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Nicholas Culpeper, Herbalist & Surgeon

October 19, 2017
by the gentle author

Celebrating the birthday this week of Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), it is my pleasure to publish this portrait of the famous herbalist of Spitalfields by Patricia Cleveland-Peck, gardener and writer.

Of all Spitalfields’ past residents, one name stands out above others – Nicholas Culpeper, born on October 18th 1616, a herbalist and medical practitioner operating from Red Lion St (now Commercial St) who devoted his life to healing, and especially to healing the poor.

While apprenticed to the apothecary Francis Drake of Bishopsgate, Nicholas accompanied Thomas Johnson (later editor of the 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herball) on plant hunting excursions. He loved herbs since boyhood and became expert at their identification, essential in those days when almost all ailments were treated with plants. Herbals served as handbooks for doctors in which each plant was named  together with its ‘virtues’ or uses. Nicholas’ skill in this subject, coupled with the fact that he was very caring, meant that the people of Spitalfields flocked to him - sometimes as many as forty a morning – and they commonly received treatment for little or no payment.

This was not popular among Nicholas Culpeper’s qualified medical colleagues who were infuriated by his view that, “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician.” He also believed in “English herbs for English bodies,” and went out gathering his own herbs from the countryside for free which did not endear him to the apothecaries who often insisted on expensive imported exotic plants for their ‘cures’.

In those days, there were strict divisions between what university-educated physicians, apothecaries and barber-surgeons (who drew teeth and let blood) were allowed to do. Physicians were expensive, so for most sick people the first port of call would be their own herb garden or still room, the second the ‘wise woman’ down the road, the third a visit to the apothecary –  after which, for many, there was no other option but to let the illness run its course.

In 1649, Nicholas inflamed the establishment by producing an English translation of their latin ‘bible’ the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis which included all the recipes for their medicines. Published as A Physical Directory, it not only revealed the secret ingredients but gave instructions on how to administer them – one of his most important contributions, as it provided the first effective self-help book to which people could turn.

Even more galling for the medical fraternity was the fact Nicholas had never completed his apprenticeship, and chose Spitalfields to set up a semi-legal practice because it was outside the City of London and thus not governed by the rules of the College of Physicians. Spitalfields in those days was quite different from today, beyond the site of huge priory of St Mary Spital stretched the farmland of Spital Field. The priory had been dissolved under Henry VIII although parts of the precincts were still inhabited, and it was an area which attracted outsiders like Nicholas who, as well as treating his patients, was  something of a political radical. In his pamphlets, he railed against the king, priests and lawyers as well as physicians. Consequently he was no stranger to controversy and at one point was even accused of witchcraft – just one of the many troubles which accumulated to beset him during his life.

The first of these even occurred thirteen days before his life began, for it was then that his father died leaving his mother without support. She and the new-born Nicholas were obliged to return to the protection of her father, William Attersole, vicar  of the little village of Isfield in Sussex. Attersole was not happy about this arrangement but, although he did not welcome the child, he did see it as his religious duty to provide instruction for him as he grew. Young Nicholas learned the scriptures and the classics, he studied mathematics and, under his grandfather’s guidance, began to take an interest in astrology which later featured in his own works. He even stole a book on anatomy out of the library (where he was only supposed to read the bible) and read it in a barn.

Importantly, he also spent a lot of time with his mother who we know owned a copy of Gerard’s Herball. She was responsible for the health of the household and, from his later works, we can glean the fact that he soon became familiar with all the local Sussex ‘simples’ or wild herbs. We know only little of this period of his life, but it is thought that he went to school in Lewes before – at the age of sixteen – setting off for Cambridge ostensibly to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by studying theology. Once there, he began to attended lectures on anatomy and, perhaps frustrated that he couldn’t change to medicine, he spent most of his time smoking, drinking and socialising in taverns.

Yet the reason for his dropping out is a sad one. Young though he was, before leaving Sussex, Nicholas had fallen in love with Judith Rivers, a local heiress. She reciprocated his love and thus, knowing her family would never consent to the relationship, they planned to elope. They were to meet near Lewes and marry secretly, but on the way Judith’s coach was struck by lightning and she was killed. Nicholas was devastated and spent months sunk in melancholy. There was no question of his returning to Cambridge to study medicine or anything else. Eventually he chose to come to London and become an apothecary. Socially, this was a step down but he enjoyed his time at Bishopsgate and became very proficient.

Nicholas was twenty-four when he found love again. Called to treat a Mr Field for gouty arthritis, his eyes fell upon the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house, Alice. By a stroke of good fortune, she too was an heiress and it was her considerable dowry which enabled Nicholas to build a house in Red Lion St, Spitalfields from which he conducted his practice.

When the Civil War broke out two years later, the anti-royalist Nicholas signed up with Cromwell. Once his profession was discovered however, the recruiting offer commented, “We do not need you at the battlefield…come along as the field surgeon since most of the barbers and physicians are royal asses and we have use for someone to look after our injured.” Later, during the battle of Reading, Nicholas himself was wounded.

On his return to Spitalfields, he devoted himself to study and writing, and produced a number of books including a Directory for Midwives. Nicholas recognised that this was an unusual topic for a male herbalist, writing in the dedication, “If you (the matron) by your experiences find anything not according to the truth ( for I am a man and therefore subject to failings) first judge charitably of me…” Having grown up so close to his mother, Nicholas had a deep respect of women but this book may also have been inspired by some painful experiences in his own family for, although Alice bore him seven children, only one daughter lived to adulthood.

In 1652, Nicholas published his master work The English Physician also known as Culpeper’s Herbal which became the standard work for three hundred years and is still in print. It was sold cheaply and made its way to America where it had a lasting impact too. By 1665, ten years after his death, Nicholas’ name  was so well-known that the Lord Mayor of London chose to use it alongside that of Sir Walter Raleigh in a pamphlet about avoiding infection from the Great Plague.

Nicholas Culpeper deserves to be remembered. He was always on the side of the underdog, he opposed the ‘closed shop’ of earlier physicians and he promoted sensible self-help. He also tried to offer reasonable  explanations for what he wrote - “Neither Gerard nor Parkinson or any that ever wrote in a like manner ever gave one wise reason for what they wrote and so did nothing else but train up young novices in Physic in the School of Tradition, and teach them just as a parrot is taught… But in mine you see a reason for everything that is written.”

He died in 1654, aged only thirty-eight, of tuberculosis and is believed to be buried beneath Liverpool St Station.

Title page of the 1790 edition of Culpeper’s English Physician & Complete Herbal, published by C.Stalker, 4 Stationer’s Court, Ludgate St.

Plates from the edition published by Richard Evans, 8 White’s Row, Spitalfields, August 12th, 1814

“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 in the nineteenth century.

Nicholas Culpeper and his house

Paul Bommer’s delft tile commemorating Nicholas Culpeper

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The Auriculas of Spitalfields

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. October 19, 2017

    Nicholas is breathtakingly important for his work with herbs for the poor. Today ~ he would have been awarded a Nobel prize. His legacy has stood the test of time. The Chelsea Physic Garden is worth a visit. John a bus pass poet

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    October 19, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I really enjoyed reading your reflections on Nicholas Culpeper, truly a man ahead of his times.

    And I love those plates from the 1814 edition by Richard Evans – they would make excellent framed prints…

  3. Rebecca Court permalink
    October 19, 2017

    Just wanted to thank you for the blog about the Weiss gallery which I managed to get to yesterday as a result of your recommendation.

    I couldn’t resist buying the catalogue either, so I have a wonderful momento of this artist, purely due to your diligent and inspiring writing.
    many thanks again.

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