TURNER, William (by 1512-68), of Kew, Surr., Wells, Som. and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. by 1512, s. of (?William) Turner of Morpeth, Northumb. educ. ?Morpeth, ?Newcastle-upon-Tyne; Pembroke, Camb. adm. 1526, BA 1529/30, fellow 1530, MA 1533; Bologna or Ferrara MD c.1542. m. by 1540, Jane, da. of George Auder of Cambridge, Cambs., ?wid. of one Cage of Pakenham, Suff., 1s. Peter 2da.2

Offices Held

Jt. treasurer, Pembroke, Camb. 1532, sen. treasurer 1538; ?servant of William Claybrook, archdeacon of Worcester by 1533, of Bp. Fox of Hereford by 1535; clerk, the Prince’s council chamber, Westminster 25 June 1543-d.; physician to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset 1547-52; prebendary of Botevant, York Feb. 1550-2; dean, Wells 24 Mar. 1551-53/54, June 1560-d.; rector, Wedmore, Som. 1563-d.3


William Turner was almost certainly a native of Morpeth. John Strype’s belief that he was is borne out by his own references to ‘Northumberland where I uttered my first infant wail’ and to ‘my people at Morpeth’. There had been Turners at Morpeth since the mid 14th century but of William Turner’s immediate forbears nothing has been discovered beyond his own remarks suggesting that either his father or a kinsman was a tanner. Although not mentioned in the wills of either Sir Thomas Wentworth I, 1st Lord Wentworth, who died in 1551, or of his father Sir Richard, Turner was a protégé of that family; in dedicating the second part of his Herbal to Sir Thomas Wentworth II, 2nd Lord Wentworth, in 1562 he asked ‘who hath deserved better to have my book of herbs to be given to him than he whose father with his yearly exhibition did help me, being student in Cambridge of physic and philosophy?’, and in one of his treatises Turner mentions having seen wood spurge in the Wentworths’ park at Nettlestead. It is not clear how Turner first came to the notice of the family, whose main estates lay in Lincolnshire and Suffolk, although it had branches in Yorkshire. Perhaps his advancement was in some way connected with that of Nicholas Ridley, a younger son of the Ridleys of Unthank Hall in western Northumberland, who after schooling at Newcastle-upon-Tyne was admitted to Pembroke Hall about ten years before Turner entered that college, where he was to become Ridley’s pupil and friend.4

Before Ridley’s return to Cambridge from the Continent in 1528-9 Turner was tutored by George Folbery, the instructor of the King’s illegitimate son the Duke of Richmond. He also came under the influence of Hugh Latimer and the early reformers, with the result that his name was coupled by Strype with those of Ridley, Edmund Grindal, John Bradford and other ‘eminent professors of sincere religion, that came up students from the northern parts’. A Comparison betwene the Olde Learnynge and the Newe, translated by Turner from the Latin, appeared in 1537, to be followed by a short religious book Unio Dissidentium, dedicated to Lord Wentworth, and an alphabetical catalogue of plants, Libellus de re Herbaria, in 1538. Although Turner is not known to have left the university before 1540, he may already have ventured further afield: in a letter to Cromwell dated only 12 Apr. but belonging to between 1530 and 1533, on his discussion of the King’s marriage with German theologians, a William Turner referred to his service with the Cambridge civilian William Claybrook, reminded Cromwell of a promise made at Winchester, and asked for a benefice. Claybrook’s membership of the court which annulled the marriage, and Turner’s claim to have been ‘writing continually in the King’s cause of matrimony without any profit’, make clear that it was the same man who, following Claybrook’s death in 1534, entered the service of Edward Fox, bishop of Hereford, another leading figure in the divorce proceedings.5

On 15 Apr. 1536 Turner was ordained deacon at Lincoln and during the following year he received a licence to preach. It was perhaps his preaching which caused him to be brought before Stephen Gardiner, who abused him as a heretic ‘because I wore a cloak and hat after the new fashion’: this was the beginning of the feud between the two, who were soon to vilify each other in sermons and in print. Turner’s later outspokenness against celibacy suggests that he had entertained hopes of a career in the Church but had been denied it by his marriage: perhaps, like John Foster II, he married when the King was expected to allow clerical marriage and was caught by the royal change of mind. Turner thought himself endangered by Cromwell’s fall and in June 1540 he and his wife passed through Calais on an extensive tour of the Continent. Turner visited northern Italy, where he studied medicine at Bologna and Ferrara, as well as Switzerland, the Rhineland and the Netherlands, meeting leading divines, philosophers and botanists, collecting specimens of plants and compiling the first part of the Herbal which he published on his return. While abroad he was appointed clerk of the Prince’s chamber at Westminster (where the records of the duchy of Cornwall were kept), and it was perhaps as a mark of gratitude that he dedicated to the King The Huntyng and fyndyng out of the Romysh Foxe ... hyd among the bysshoppes of Englande, published at Basle in September 1543 under the pseudonym of ‘William Wraghton’, and to Prince Edward the Avium praecipuarum published at Cologne in 1544. The second of these was a systematic attempt to identify the birds described by Aristotle and Pliny, but the first was less innocuous, with its warning to the temporal lords and the burgesses of Parliament against Gardiner, ‘this lying limb of the devil’: its date of publication shows that it was meant to be read in England before the opening of the final session (1544) of the Parliament then in being. A further diatribe against Gardiner in 1545, The Rescuyng of the Romyshe Fox, was followed by a proclamation on 8 July 1546 banning the English works of Turner and other reformers.6

On the King’s death Turner was summoned back from the Continent by the Protector Somerset, whose physician he became. In 1551 he was to complain about his lack of freedom in Somerset’s service—‘For these three years and a half I have had no more liberty but bare three weeks to bestow upon the seeking of herbs and marking the places they do grow’—but it was to the Protector that he dedicated The Names of Herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Dutch and Frenche (1548). Somerset was clearly responsible for Turner’s election to the Parliament of 1547: that he sat for Ludgershall is known only from the list of Members revised in 1551, the return being lost, but in his assumed guise of the Hunter in The Huntyng of the Romyshe Wolfe (?1554) he claimed to have been a Member for five years, that is, throughout the Parliament. He had entered the Commons hoping that the Reformation would soon be completed, but he was to be disillusioned: ‘In all my time (although there were some good Acts for the establishing of religion) yet there was always some that either sought their own private lucre as the noble, lordly and knightly sheepmasters did ... or else sought very earnestly the King’s profit wherein they intended always to have not the smallest part’. Turner may have had a personal interest in the Act establishing a deanery at Wells (1 Edw. VI, no. 16) which was passed in the first session, as he was later to be appointed to it, and he doubtless welcomed the Act allowing clerical marriage (2 and 3 Edw. VI, c.21). His plea for the distribution of chantry lands to the benefit of the Church, the advancement of education and the relief of the poor fell on deaf ears both in the House and outside. His disenchantment with Parliament and his colleagues there is voiced in A New Book of Spirituall Physic (1555). He derided the notion that learning was unnecessary for gentlemen, pointing out that they

must oft times go to the Parliament and there they must entreat of matters concerning the glory of God and the commonwealth, and sometimes matters of heritage and of lands and goods are treated there. Sometime men are appeached of heresy and sometime of treason, so that they that are of Parliament are both counsellors and judges.

If gentlemen remain wilfully ignorant and suffer themselves to be led whithersoever it shall please their blind guides to lead them, they may as well tarry at home as come to the parliament house to sit there, except they will either sleep or else tell the clock while learned men dispute the matters that are in contention, as I have seen some gentlemen of the first head do when I was a burgess of late of the Lower House.

As an example of the measures which engaged his fellow-Members’ interest he cited one ‘made for the destruction of rooks which destroyed the corn’, that is, the Act for the maintenance and increase of tillage and corn (5 and 6 Edw. VI, c.5) passed during the last session. This allusion, coupled with the appearance of his name on the list of Members for that session, shows that he continued to sit in the House after his master’s execution.7

Membership of Membership of Parliament had lessened neither Turner’s addiction to theology nor his eagerness for advancement. In 1548 he attacked conservative doctrine in A New Dialogue wherein is contayned an Examination of the Messe, and later in the reign he refuted heresy in A Preservative or triacle agaynst the poyson of Pelagius. On 11 June 1549 he told Cecil that a kinsman of the Wentworths, Archbishop Holgate, had asked him to go to Yorkshire, but that he preferred Hampshire as the Protector had suggested, if a suitable living could be found. A week after the prorogation of the third session of the Parliament on 1 Feb. 1550 he received a prebend in York minster, but his translation to the north was brief: in the summer the Privy Council ordered the fellows of Oriel College, Oxford, to accept him as master, and in September he was in London petitioning for the presidency of Magdalen, if the archdeaconry of the East Riding should be bestowed elsewhere. At the end of November he wrote bitterly of his failure to secure either the mastership or the presidency and threatened to go to Germany to finish his Herbal. On 26 Mar. 1551 he was presented to the deanery of Wells and granted a licence for non-residence to enable him to preach the gospel.8

Turner was not ordained priest until 21 Dec. 1552, some eight months after the dissolution of Parliament. His title to the deanery was a shaky one. His conservative precursor John Goodman had been deprived by Bishop Barlow after acquiring the prebend of Wiveliscombe, which was held to be incompatible with the deanery, but Turner knew that Cranmer doubted the legality of Goodman’s deprivation. In May 1551 Turner was complaining of obstruction by the canons, who favoured Goodman, and in the following year Goodman brought an action against him in Chancery. The accession of Mary was followed by Barlow’s deprivation for marriage and Goodman’s reinstatement, but by then Turner had left England, perhaps as early as September 1553 with the Polish reformer John à Lasco, whom he had earlier introduced to Somerset. In Germany he resumed his botanical studies and fulminated against Catholicism; at home his writings were again outlawed on 13 June 1555.9

A New Book of Spirituall Physic was published on 20 Feb. 1555 but may have been written over a year earlier, as the ten noblemen to whom it was dedicated included the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. After defending the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, Turner inveighed against his old enemy Gardiner and all priests: ‘Whatsoever man ye shall see, with a great bald plate on his crown and wearing woman’s clothes ... take him for a poxy whoremaster of Rome’. Laymen who had waxed fat on the spoils of the Church fared little better; they were swollen with greed like victims of dropsy, a disease which occurred ‘for the most part in the crowish start ups and not so much in the right and old nobility’, although even Henry VIII had succumbed to it with his ‘devilish and abominable Act of First Fruits and Tenths’. Turner’s indignation was fanned by his recollection of how these grasping men had not scrupled ‘to beg drink from such poor men as I am, when as I had but £74 to spend in the year, my first fruits yet unpaid’.10

On Elizabeth’s accession Turner returned to England, where his writings had attracted wide attention. On 10 Sept. 1559 he preached at St. Paul’s before a large congregation. Early in 1560 a commission under Archbishop Parker recommended his restoration to Wells, and in July the Queen confirmed his licence for non-residence. He was forced none the less to bring a civil action to secure his reinstatement, after which Goodman’s further challenge in the courts was met by a royal order that Turner should enjoy the deanery pending a final decision in the case, which lapsed on Goodman’s death in December 1562. Earlier in that year the second part of the Herbal was printed at Cologne; it set the seal on Turner’s reputation as a botanist, even though it contained such invective as the attack upon ‘those dark doctors ... which suddenly like to toadstools start up physicians within two or three years’ study’.11

From the stronghold of the deanery Turner proclaimed his brand of Puritanism: he railed at the episcopacy, condemned an adulterer to do penance in a priest’s cap and trained his dog to snatch cornered caps from the heads of prelates. His own bishop protested to Cecil and in March 1564 he was suspended for nonconformity, although allowed to retain the title of dean and the income of the office. On 26 Feb. 1567, burdened with ‘continual sickness and weakness’, he made his will, dividing the bulk of his goods between his wife and children. He died on 7 July 1568 at the Crutched Friars in London and was buried in St. Olave’s, Hart Street, where he was commemorated in a tablet set up by his widow, who became the wife of Richard Cox, bishop of Ely. The third part of the Herbal, with a dedication to the Queen, appeared in the year of Turner’s death, but the survey of the fishes of the British Isles which was announced in its preface did not survive the author.12

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Authors: T. F.T. Baker / A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. Hatfield 207.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from education. DNB; PCC 14 Babington, 4 Butts; C. E. Raven, Eng. Naturalists from Neckham to Ray, 52-53.
  • 3. Al. Cant. i(4), 277; LP Hen. VIII, ix, x; information from Dr. G. Haslam; Le Neve, Fasti, iii (1854), 176; Strype, Cranmer, i. 394; CPR, 1550-3, p. 51; 1560-3, p. 575; P. M. Hembry, BPs. Bath and Wells, 1540-1640, p. 122; HMC 10th Rep. iii. 240.
  • 4. PCC 14 Babington; Raven, 49; W. Turner, Libellus de re Herberia (1538)—as with nearly all Turner’s publications the pagination varies from volume to volume so references are only given to the work; Avium praecipuarum (1544); Facsimiles (Ray Soc. 1965), passim; Strype, Cranmer , i. 394; Hodgson, Northumb. i. 458-61.
  • 5. Strype, Parker , i. 13; Grindal , 7; Annals Ref. i(1), 199; LP Hen. VIII , ix, x.
  • 6. Raven, 72, 86; Avium praecipuarum; A new bk. of Spirituall Physic (1555); Tudor R. Proclamations ed. Hughes and Larkin, i. 373-6; J. F. M. Hoeniger, The Development of Nat. Hist. in Tudor Eng. (Folger booklets on Tudor and Stuart civilization, 1969), 32; G. E. Fussell, ‘William Turner, the father of Eng. botany’, Estate Mag. xxxvii. 367-70; LP Hen. VIII , xxi; M. L. Bush, Govt. Pol. Somerset , 104.
  • 7. Bush, 3, 66, 68-69, 104-8; R. Pineas, ‘William Turner and Ref. Politics’, Biblioth‘que d’Humanisme et Renaissance , xxxvii. 193-200; Hatfield 207; Raven, 96-110; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI , i. 135; Strype, Eccles. Memorials , iii(1), 235; Turner, The Huntyng of the Romyshe Wolfe (?1554).
  • 8. Jordan, i. 332, 341; ii. 332-4, 368-70; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 18, 29, 31; APC , iii. 63; CPR , 1560-3, pp. 51, 161.
  • 9. Strype, Cranmer , ii(2), 62; VCH Som. ii. 37-38; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 32-33; Hembry, 118, 121-2; C. H. Garrett, Marian Exiles , 314-15.
  • 10. Foxe, Acts and Mons. vii. 127.
  • 11. Strype, Annals Ref. i(1), 199; HMC 10th Rep. iii. 233, 240; VCH Som. ii. 39-40; Raven, 115.
  • 12. CPR , 1566-9, p. 79; 1569-72, p. 2; PCC 14 Babington.