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Nicholas Culpeper, Herbalist Of Spitalfields

April 30, 2020
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish this profile of the famous herbalist of Spitalfields by Patricia Cleveland-Peck, gardener and writer.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)

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.

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.

“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.

Plaque commemorating Nicholas Culpeper installed thanks to a campaign by Spitalfields Life

You may also like to read about

The Auriculas of Spitalfields

Thomas Fairchild, Gardener of Hoxton

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Penny Gardner permalink
    April 30, 2020

    Always used to go to Culpeppers on Bruton St ,sadly shut now. I wonder if they moved to a new premises.

  2. Cesar permalink
    April 30, 2020

    I guess The Culpeper pub in Spitalfields takes the name from him?

  3. April 30, 2020

    What an absolutely fascinating piece, and wonderful pictures too! Thanks, Patricia!

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 30, 2020

    What a hero! He richly deserves his plaque.

    How about a beautifully illustrated Spitalfields Life book about him?

    It would also be interesting to get some research done to see which of his ‘cures’ actually work…

  5. April 30, 2020

    I enjoyed this about Nicholas Peper very much. What an Amazing Man. Thank You Very Much!!🥰💖🌻🌹🌼🦢

  6. Chris Webb permalink
    April 30, 2020

    “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician.” Not a view held in all corners of the world even today.

    While reading this I was thinking “he deserves a blue plaque”. Scrolled down and lo and behold . . . It looks a bit purple to me though, is that just my monitor?

    The colour plates are beautiful aren’t they? As so often happens with images on this site I would like prints to frame.

  7. April 30, 2020

    Marvelous.

  8. April 30, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wow, that’s a handsome plaque honoring Nicholas Culpeper’s life and work. How many other Spitalfields residents have been so honored? No doubt, each would make an interesting story.

    Nice work, Patricia. Thanks

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 30, 2020

    Fascinating and very enjoyable reading but I feel I must defend William Gilberd (1544 – 1603) who, although he was by profession a physician, would, I am sure, have investigated the properties of all the medicines that he used to treat his patients. He ended his career as physician to Queen Elizabeth I it is true, but he had an extraordinary inquiring mind and refused to accept the thinking of the day without proof. He was at the forefront of experimental physics thus proving that the earth is a giant magnet and is responsible for the word electricity. He rubbed a piece of amber on silk thus creating enough static to pick up pieces of straw etc. and, because the Greek word for amber is electron, he called that effect electric. I am sure that he would have been equally inquisitive about the properties of plants and herbs especially as to their efficacy when used to treat illnesses.

    I am in awe of Nicholas Culpeper but please let us not forget that at least one early physician would not have been so careless about his patient’s lives. I admit that I am prejudiced as, if it was not for the lockdown I should, at this moment, be sitting at my desk in the building in which William Gilberd was born in Colchester. We, my son and I, are very proud of Dr Gilberd and plan to have a cabinet of minerals in our shop in which we will display a collection of minerals in his honour as he had the first cabinet of minerals in this country, which he mentioned in his will of 1603 together with his spheres and his books. We assume that he investigated the properties of minerals which could be used in medicine so he surely would have done the same with regard to herbs. These were two like minds on this subject I suspect and we should remember them both with respect and awe. Thank you GA for reminding me of that on a rather damp chilly morning on which I am really missing being able to go to work !!

  10. April 30, 2020

    such an interesting read at this time; I’ve been following from afar the big controversy in France about the use of hydroxychloroquine+azithromycin in which the political versus ethical values would be mind boggling, if I had not experienced similar battles right at the onset of HIV/AIDS at the front line at the very beginning of ‘that’ pandemic.

    And to read in this article of the similar battles led by Culpepper a few centuries ago is strangely disquietingly comforting. Specially about his translation in lay language from mystifying latin books. The more it changes the more it remains the same.

    elevated pyrexia –
    I reassure the patient
    that his high temperature
    is under control

  11. Poyntz Pauline permalink
    April 30, 2020

    I have never been so excited to read , and to look at the photographs of any of the blogs as I am of today’s , and I have been thoroughly enjoying many for a long time.
    As a child my favourite pastime was collecting wild flowers and identifying them, pressing them between the pages of the heaviest books I could find lying around the house.
    I love to remember my joy at creating my little treasured collection forgotten until I saw these photos.
    Thank you for reminding me.

  12. paul loften permalink
    April 30, 2020

    This article perhaps gives us an understanding of the roots of herbalism ( no pun intended). At a time when conventional medicine was perhaps a less appealing option to a population that suffered from serious maladies to which there was no honest remedy. After all many pharmaceutical drugs and anesthetics used today contain the ingredients plants and herbs that have been enhanced by the advances made in chemistry.
    When I was a boy my mother who suffered from migraines, sent me by taking the 149 bus from Stoke Newington to a tiny herbalist shop at Dalston Junction. She would swear by them when she had an attack. The shop was so small only one person could go in at a time. It was dark and foreboding with jars of herbs displayed in the windows and on the shelves behind the counter. It took courage to enter as behind the counter stood a tall, formidable woman with iron-grey hair sometimes tied in a bun. She was a herbalist of great experience and when i summoned the courage to tell her about my mother’s migraine her stern appearance would melt into the kindest of people. She was a lovely woman. One day she sent me there and the shop had closed and there was a notice on the door saying she had died suddenly and I went back to my mother without the herbs and reported the news to her. On hearing this she was beside herself, she knew her to be a woman of great learning and kindness

  13. Sarah Catterall permalink
    April 30, 2020

    My ancestors were Apothecary Surgeons and lived in Red Lion Court Spitalfields . There name was Hooper and famous for Hoopers Pills of Reading. They we’re also accouchers Male Midwives I like to think they worked with Culpepper and not against him

  14. May 2, 2020

    Another fascinating piece.

    I found Spitalfields Life while doing some research on the fur trade and have become a regular reader. Every day brings a new delight although the recent stories of local residents who have died from the Covid 19 virus bring tears. They are told so beautifully by you, Gentle Author, that the loss feels personal.

    The story of Culpeper is fascinating. It would be wonderful also to discover the stories of the formidable herbalist from Dalston Junction and the Hoopers.

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