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William Turner

William Turner (born 1510ish, died 7th July 1568) Fellow of Pembroke hall, Doctor of Physick, Physician to the Lord Protector, Prebendary of York and Dean of Wells. He was the first British writer to show critical judgement in the discrimination of plants. He described 238 native flowering plants. Local plants including: Linum angustifolium (now Linum bienne or Pale / Narrowleaf Flax), Sinapis alba (White Mustard), Prunus insititia (now Prunus domestica subsp. insititia or Damson / Bullace), Smyrinium (Alexanders), Trinia (Honewort), Colchicum (Meadow Saffron) and Blechnum boreale (now Blechnum spicant or Hard Fern). He introduced Lucerne to England. And named many plants claiming "if any man can fynde any better or fitter name I shal be wel content there wyth." Some names failed; others continue today: Spindle-tree, Toad-flax, Willow-herb, Wood-sorrel, Bitter-sweet. He remarked on the local abundance of Ceterach (Rusty-back Fern) and Cotyledon (now Umbilicus or Navelwort).

According to Find a Grave he was buried here


It happens that the earliest original botanical work done in the country was by a celebrated man for some time resident in the Bristol district. William Turner, Fellow of Pembroke Hall, Doctor of Physick, Physician to the Lord Protector, Prebendary of York, and at length Dean of Wells, was unquestionably the first British writer to show any critical judgement in the discrimination of plants. Born about 1510, he developed an early inclination to the study of languages and of natural history. Wishing to learn the names and properties of herbs, he worked at botany whilst holding his Fellowship, getting no assistance beyond the classical writers. He complains that, as a student, he could learn nothing "of any herbe or tree, even amongst the physicians; such was the ignorance at that time". At college Turner adopted the principles of the Reformers and became a preacher. In that guise he travelled through a great part of the country, finding leisure however to launch some religious polemical treatises. These and his steadfast Protestantism got him into trouble, both in the later years of Henry VIII. and at the accession of Queen Mary. His old friends and tutors Latimer and Ridley went to the stake and Turner fled the country. While in exile he made good use of the time in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, studying botany everywhere and impressing a large circle of friends with his extraordinary industry and learning. By the favour of Queen Elizabeth he was restored to his country and to his preferments in the church, but only a few years of ill-health and weakness remained to him before his death in 1568.

The first part of Turner's Herbal was published in 1551, at a time when for the previous three and a half years he had been debarred from working in "the chefe parte of the day most apte to study-the mornynge-... and had no more liberty but bare iii wekes to bestow upon ye sekyng of herbes, and markynge in what places they do grow," conditions which fully account for the small number of allusions to local plants in his great book. Another portion came out in 1562, and the whole was completed in two or three years later in spite of many hindrances. The third part was dated from "Welles, June 24, 1564," with an apology-"For surely being so much vexed with sickness, and occupied with preaching, the study of Divinitie and exercise of discipline, I have had but smal leasure to write Herballes." On his first appointment to Wells he found himself shut out of the Deanery, and had to make shift with one room in the house of a friend. We can all realise the distraction and strain that he speaks of when obliged to do brain-work amid the noise of his "childher." It would, however, be hard to find elsewhere such a result achieved by one scholar in what spare time he could make and at his own cost. The number of British plants this author was aquainted with is far beyond expectation. He took nothing on trust, but examined all with precision and method, recording his observations and criticising the opinions of others when his own conclusions did not coincide. His teaching was (p. 153): "Let every man folowe that which he fyndeth to be most true, both by reason and by experience." Many gardens are mentioned. His own were successively at Cologne, at Kew, and at Wells, with "my orchard at Wyssenburg," where he had cultivated critical species and "did diligentlye taste" certain aromatic herbs that were not easy to identify. To him Bristol was "the noble citye of Bristow," and "The bath of England is in the west countre in Summersetshire in a citye called Latin Bathonia, and Baeth in Englishe from the bathes that are in it. This citye of Baeth is XV miles from Welles."

The British Flora is founded on the 238 native flowering plants first described by Turner. The majority of these are common species for which no special localities were needed; but he states that about twelve of the rarer ones were collected near Bristol and Bath. The local plants included Linum angustifolium, Sinapis alba (the figure is clearly this and not S. nigra), Prunus insititia, Smyrnium, Trinia, Colchicum and Blechnum boreale. Of Trinia it is said: "I found a root of it at Saynt Vincentis rock a little from Bristow"; and the record of smyrnium seems to indicate that the author had visited Steep Holm. Possibly too that island may have been the source of "the good plentye of Samphire" which Turner enjoyed when "dwelling in the father of Summersetshyre not far from the sea syde." For picking this he gives an exellent recipe "which lyketh me and all them that have prove it much better than any other." We know from Shakespeare that in his day the gathering of Samphire, for pickling, was regularly carried on by hardy cliff-climbers. Gerard speaks of "its delightful and pleasant smell," and of "its spicie taste... well agreeing with man's body." The custom of picking Samphire has now almost entirely ceased; still the writer has often eaten it on the Dorset coast. Turner noticed Marsh-mallow and Bog-myrtle by the great mere where our turf-moors now lie, and remarked on the local abundance of Ceterach and Cotyledon. Although concerned mainly with identifications, descriptions, and the medicinal properties of plants, he did not neglect economic botany. He seems to have introduced Lucerne into England, and sets out the best method for its cultivation and cropping. He descends even to the preparation of bird-lime by an original process. And then he falls foul of New Testament translators, showing plainly that the word "thorns" in the parable of the Sower should have been rendered "thistles." When he could not hear of any English name for a plant Turner usually gave it one of his own, prevising-"If any man can fynde any better or fitter name I shal be wel content there wyth." Some of his names failed; others continue to this day, e.g., spindle-tree, toad-flax, willow-herb, wood-sorrel, bitter-sweet. It is indeed a pity for this present purpose that Turner's worries, infirmities and the ties of his office allowed him so little field-work in North Somerset.

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