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Tradescant, John (I)

1. Dates
Born: probably Suffolk, c.1570. Early sources say he was born in the Netherlands. Allan says London. The first documentary record of him is his marriage in 1607.
Died: South Lambeth, Surrey, 15/16 April 1638
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 68
2. Father
Occupation: Unknown
His name was probably Thomas Tradescant. Allan calls him a husbandman, but her evidence is most exiguous.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
The evidence indicates that he did not have a classical education and thus could not have attended grammar school, let along university.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Tradescant was steadfastly orthodox in his religious connections.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural History, Botany
The two John Tradescants, father and son, were skilled gardeners with minimal claims to be considered scientists. However, the elder John Tradescant collected everything curious in natural history--minerals, birds, fish, insects, as well as coins, medals, and miscellaneous curiosities. Plantarum in horto Johannum Tradescanti nasentium catalogus, 1634. As gardeners, he and his son introduced a number of new plants into England.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Miscellaneous, Patronage
Secondary: Military, Merchant
I find it difficult to categorize him. I have put in Miscellaneous for gardener. I could with justice list him as an artisan; his son became a member of the Gardeners Company. As gardener to a series of high aristocrats and the Queen, his support (including details of his salary, which was high, and various favors) verges into patronage. I find it impossible to see a difference in his patrons' use of his talents to project an image of magnificence and their collections of paintings for the same purpose.
There is some evidence that he was gardener to William Brooks at Cobham Hall before 1600. Certainly he had established his reputation as a gardener by 1610 when Salisbury began to employ him.
Gardener to the Earl of Salisbury, 1610-14, (mostly at Hatfield, but also at Cranborne in Dorset and at Salisbury House in London) with the high salary of £50. If the salary sounds like ordinary employment, the additional gifts, such as £100 in 1612, sound like patronage. This was Tradescant's first documented employment. Salisbury sent him on expeditions to the continent to purchase vines, trees, plants, and flowers for Hatfield House. Salisbury (Robert Cecil) died in 1612; Tradescant continued with the heir until 1614-15.
Gardener to Edward Lord Wotton at Canterbury in Kent, c.1615-23. During this time he joined Sir Dudley Digges' embassy to Russia as a botanist, and brought home some plants. In 1620 he joined an expedition against the Barbary corsairs.
Gardener to the Duke of Buckingham, c.1624-8. He accompanied Buckingham's expedition to La Rochelle in 1628. Buckingham arranged for Tradescant to hold the sinecure of yeoman garnetter at the Whitehalff granary (which I categorize as patronage).
By the time of Buckingham's assassination, Trandescant had acquired enough to be financially independent. He set up a garden and museum (called the Ark) in South Lambeth, 1628. This was run as a commercial enterprise, with a fee to enter. It appears that he also ran the garden as a commerical nursery.
Gardener to Queen Henrietta Maria with a salary of £100 (very high for a gardener), 1630 until his death. He continued to operate his own establishment in South Lambeth, and there is some evidence that he functioned as a consultant on gardens to various aristocrats associated with the court.
He was appointed keeper of the new physic garden at Oxford in 1637 (£50), and held the position until his death. I include this under the category of Miscellaneous (for gardener).
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Court Official
The Earl of Salisbury. Lord Wotton. The Duke of Buckingham.
The King and the Queen.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Agriculture
He introduced some new species into England.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: He set up the first botanical garden and museum in England and attracted many naturalists and botanists. Connection with the French gardeners, Jean and Vespasien Robin and René Morin.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 19, 1070-2. William Watson, "Some Account of the Remains of John Tradescant's Garden at Lambeth," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 46 (1752), 160-1.
  2. Edward F. Rimbault, "Family of the Tradescants," Notes and Queries, 3 (1851), 353-5.
  3. S.W. Singer, "Tradescants and E. Ashmole," Notes and Queries 5 (1852), 367-8, 385-7.
  4. Richard Pulteney, Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England, (London 1790), 1, 175-9.
  5. Mea Allan, The Tradescants: Their Plants, Garden and Museum 1570- 1662, (London, 1964). Don't waste your time--romantic vaporings.
  6. Prudence Leith-Ross, The John Tradescants: Gardeners to the Rose and Lily Queen, (London, 1984). Much the best source that I have found.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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