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Vol I No. 1
Feasts & Seasons

How Turkish was your Turkey? And how does your Turkey connect to the Prayer Book?

by William J. Martin

How Turkish was your Turkey?

And even more important, how does your Turkey connect to your Prayer Book?

(Be assured that it certainly does.)

A M-R

The modern day mass farmed turkey widely served in America at Thanksgiving (and very commonly in Britain on Christmas day where it has tended to supplant the goose) is not it seems a very direct descendant of the ‘small, bright- eyed’ turkeys that were probably served at the famous initial Thanksgiving meals initiated by English settlers in America in the 1620’s.

While this bird has become so closely identified with America that it was at one point almost made the national symbol in preference to the bald Eagle. (This was indeed the preference of no lesser figures than Benjamin Franklin and the celebrated artist John James Audubon.)

It has certainly made a remarkable peregrination around of the world as a species even if not formally as an economic migrant.  It is a close, if rather larger, relative of the pheasant, partridge and grouse which all belong to the family of Phasianidae

Its global career seems to have started out in Central America with the Aztecs of what is now Mexico who domesticated a wild turkey species which the conquering Spaniards then seized and brought for the first time to Spain and Europe. At the time, the Spanish also engaged in fairly extensive trade with the Muslim world, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Thus Turkeys soon made their way to Mecca and Constantinople.  And they were then shipped from Constantinople across northern Greece through the lower Danube Valley and to the various parts  of the Western Turkish empire. Even making it eventually into Austria and then Germany, whence they soon appeared in France and England.  Although as early as 1550, the English navigator and Yorkshireman (who first sailed with Sabastian Cabot, and was later to become a noted Puritan MP,  for Scarborough), William Strickland, evidently introduced  American turkeys into England in a more direct way. It was in reflection of this singular distinction that he was  granted an achievement of arms which included upon the shield a “turkey-cock in his pride proper” (While another early source referencing the Turkey from around that time is Shakespeare himself who used the word in Twelfth Night.)

As a result of the Turkey’s earlier peregrinations, many Europeans thought the birds originated in the East and specifically Turkey. But others supposed it to have come from even further east namely from  India (which belief gave rise to the word for it in French dinde,  индюшка (indyushka) literaly meaning “bird of India” in Russian, indyk in Polish.  While,   in what now seems something of an irony,  in Turkey itself the bird came also to be called a Hindi (literally “India”) though now it is apparently commonly called an “American bird.”

The first printed description and picture of the turkey evidently appeared in the middle of the 16th century. In a large four-volume work on natural history by the German-Swiss scholar, Konrad Gesner, who stated (in Latin) that the bird was known as the “India or Calcutta fowl.”

But what of the Prayer Book Connection ?

Here attention must return to William Strickland who bore the image of the Turkey so proudly upon his armorial bearings

While his earlier career in Parliament went largely unnoticed he came to significant prominence in the parliament that first met in 1571. On this occasion the Puritan faction was stronger than previously. And so it was that Strickland  found himself at the centre of the constitutional crisis, pertaining to one of Parliament’s earliest assertions of its privilege to conduct its proceedings without royal interference.

Strickland spoke on both of the first two days of the session, 6 April 1571 and 7 April 1571; and on the second occasion he put forward a motion to reintroduce six bills to reform the Book of Common Prayer, which had been defeated in the previous parliament; the Speaker allowed the bills to be read, but the Queen had previously directed that Parliament should not debate such matters and the episode therefore led to a royal rebuke of the House.

Then, on the last day before the Easter recess on 14 April 1571, Strickland introduced his own bill to reform (as he saw it) the prayer book – which among other things proposed to

  • abolish confirmation,
  • disallow priests from wearing vestments and
  • end the practice of kneeling at the Communion.

The bill was given a first reading against the vigorous opposition of the Privy Counsellors present, but after further argument, the House voted to petition the Queen for permission to continue discussing the bill before any further action was taken, and the House adjourned.

Strickland was then summoned before the Privy Council, (though sources differ as to whether he was imprisoned or threatened with torture); and  he was evidently forbidden to retake his seat in the Commons. When the House reassembled, one member reported that the Catholics believed he was on trial for his life on heresy charges; but Sir Francis Knollys assured members that he was “neither detained or abused”.

It was at this point the members of the House deemed it to be unacceptable that an MP should be prevented from attending except by order of the House itself. Nearly a whole day’s proceedings were occupied by a rancorous debate as both moderate members as well as Strickland’s Puritan allies demanded that he should be sent for and heard at the bar of the house.

Under this pressure the privy counsellors “whispered together”, and the following day Strickland re-appeared triumphantly and, in a perhaps eccentric gesture of joy members of the House “did, in witness of their joy for the restoration of one of their … members … nominate him [to a] committee”. While not re-elected immediately following the dissolution of the parliament in 1572, Strickland was returned once more as MP for Scarborough in 1584 but seems to have enjoyed no further prominence on account of his wish to revise the Prayer Book or indeed import more Turkeys……