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Turner, William

Category: Healer


William Turner MA (1508 – 13 July 1568) was an English reformer, a physician and herbalist and a natural historian.  Turner was a deeply religious and spiritual man throughout his life, so much so that in 1540, he began traveling about preaching, until his arrest curtailed his ardour.

As a member of the nonconformist faction in the Vestments controversy Turner was famous for making an adulterer do public penance wearing a square cap.

Interest in him today, however, is centred on his work as an early herbalist and ornithologist. 



Turner spent much of his leisure in the careful study of plants which he collected from their native habitat, and he described them with an accuracy at that time unknown in England.  He also made a very detailed study of their uses at the time, as such he is an invaluable source of information about medicinal uses for plants even now.

  • Libellus de re herbaria  - was published in 1538 and was about herbs and plants.
  • Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia - was published in 1544.  This book not only discussed the principal birds and bird names mentioned by Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, but also added accurate descriptions and life histories of birds from his own extensive ornithological knowledge. This is the first printed book devoted entirely to birds.


  • A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes… - more often simply referred to as Turner's Herbal, was published in 1551.  It is the first part of Turner's greatest work; the second was published in 1562 and the third in 1568, both were printed by Arnold Birckman (de) of Cologne.
    These volumes contained a clear, systematic survey of English plants.  They contained "admirable woodcuts"  (mainly copied from Leonhart Fuchs's 1542 De historia Stirpium) and detailed observations based on Turner's own field studies.  The two together put The Herbal on an altogether higher footing than earlier works. At the same time, Turner included an account of their "uses and vertues", and actually apologises in his preface for 'divulging to the general public what should have been reserved for a professional audience'. Culpepper’s Complete Herbal -  a compendium of herbal remedies compiled by Nicholas Culpepper in the 17th century - drew on the work of Turner. But Turner was the first, even though Culpepper was the one most remembered.  For the first time, a herbal was available in England in the vernacular, from which people could identify the main English plants and their uses without difficulty.
    In 1562, Turner published the second part of his Herbal, dedicated to Sir Thomas Wentworth, son of the patron who enabled him to go to Cambridge. This book was published by Arnold Birckman of Cologne, and included in the same binding Turner's treatise on baths. The third and last part of Turner's Herbal was published in 1568, in a volume that also contained revised editions of the first and second parts. This was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.
  • A New Book of Spiritual Physick  - was published in 1555.
  • A New Boke on the Natures and Properties of all Wines  - was published in 1568, and had pharmacological intent behind it, as also the included Treatise of Triacle.


Turner was born in Morpeth, Northumberland in or around 1508.  He studied at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge University from 1526 to 1533, where he received his B.A. in 1530 and his M.A. in 1533.  He then became a Fellow and Senior Treasurer of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. While at Cambridge he published several works, including Libellus de re herbaria, in 1538.  He studied medicine in Italy,  at Ferrara and Bologna, from 1540 to 1542 and was given the academic qualification of M.D. at one of these universities.

 The Turner garden

Once back in England, Turner became Chaplain and physician to the Duke of Somerset, and through Somerset's influence he obtained 'ecclesiastical preferment'. The position as Somerset's physician also led to practice among upper society. He was prebendary of Botevant in York Cathedral in 1550, and Dean of Wells Cathedral from 1551 to 1553, where he established a Herbal garden.

When Mary I of England acceded to the throne, Turner went into exile and from 1553 to 1558, he lived in Weißenburg in Bayern and supported himself as a physician. 


After the succession of Elizabeth I of England in 1558, Turner returned to England, and was once again Dean of Wells Cathedral from 1560 to 1564. His attempts to bring the English church into agreement with the reformed churches of Germany and Switzerland led to his suspension for nonconformity in 1564.

Turner died in London on 7 July 1568 at his home in Crutched Friars, in the City of London, and is buried in the church of St Olave Hart Street. An engraved stone on the south-east wall of this church commemorates Turner. Thomas Lever, one of the great puritan preachers of the period, delivered the sermon at his funeral.


  • 1538: Libellus de re herbaria novus. Bydell, London. Index 1878; facsimiles 1877, 1966.
  • 1544: Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia. Gymnicus, Cologne. ed Cambridge 1823; ed with transl. Cambridge 1903.
  • [1548]: The names of herbes. Day & Seres, London. ed 1881; facsimile 1966.
  • 1551: A new herball. pt 1 Mierdman, London; pt 2 Barckman, Cologne. 1568, Cologne: part 2 in parts.


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