Thomas Briggs (c.1633-1713)

Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge

Mentions in Pocketbook: My correspondence

Thomas Briggs (bap. 1633–1713) was the eldest son of Reverend Thomas Briggs of Wyfordby, Leicestershire.  He was educated at the Grammar School, Stamford, and he was admitted as a sizar to St John’s College, Cambridge in 1650.  Briggs became a fellow and junior bursar from 1661–1662, and senior bursar from 1662–1668, and it was at St. John’s that he became Lister’s friend.

When at Cambridge, Briggs wrote his only published work, a rather fulsome poem in turgid Latin to Charles II upon the occasion of the Restoration.  Here is a translation:

Human princely authority is based on nature

Arise, o happy one, safe from your envious enemy,
you are King, the son of the Gods, the Father of ourselves.
Envy tortures only the higher deities, we can neither hope, nor do, more.
How the bright light leaps from the king’s theatre!
Nature has made these sceptres, God controls them.
You may be a monarch, but you do not hold your realm alone.
It boasts two Caesars, (just as Rome once did)
There is a king on either side, Jupiter as much as Charles.

Briggs was a better friend than poet, becoming a supportive companion to Lister, and handling the monetary payments and bills of exchange that Lister required whilst at Montpellier. Even several years later in 1673, when both Lister and Briggs had long left Cambridge, his old friend continued to write him, asking ‘I would fayne know whether yu can give mee any fresher hopes of seeing yu that wee might discourse our old storyes and bee once more happy againe’.

In his pocketbook, Lister records sending him letters several times, and some of Briggs’ letters to Lister are still extant. One piece of correspondence, dated 22 August 1665, gives us vivid details of the Great Plague sweeping through Cambridge, as well as of Briggs’ college duties. Briggs wrote:

Whatever suspicion by miscarriage of letters may be and that very justly bee entertaynede by you concerneing it has affection which I shall \ever/ retayne for you. Ile assure you ther shall never been any reall ground for such surmise whilst I am. & I well understand how my letters miste you.  Ive non[e] payment of theyr passage, where I perceive by a letter from Dr. Browne of Norwich must not bee onely to Paris but from Paris to Montpelier if they ever gett home.  I received 3 letters from you in this fortnight so that I suppose none miscarried.  All your relations as I understand are well in Country I removing lately from Leicestershire, though by reasons of the sickness dispersed through many places in Country I could not see any of them;  wee are all well in Coll.[ege] as also in University but the Coll. are all shutt up the infection being somewhat in Towne though very little (praised bee God).  I have paid twenty pounds to Dr. Browne of Norwich for your use the surest way I judged to returne itt to you hees having opportunity to send to his sonn & hee may easily transmitt itt to you.  The Sickness much prevailes at London above four thousand dying so last weeke. Dr Paman will bee or att present is att Paris intending for England suddainly.  I am much confined att present having many avocations upon mee but shall never wast[e] time nor opportunity as I hope to evidense my selfe.

Deare Martin.

Your true ffreinde & servant.

Tho. Briggs

Letter22 August 1665

Though it is well known that Sir Isaac Newton fled Cambridge for Woolsthorpe in remote Lincolnshire to escape this plague, it is apparent from Briggs’s letter that his impression was that Cambridge was lightly affected by the pestilence, as only the colleges were closed.  The Plague Bills of Mortality from 2 July 1665 to August 1666 indeed did indicate that “all the Colledges (God be praised) are and have continued without any Infection of the Plague,” though one thousand in the town would die of the Black Death by January 1667.  1

In London it was a different story. The total amounts of burials from plague according to the Greater London Bills of Morality for 1 August–5 September 1665 range from 2,815 burials for the first week to 4,237 in the week of 15–22 August.  By the week of 29 August–5 September, burials recorded due to plague were 6,988. 2

Briggs refers to a ‘Dr Brown’ in his letter.  Dr Brown of Norwich was Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), the well-known physician and English author of Religio Medici.  Browne settled in Norwich in 1637 where he practiced medicine, living there until his death.  At the time of this letter, his eldest son Edward (1644–1708) was on his Grand Tour of France and Italy.  After graduating M.B. from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1663, Edward left for the continent to study in the Paris Hospitals in 1664 and to travel in Italy and France where he visited Arles, Montpellier, Toulouse, and La Rochelle.  He returned home in October 1665. Dr Paman of course was Lister’s tutor Henry Paman.

After Lister returned from Montpellier, Briggs did not stay at Cambridge.  In 1669 he took his degree of LL.D. Briggs married Elizabeth, daughter and co-heir to Sir John Stapeley, Bart., of Patcham, Sussex.  Briggs subsequently settled in Chichester, where he was made Chancellor of the Dioceses in 1672, which post he held until his death on 13 October 1713.  He was buried in the nave of Chichester Cathedral, near to the north-west door, where a monument was erected to his memory in the aisle; this is now in the south alley of the cloisters.

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  1. Elizabeth Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 74.
  2. ‘Table 5: Greater London Bills of Mortality: Plague burials and Total Burials, August 1–September 5, 1665′, in A. Lloyd Moote and Dorothy C. Moote, The Great Plague:  The Story of London’s Most Deadly Year (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 129.

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