The Life of Nicholas Culpeper and his Sussex records

Source: Harmes, Paul and Christina Hart-Davies. “The Life of Nicholas Culpeper and his Sussex records.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 77 (January 2014).


Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer. He published several books in his short life, and these include The English Physitian (1652) and the Complete Herbal (1653), which contain a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, Semeiotica Uranica, or An Astrological Judgement of Disease (1651), which describes the use of astrology in the diagnosis of illness, and Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick (1655), which is one of the most detailed documents known on the practice of medical astrology.

The book considered here is a later edition of the first of these: The English Physitian Enlarged: with three hundred and sixty nine medicines, made of English herbs, that were not in any impression until this. Being an Astrologo-physical Discourse of the vulgar herbs of this Nation (c.1770).

Culpeper is often described as having limited botanical knowledge, an opinion originally expounded by the medical profession of his time, as they disliked his habit of challenging their techniques. In some circles, though, this observation has been perpetuated. He criticised what he considered the unnatural methods of his contemporaries, writing: “This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, DR. REASON and DR. EXPERIENCE, and took a voyage to visit my mother NATURE, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. DILIGENCE, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by MR. HONESTY, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”

Culpeper came from a long line of notable people, including Sir Thomas Culpeper, the alleged lover of Catherine Howard, wife of Henry VIII. His childhood was spent in Isfield, where he was brought up by his mother. His father, Nicholas Culpeper senior, died shortly before his birth. His maternal grandfather, the Rev. William Attersole, minister of St Margaret’s Church, Isfield, had a powerful influence on his early development.

Attersole was author of many theological treatises. He taught the boy Latin and Greek, while instilling a strong puritanical influence and a healthy disrespect for the Crown. Culpeper’s radical Puritan and Parliamentary leanings helped to account for his rejection by the College of Physicians and Society of Apothecaries, most of whose members were Anglican and Royalist. They did, however, make his works popular in the New World.

During his formative years he was fascinated by the stars at night. He became increasingly interested in time and time-keeping, being absorbed by his grandfather’s collection of clocks. The sundial on the south wall of the church intrigued him, demonstrating the correlation between the movements of its shadow and the activities of village life. His grandfather may also have aroused Nicholas’ interest in astrology: Attersole’s writings show that he had great respect for astrology. By contrast, it was his maternal grandmother who first exposed Culpeper to the use of medicinal plants. He spent the greater part of his life in the English outdoors, cataloguing hundreds of medicinal herbs.

At the age of ten he started reading astrological and medical texts from his grandfather’s library. Sir Christopher Heydon’s Defence of Judicial Astrology (1603) greatly impressed him. He was fond of reading and looking at the illustrations in William Turner’s New Herball (1568). From his early teens he was familiar with all the herbs that grew in his part of Sussex. By thirteen he was an avid reader, although his grandfather disappoved of his wide-ranging studies and wished him only to read the Bible.

In 1632, aged sixteen, he was sent to Cambridge University. After this he was apprenticed to an apothecary who, after seven years, absconded with his indenture money, leaving him without employment or funds. At this point he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which ensured that he had the financial means to set up his own pharmacy, just outside London in Spitalfields.

Fighting in the civil war, he sustained a bullet wound to the shoulder in the Battle of Reading and is thought to have contracted tuberculosis, from which he died in 1654, aged 37.

Culpeper’s Sussex references

Many of Culpeper’s notes on plants contain vehement comments on the contemporary medical establishment. He likens the College of Physicians to drones who suck out all the honey gathered by bees.

N.B. The capitals, spelling, italics etc. in the extracts below are exactly as in the c.1770 edition. Square brackets contain authors’ comments; round brackets are NC’s own.

The Beach-tree

In treating of this tree, you most understand that I mean the great Mast-Beech; which is by way of Distinction from that other small rough sort, called in Sussex the smaller Beech, but in Essex Horn-beam.

Earth Chesnuts

They are called Earth Nuts, Earth Chesnuts, Ground Nuts, Ciper Nuts, and we in Sussex call them Pig Nuts.  …they provoke Lust exceedingly, and stir up to those Sports she is Mistress of….


It is also called by some, Tooth-Wort, Tooth-Violet, Dog-Teeth Violet, and Dentaria.

[NC then says there are two sorts of this plant, which he says can be found growing in Britain. He describes the first but, not knowing where to find it, forbears to describe the second]

The first groweth in Mayfield in Sussex, in a Wood called Highread, and in another Wood there also, called Fox-holes.


Called also Feap-berry, and in Sussex Dew-berry Bush, and in some countries Wine-berry.

The Berries …. are good to stir up a fainting or decayed Appetite….


This is that Herb which such Physicians as are licensed to Blaspheme by Authority, without Danger of having their Tongues bored through with an hot Iron, call an Herb of the Trinity: it is also called by those that are more moderate, Three Faces in a Hood, Live in Idleness, Cul me to you; and in Sussex we call them Pansies.

Juniper Bush

They grow plentifully in divers Woods in Kent, upon Warny-Common near Brentwood in Sussex (Essex?), upon Finchly-Common without Highgate, hard by the New Found-Wells near Dullege, upon a Common between Micham and Croyden, in the High Way near Amersham in Buckinghamshire, and many other places.

Wall-Rew, or ordinary White Maiden-Hair

It groweth in many places of this Land, at Dartford, and the Bridge at Ashford in Kent; at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire; at Wolly in Huntingdonshire, on Framingham-Castle in Suffolk, on the Church-Walls at Mayfield in Sussex, in Sommersetshire, and divers other Places of this Land; and is green in Winter as well as in Summer.


It is also called St. James-wort and Stagger-wort, and Stammer-wort, and Segrum …. in Sussex we call it Rag-weed.

Viper’s Bugloss

[NC describes Viper’s Bugloss, then]: There is another sort little differing from the former, only in this, that it beareth white Flowers.

The first groweth wild almost everywhere. That with white Flowers about the Castle-Walls in Lewis in Sussex.

Wold, Weld, or Dyer’s-Weed

It groweth every where by the Way-sides, in moist Grounds as well as dry, in Corners of Fields and By Lanes, and sometimes all over the Field. In Sussex and Kent they call it Green-Weed.


Culpeper, N. (c.1770). The English Physician Enlarged.

Culpeper, N. (1971). The Complete Herbal.

Davis, D.W. (1994). Nicholas Culpeper, Herbalist of the People. The Traditional Astrologer. Issue 5