Leave it to the rebels of the world to make an impact on history. When one thought of the “bad boy” of the herbalist world, one would automatically think of Nicholas Culpeper. This herbalist who lived in 17th century England would lead a tragically short life. Yet his brief life was nothing short of being fraught with meaning. Though his career was cut short, he would be later known as “The People’s Herbalist.” To this day, many owe Culpeper and his radical beliefs a debt of gratitude. At the time, he would use what would then be viewed as unconventional methods, and was, at a time, accused of witchcraft. But who was Culpeper? What was it in him that made him a man of the masses?
A Peek into Childhood
The rebel herbalist’s life was nothing short of personal tragedy. Born on October 18, 1616, he was to be the only son of the young Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, and his wife Mary. The family that he was born into was of aristocratic origins and owned land. At the time, this was a privilege denied to many. His father passed away suddenly just two weeks before he was even born. This was most unfortunate as the young clergyman had only been appointed Lord of Ockley Manor just a few months before.
After burying her husband, Mary would name her son Nicholas after the father her son never got to meet. She would later leave Ockley Manor, and take the young Nicholas to live with her in her family home in Isfield, Sussex.
The fledgling Nicholas was born in a time where medical knowledge was only limited to a privileged few, the licensed physicians. Like most children, Nicholas grew up with a fascination of the wonders of the world. He would be influenced by his grandfather, Reverend William Attersole.
Being the Minister of St. Margaret’s Church, the old Reverend was a strict and stern man. He was an intellectual, and thus held his grandson’s education of upbringing to be of high regard. Reverend Attersole had high ambitions for the young Nicholas, including sending him to Cambridge, where he had once been educated. Attersole was known for being a devout Purist, and even authored a number of many biblical commentaries and theological works.
Nicholas would learn to read and write Latin and Greek from his grandfather. At an early age, Culpeper had a fascination with the stars, and had read books on astrology in his grandfather’s library at the age of 10. He would later discover William Turner’s Herbal. This would spark Culpeper’s interest in medicine, as well as medicinal plants and herbs. He would pore over the books in his grandfather’s library for hours on end, until the old Reverend would later restrict his grandson’s reading material to the Bible.
The Reluctant Theologian
When Culpeper reached the aged of 16 in 1632, his grandfather sent him to Cambridge University. He was to study Theology, in order to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams of him being a Church Minister, much to his dismay. The young rebel would show no interest in Theology, and would read the medical works of Hippocrates and Galen. He would take out his frustration on his grandfather by drinking and smoking with his peers.
Culpeper fell madly in love with heiress Judith Rivers. Knowing their relationship would prove too much of a scandal, with her being born into a rich and powerful family, the two had hoped to elope. They had devised a plan where they would sail to the Netherlands and settle there until all would prove to be well.
However, this was not meant to be. During their rendezvous at Lewes, his sweetheart’s coach had been struck by lightning in a mad twist of fate. She did not survive, and the young man was devastated. He would later abandon his studies and become a recluse.
His personal tragedies would not end there. A year later, his mother passed away due to breast cancer, though the gossips would say that she died of shock upon discovering her only son’s affair with the young heiress. This would only cause Culpeper to refuse to continue his studies at Cambridge.
Naturally, his grandfather was disappointed in his grandson and disowned him from the family fortune. The reverend would use his contacts to set his grandson up with apprenticeship with the Master Apothecary, Daniel White. From then, he would sever all ties with the renegade Culpeper.
For seven years, Culpeper would serve as apprentice to White. Much of this time was dedicated to cataloguing various medicinal herbs. However, he never lost his fascination with astrology and would later admire the works of astrologer William Lilly. A chance meeting with Lilly would develop his fascination with the astrologer’s work, and would later provide inspiration for the struggling apprentice.
Culpeper would later marry 15-year old Alice Field, who had just very recently come into a considerable inheritance from her wealthy merchant father. Because of this, Culpeper was able to abandon his duties as an indentured apprentice and purchase a home for himself and his wife. He would later set up shop in the poorer areas of London.
Nicholas would set himself up as astrologer, botanist, and physician. This did not set well with the Society of Apothecaries, as they believed that only those who were fully qualified would be worthy to practice the craft. In their eyes, this was complete and utter defiance.
A Man of the Masses
Soon, Culpeper had a reputation for being a healer for the poor. He would sympathize with them in their plight, because he too had experienced their struggles. He was very active, seeing around 40 patients a day. He would charge very little or nothing at all for his services.
His grandfather passed away in May 1640. As a final slap to his face, he was left 40 shillings in the old Reverend’s will. This came to no surprise to him, as Culpeper only viewed his grandfather as a looming authoritarian figure who treated him more like a burden than family.
Servitude during the War
In 1642, Civil war was upon them. Culpeper responded to call-to-arms, and wanted to fight in the front lines for the Puritans. However, he was appointed field surgeon because of his medical knowledge. He would take only medicinal herbs with him. Soon, he was commissioned to captain his own infantry.
One day, during battle he was struck down by a musket shot. Though the Puritans were victorious that day, Culpeper’s days in the battlefield were over.
Affordable Treatment for All
Working amongst the poor in London sparked Culpeper’s belief that medical treatment should not be limited to just the privileged class. This would spark controversy amongst his fellow physicians who regarded him as a traitor who used unorthodox methods in treating his patients.
Culpeper was able to translate Pharmacopia Londonesis from Latin into English. This was most frowned upon by the Royal College of Physicians. Culpeper had the tome published under the name A Physical Directory in 1649. It was his desire to make herbal medicine available to those who needed it the most.
The rebel physician would later write and publish many books, which to this day continue to be of use to the medical field. His health deteriorated due to the wound he received on the battlefield. After a long battle with tuberculosis, he expired on January 10, 1654 aged just 38 years. He would leave behind his widow, Alice. Though he fathered 7 children with her, only one child named Mary would outlive her father.
It is personal tragedy that sparked inspiration into this otherwise tortured soul, and made his works immortal even unto this day.