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The Life and Works of Nicholas Culpeper (The People’s Herbalist)

Brian lives with his wife, Valerie, in the beautiful coastal town of Troon. He writes to educate, entertain, inform and amuse.

Nicholas Culpeper is still referred to as 'the people's herbalist.'

Nicholas Culpeper is still referred to as 'the people's herbalist.'

Nicholas Culpeper was an English apothecary, astrologer, botanist, herbalist, and physician. Born in Ockley, Surrey on Tuesday the 18th of October 1616, he died from Tuberculosis at the age of 37 in Spitalfields, London on Saturday the 10th of January in 1654. He is buried in New Churchyard, Bethlem, London, which was used for burials from 1570 until 1739. He is remembered to this day as ‘the people’s herbalist.’

Contents

  • Early Life
  • Apprenticeship
  • Vocation
  • Publications
  • Death
Culpeper

Culpeper

Early Life

Residing in Ockley Manor, the Culpepers were a family with aristocratic origins that also owned land. 19 days before his birth, Culpeper’s father, the Reverend Nicholas Culpeper of aristocratic lineage, died suddenly. In memory of her husband, his wife Mary named her only son Nicholas.

After the funeral, Mary returned to her own family’s home in Isfield, Sussex to live with her father the Reverend William Attersoll, the rector of St Margaret’s Church. Attersoll, a strict and stern man, is said to have had no great fondness for children but did consider it his duty to teach his grandson astronomy, the classics, Greek, Latin, and mathematics.

Young Culpeper became interested in local plants and herbs, known traditionally as ‘simples,’ and their medicinal uses by herbalists. He was greatly influenced by the English physician, herbalist, and ornithologist William Turner and studied his book Herbal, which was the first on the subject to be written in English rather than Latin.

Apprenticeship

At the ages of 16, Attersoll arranged for Nicholas to study theology at Cambridge University. He quickly lost interest in this subject and instead chose to read Galen (a Roman philosopher, physician, and surgeon) and Hippocrates (the Greek physician). He also began to attend anatomy lectures.

During this period, he fell in love with his childhood friend Judith Rivers, daughter and heiress of politician Sir John Shurley the baronet of Isfield. Knowing that their relationship would never be approved by her family, they decided to elope to the Netherlands. It is said, although unsubstantiated, that while heading to Lewes in Sussex, Judith’s horse and carriage were struck by lightning and she was killed.

Heartbroken, Culpeper left Cambridge, which resulted in him being disowned by his grandfather, who, before severing all ties with Culpeper, arranged for him to begin a seven-year apprenticeship to the Master Apothecary Daniel White of Temple Bar, London. Not long afterward, White’s practice failed, and he fled to Ireland, taking all of Culpeper’s money and leaving him homeless and in poverty with no practising licence as an apothecary or physician.

He quickly found a new teacher, Francis Drake of Threadneedle Street, London, who, instead of taking money from him for his apprenticeship, asked Culpeper to teach him Latin. Sadly, Drake died within two years, leaving Culpeper (along with fellow apprentice and friend Samuel Leadbetter) once again without a teacher. Soon, they were both taken on by the Apothecary Stephen Higgins, but Culpeper left shortly afterward.

Nicholas Culpeper

Nicholas Culpeper

Vocation

In 1640, at the age of 24, Culpeper married heiress Alice Field. Using part of her fortune, he bought a house on Red Lion Street in Spitalfields, just outside the city walls of London, from which he set up his practice.

Not long afterward, a patient of Culpeper’s, Sarah Lyne, reported him to the Society of Apothecaries because she said she showed no signs of getting better and had begun to waste away. Because of her accusations, he was imprisoned while awaiting trial.

Culpeper was accused of witchcraft, not uncommon in 1642 during the early months of the English Civil War, but in his case, the charge was given weight because he was known to practice astrology as well as herbal medicine, both of which counted against him. Later, after being tried before a jury who recognised the charges as being groundless accusations, he was acquitted.

In August 1643, he joined the Parliamentarians, who asked him if he would be a field surgeon at the Battle of Newbury. He carried out surgery at the battle until he was shot in the chest sustaining a serious wound and was returned to London.

Culpeper then joined up with his old friend Samuel Leadbetter who had taken over a shop on Threadneedle Street and made an agreement that allowed him to use the premises as a surgery and for the preparation of medicines. Unfortunately, by January 1644, the College of Apothecaries ‘ordered and warned’ Leadbetter to ‘put away Nicholas Culpeper.’ Fearing for his future career, Leadbetter agreed, and by this act, their long-term friendship ended.

Returning to Spitalfields, Culpeper established a popular practice where he treated many poor patients, charging very little or nothing for his services. He had deliberately chosen this location, as it was outside the seven-mile radius of the City of London, within which, under the 16th-century Physicians and Surgeons Act, was the only area that medicine and surgery could be carried out with the approval of the Bishop of London or the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Culpeper went on to spend the rest of his life helping the sick, the poor, and the powerless and fighting the establishment to bring medicine and medical treatment to all.

Publications

When the English Civil War ended, Culpeper, who for many years had wanted to bring medical knowledge to the layperson rather than just the privileged few, translated from Latin to English the handbook of the College of Physicians, Pharmacopoeia Londoninensis, and published it in 1649 under the title The Physical Directory or Translation of the London Dispensary. Among the information in the book were many recipes for herbal remedies.

This lead to an insulting and scornful response from the College in which they published A Farm in Spittlefields Where All Knick-Knacks of Astrology Are Exposed to Open Sale. Far from being intimidated or deterred, in 1651, he published A Directory for Midwives, in which he complained about the lack of education and training available to midwives.

Culpeper went on to publish his finest work in 1653 —The English Physician—which is now known as Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and has never been out of print since. Costing three old pennies, The English Physician provided a comprehensive list of medicinal herbs indexed to a list of illnesses using an astrological approach.

"The Complete Herbal" by Nicholas Culpeper

"The Complete Herbal" by Nicholas Culpeper

Death

Having never fully recovered from the serious injuries he sustained by the musket-shot wound to his chest, Culpeper died from Tuberculosis at the age of 37 in Spitalfields, London, on Saturday the 10th of January in 1654. His wife, Alice, later married the astrologer John Heydon in 1656.

Note

If anyone identifies any obvious errors or omissions please contact me. I would especially like to know if there is any documented evidence written around the time confirming that his future wife, Judith, died after being struck by lightning.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Brian OldWolf

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