Friday, 16 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 15 January 2015 – A Time Of Planting

For the last few months the churchyard at St Olave Hart Street in the City of London has seen many changes: repaving, lighting, the construction of a two-dimensional granite prayer labyrinth. New seating is on its way, but today a large number of plants were put into position, still for now in their pots.

In March, when the time is right and the weather more suitable, two herb beds will be planted in memory of William Turner (c.1508–1568)—a Northumbrian, the bright son of a tanner in Morpeth—who came south to Cambridge to study for ordination and become a doctor of physic (as medicine was then termed). As it was illegal for clergy to marry in the reign of Henry VIII and Turner went against this edict, he absented himself from England for a while and pursued his medical studies in Northern Italy, later making his way into the German-speaking lands, where he shared his observations of the natural world—plants especially—with like-minded Protestant scholars.

Returning to England, where the Reformation was deepening its hold on the English church  under the reign of the boy king, Edward VI, Turner became personal physician to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Lord Protector of England during the King's minority, Seymour, who was also the boy's uncle, had his residence at Syon House in Brentford and Turner mentions the garden there in his writings. Later Turner became Dean of Wells but was unable to take up his official residence for some years, because the outgoing Dean refused to vacate it. After not a little complaining that his work and studies were being hindered by his having to share cramped living accommodation with his squalling children, William again absented himself from England when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne and began fervently rolling back the religious reforms of her recently deceased half-brother Edward. This was a wise move on Turner's part, since he had written fantastically rude things about Stephen Gardiner, Mary's Bishop of Winchester, and his life would most likely have been in danger.

After several years, once again spent among fellow Protestants on the Continent, Turner came back to England on the death of Mary and was able to settle in Wells again, establishing a garden at his residence that has been revived in recent years.

Turner's magnum opus is his three-volume New Herball, the first work of original scholarship on English plants and their uses, especially in the practice of physic, to be published in English. Turner's declared aim was to promote better medical practice and encourage a movement away from the use of poorly understood and inaccurate Latin texts, typically copied uncritically over several centuries. The illustrations in Turner's herbal are of good quality, as he acquired woodcuts that had appeared in the work of the German Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566).

By the time the final volume of Turner's work was ready for publication he was in poor health and living in the parish of St Olave's in the street known to this day as Crutched Friars (named after the priory in the area, whose monks had crosses stitched on their robes, "crutchèd" being a corruption of "crossed"). Turner died in Crutched Friars the year his last volume appeared, bearing a dedication to Elizabeth I, and he was buried in the south aisle of St Olave's. It was left to his son Peter, also a physician but not ordained, to protect William's reputation by producing corrections to errors made by the publisher.

William's periods of exile and his lack of a secure dwelling in England for a number of years no doubt affected his finances and his widow, Mary, married, soon after his death, Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely and an unpopular clergyman of the sort criticised by Turner for financial rapaciousness. There is some evidence that Mary's own reputation suffered as a result.

The work of later botanists and herbalists, notably John Gerard (1545–1612), has tended to eclipse Turner's contribution, but his significance has nevertheless long been recognised by scholars and Turner studies are currently in a healthy state. In addition to the garden in Wells already mentioned, Turner's birthplace of Morpeth has a memorial garden maintained by the local authority. and now St Olave's, alerted afresh in recent years to its status at the resting place of the great man's mortal remains, is to play more of a part in honouring "the father of English botany" by arranging for its new herb beds to contain plants mentioned in Turner's writings and installing an information panel in the churchyard.

The Turner story continues with Peter, who is also buried in the church, but that is for another day.

A corner of St Olave's, much liked by the poet John Betjeman as a true country churchyard "not done up as a garden of rest".

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