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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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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