The Return Of Nicholas Culpeper
Thanks in no small part to votes cast by readers of Spitalfields Life in the Tower Hamlets People’s Plaques Scheme and to my great delight, I cast my eyes up yesterday in Commercial St to discover a metal plaque for Nicholas Culpeper had appeared upon the building at the corner of Puma Court, close to the site of Red Lion House where Culpeper lived, ran his clinic, tended his herb garden and wrote his English Herbal in the seventeenth century.
Culpeper translated medical books into English from Latin so that people could diagnose themselves and he came to Spitalfields to be outside the jurisdiction of the College of Physicians. Through example, he was one of the first to propose that healthcare should be given free as a basic human right, treating local people without charge each day at his surgery in Red Lion House.
Red Lion House, Nicholas Culpeper’s home in Spitafields. Becoming the Red Lion Tavern after his death, the building was demolished in the eighteen-forties as part of road widening when Commercial St was cut through to carry traffic from the docks.
The plaque that was installed yesterday
By a strange piece of synchronicity, Spitalfields Organics stands upon the site of Red Lion House
“Culpeper’s house, of which there are woodcuts extant, it is of wood, and is situated the corner of Red Lion Court and Red Lion Street, Spitalfields. It is now and has long been a public house, known by the sign of the Red Lion, but at the time it was inhabited by the sage herbalist, it was independent of other buildings. While in the occupation of Culpeper, who died in 1654, this house stood in Red Lion Field and was as a dispensary of medicines (perhaps the first) of very considerable celebrity.” The European Magazine and London Review, January 1812. Red Lion St and Red Lion Court as shown on John Horwood’s map (1794-99) before Commercial St was cut through.
Sebastian Harding’s model of Nicholas Culpeper’s house in Spitalfields.
APPRECIATION OF CULPEPER BY PATRICIA CLEVELAND-PECK, Gardener & Writer
No Spitalfields resident deserves recognition better than the seventeenth century Physician, Herbalist and Astrologer, Nicholas Culpeper.
He first came here because, as an unlicensed medical practitioner, St Mary Spital was beyond the City walls and thus not under the jurisdiction of both the College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. Neither had any liking for the young upstart who treated poor patients cheaply or for free and rejected the expensive herbs sold by the apothecaries, preferring to search for his own growing locally. Culpeper lived in troubled times and his own life was fraught with difficulties, but at the moment he came to Spitalfields things were looking up for him.
Without completing his degree at Cambridge, he began a seven year apprenticeship to the Apothecary Simon White at Temple Bar but the business failed and his master ran off to Ireland with the money Culpeper paid him. Left homeless and penniless, he was fortunate to find a new master, Francis Drake of Threadneedle St who – instead of charging – asked Culpeper for Latin lessons in exchange for the apprenticeship. Yet Francis Drake died within two years, leaving Culpeper and his fellow-apprentice Samuel Leadbetter ‘turned over’ to the elderly Apothecary Stephen Higgins and, shortly afterwards, Culpeper dropped out.
At the age of twenty-four, he fell in love with the young heiress Alice Field. They married in 1640 and it was her fortune which allowed him to buy the house in Spitalfields and set up his practice yet, soon after, he fought a duel which required him to pay his opponent’s medical expenses and flee to France until the rumpus died down.
When Culpeper got back, an accusation of witchcraft was levelled against him – such accusations were not uncommon at the time the Civil War broke out. A patient by the name of Sarah Lyne consulted Culpeper and after a month, when she was no better and began wasting away, she reported him and he was imprisoned. The accusation gained weight because Culpeper practised astrological as well as herbal medicine and this, with its associations of magic, counted against him. He was lucky to get acquitted.
As early as 1641, Culpeper had seen local soldiers practising drill upon the Artillery Ground in Spitalfields and, when the Civil War broke out, he joined the Parliamentarians. They invited him to be a Field Surgeon and, on the way to the battlefield, he collected medicinal herbs but at the Battle of Newbury he was shot in the chest and badly wounded.
Upon his return to Spitalfields, Culpeper did not receive a hero’s welcome – only more grief. Samuel Leadbetter, his fellow apprentice, had taken over the shop of their former master in Threadneedle St and they made an agreement which permitted Culpeper to use the premises as an alternative surgery and for preparation of medicines. But in January 1643, the College of Apothecaries,‘ordered and warned’ Leadbetter to ‘put away Nicholas Culpeper’ – which he did, bringing their long friendship to an end.
After the war, there was no censorship and books could be published more freely. Recognising the opportunity, Culpeper, who had always wanted to bring medicine within the reach of the poor, set about translating the handbook of the College of Physicians from Latin into English – The Physical Directory or Translation of the London Dispensary. More books followed and the College launched an abusive broadside against him entitled, A farm in Spittlefields where all knick-kacks of Astrology are exposed to open sale. Undeterred, in 1653, Culpeper published his English Physician known today as Culpeper’s Herbal, which has never been out of print since.
Nicholas Culpeper was only thirty-nine when he died and was buried beneath the site of Liverpool St Station. He never fully recovered from his chest wound but – even so – he treated hundreds of patients in Spitalfields and educated them in maintaining their own health, which was something quite new at that time. Out of his seventy-nine books and translations, Culpeper’s Herbal was amongst the books taken by pilgrims to the New World.
So let us remember Nicholas Culpeper in Spitalfields.