A Forgotten Tudor Scientist – Part 2


Miss Part 1? Click Here to read Part 1 first

By Patricia Deegan (written 2007 and revised 2016)

Part II: William Turner – During 1508 to 1547

William Turner was born in Northumberland in about 1508 and educated in Physic and Philosophy at Cambridge university. He obtained his BA in 1530 and his MA in 1533. He attempted to learn the names of plants in Cambridge but there was little information available during his studies, despite plant material being the primary source of medications: “Suche was the ignorance in simples at that time” (Arber 1999 p 122). A ‘simple’ is an herbal medication that only uses one herb.

The latest available published herbal in Britain, at this time, had been the grete herball in 1526. This was just a translation of a bad French herbal, illustrated with woodcuts from an equally bad German herbal. Turner himself commented that this work was full of the “falselye naminge of herbs” (Pavord 2005).

Turner also embraced the burgeoning Protestant movement at Cambridge and became the pupil (and friend) of Nicholas Ridley who later became the bishop of London. This devout religious dedication would cause problems at times for him during his life.

William Turner became a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge and it’s senior treasurer, though he was ordained a deacon in Lincoln in 1536 and got a licence to preach in 1537. He published his first book in 1538: Libellus de re herbaria. This work gave actual localities for 144 native British plants, that had not been mentioned in any of the existing botanical works, and included plant synonyms in Latin, Greek and English. This was his only book in Latin.


At this point I’d like to outline briefly some relevant religious background. Henry VIII had initiated a political break from Rome, in 1533, that had led to the establishment of the Church of England. However, the king himself had mostly acted through dynastic concerns and then financial interests. Henry remained conservative in theological matters and in 1539 the “Six Articles” was passed that enshrined in law essentially Catholic precepts and practices for the Church in England (Hooker 1996).

In 1540 William Turner was arrested for his radical preaching, as he was not prepared to temper his beliefs, and taken before Stephen Gardiner. After the fall of Thomas Cromwell, with whom he had had contact, Turner went into exile on the continent. His works, along with those of other religious reformers, were actually banned in 1546.

His naturalist studies would not have clashed with his devout religious beliefs for he would have seen it as publishing the truth about god’s creation. Turner would eventually go on to publish works in his lifetime on ornithology (the study of birds), ichthyology (the study of fishes), wine, and a treatise on baths, as well as his religious tracts and his botanical works.

He used his time in this first exile to great effect. He went through France to the Italian states where he trained as a physician between 1540 and 1542. He also studied under, and was greatly influenced by, Luca Ghini in Bologna. Ghini erected a professional chair for Botanical Science in Bologna and founded one of Europe’s earliest botanical gardens there in 1547 (Rohde 1971).

His travels then took him to the newly Protestant Switzerland, Cologne (now in modern Germany) and the Netherlands. He took the opportunity to collect plants for himself and send plants, from the Brabant, to some friends in London who were apothecaries. This period also allowed him to make contacts with the most notable European plantsmen. There are records surviving of Turner’s correspondence with Leonhard Fuchs, who was a professor of medicine and one of the writers called the “German Fathers of Botany”.


The bibliography for this part will be at the end of Part III (coming soon!)

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