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Turner, William (1509/10–1568), naturalist and religious controversialist, was born at Morpeth in Northumberland, the son of a tanner of the same name.

Education and early travels

In 1526 Turner became a student of Pembroke College, Cambridge, assisted by a ‘yearly exhibition’ from Thomas, Baron Wentworth. He proceeded BA in 1529–30, was elected a fellow of Pembroke in 1531 and made junior treasurer in 1532; he commenced MA in 1533, before becoming Pembroke's senior treasurer in 1538. A friend of Ridley, and deeply influenced by Latimer, Turner's prominence in Cambridge protestant circles became increasingly risky—the first martyrdoms had already occurred. In 1536 he took deacon's orders, and reputedly commenced itinerant preaching. Yet, in clear contravention of his diaconal vow of chastity, in November 1540 Turner married Jane Alder, daughter of George Alder, a Cambridge alderman. In February 1541 he did not appear to face ecclesiastical court action but fled abroad—accompanied, or soon joined, by his wife.

Receipt of a benevolence from Pembroke College in 1542 suggests that furtherance of his medical studies was one reason for Turner's departure. He travelled up the Rhine and reached north Italy, an acknowledged centre of medical excellence, settling at Ferrara, where there existed a pocket of refugee protestants. Yet it was almost certainly at nearby Bologna that he secured his MD degree, while simultaneously pursuing botanical studies. After about a year at the Italian universities Turner left, travelling via Milan, Como, and Chiavenna, then over the Splügen Pass to Chur in Switzerland.

In terms of plant locations and bird sightings, the journey is meticulously recorded, but the virtual absence of marital references supports the contention that his wife had remained in the Rhineland. On reaching Zürich, Turner met Conrad Gesner, the greatest of mid-sixteenth-century naturalists, with whom he established a lifelong rapport. His sojourn in Zürich may well be doctrinally significant, for this had been the city of Zwingli, the continental reformer whose views, together with those of Bucer, Turner found most congenial. Two decades later it was to Zwingli's successor, Heinrich Bullinger, that Turner and his kindred spirits in the vestiarian controversy were to appeal. Turner's return to the Rhineland, to spend time in Basel, Bonn, and Cologne, was followed by the arrival of sisters to his son . These years saw the publication of Turner's first religious polemic, The Huntyng & Fyndyng out of the Romishe Foxe (1543). Its principal target, Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, was to Turner and his fellow protestants the hated focus of their belief that English papists had halted, or even reversed, any trend towards genuine doctrinal reform within the Henrician reformation. In the same year he also published a tract on birds. Despite indifferent health, he earned his living as a practising physician, and it was very probably the wish for a steady income that took him to East Friesland to serve the duke of Emden for ‘four full years’ (Jones, 16–18). Alongside a naturalist's eager observation of a marshy, seaside ecology, went congenial contact with a fellow exile of Zwinglian persuasions: the Pole John à Lasco. Publication of another anti-Gardiner religious polemic in 1545, and inclusion of Turner's name in a condemnatory royal proclamation of July 1546, explain his cautious delay in returning to England after the death of Henry VIII.

Protestant reformer and churchman

Later in 1547 (his growing medical and religious repute being augmented by a Wentworth family connection) Turner became physician and auxiliary chaplain to Protector Somerset, residing at Kew, as well as being MP for Ludgershall in the parliament of 1547–52. In 1549 he published his Names of Herbes; yet he complained of lack of time for his botanical studies, and his letters to William Cecil, the protector's secretary, sought preferment in increasingly querulous terms. On 12 February 1550 Turner was collated to the prebend of Botevant at York, but attempts to become provost of Oriel College, Oxford, and president of Magdalen, as part of a struggle to get protestant evangelicals into positions of influence in the university, both went astray. More successful, and, in the eyes of both contemporaries and historians a catalyst for developments of very great doctrinal significance in the early stages of the Edwardian reformation, was Turner's persuasive urging, most notably to Cranmer himself, that the help of continental protestants be secured. He certainly exercised some influence in bringing to England the Zwinglian John à Lasco, but by now suspicions that residual papist interests were blocking his advancement brought Turner near to paranoia. Increasing disillusion accompanied the fall of Somerset and an unedifying contemporary account of his participation in a sharing out of ducal household goods. But Cecil had remained principal secretary to the council, and on 24 March 1551 Turner was presented by the king to the deanery of Wells. Perhaps predictably he found it difficult to eject the former incumbent, John Goodman, from his house and to gain control of the landed property. The Wells chapter perhaps placated him by granting a dispensation to go on preaching (and also perhaps botanical) tours, and the first part of his great Herball appeared in 1551. The new dean now engaged once more in religious controversy, but it was as late as 21 December 1552 that Bishop Ridley ordained him priest. However, Queen Mary's accession in July 1553 led to a second period of exile.

Those protestant leaders who remained in England, some marked for martyrdom, did not reproach those who chose exile; Turner himself acknowledged receipt of help from the imprisoned Ridley. This second exile was spent at Cologne, Worms, and Weissenburg. Turner continued on the second part of his Herbal as well as on an extended essay on fishes (printed by Gesner in his Historia animalium) and one on medicinal baths. But his principal publications during this era were The Huntyng of the Romyshe Wolfe and A New Booke of Spirituall Physik: the first another anti-Gardiner diatribe, the second by far the fullest exposition of Turner's chagrin at England's failure to establish the social values and ideals of a Christian commonwealth. After the death of Mary Tudor, Turner's reoccupation of his deanery was neither smooth nor rapid. In September 1559 he preached at the prestigious location of Paul's Cross, but not until June 1560 do the Wells Cathedral records note his restoration—without the acquiescence of the sitting occupant. The proceedings of a commission held up formal confirmation for a year or so, though Queen Elizabeth had already sanctioned permission to preach elsewhere.

Turner's remaining years were productive of scholarly publication, notably parts 2 and 3 of his Herball and his very much shorter books on wines, baths, and ‘triacles’. But the religious controversialist was not yet done. Forthright expression of his distaste for what he deemed the rags and trappings of a papist prelacy involved him in the vestiarian controversy. His commonplace book (rediscovered in 1988 by George Chapman) includes a copy of a letter to Lawrence Humphrey with greetings to Thomas Sampson, like himself, a leading opponent of ‘papist’ vestments. This issue became a running dispute with Turner's own bishop, Gilbert Berkeley, while Archbishop Parker was not pleased by a report ‘that Turner of Wells hath enjoined a common adulterer to do his penance in a square priest's cap’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 8, fols. 140–41). Meanwhile, sniping protests from those within the diocese who saw him not as scholar but as carpet-bagger persisted until Turner's death. In 1566 he was among those who remained obdurate on the issue of ritual uniformity after examination by ecclesiastical commissioners; Berkeley complained of him both to Cecil and to Parker himself. Turner's last years were in fact spent at his home in Crutched Friars, London, where he died on 7 July 1568. He was buried in St Olave's, Hart Street, on the 9th.

Naturalist and physician

Turner probably saw himself as a herbalist rather than as a botanist in any modern sense. Yet identification as ‘the father of English botany and of ornithology’ (Hoeniger and Hoeniger, 21) constitutes his greatest claim to real eminence. His childhood faculty for acute observation continued and developed at Cambridge. His Libellus de re herbaria novus (1538), purportedly ‘a book on herbalism’ (title-page, 42), is undoubtedly significant in the emergence of botanical studies. Habitats identified therein are all English, but his much longer Names of Herbes (1549), recognized as a classic in the history of English botany, reflects the unremitting application of a questing and perceptive intelligence throughout the years of exile, with many entries for Germany, Italy, East Friesland, and the Low Countries. Notably, Turner's suggestions of English names include some which—like yellow loosestrife and goat's-beard—were destined to endure.

Parts 1 (1551) and 2 (1562) of the massive Herball, Turner's lasting memorial, were in concept one book, with part 3 an addendum (1568). Plant descriptions were now embellished by many high-quality woodcut illustrations, some four hundred of those used being by Leonhard Fuchs. Locations identified extended from Portland in Dorset to Venice, Lake Como, the Alps, East Friesland, and the Rhine. Turner's detailed descriptions (as of the way in which the roots of orobanche may strangle clover) are again accompanied by English names. These range in felicity from the inspired suggestion that Amara dulcis ‘may be called Bitter Sweet’ to the unattractive proffering of ‘Calf's Snout’ for antirrhinum (part 3, 2; part 1, 49). Once more, social and culinary comments enliven his writing: near Bonn, when ‘the Fieldfares feed only of Junipers' berries, the people eat the Fieldfares undrawn with guts and all because they are full of the berries’ (part 2, 25). Old wives' tales are not always denounced: the legend that mandrake ‘doth … rise of the seed of man that falleth from him that is hanged’ gets short shrift, but the notion of Nepeta cataria as a feline aphrodisiac ‘about the time of their catterwauling’ is cautiously recorded (part 2, 45–6; part 1, 102–3). Yet although the Herball was a major landmark in the development of English botany, with a range and accuracy of enquiry far outstripping Turner's predecessors, it was also primarily a physician's guide to herbs. Its author made no attempt to consider the relationship or classification of plants in any scientific way.

A similar reservation applies to Turner on Birds (1544), which does not demonstrate the modern zoologist's technique. Yet present-day specialists are virtually unanimous in their recognition that it is as a pioneer also of ornithology that Turner stands alone in sixteenth-century England. His work in identification and nomenclature produced several dozen ‘firsts’. His striking and evocative imagery ranges from the nest building of the robin in his Northumberland youth to the spectacle of storks nesting on chimney tops in Germany, the detailed description of the savage activities of the shrike (amply justifying the sobriquet ‘butcher bird’), the vehemence of the hedge sparrow's late evensong, and the remarkable rapacity of the red kite—then still abundant and ‘wont to snatch food out of children's hands, in our cities and towns’ (Turner on Birds, 157, 55, 119–21, 137, 117). Finally, brief mention must be made of ‘Turner on fishes’, printed verbatim in his friend Conrad Gesner's Historia animalium (1558). Once more, his observations extend from his native Northumbria to the Portland peninsula, the Thames above London, Lower Germany, and East Friesland.

With his prestigious Italian qualification augmented further by an Oxford DM, Turner once described himself as ‘a physician delighting in the study of sacred literature’ (Robinson, 2.126). His double role in Somerset's household was typical of his era. While he published nothing by way of general medical exposition, the herbalism of his major works was in mid-Tudor England a study subordinate to that of medicine. The therapeutic qualities of certain plants commended sometimes anticipate the modern herbalist's identification of such as feverfew or eyebright, but caution is urged in using ‘the juice of the Black Poppy, called opium’ (Names of Herbes, 158; Turner, Herball, part 2, 29–30, 77v). Turner also penned three lesser works of some medical relevance. Most notable was his New Boke of the Natures and Properties of All Wines (1568), written as an appreciative consumer as well as medical adviser. In this work Turner, a long-term sufferer from the stone, assesses the properties of Rhenish wines in this connection, but also considers other vintages. Jointly published was a purportedly corrected version of his Booke of the Natures and Vertues of Triacles (or ointments), complete with professional warnings not to make use of any such ‘rashly and unadvisedly’ on the advice of some ‘prating runagate peddler’ (F.viii–G.i). Published earlier, in 1562, was Turner's survey Of the natures and properties aswell of the bathes in England as of other bathes in Germany and Italy. The many citations of Turner's personal experiences as a physician range from statistics of the frightening efficacy of some purgatives to the case of the sick beggars who spurned his curative offers—‘for they had much liever be sick still with ease and idleness, than to be whole … to earn honestly their living’ (Spirituall Physik, I.b–2).

Religious writings

Turner's achievement in translations did not match Tyndale's, nor his doctrinal impact that of Cranmer, nor his preaching that of Latimer, yet all these, together with his anti-Gardiner polemics and his participation in the vestiarian controversy, make him a significant figure. Most crucially, Turner commended scriptural authority as the sole touchstone of faith. His translations, of Joachim von Watt, entitled Of ye Olde God & the Newe (1534), and The Olde Learnyng & the Newe from Urbanus Rhegius (1537), exemplify his identification of the Roman church as guilty of doctrinal innovation. Their Swiss and German provenance establish (alongside residual Wycliffite Lollardy) the Lutheran, and above all Zwinglian, influences on Turner's doctrinal development. The first of his polemics, The Huntynge & Fyndyng out of the Romishe Fox (1543), excoriates such as enjoin creeping to the cross, image-worship, the retention of ‘vestments and copes, incense, and altars’, and who condemn the marriage of priests while condoning their resorting to concubines. Lamentably, monastic spoil has not been directed to aiding poor Christian folk or ‘preachers of the Word of God’—who are in fact sometimes put to death (A.vi–B.viii.b). Oh that Henry VIII, ‘supreme governor’, would root out the Romish beasts still within the church in England (title-page, S.ii–iiii). Turner's exposition of protestant teachings alternates with sometimes scurrilous sexual imagery and coarsely textured abuse—the fact that the diocese of Winchester extended into Southwark enabled him to present his bête noire as ‘Steven, master steward of the stews’ (F.i–iv). Alas, two years later, The Rescuynge of the Romishe Fox depicts ‘the banished fox of Rome’ declaring that, although a weeping Gardiner has cropped his ears, his body and in particular ‘his gorgeous and fair tail’ remain; even his ears will grow once again ‘when all the gospellers are once slain’ (title-page, A.ii–iv).

In Turner's Examination of the Masse and of that Kind of Priesthood this rite implies (1548), ‘Mistress Mass’ derides ‘the Supper that these fellows speak of [as] but a memorial of Christ's death’, but is in turn reproved that ‘your chaplains are bloody sacrificers [who] kill Christ a thousand times in one year’. Surely Edward VI, the young Josiah, will now purge the church ‘and try with the touchstone of God's word’ (A.v–vi). Edward's death cut short such hopes. In 1555 The Huntynge of the Romyshe Wolfe relates how:
Gardiner my Son which with weeping tears,
Cut once away quite the tops of mine ears,
Hath taken for me of late such pain,
That they are grown and healed again.
A folding print depicts the savage slaughter of Hooper, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, by ‘the Wolf of Winchester [and] his fellow bloody Bonner’ (A.iii, A.viii–B.i, D.ii, E.i). Yet alongside this are Turner's detailed proposals for changes in church government and administration, including near-democratic lay participation, and for more laudable use of church wealth, which anticipate much of Elizabethan controversy (E.viii–F.iv).

Yet Turner was no congregationalist. Indeed, Agaynst the poyson of Pelagius, lately renued, and styrred up agayn, by the furious secte of the Annabaptists, written in 1552 when he was briefly and precariously in favour with the establishment, exemplifies the dread inspired therein by extremists. Nevertheless, he was personally reluctant to invoke the punishment enacted by the civil power. He had exerted indirect doctrinal influence in persuading Cranmer to bring John à Lasco to England. Later, ill health and death prevented Turner from contributing more to one last action in the 1560s against what to him was residual popery. The title of Poyson of Pelagius and several passages therein exemplify his transference of medical imagery to religious issues. Turner's New Booke of Spirituall Physik (1555) extends the device to social and economic as well as religious problems, by way of a protracted analogy between the ills of the human body and those of the body politic. Enjoining morality in all social relationships, it demonstrates his sympathy with commonwealth ideals, combined with a traditional approach to a hierarchical society, but also his bitter realization that the expected fruits of the crown's appropriation of church wealth had turned sour.

The man and his achievement

Alongside Turner's considerable academic endowments went an idiosyncratic personality. At Wells, he trained his little dog to leap up and snatch off the corner-cap of a bishop at table. A handsome and witty man, he did not suffer fools gladly. Eager for preferment, he scorned the diplomatic niceties required for its attainment, then became querulous with disappointment. The interplay of his diverse—perhaps distracting—interests gives an added dimension to much of Turner's writing. But his often picturesquely evocative botanical descriptions contrast ill with such scurrility as the identification of Gardiner as one who ‘was long with the whore of Babylon and brought the Romish pox into England again’ (Spirituall Physik, 76–7). By profession a medical practitioner, his herbalist interests expanded into making him a naturalist of the first rank, yet his most combative endeavours came in the field of religion, where his permanent mark was not so great. None the less, while his role of priest–physician was then quite usual, his achievement of considerable eminence alike as man of medicine, botanist, ornithologist, and religious controversialist assuredly was not. He died, aged fifty-eight, disappointed in lack of progress toward a church which should be ‘a Commonwealth of Christians’; but his stature in laying the foundations both of botany and of ornithology remains undisputed.

Whitney R. D. Jones


W. Turner, The first and seconde partes of the herbal of William Turner doctor in phisick … with the third parte (1568) · W. Turner, The names of herbes, facsimile reprint, 1965 (1549) · Turner on birds (1544); A. H. Evans, ed. and trans. (1903) · W. Turner, The huntyng & fyndyng out of the Romishe foxe (1543) · W. Turner, The rescuynge of the Romishe fox (1545) · W. Turner, The huntyng of the Romyshe wolfe (1555) · W. Turner, The examination of the masse (1548–9) · W. Turner, A new booke of spirituall physik for dyverse diseases of the nobilite and gentlemen of Englande (1555) · W. Turner, Agaynst the poyson of Pelagius (1552) · W. R. D. Jones, William Turner: Tudor naturalist, physician and divine (1988) · C. E. Raven, English naturalists from Neckam to Ray (1947) · E. J. Carlson, ‘The marriage of William Turner’, Historical Research, 65 (1992), 336–9 · R. Morrice, ‘The Puritan Controversy’, DWL, A, B, and C · MSS, Cathedral Library, Wells, Ledger E · W. Turner, ‘Commonplace book’, 2 vols., Central Library, Bath · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/50, Section 14 (p. 105, lower) · G. T. L. Chapman, ‘William Turner of Morpeth’, in W. Turner, A new herball, ed. G. T. L. Chapman and M. N. Tweddle (1989) · B. D. Jackson, A life of William Turner, reprint (1965) · C. Hughes, ‘John Bradford and William Turner’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 66 (1983–4), 104–38 · J. Bale, Illustrium Maioris Britannie scriptorum … summarium (1548) · Bale, Cat. · The acts and monuments of John Foxe, ed. S. R. Cattley, 8 vols. (1837–41) · DNB · Cooper, Ath. Cantab., vol. 1 · Calendar of the manuscripts of the dean and chapter of Wells, 2 vols., HMC, 12 (1907–14) · J. Vadianus [J. von Watt], A worke entytled of ye olde god [and] the newe, trans. W. Turner (1534) · Urbanus Rhegius, The olde learnyng & the newe, trans. W. Turner (1537/48) · W. Turner, Libellus de re herbaria novus, Ray facsimile, 1965 (1538) · W. Turner, The natures and properties as well as of the bathes in England as of other bathes in Germany and Italy (1562) · W. Turner, A new boke of the natures and properties of all wines … whereunto is annexed the booke of the natures and vertues of triacles (1568); repr. as A book of wines … together with a modern English version of the text, ed. S. V. Larkey (1941) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 1.361–4 · BL, Lansdowne MS 8 · The diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-taylor of London, from AD 1550 to AD 1563, ed. J. G. Nichols, CS, 42 (1848) · The works of Nicholas Ridley, ed. H. Christmas, Parker Society, 1 (1841) · H. Robinson, ed. and trans., The Zurich letters, comprising the correspondence of several English bishops and others with some of the Helvetian reformers, during the early part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols., Parker Society, 7–8 (1842–5) · C. Gesner, De raris & admirandis herbis (1669) · C. Gesner, Historia animalium (1558), 4.1294–7 · The Marprelate tracts, 1588, 1589, facs. edn (1967) · F. D. Hoeniger and J. F. M. Hoeniger, The development of natural history in Tudor England (Charlottesville, VA, [1969]); repr. (1973) · A. Pettegree, Marian protestantism: six studies (1996)


Bath Central Library, commonplace book · Wells Cathedral, MSS, ledger E |  BL, Lansdowne MSS 2 (42, 63, 75), 3 (4), 7 (78), 8 (3, 47), 10 (10), 107 (1) · TNA: PRO, SP Dom. Edw. VI, 5 (12); 7 (32); 8 (56); 9 (52); 10 (20, 34); 11 (14); 13 (1, 4, 19)

Wealth at death  

see TNA: PRO, PROB 11/50, Section 14 (p. 105 lower)