Priory, Waverley Abbey, and some other Church lands), the beautiful domain of Cowdray in West Sussex, where a stately mansion had just been built. He had himself commenced a great manor-house at Battle, and when, in 1547, he was found to be one of the executors of Henry VIII.'s will, and the guardian of his two younger children, he added a wing for the reception of the Princess Elizabeth, who it was proposed should take up her abode with him. But he died, before it was completed, in the following year. He had married Alice, daughter of Sir John Gage; and when left a widower at the ripe age of sixty, obtained the hand of a beautiful and high-born girl of fifteen, Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald—Surrey's "fair Geraldine."

His eldest son (by his first wife) was created Viscount Montague by Queen Mary, on the occasion of her marriage with Philip of Spain. She further appointed him her Master of the Horse, and gave him the Garter in 1555. He was through life a zealous and uncompromising Roman Catholic, resolutely refusing to vote for the abolition of the Pope's supremacy at the accession of Elizabeth; yet, when the realm was threatened with invasion, and some of his co-religionists were having masses said for the success of the Armada, he was "the first that showed his bands to the Queen" at Tilbury. He was "very sickly and in age," but came ready to hazard his life, and all else he had to give, in her quarrel, bringing with him about two hundred horsemen, "led by his two sons, and with them a young child, very comely, seated on horseback, being the heir of his house, that is, the eldest son of his son and heir."

Three years later, during one of her summer progresses in Sussex, Elizabeth spent six days with him at Cowdray, and was magnificently entertained, with the usual pageants and compliments. There exists a long and detailed account of this Royal visit, where we find it noted that on Sunday morning three oxen and one hundred and forty geese were consumed at breakfast; and on the Thursday following the Queen dined at a table "48 yardes long, in the privie walks of the garden."

The good old Viscount died in the ensuing year, and was succeeded by the "comely child" his grandson, Anthony Mary, whom, Horace Walpole includes among his "Royal and Noble Authors," on the strength of a voluminous "Booke of Orders and Rules for the better Direction and Government of my Household and Family," that he compiled when he came of age. It furnishes a very curious picture of a nobleman's establishment in 1595. The number of retainers is prodigious; thirty-seven "Principal Officers" are enumerated, many of whom had subordinates under them; the first fourteen being "Gentlemen by birth," the next two "Gentlemen by Office," and the rest "Yeomen Officers." Nor does this long list include other servants incidentally mentioned, such as "Butler, Pantler, Housekeeper, Footemen, Caters (Caterers), Gentlemen's servants, Boys of the Kytchen," &c. &c, besides "Gentlewomen," and the necessary complement of "Chambermaydes" and "Lawnderers." The etiquette observed would not have disgraced the Court of Louis XIV. Lord Montague never left the house without having one, at least, of the Gentlemen of his Chamber, and several Yeomen of his Chamber and Gentlemen Waiters in "diligent attendance": if he rode out, the Gentleman of the Horse helped him into his saddle, while the Yeoman of the Horse held his stirrup, and a footman stood at his horse's head. When he and his wife took a journey, the entire household, headed by the Steward, rode in array before him, always bare-headed when they passed through a town or village, followed by his "brethren, children, and uncles," with all the parade of a royal progress. He could not sit down to any meal till a minute and august ceremonial had been gone through, the observances commencing with the cookery, for the Clerk of the Kitchen is enjoined to suffer "none to stand unseemely with his back to my meate when it is at the range." Even the dinner table was an object of reverence; the Yeomen of the Ewry only approached it with three low obeisances, and kissed it respectfully before laying the cloth. The dinner and supper were brought in by a long and solemn procession, heralded, on important occasions, by the Marshall of the Hall, followed by the Steward and Comptroller, bearing their white wands of office, and all stood up uncovered as they crossed the hall. The rest of the household took their meals at six different tables, divided according to their rank by the most punctilious rule of precedence. Finally, at night, a Gentleman of the Chamber lighted his Lord to his room, and tucked him up in bed.

Unfortunately for Lord Montague, Guy Fawkes had twice been—though for a short time only—a member of this over-grown household; and on the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, he was sent to the Tower as an accomplice. His father-in-law, Lord Dorset, interceded in his behalf, and succeeded, it is said, in mitigating his sentence, though he was condemned to pay a fine of £4000; and suffer imprisonment during the King's pleasure.

His son was further impoverished by his loyalty during the Civil War, when his estates were sequestered, and Cowdray was garrisoned and somewhat misused by Sir William Waller. He was obliged to dispark the Great Park at Battle, and his successor, again in want of ready money, pulled down the great conventual kitchen for the sake of the materials. The Abbey itself was disposed of by the sixth Viscount, who sold it in 1719 to Sir Thomas Webster. The next Lord, who married a Methodist of Lady Huntingdon's sect, was the first of the family that seceded from the Church of Rome; and it was accordingly on his only son and heir that the monk's curse lighted. This eighth Viscount Montague was drowned in the Rhine in September 1793, when only twenty-four years of age. He was on a boating expedition with his friend Mr. Sedley Burdett, and made a fool-hardy attempt to shoot the falls of Laufenberg, in which they both lost their lives. They had been duly advised of the danger of the venture, and entreated not to risk it; but warning and persuasion were alike disregarded. At the last moment, as they were stepping into their boat, Lord Montague's servant clutched his collar, crying "My lord—my lord! the curse of water!" but he wrenched himself free, and sprang away out of reach. The boat capsized in the second wave of the Laufen, and the two gentlemen, with their dog, were seen swimming gallantly through the surges, till all disappeared in the vortex under the Oelberg. The Rhine is there one hundred feet deep, and though large rewards were more than once offered, the bodies could never be recovered.

The messenger that carried these heavy tidings to England crossed another hurrying out to inform the poor young Viscount of a dire calamity that had befallen him at home. On the night of September 24, 1793, Cowdray House was burnt to the ground. It was conjectured that some careless workmen had left a pan of smouldering charcoal behind in the great gallery; at all events the fire, however caused, spread so rapidly and devouringly that scarcely anything could be saved. Pictures, carvings, tapestries, frescoes, and furniture—the accumulated treasures of generations—all perished together in the flames, and the curse pronounced upon the sacreligious Sir Anthony was fulfilled to the very letter. By flood and by fire his house had been overthrown, and come to its appointed end. It is true that one heir male was left, a distant cousin, then an old bachelor, who bore the title for four years, but it expired at his death in 1797.

With the extinction of the family in the male line, it might have been supposed that the curse had done its work, and would thenceforward no longer rest on the doomed inheritance. But the saddest part of the tragedy is yet to be told.

Cowdray had passed to the only sister of the poor young man drowned at Laufenberg, Elizabeth Mary, married in 1794 to Stephen Poyntz of Midgeham in Berkshire, by whom she had a family of two sons and three daughters. In the summer of 1815, Mr. and Mrs. Poyntz were staying with their children at Bognor, and two Miss Parrys, the daughters of Admiral Parry, who were relations of hers, were on a visit to them. One fine, warm day, Mr. Poyntz proposed a boating excursion, and, with these ladies and his two sons, put out to sea in a little skiff, managed by a boatman and his boy. Mrs. Poyntz, who is said to have had a superstitious dread of going on the water, declined accompanying him, and, as the evening approached, was sitting at the window watching them on their return home. They were close in shore, when a sudden squall struck the sail and upset the boat, and the wretched mother saw her two sons drowned literally before her eyes. For some time they clung to their father's coat, who had managed to lay hold of the capsized boat; but, whether from cramp or terror, their strength failed them, and poor Mr. Poyntz, unable to assist them, had the agony of feeling one after the other let go, and drop back into the sea. The two Miss Parrys and the sailor's lad were also drowned, but Mr. Poyntz was rescued by the boatman; and of the merry party that had set out together that morning, they returned the sole survivors. This terrible event was at once put to the account of the accursed inheritance of Cowdray; and there had, in truth, been evil auguries abroad long before it happened. Croker writes in 1831: "When I visited the ruins of Cowdray twenty years ago, I was reminded (in addition to other stories[3]) that the curse of both fire and water had fallen on Cowdray, and the good folks of the neighbourhood did not scruple to prophesy that it would turn out a fatal inheritance. At that period, the present possessor, Mr. Poyntz, who had married Lord Montague's heiress, had two sons, who seem destined to inherit Cowdray: but on July 7, 1815, these young gentlemen, boating off Bognor with their father, on a very fine day, the boat was unaccountably upset, the two youths perished, and thus were once more fulfilled the forebodings of superstition."

The three daughters, thus become co-heiresses, divided the property between them, and Cowdray was sold in 1843. Frances Elizabeth, the eldest, married first Robert, eighteenth Lord Clinton, and secondly Sir Horace Seymour; the second, Elizabeth Georgiana, married Frederick, fourth Earl Spencer; and the youngest, Isabella, married Brownlow, second Marquess of Exeter. The two latter narrowly escaped sharing their brother's fate. Lady Clinton had married in the preceeding year, and was not with them; but the younger sisters were both to have joined the boating party, had Lady Exeter been ready in time. She had often been too late before, and as their father was rigidly punctual, her sister Elizabeth remained behind with her to share the blame, and Mr. Poyntz fortunately declared that he would not wait for them.

Dallaway, in his History of Sussex, mentions that, "a branch of this family, according to uncertain tradition, was settled in Ireland in 1565; the ancestor having accompanied Sir H. Sydney, Lord Deputy, from whom the present Marquess of Sligo is descended." This ancestor, Thomas Browne, of whose descent the peerages furnish no details, was seated in Mayo, where his son—the first sheriff of the county—lost his life in an affray with the native Irish, and his posterity continues to the present day. John Browne, created a baronet in 1632, had two sons, Sir George, and John: from the elder are derived the Viscounts Kilmaine; from the younger, the Marquesses of Sligo.

  1. One of the family, writing in the Sussex Archaeologia, claims for it a far older and loftier origin. "The name," he says, "is now well understood to be taken from the name of an office or position of dignity, which in a Scandinavian form is known as bran or bren, and which was, with the numerous tribes of the N.W. of Europe, the title of chieftain or head of the clan." From this he derives Brandenburg (Brenniborg) and Brunswick (Braunschweig); reminding us incidentally of Brennus, and Bran, the father of Caractacus.

  2. There was a picture of him at Cowdray in his parti-coloured wedding suit, thus described by Horace Walpole: "He is in blue and white; only the right leg is entirely white, which was robed for the act of putting into bed with her. But when the King came to marry her, he only put his leg into bed to kick her out." Sir Anthony describes his first interview with the Royal bride in melancholy terms, saying "he was never more dismayed in all his life, lamenting in his heart, which altered his outward countenance, to see the lady so far and unlike what was reported."

  3. These "other stories" referred to a popular tradition that the fifth Viscount, having been refused absolution by his confessor, murdered the poor priest as he sat "in the seat of pardon and judgment," and was supposed to have fled the country. In reality he went no further than the keeper's lodge, where he lay for years ensconced in the "priest's hole," a narrow hiding place, which in old days had sheltered many a hunted fugitive from sheriff or pursuivant. There was just room for a man to sit down, with his back in a niche contrived in the wall, and his knees fitted into a space hollowed out in front; and from this stifling dungeon he only issued out at night, to breathe the air. He used to take his walk in the old pleasaunce, called the Close Walks, where Lady Montague, always dressed (no doubt purposely) in a white gown and mantle, regularly came out to meet him; and the place—now known as the Lady's Walk—gained the desired reputation of being haunted, and was sedulously avoided after nightfall.

-- Cleveland

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