A Forgotten Tudor Scientist – Part 3


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By Patricia Deegan (written 2007 and revised 2016)

Part III: William Turner – From 1547 to 1568

Turner returned to England after Henry VIII’s death in 1547 and obtained a post as physician to Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and the Lord Protector of England.  Turner also obtained two clerical preferments during Edward VI’s short reign.

His next botanical work built on his first book and used some of the extensive knowledge he had gather during his travels. In 1548 he published The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duche and Frenche. This covered three times as many plants and attempted to identify the different names plants were known by in different countries.

In 1551 he managed to get the first part of his major work, A New Herball, published in London by a Protestant Fleming in exile.  This was illustrated by woodcuts from Fuch’s 1542 book Historia Stirpium. These illustrations were also used by Bock and Dodoens.

His herbal was intended for use by apothecaries and was in alphabetical order by the plants’ common English name. In the dedication he acknowledged that some will think writing in English “unwisely done… every old wyfe will presume not without the mordre of many, to practise Physick” (Pavord p.263).  Turner then pointed out that this hadn’t happened when Dioscorides wrote in his native Greek for his audience and he didn’t see it happening with his own publication.


He went into exile again when the young king died and his Catholic sister Mary ascended to the throne in 1553. During this period he continued to study plants and work on the second part of his herbal.  Mary banned his works in 1555 and caused copies of his work to be destroyed.

Turner went back once again to England in 1558, when Mary I died and her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, ascended to the throne.  Elizabeth returned him to his former ecclesiastical positions.

The second part of his herbal was published in 1562 in Cologne, as the publisher had access to the woodcut illustrations used by Fuchs.

Turner was suspended for religious non-conformity in 1564 and went to his London home to finish his herbal, though his health was deteriorating.  The third and final part of his herbal was published in London in 1568, a few months before his death. The completed herbal was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.

Turner’s herbal gave dependable descriptions of 238 native plants in Britain and noted their habitats. He described the plants in terms of the four ‘humours’ and temperament: blood (sanguine – hot and moist), yellow bile (choleric – hot and dry), black bile (melancholic – cold and dry), plus phlegm (phlegmatic – cold and moist). It also lists the “uses and vertues” of the herbs.

He was dismissive of ideas which he was able to identify as incorrect, and which he considered mere superstition, and he was careful to record plants as he had observed them. His work does still hold some common errors of that time though, such as the idea that some birds were hatched from barnacles, as he had respect for authorities that he thought were reliable.

No portrait survives of him though later the plant genus Turnera was dedicated to him by Linnaeus (Campbell-Culver 2001).

Turner’s herbal was the first English work of scientific botany and the only original English botanical book of the 16th century. He laid the basis for later works of John Parkinson (Theatrum Botanicum 1640) and John Ray who pioneered an early method of natural classification of plants in the 17th century.


Parts II & III Bibliography

  1. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1509-1558/member/turner-william-1512-68 [Accessed 24/10/16]
  2. Arber, A., 1999, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, 3rd 1953 reprint with introduction 1986, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Campbell-Culver, M., 2001, The Origin of Plants, London: Random House (Eden Project Books).
  4. Griggs, B., 1997, Green Pharmacy: The History and Evolution of Western Herbal Medicine, Vermont Healing Arts Press.
  5. Hooker, R., 1996, Reformation: Protestant England [online] World Civilisations, Pullman, Washington, Washington State University. Available from: http://wsu.edu/~dee/REFORM/ENGLAND.HTM [Accessed 12/3/07]
  6. Johnston, S., 2000, Early Printed Herbals: the text of an exhibition of rare books at the Holden Arboretum [online]. Kirtland, Ohio: The Holden Arboretum. Available from: http://members.aol.com/arbexhibit/erlhrb96.htm [Accessed 19/3/07]
  7. Pavord, A., 2005, The Naming of Names: The search for order in the world of plants, London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  8. Rohde, E.S., 1971, The Old English Herbals, reprint of 1922 work, New York: Dover Publications.
  9. Westfall, R.S., unspecified date, Turner, William [online], The Galileo Project, Indiana University. Available from: http://galileo.rice.edu/Catalog/NewFiles/turner-wil.html [Accessed 11/3/07]
  10. Wikipedia, 2007, William Turner [online]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Turner [Accessed 11/3/07]

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