William Turner (1057 words)

  • Jill Barker (University of Northampton)

William Turner (1510?- 1568), an intellectual of humble origins and great mental energy, became Dean of Wells, a physician, a family man, an MP and a respected preacher who travelled, wrote and taught throughout his life. These complex activities were pursued through a period when Turner’s religious activities meant that he was twice obliged to flee abroad to avoid persecution, first in 1540 under Henry VIII, returning in 1547, and later in 1553 when Mary acceded to the throne, finally returning to England in 1558/9. He is known by historians for his connections with the Duke of Somerset (Lord Protector of King Edward VI) and his involvement in the politics of the English reformation. To theologians he is known for his translations (of the old god and the new, 1534) and passionate printed attacks on reformers more moderate than himself, such as Stephen Gardiner (The Hunting of the Romish Foxe, 1543) as well as for his diatribes against Catholicism (the examination of the mass, 1548). To medical historians he is a significant figure who researched the treatment of disease through herbs, wine and spa baths. To natural historians he is the father of English botany: Turner’s herbal, published and revised between 1549 and 1568, was the first scientifically-organised catalogue of plant life in English. He also wrote authoritatively on fish and on birds. Lastly, he is an accomplished prose stylist, writing in a lively, attractive idiom. His use of a dialogue form in the style of Hans Sachs to present theological argument, together with his popularisation of the figure of the evil woman, ‘mistress missa’, are significant innovations in English literature. His letters to Somerset (State Papers Domestic) give a fascinating insight into the age, revealing a concern for his large family’s wellbeing, his own straitened circumstances, and his needs as a thinker and writer.

William Turner was born in Morpeth, Northumberland around 1510-12, probably the son of a tanner. In 1526, helped by the financial support of Thomas, first Baron Wentworth, he went to Pembroke Hall Cambridge, to study “physic and philosophy” There he made rapid progress, becoming BA, 1529-30; Fellow of Pembroke College, 1531; MA, 1533; and Senior Treasurer, 1538 (Jones, 9). He encountered radical Protestant thinkers such as Hugh Latimer, John Foxe and Nicholas Ridley, and from 1534 was himself a prominent Cambridge protestant. Turner’s lifelong habit of preaching and travelling began at Cambridge, though he seems to have refrained from being ordained. There too he married Jane Auder, the daughter of an alderman. Turner’s earliest publications were translations from Latin of influential Continental works of Protestant theology (of the old God and the new 1534; of the old learning and the new 1537) arguing that, far from offering new ideas, Protestantism was actually reforming those Church practices which had strayed too far from their origins over the centuries. Thus, the ‘new’ learning was in fact a return to an old tradition, as Turner’s arguments against Catholic liturgical practises were based on careful interpretations of key texts in the New Testament. Significantly, he used English translations for these. In conformity with other radicals, he believed that vestments, priests and altars were without Biblical authority, as was the concept of the literal trans-substantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood in the course of the Mass. Turner brings to his theology a deep sense of personal responsibility for the community, as well as humility about his own learning. In his introduction to the examination of the Mass, he explains his position:

Although it be not belonging unto my profession to dispute of matters of divinity, which am a physician, yet extreme necessity requiring, I am compelled to do in this kind of war as cobblers, shoemakers, masons, carpenters and all other men of handy occupations are compelled to do, when their city is besieged. That is to take weapons in their hands and become warriors, which have had little or no experience of war before. If that (when a city is besieged) every man that is a faithful citizen, ought to do the best that he can to defend his city and to overcome the enemies of the same, who will blame me, which am no professor of divinity, when as the city of god, whereof I am a sworn citizen is besieged, with so great hosts of popish warriors, if I play in this time of need, the divine warrior, to defend the foresaid city, and endeavour my self to overcome the enemies of the same.

Meanwhile, he also published his first work on botany and on the medicinal uses of plants (1538), a book so useful, accurate and popular that it was reprinted frequently throughout the sixteenth century and beyond. Holding radical theological views in England risked martyrdom. He moved abroad with his young wife, probably in 1540, staying first in northern Italy, then in Bonn and Cologne. A son, Peter, was born in 1542, followed by daughters.

Here he continued his medical study and his botanical research, and probably earned his living as a doctor. His work on birds appeared in 1544. At the same time he began publishing volumes of bitter controversy against both Catholics and more moderate Protestant thinkers. Turner’s reputation was clearly high, as he returned to England to take up the post of personal physician in the Lord Protector’s household, on the death of Henry VIII. He also became Member of Parliament for Ludgershall 1547-c.1552, and was made Dean of Wells in 1551 (Jones, 30).

Completely different in form from Turner’s other writings is his dialogue of “Mistress Missa” (1548) where he invents a new form by combining several conventions: the expository dialogue such as those of Erasmus and More; the continental tradition of performing allegorical dialogues about serious issues; and the courtly entertainment of John Heywood’s staged didactic dialogues. Turner’s dialogue presents a fictional court case against a scheming, dangerous but oddly seductive woman: an allegorical figure representing the Mass. The importance of this work for the literary and dramaturgical development of the sixteenth century is not widely recognised.

Through Mary’s reign, Turner settled in East Friesland, returning to pursue his multiple career as a diligent worker for church reform, a scientist and an often contentious preacher.

Works cited:

Whitney R.D. Jones, William Turner: Tudor Naturalist, Physician and Divine Routledge, 1988.
Pavord, Anna, The Naming of Names: the search for order in the world of plants, Bloomsbury, 2005.

Barker, Jill. "William Turner". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 April 2008
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2142, accessed 17 August 2017.]

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