William Turner: Anna Pavord pays tribute to a hero for any age

Born 500 years ago, William Turner survived religious persecution and countless runs of bad fortune to produce the first plant book tobe written in English.
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My star of the year is William Turner. Who he? Yes. That's his problem. Last year, a lot of fuss was made about the tercentenary of the Swedish plantsman Carl Linnaeus. Not a peep has been heard this year about dear William Turner, born 500 years ago in Northumberland and the author of the first plant book ever to be written in English. The exact date of his birth isn't known, which is why I've left it until the last days of the year to light a commemorative candle and celebrate his name.

From Morpeth, where he was born in 1508, Turner went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge where a contemporary described him as "hot headed and much addicted to the opinions of Luther". That was his problem. He was a staunch Protestant at a time when it was more politic to be Catholic. Much of his life was spent wandering in exile on the Continent where he studied under the greatest plantsmen of the age: Luca Ghini at Bologna and Antonio Musa Brasavola at Ferrara. Continuing on to East Friesland (what is now northern Germany) he had a disastrous experience with opium: "If I had not taken in a pece of the roote of masterwurt with wyne, I thynck that it wold have kylled me." By the time he returned to England he could boast (though he didn't) that no other Englishman had seen so many different plants growing in so many different places in Europe.

Turner had hoped that his return to his native land would mark the beginning of a more settled life, with plenty of time to devote to his major work, The Herball. For his research, he went to the West Country, "moste richely replenished wyth al kindes of straunge and wonderfull workes & giftes of nature" and on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, saw for the first time the wild gladdon, "a litle flour delice growing wylde". Around Bath there was Middow Saffron and close to Chard he found a new orchid, 'Autumn Lady's Tresses'.

Anxiously, Turner tried to get the kind of place in the Church of England that he felt he now deserved. His children, he says "have bene fed so long with hope that they ar very leane. I wold fayne have them fatter if it were possible". Despite the poverty, the children, the lack of anywhere to lay his books, Turner managed in 1551 to deliver the first part of his Herball to his London printer, Steven Mierdman. Stitched through it are memories of the plants of his Northumbrian home, like the bluebell: "The boyes in Northumberlande scrape the roote of the herbe," he wrote "and glew theyr arrowes and bokes wyth that slyme".

That book was written, not in Latin, as most plant books were, but in English; Turner hoped that by this means he could spread his knowledge to the widest possible public. But his aim, so in keeping with his fight for a fairer, more equitable society, did not have the effect that he had hoped. Of the three million people living in Britain at the time, perhaps half a million could read. But anyone who could read, read Latin as easily as they read English. And the fact that Turner's most important book was written in English meant that it never found an audience on the Continent, where Latin was the universal language.

He was also unlucky in his timing. Edward VI died before Turner had a chance to settle into his living at Wells and concentrate on the second instalment of his great enterprise. In 1553, after only six years on the throne, Edward was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister Mary – "Bloody Mary", as she became known – so once again, Turner found himself on the wrong side of the religious divide and had to leave England in a hurry. Mary's accession meant that, for a second time, all Turner's books were banned in England, which greatly diminished his chances of finding an audience.

Turner's trenchant views kept him out of the country until Mary's death in 1558 when, after a protracted court case, he was at last able to possess his deanery at Wells. But the rest of his great Herball was published, not in London by Mierdman, who like Turner had been forced to leave England when Mary came to the throne (and had not returned), but by Arnold Birckman in Cologne. Here was another piece of bad luck. For reasons completely beyond his control, the printer of the first part of the Herball was not able to continue with the rest of it. But publishing in Germany a book written in English severely compromised its chances of success: few on the Continent could read it; few in England could get hold of it.

But the Herball was a great landmark, providing for the first time, recognisable descriptions of 238 British native plants and their natural habitats: the water lilies that favoured "standyng waters", the yellow-horned poppy most likely to be seen in "places by the sea syde". Perhaps Turner felt a kind of patriotic pride in abandoning Latin for English. Perhaps he wanted to make English the language of scientific discourse. Perhaps he felt that if enough important books were published in English, scholars in other countries would have no option but to learn the language. It happened in the end. But Turner was ahead of his time. Produced in a foreign country in a foreign tongue, his books were never translated.

No portrait of Turner exists, no plant was ever named after him. But after his death in July 1568, his widow, Jane, put up a memorial to him in his parish church, St Olave's, Hart Street, in the City of London. On a hot day this summer (there were one or two), I made my way through the crowds of commuters spilling out of Fenchurch Street station, with a small bunch of West Country flowers for Turner. Sadly it did not include the thorow-wax he had admired in fields between Somerton and Martock in Somerset. Once widespread in the arable land of the West Country, it is now extinct in the wild. Turner's parish church, St Olave's, just along the street from his house at Crutched Friars, was founded in the 11th century. The present building, which dates from 1450, is the third one on the site and was badly damaged in the Blitz of April 1941. Miraculously, the memorials inside survived and a board by the church entrance notes the most significant of them: Sir James Deane (1608), merchant adventurer, Samuel Pepys (1669), diarist, Sir Andrew Riccard (1672) Chairman of the East India Company ... There is no mention of William Turner.

Inside, Pepys and Riccard face each other across the chancel, both extravagantly commemorated in stone. On the south wall is the brightly painted bust of Peter Capponi, an exiled Florentine "of ancient lineage" who died of the plague in 1582. Unexpectedly, someone was playing a Schubert sonata and, tiptoeing round the grand piano set in front of the altar, I finally found Turner, completely overshadowed by Deane, the merchant adventurer who is commemorated in a huge showy memorial.

As befits a man who railed against the extravagant vestments of 16th-century clerics, Turner's memorial is a very plain, small rectangle of creamy marble, bordered in black, like a Victorian mourning card. In densely lettered Latin, the inscription stresses Turner's piety, and marks how he "fought against the enemies of the Church and the Commonwealth, chiefly the Roman Antichrist". There is no mention of his Herball, the first original work on plants ever written by an Englishman.

Unlucky Turner. Too soon after he finally found himself in the right place at the right time, he died. And, like so many pioneers, he died before the worth of what he was doing was recognised. His patient synthesising of plant names – Greek, Latin, English, French, German, Italian – banished much of the muddle that was bound to exist when common names were the only common currency. He stitched England into the plant-map of Europe. His name ought to be on that board at St Olave's.