Ray was the son of the village blacksmith in Black Notley Essex, Roger Wray. His mother, Elizabeth, was known for her knowledge of medicinal herbs. You can read more about his early life here.
Following teaching at the University of Cambridge (1648-1660) and then travelling around Britain and Europe (1666-1670) Ray lived with his friend, collaborator and patron, Francis Willughby at Middleton Hall in Warwickshire. Willughby sadly died in 1672, but left an annuity for Ray, who stayed on at the house to educate his friend’s sons. While there, Ray fell for a member of the household, Margaret Oakley, whom he married in 1673. Margaret was only 19 and Ray 46.
In 1676 John and Margaret left Middleton Hall, settling at various places, before returning to Essex in 1677, first staying in Faulkbourne Hall, and then in 1679 returning to his home village of Black Notley, where he stayed for the rest of his life. They moved into Dewlands, a house in the village that he had built for his mother who had now passed away.
Margaret and John had 4 daughters, twins Margaret and Mary born in 1682, Catherine born in 1687 and Jane in 1689. Tragically Mary died in 1698.
Ray’s health declined in his last years but he carried on working for at least 2 hours a day. He died in 1705 and was buried in Black Notley churchyard. His grave is marked by an obelisk erected by the Bishop of London and other subscribers. Below is a translated extract from the inscription on his tomb.
Our Modern Sage dark Nature’s Secrets read:
From the tall Cedar to the hyssop’s bed:
From the unwieldiest Beast of land or deep,
To the least insect that has power to creep.
Nor did his artful labours only shew
Those plants which on earth’s wide surface grew,
But piercing ev’n her darkest entrails through,
All that was wise, all that was treat, he knew.