HISTORY

The plain doorway marked 9 Cathedral Green
Through the plain doorway marked 9 Cathedral Green, you step into one of the most ancient and secret gardens in Wells

There has been a garden here for more than 850 years, ever since Ivo the first Dean of Wells was appointed in the 1130s, and provided with a house. The Deanery grew into a substantial residence, with a splendid north wing added by Dean John Gunthorpe in the 1400s.

The Deanery was once surrounded by extensive grounds, now much reduced. The present garden includes what was probably the Dean's walled privy (private) garden, with access only from the house.

This garden is most famously associated with Dr William Turner, Dean of Wells in the 1550s and 1560s. William Turner was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings, the son of a tanner in Morpeth, Northumberland. He studied at Cambridge, and was caught up in the religious turbulence of the English Reformation. Always a controversial figure, he wrote provocative theological pamphlets in favour of the new, Protestant church. He published his first botanical book, Libellus de Re Herbaria (Little Book of Plants) in 1538, and travelled in Europe, studying botany and medicine at universities in Italy. Later he became physician and chaplain to the Duke of Somerset, Regent to the young King Edward VI, mixing with leading statesmen and churchmen of the day. He was made Dean of Wells in 1551. During the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-1558), when his books were banned as heretical, William Turner was ejected from his Deanery and travelled abroad. Queen Elizabeth I subsequently restored him to Wells.

A New Herball
A New Herball

Throughout the ups and downs of his life he pursued his interest in botany, studying, describing and classifying plants. His second botanical book, The Names of Herbes, appeared in 1548, followed by his major work, A New Herball, published in three parts between 1551 and 1568, the year of his death. In this book, the earliest herbal written in English, he lists 238 native species, as well as plants he had seen abroad. He attempts to analyse plants scientifically, and describes their appearance, habit and the localities where they grow, together with their medicinal and other uses. Turner deliberately wrote in English to enable ordinary people, and apothecaries whose Latin was poor, to identify and use plants safely.

Turner sought out plants in Somerset, and on his travels in England and abroad. He describes plants in the Duke of Somerset's gardens at Syon Park in London, where he is said to have planted the mulberry trees still flourishing there. He saw meadow saffron "growe in the west cuntre besyde Bathe" and wrote that "I have sene flax or lynt growyng wilde in Sommerset shyre wythin a myle of Welles". He gives an early description of the famous Glastonbury Thorn: "about six myles from Welles, in ye parke of G[l]assenberry there is an hawthorne which is grene all the wynter, as all they that dwell there about do stedfastly holde". One has now been planted in this garden. He refers to "my garden at Wellis"; he also made gardens at Cologne and elsewhere in Germany when in exile, and at his house in Crutched Friars in London.

The earliest plan of the garden (1735)
The earliest plan of the garden is a picture-map drawn by William Simes in 1735

The term 'herbs' had a much wider meaning in the 1500s than just the culinary and aromatic plants we call herbs today. To Turner, 'herbs' meant all plants useful to man, from the silver birch "greatly feerfull to many, because the offyceres make roddes of it", to seaweed. Specialised garden plants were only just being developed, and the distinction between these, wild flowers and what we today call weeds was much less precise than now. Plants were valuable as medicines, as food, for dyeing fabrics and many other purposes. Turner, being a doctor, was most interested in the medicinal uses of plants. Wild cresses were also called sciatica cresses "because the herbe is good for the sciatica", and mulberry leaves were useful for treating burns. He experimented: bog-myrtle "is tried by experience that it is good to be put in beare [beer], both [by] me and by diverse other in Summersetshyre". As for the wild strawberry, "Every man knoweth wel inough where strawberies grow". Many of Turner’s English plant names are charming: larkspur is "Larkys hele", and wild pansy is "Two faces in a hood". Some plant names have religious overtones. Wood-sorrel is called "Alleluya, because it appereth about Easter when Alleluya is song agayn", and Solomon's-seal "is called in English scala celi (stairway to heaven)".

The revival of the Old Deanery Garden has been taken up by a group of local volunteers. The aim is not to reconstruct the garden of William Turner's time, because there is no evidence of what that looked like. Instead, it includes plants Turner mentioned in his writings.

THE GARDEN TODAY >>