Early life and education
John Tradescant the Younger was born on 4 August 1608 in Meopham, Kent, at the home of his grandparents. The son of John Tradescant the Elder, also a botanist and gardener, and his wife, Elizabeth née Day, he was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury. Tradescant married Jane Hurte in February 1628 and they had two children: Frances (b. 1628) and John (b. 1633). His wife died fairly soon after their son was born, in 1635.
Tradescant followed his father into a career in gardening and botany, and the father-son pair worked closely together in managing the family home in Lambeth, Turret House, also called The Ark. Also known as filled the Museum Tradescantianum, it was filled with curiosities, including birds, fish, shells, insects, minerals, coins, medals and unusual plants, mostly collected by John Tradescant the Elder, but with a few contributions from the son. The author abbreviation Trad. is applied to species associated with either him or his father.
Tradescant’s early career is difficult to trace, as many of the records of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners have been destroyed. However, in 1634 he became Freeman of the Company. Three years later, Tradescant made the first of his recorded visits to the Americas – namely, Virginia – to collect plant specimens. The visit was likely at the instigation of King Charles I, and Tradescant brought back plants such as columbine, jasmine, cypress, and the Yukka plant.
Tradescant returned to Britain from this trip shortly after the death of his father in 1683, and he was appointed to his father’s former position as gardener at the royal palace of Oatlands, beloved by Queen Henrietta Maria of France, “the rose and lily queen”, at the same time as taking over sole responsibility for the garden at Lambeth. He married his second wife, Hester née Pooks in 1638 in St-Mary-at-Lambeth.
The Ark, where the Tradescants lived, was the first museum in Britain to be open to the public. Entrance was the price of a sixpence, meaning anybody, not just wealthy people, could visit The Ark. Objects were able to be handled as well as observed, meaning many were damaged, such as a stuffed Dodo. There was a great interest at the time in collecting and “curiosity”, such as cabinets of curiosities.
In 1642, on the eve of the Civil War, Tradescant again travelled to Virginia for a short period, returning with further botanical samples. He continued his duties as gardener at Oatlands, likely until its sale for demolition in 1650, and around that same time considered selling the collection from The Ark. However, this did not come to pass. Tradescant returned to Virginia for a third and final time in 1653–4.
Later career and death Tradescant published the 183-page Museum Tradescantianum catalogue in 1656, prompted (and funded) by Elias Ashmole. It was the first museum catalogue to appear in England, and much of it was written by either Ashmole or Thomas Wharton, a renowned physician and anatomist, and the text itself was dedicated to the President and Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians. It is likely that there had been discussions about the College establishing a physic garden, founded in part on the medicinal plants in the Tradescant collection, but this also never came to pass.
In 1659, Tradescant began to consider who would have the collection after he died, as his only son, John, had died in 1652 at age 19, drawing up a deed of gift to leave the collection to Ashmole. This transfer was not entirely straightforward. It is likely the collection was taken more so than given, after Ashmole had falsely claimed that he would allow Hester to also own the museum if the deed was signed. Tradescant drew up two separate wills following the deed of gift. The first bequeathed the collection to the King; the second to either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, at the discretion of his wife, as executor.
These documents were only produced after Tradescant’s death at Lambeth on 22 April 1662. Shortly after Tradescant’s death, Ashmole took the widowed Hester to court. The case was brought before the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, in May 1664, who found in favour of Ashmole. The property remained in Hester’s possession, however, and she and Ashmole seemed to have found a compromise, until in 1674 he bought the property next to The Ark, and she accused him of harassment. Eventually, Hester had Ashmole take some of the collection into his own property, and upon her death on 4 April 1678 (by drowning in the garden pond), Ashmole took possession of the remainder.
A few years later, in 1683, Ashmole used the Tradescant collection as part of the basis of the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, under the curatorship of Robert Plot. The Ashmolean, like The Ark, was open to all, and in essence this outcome produced the same effect as Tradescant’s second will might have, if the collection had been granted to the University in 1662.
Tradescant is buried beside his father in churchyard at St-Mary-at-Lambeth, now the location of the Garden Museum.
Allen, Thomas. The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Lambeth, and the Archiepiscopal Palace, in the County of Surrey. 1827.
Leith-Ross, Prudence. The John Tradescants: gardeners to the rose and lily queen. 1984 (2006).
MacGregor, Arthur. ‘Tradescant, John, the elder (d. 1638)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2007. Accessed 12/2/22. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/27654
MacGregor, Arthur. ‘Tradescant, John, the younger (bap. 1608, d. 1662)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2008. Accessed 12/2/22. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/27655
‘The Collectors: Tradescants’. British Archaeology at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Accessed 12/2/22. https://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/collections/tradescant.html
‘Turret House, Lambeth, by John Crowther (1837-1902)’. London Picture Archive. Accessed 12/2/22. https://www.londonpicturearchive.org.uk/view-item?i=26909&WINID=1644672707130