William Turner, Dean of Wells

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William Turner

Birthplace: Morpeth, Northumberland, England, United Kingdom
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Husband of Jane Auder
Father of Peter Turner; Elizabeth Turner and Winifred Turner

Occupation: Clergyman, botanist, physician, and Dean of Wells
Managed by: Ric Dickinson
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About William Turner, Dean of Wells

TURNER, WILLIAM (b. Morpeth, Northumberland, England, 1508; d. London, England, 7 July 1568)

natural history, medicine.

Very little of what is recorded of Turner’s family and early life in the northern counties is other than conjectural. His first appearance in the official records is as a student of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, in 1526. He graduated B.A. in 1529/1530, and M.A. in 1533; he was a fellow of Pembroke Hall between 1530 and 1537, when he married Jane Auder of Cambridge. Under the influence of Hugh Latimer, Turner became an ardent religious reformer. His views were first made apparent in his translation of the Comparison Betwene the Olde Learnyng and the Newe (1537) by the German theologian Urbanus Regius.

Turner produced numerous religious tracts of the same fierce and uncompromising tone, concluding with A Newe Booke of Spirituall Physic (1555). His career was considerably affected by his extreme religious position. Although inclined from an early age to the tranquil study of natural history, he was forced by the threat of religious persecution to spend long periods in exile. During the first of these periods (1540–1546), Turner studied medicine in Italy, obtaining an M.D. at either Ferrara or Bologna, and traveled extensively in Germany and Switzerland, forming friendships with Konrad Gesner and other European naturalists. Having returned to England, Turner found that recognition came slowly. He was made dean of Wells Cathedral in 1551 and held this position until 1553. He incorporated for an M.D. at Oxford; Turner’s work on natural history shows a consistently medical bias, and he seems to have combined medical and clerical duties throughout his career. A second period of exile (1553–1558), following the death of Edward VI, was chiefly spent as a medical practitioner in Weissenburg. Although Turner’s foreign journeys were undertaken reluctantly out of necessity, they proved of inestimable value to his scientific work. He became fully acquainted with the Continental literature and with the latest trends in the research being conducted by the flourishing school of humanist naturalists. He was also able to extend his knowledge of the flora and fauna of Europe.

Some time after his second return to England, Turner was restored to the deanery of Wells. His final years were spent in the undisturbed study of botany, in collaboration with a wide circle of friends who ranged from apothecaries to gentleman patrons.

Turner’s vocation as a field naturalist emerged early. His publications include reference to material collected during his youth at Morpeth and as a student in East Anglia. At Cambridge he became dissatisfied with the derivative herbals and natural histories then in use, which gave little real impression of the local flora and fauna. He set out to produce reliable lists of English animals and plants using approved nomenclature based on classical sources and humanist usage. But Turner did not allow the scholarly aspect of his work to overshadow the results of his firsthand observations relating to morphology, distribution, behavior, and pharmacology. His main difficulty in carrying forward his botanical studies, in the troubled period of the Reformation, was in securing a subsistence and adequate toleration of his religious views. He made a modest beginning to his program with Libellus de re herbaria (1538), a list of 144 plants, the names of which were given in alphabetical order in Latin, with English and Greek synonyms. At this stage Turner had a good knowledge of the classical languages but not of the most recent work of humanist naturalists. This defect was supplied, and his next works written, during his periods in exile abroad. Avium Praecipuarum (1544) follows the pattern of the Libellus and is a tentative list of birds mentioned in Pliny and Aristotle, with identifications of northern European species. Turner’s information provides valuable evidence about the distribution of species during the sixteenth century. A further excursion into ornithology was his edition of the Dialogus de avibus et earum nominibus, written by his recently deceased friend Gisbert Longolius. Turner’s work on birds progressed no further, his attention turning instead to fishes, on which he composed a preliminary essay addressed to Konrad Gesner. This study was primarily a list of English fishes with notes on their distribution. It shows little acquaintance with the recent writings of Belon and Rondelet in ichthyology.

Turner was more successful in completing his botanical studies. No doubt inspired by the Continental herbalists, he composed a Latin herbal; but he abandoned this project after his first return to England, when he became convinced of the necessity of first studying the British flora in its entirety. He also decided to publish in the vernacular, recognizing the need to diffuse botanical and medical knowledge as widely as possible among his countrymen, even at the cost of limiting the European influence of his work. The Libellus was accordingly expanded into The Names of Herbes (1549). For this larger collection of species, Turner drew on his Continental experience to include German and French names, with details of distribution. This publication served as an advertisement for the first section of his New Herball (1551), in which plants were again listed alphabetically under their Latin names, for the letters from A to F. Synonyms were given in English and other languages. Turner’s descriptions were unorthodox, since he expressed these in vivid vernacular and usually included evidence drawn from firsthand observations. He showed little inclination to follow authorities and was scornful of much long-cherished herbal lore. The medical bias of the book was particularly marked, Turner intending it for use by apothecaries or laymen with medical interests. One unsatisfactory aspect of the Herball was the quality of its illustrations, which were poor copies of those in Leonhard Fuchs’s De historia stirpium (1542). Turner was also arbitrarily selective, including some quite rare herbaceous plants but omitting common trees, grasses, and sedges. His second exile delayed the latter part of the Herball until 1562. This section, from F to P, was improved by his more extensive knowledge of German plants and by his access to Pietro Mattioli’s translation of Dioscorides. He further reinforced the medical aspect of the work by including a treatise on baths, the first of numerous English works on this subject. Turner was mainly concerned with Bath, but he also made reference to baths in Italy and Germany. The first complete edition of the Herball appeared in 1568. Part I had been revised and expanded, Part II was unaltered, and a new Part III had been added to complete the alphabet. The quality of the descriptions was maintained: Turner wisely resisted the temptation to multiply species in the quest for encyclopedic coverage.

W. A. Cooke has estimated that Turner’s pioneering flora provided the first descriptions of a total of 238 species of native plants. The vernacular names coined by Turner for indistinctly recognized species have passed into general use. In spite of its originality, Turner’s work was not particularly well known to later botanists; Jean Bauhin and John Ray were exceptional in making active use of his Herball. It is evident that Turner’s great competence in botany carried over to other spheres of natural history. Only the turmoil of his life prevented him from expanding his informative essays on birds and fishes. The preface to The Names of Herbes and his letter appealing for patronage to Sir William Cecil (1550) indicate that he planned books on fished, stones, and minerals, and also a corrected translation of the New Testament. Turner’s liberal interests as a naturalist provided a blue print of the design for a system of nature that was made manifest by John Ray in the next century.


  • I. Original Works. A complete list of Turner’s works, including those not published, or lost, is given by Charles H. Cooper, Athenae Cantabrigenses, I (Cambridge, 1858), 256–259. Cooper lists thirty-four titles.

Turner’s botanical works are Libellus de re herbaria (London, 1538); reprinted with a biographical introduction by B. D. Jackson (London, 1877), who also gives a list of Turner’s works; The Names of Herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duch and Frenche (London, 1548/1549); reprinted, J. Britten, ed., English Dialect Society (London, 1882). The editions of Jackson and Britten have been reprinted, with a new introduction by W. T. Strean, by the Ray Society (London, 1965). Turner’s major botanical work is A new Herball Wherein are Conteyned the Names of Herbes [first part] (London, 1551); The Seconde Parte (Cologne, 1562), including “A Book of the Bath of Baeth"; The First and Seconde Partes of the Herbal . . . With the Third Parte (Cologne, 1568).

Turner’s zoological writings are Avium Praecipuarum quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio (Cologne, 1544); Epistola Conrardo Gesnero,in Konrad Gesner, Historia animalium, IV (Zurich, 1558), 1294–1297.

  • II. Secondary Lierature. See A arber, Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1938); W. A. Cooke, First Records of British Flowering Plants 2nd ed. (London, 1900); T. P. Harrison, “William Turner, Naturalist and Priest,“in University of Texas Studies in English, XXXIII (1954), 1–12; Paulteney, Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany, I (London, 1790), 40–70; C. E. Raven, English Naturalists from Neckam to Ray (Cambridge, 1947), by far the most extensive account of Turner as a naturalist.

Charles Webster

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William Turner, Dean of Wells's Timeline

Morpeth, Northumberland, England, United Kingdom
Age 34
July 7, 1568
Age 60