One Paragraph Overview

In the 1620s a most peculiar building was developed at Lambeth near the city of London. Termed ‘the Ark’ in imitation of Noah’s Ark, the building was an early seed and plant nursery. It was developed originally by John Tradescant the Elder and included plant specimens from all over Europe and North America. Tradescant included grape varietals here.

These were later described by Tradescant in his book, Plantarum in Horto, published in 1634. However, much the more detailed description of the vines at Lambeth comes from John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629). ‘The Ark’ was continued by Tradescant’s son, John Tradescant the Younger. It later formed the basis for part of the establishment of the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. 

Introduction: Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris

In 1629 one of the last great texts written by an English herbalist appeared in print in London. Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris was written by John Parkinson, an apothecary to King Charles I of England and before that to his father, King James I. The Paradisi was a wide-ranging study of hundreds of different plants and herbs and how to cultivate them. In it Parkinson included a somewhat unusual section. This dealt with grape varietals and specifically grapes which were being cultivated in England at that time. 

Saving you a google search – Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris transliterates as ‘The Paradise of the Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise’

Parkinson based much of his information on grapes and vineyards off of a visit to a large plant nursery at Lambeth near London. This lay across the River Thames from the seat of government at Westminster and upriver from London. The nursery here was developed by John Tradescant the Elder, a friend and colleague of Parkinson’s. So who was this John Tradescant the Elder and why (and indeed how) was he cultivating vineyards in England in what was otherwise known as the ‘Little Ice Age’?[1]

A plate image of the grape vines at John Tradescant the Elder’s ‘Ark’ at Lambeth, as presented in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris

A plate image of the grape vines at John Tradescant the Elder’s ‘Ark’ at Lambeth, as presented in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris | Source

John Tradescant the Elder

John Tradescant the Elder was born in Suffolk in England around 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I. This was a period of wide-ranging intellectual inquiry in England. For instance, John Dee was a major advocate of English overseas colonization, but this also fed into his interest in things like mysticism, orientalism, astrology and the occult. Sir Walter Raleigh is best remembered today as a colonial pioneer and for his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. Yet he was also an alchemist and proto-scientist. All of this was tied into the ‘projecting’ movement of early modern England.

Digging Deeper: The Tradescants were part of a wider scientific phenomenon which was occurring in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was the the ‘projecting’ movement. It combined early elements of the Scientific Revolution and precursors to the Industrial Revolution in so far as people like the Tradescants were tentatively reaching towards more scientific approaches to economic activity.

Examples of this included more systematic mapping of large landed estates in order to maximize agricultural capacity, as well as the cultivation of new cash crops. The idea of all of this was to begin scientifically studying crops, mechanical processes and ways of exploiting the natural environment in order to improve economic activity and generate further profits.[2]

Tradescant falls into this spirit of inventive curiosity. His particular area of interest was horticulture, botany and gardens. By around 1610 he acquired a position with the leading English politician of the day, Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury. This overseeing Cecil’s gardens and orchards at his great country estate, Hatfield House. It was Cecil who financed Tradescant to head overseas to study plants throughout the 1610s.

John’s travels took him to parts of the world few Europeans had ever travelled to. For instance, in the late 1610s he spent time in Russia inside the Arctic Circle at Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery. However, his investigations into grapes and vineyards primarily occurred in Western Europe while in France and Italy. He also corresponded with individuals in the burgeoning English colony of Virginia about attempts at cultivating grapes there in the 1620s. Finally, Tradescant spent time in the early 1620s in North Africa.[3]

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638 | Source

Plantarum in Horto

In the 1620s Tradescant found new patrons after Salisbury’s death. One was the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, the most powerful aristocrat in early Stuart England. From there he entered royal service, being made ‘Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms’ in 1630.

It was in his capacity as a royal botanist that Tradescant established his nursery at Lambeth near Westminster and London. He termed it ‘the Ark’ echoing Noah’s Ark. Here he grew all manner of plants from seeds and specimens he had collected over the years in his travels. Grape varietals were included.

These were described by Tradescant in 1634 in his own book entitled Plantarum in Horto. This was a listing of all the plants growing in his nursery at Lambeth. Some of these came from Virginia, others from Europe. Parkinson provided the following description of the uses to which his friend Tradescant’s grapes could be put:

“Wine is usually taken both for drinke and for medicine, and is often put into sawces, broths, cawdles and gellies that are given to the sicke.  Also into divers Physicall drinkes to be as a vehiculum for the properties of the ingredients. The greene leaves of the Vine are cooling and binding, and therefore good to put among other herbes that make gargles and lotions for sore mouths.  And also to put into the broths and drinke of those that have hot burning feavers, or any other inflammation.”[4]

Curiously, Parkinson’s Paradisi is more informative than Tradescant’s Plantarum when it comes to the vineyards and grape varietals being cultivated at ‘the Ark’. He even included plate images of drawings of the vines at Lambeth.[5]

More broadly, Parkinson included a list of different grape varietals which he was aware of based on his knowledge of Tradescant’s ‘Ark’ and his own wider research. This included basic and rather unscientific types like ‘Little black grape’ and ‘Greek wine grape’. However, Parkinson also listed ‘Rhenish’, ‘Muscadine’, ‘Claret’, ‘Bursarobe’, ‘Alligant’, ‘Teint’ and ‘Frontignack’. This indicates a growing appreciation in Stuart England of the wider botany of the grape.[6]

John Tradescant the Younger

John Tradescant the Elder died in 1638. He was succeeded in his position as ‘Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms’ by his namesake. This second John Tradescant is termed John Tradescant the Younger to distinguish him from his father. Tradescant the Younger also took over his father’s work at ‘the Ark’ at Lambeth following his father’s passing.

John also followed in his father’s footsteps by undertaking extensive travels overseas to collect seeds and specimens of various plants. For instance, he headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Virginia in the mid-1630s and appears to have brought back some grapevine cuttings from there.

Tradescant’s work was profoundly interrupted in the 1640s as the English Civil Wars and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms wracked Britain and Ireland. He returned to his work though in the 1650s. He died in 1662. But long before this, in 1656, he provided a further account of the contents of the ‘Ark’ in his catalogue Musaeum Tradescantium.[7]

Musaeum Tradescantianum and the Ashmolean Museum

In Musaeum Tradescantianum Tradescant the Younger included details of new grape varietals that had been added to the ‘Ark’ since his father’s time. Many of these had evidently come from Virginia. For instance, the listing included Vitis vinifera sylvestris Virginiana (‘Virginia wild wine’) and Vitis vulpine Virginiana (‘Fox-Grape from Virginia’). What all of this amounts to is clear evidence that the Tradescants had developed one of the most significant grapevine nurseries in the world at the time.[8]

The Musaeum Tradescantianum, as Tradescant the Younger, had reframed the ‘Ark’ had a longer life after his passing. The collection passed into the ownership of Elias Ashmole following Tradescant’s death in the early 1660s. Ashmole was a wealthy collector and political figure. He financed the erection of a museum as an annex of the University of Oxford in the late 1670s. As a result, the Tradescant botanical collection, including the grape seeds, cuttings and studies on viticulture, became part of the foundational collection of the Ashmolean Museum.[9]

Did you know? – In the center of Oxford today right in the midst of the university, the Ashmolean Museum is one of the most significant museums in the world. It was the first ever public museum in Europe. For a time in the eighteenth century it even had a stuffed version of one of the last Dodos from before it went extinct

Further Reading:

Alex Keller, ‘The Age of the Projectors’, in History Today, Vol. 16, No. 7 (July, 1966).

Arthur McGregor (ed.), Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1983).

Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1978).

On this Day

16 April 1638 – On in this day in 1638 John Tradescant the Elder died in England. Tradescant was a botanist, naturalist and gardener. For the last decade of his life he had held the position of ‘Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms’.

In this capacity he developed what he termed his ‘Ark’ at Lambeth outside London and across the River Thames from Westminster. Tradescant named this after Noah’s Ark. Here he cultivated hundreds and then thousands of plant specimens which he had gathered seeds and cuttings of during his extensive travels around Europe in the 1610s and 1620s.

Some of these specimens were grape varietals and vines. These were subsequently described by John Parkinson, a herbalist, in his book Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris published in 1629. Five years later Tradescant described them himself in his own book Plantarum in Horto. Parkinson’s volume included drawings of the grapes at the ‘Ark’ in Lambeth and descriptions of the uses to which such vines could be put, including wine production.[10]

22 April 1662 – On this day in 1662 John Tradescant the Younger died in England. Tradescant was the son of John Tradescant the Elder. His father had established England’s first great plant and seed nursery at Lambeth near London in the 1620s. This included grape vines and cuttings from various parts of Europe.

John the Younger took over the role from his father in the late 1630s. He brought new elements to the collection, notably grape varietals from Virginia where Tradescant the Younger had visited in the mid-1630s. He also provided a catalogue of the ‘Ark’ in the mid-1650s entitled Musaeum Tradescantianium, which listed the grape varietals.

Many figures between the 1620s and the 1650s used the Tradescant collection to study grape cultivation and viticulture in Stuart England. The Musaeum subsequently passed into the possession of Elias Ashmole in the 1660s. Ashmole was a wealthy political figure and species of early modern philanthropist.

In the late 1670s he financed the establishment of the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. There the Tradescant grapevines and cuttings and their studies of the same formed part of the foundation collection.[11]

References

[1] https://plantingdiaries.com/2021/10/30/john-parkinsons-autumn-fruits/ [accessed 19/10/23]; Anna Parkinson, Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson – Herbalist to Charles I (London, 2007); John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, or A Garden of all sorts of pleasant Flowers which our English ayre will permit to be noursed up (London, 1629).

[2] Alex Keller, ‘The Age of the Projectors’, in History Today, Vol. 16, No. 7 (July, 1966); Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1978); Joan Thirsk, Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day (Oxford, 1997).

[3] Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (London, 1984); Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (London, 2006).

[4] https://plantingdiaries.com/2021/10/30/john-parkinsons-autumn-fruits/ [accessed 19/10/23].

[5] Prudence Leith-Ross, ‘Two Notes on the Tradescants’, in The Journal of Garden History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1984), pp. 157–161; https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/early-descriptions-of-the-vines-and-grapes-of-virginia-and-canada/ [accessed 19/10/23].

[6] https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/early-descriptions-of-the-vines-and-grapes-of-virginia-and-canada/ [accessed 19/10/23].

[7] Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (London, 1984); Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (London, 2006).

[8] https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/early-descriptions-of-the-vines-and-grapes-of-virginia-and-canada/ [accessed 19/10/23].

[9] Arthur McGregor (ed.), Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1983); Prudence Leith-Ross, ‘Two Notes on the Tradescants’, in The Journal of Garden History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1984), pp. 157–161.

[10] https://plantingdiaries.com/2021/10/30/john-parkinsons-autumn-fruits/ [accessed 19/10/23]; Anna Parkinson, Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson – Herbalist to Charles I (London, 2007); John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Or A Garden of all sorts of pleasant Flowers which our English ayre will permit to be noursed up (London, 1629).

[11] Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen (London, 1984); Arthur McGregor (ed.), Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1983); Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (London, 2006); https://hogsheadwine.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/early-descriptions-of-the-vines-and-grapes-of-virginia-and-canada/ [accessed 19/10/23].

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Categories: 1501 CE to 1700 CE, Country Profiles, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: November 10, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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