William Turner and the reformation of gardening

Climate change is making gardening more of a challenge in this country, but at least we have plenty of information on the best plants to use. Five hundred years ago the picture was a lot more confusing. Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section investigates a major botanical turning point

William Turner’s New Herbal, published in instalments between 1551 and 1568, is one of the great landmarks in the history of British gardening, and earned its author the epithet ‘the father of British botany’. Prior to the appearance of Turner’s assorted books, the study of plants in Britain was a very imprecise science. Interest in this field was driven primarily by medicine, which relied very heavily on herbal remedies. However, knowledge of plants and their uses was communicated in two radically different ways. On the one hand, there were academic treatises, mostly in Latin, which drew heavily on the botanical traditions and theories of ancient Greece and Rome. On the other hand, there was an extensive body of folklore and practical knowledge transmitted largely by word of mouth among the humble herbalists who served the bulk of the population. Most of these local practitioners couldn’t read Latin, so the old treatises were literally a closed book to them. But many of the more academic physicians were dismissive of the insights acquired by people they regarded as mere quacks. Turner, who began his medical career firmly in the academic camp as a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, realised that he could learn from both worlds, and made it his life’s work to bridge the divide.

Title page from the 1568 edition of New Herbal, William Turner

In particular, Turner recognized that there was scope for confusion between the plants described in the treatises, many of which were Mediterranean in origin, and their presumed English equivalents. This led him to undertake field work, travelling around the country to collect specimens and discuss their properties with local people who used them. His first book, Libellus de re herbaria novus (1538) was a pioneering foray into botanical classification, accurately listing 144 plant names with both their English and Greek names. This process was important for avoiding medical accidents where the wrong plant was prescribed, but it also helped to generate a record of existing British flora at a time when many new specimens were starting to arrive from abroad. The Libellus was so well-received that a decade later Turner produced an expanded version in English, The names of herbs in Greek, Latin, English, Dutch and French.  That book in turn provided the foundation for his New Herbal.

By this time Turner had also gained first-hand experience of plants on the continent – due to his religious views. While at Cambridge, he came under the influence of the radical Protestant Hugh Latimer (later bishop of Worcester). Ordained deacon in 1536, Turner quickly developed a reputation as an outspoken preacher, and during the conservative backlash of Henry VIII’s final years he felt obliged to live abroad. In addition to renewing his medical studies at Bologna and Ferrara, he also met many of the leading European botanists of the day while travelling in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries. This encouraged him to begin work on the New Herbal. Not the earliest book of this kind to appear in English, but the first really accurate study based on first-hand research, it listed and described 238 native British plants.

In 1547, following Henry VIII’s death, Turner was summoned home by Protector Somerset, who appointed him his physician, and arranged his election as MP for Ludgershall in Edward VI’s first Parliament. Somerset also put him in charge of his gardens at Syon House, Middlesex, which were renowned for rare plants such as pomegranates, figs and apricots, grown against south-facing walls for extra warmth. Under Turner’s management Syon developed into one of England’s earliest botanical gardens. Unsurprisingly, the first part of the New Herbal was dedicated to Somerset.

Even so, botany remained only one of Turner’s interests. In 1552, following the completion of his parliamentary service, he was ordained priest, and he ended Edward’s reign as dean of Wells cathedral. He also continued to publish books on religious topics, mainly attacks on Catholicism. Consequently, when Mary I came to the throne in 1553, Turner found it advisable to return to the continent, this time taking refuge in Germany. This second exile may well have helped introduce him to a wider range of flora from around the world. When the final portion of the New Herbal appeared, it included plants not mentioned in the old classical treatises, such as rhubarb from China, and other exotic specimens from Sri Lanka, south-east Asia, and the West Indies.

In 1559, following the accession of Elizabeth I, Turner again returned home, and in the following year he was restored to the deanery of Wells. However, prolonged exposure to continental Protestantism had reinforced his early radicalism, and before long his advocacy of presbyterian church government and opposition to traditional clerical vestments got him into serious trouble. In 1564 he was suspended from his deanery for nonconformity, though he was permitted to retain the title and his stipend. Turner died four years later, still refusing to submit to the will of the church hierarchy. His Calvinist leanings were inherited by his son Peter, who caused outrage as MP for Bridport in the 1584-5 Parliament by promoting presbyterianism.

William Turner Garden in Morpeth, Northumberland. Image from FabulousNorth.com

The final two parts of the New Herbal were published in Cologne, and although well-received on the continent they didn’t circulate widely in England. By the end of the century Turner’s reputation as a botanist was fading, and the best-known Elizabethan publication on plants today is John Gerard’s Herball or generall historie of plantes (1597), a better illustrated but less original work than Turner’s own books. Nevertheless, with the revival of interest in garden history in recent decades, Turner has attracted renewed attention for his pioneering approach. He is now commemorated by a Tudor-style garden at Morpeth, his Northumberland birthplace.


Further reading:

Margaret Willes, The Making of the English Gardener (2011)

Christopher Thacker, The Genius of Gardening (1994)

Find more blogs from our Lords 1558-1603 project at the First Elizabethan Age blog page.

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