An Englishman’s home may not be his castle: Cheney Culpeper

The letters showcased in EMLO this week drop us deep into the circles that lie at the heart of the Cultures of Knowledge research project. EMLO took shape as a union catalogue back in 2010 when it was constructed around the calendars of correspondence of four members of the fledgling Royal Society (John Aubrey, Edward Lhwyd [Lhuyd], Martin Lister, and John Wallis) and of two ‘foreigners’ (to adopt Hugh Trevor-Roper’s descriptor) with extensive European connections: the itinerant pansophist Jan Amos Comenius who traversed the face of Europe in response to the political upheavals of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Elbląg-born intelligencer Samuel Hartlib who settled in England from 1628.1 The focus of EMLO’s latest catalogue is the surviving correspondence of one of Hartlib’s many and various English correspondents Cheney Culpeper. In tandem with the critical edition published by M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, it makes for a fascinating read both from the perspective of the intellectual interests involved and with respect to the beliefs and aspirations that emerge from the domestic events of a financially troubled life played out against a backdrop of civil war and political turmoil.2

Cheney Culpeper was born into the Kentish gentry. His father Thomas, who was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, and at Middle Temple, had been elected Member of Parliament initially for Rye in 1597 and then for Winchelsea in 1601, the year of Cheney’s birth. From his family seat of Greenway Court, Hollingbourne, Sir Thomas (who was knighted by Charles I in 1619) began to expand the family’s cluster of properties. The prize acquisition of Leeds Castle, Kent, came with its purchase from the executors of Sir John Smythe (d. 1632).3 Yet it was with this addition that the Culpepers’ domestic and financial problems began to take hold.

Leeds Castle, Kent. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

With Cheney’s marriage to Elizabeth Stede on 24 October 1632, Sir Thomas settled the castle and its estates upon his elder surviving son (who had himself been knighted by Charles I in 1628). In two letters written twelve years later, Cheney Culpeper informed Hartlib he had been in receipt of £500 per annum and was the beneficiary of £3,000 at the time of his marriage.4 In 1641, however, he had fallen seriously ill and, in the expectation he would not survive, had ceded his properties — including Leeds Castle — and their management back to his father. Against all odds Sir Cheney recovered but by the time he regained full health the political situation had worsened and in consequence the family was divided: father took the side of the King, son that of Parliament. Sir Thomas refused to restore control of the Leeds Castle estate. Severe financial difficulties ensued for both men, political events took further turns for the worse, and the rift between father and son deepened.

As the events of the civil war unfolded, Sir Thomas’s properties became subject to sequestration and he appeared before the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding on 30 April 1646. Whilst attempting to regain his own estates, Cheney Culpeper had to deal with creditors both for his own debts and for those of his father. He wrote to Hartlib on 29 October 1646 of his ‘vnhappy condition in a Father whose actions driue wholy to my prejudice, it takes away that contente & joy which I myght take in the Fortunes which God & nature had caste vpon me’,5 and on 4 November of the same year that his ‘domestique affaires doe howerly rise into such a storme as (I feare) my anchor, & cable will hardly holde’.6 The situation did not improve, even though Leeds Castle (which had been used as a munitions’ store during the civil war) was returned to Cheney Culpeper on 21 October 1651. Yet some three years after this, Hartlib mentioned to Robert Boyle that ‘Sir Cheney complains more than ever, that his father hath utterly undone him’.7 Cheney Culpeper died a debtor in London following the Restoration of Charles II and just fourteen months after the death of his own father Thomas. He was buried in Middle Temple on 2 April 1663.

As Braddick and Greengrass observe, Culpeper has been interpreted as the voice of the ‘voiceless’. He can be seen as representative of ‘men who, more often than not, never raised their voices to speak publicly across the centuries, who did not publish theories, or make set speeches in Parliament, but who were nevertheless the angry men in Parliament and behind Parliament, the men who, from behind, struck down their lukewarm, politic, legalistic, aristocratic and clerical leaders and pushed on, over their bodies, to destruction.’8 Trevor-Roper’s description may be over extreme when applied to Culpeper, who is to be found in these letters engaging with Hartlib on a plethora of levels and a wide range of altruistic subjects of shared interest, and Braddick and Greengrass point out that the exchange between the two men provides an ‘important example of the slow, empirical fashion by which agricultural improvement took root in the English countryside in the seventeenth century’. They observe also how Culpeper’s commitments ‘grew out of, and around, his social networks’. These networks included the people he met at the Middle Temple; people with whom he shared his Kentish roots; and the circle around Elizabeth Stuart and her fellow exiles from the Palatinate — and, of course, amongst those in London sympathetic to the Palatine plight was Samuel Hartlib.

Culpeper wrote to Hartlib of their friendship: ‘I can truly say that I often rejoyce in that hower in which (by a meere occasionall readinge of Dr Gaudens sermon) Gods prouidence brought me to your acquaintance, & hath synce & dothe still by it bringe me to the acquaintance of others.’9 Hartlib records their first meeting in his Ephemerides: ‘The 13. of April acquainted with Sir Cheney Culpeper at one Dr Smith’s house a Dr of Phyisick in Shoe Lane at that part of the lane towards Holborne’, upon which occasion Culpeper committed the sum of £5 to Hartlib (probably into the fund for Comenius’s visit to London). Through the epistolary conversation that took place over the course of a decade, it is possible to chart Hartlib’s endeavours and aspirations: education, politics, news, plans for Hartlib’s ‘Office of Addresse’, and innovative technical developments, including ‘Felton’s engine’ — all were discussed.10 This correspondence makes for a fascinating read and it is well worth taking the time to follow the links out from the records in EMLO to the invaluable edition published by Braddick and Greengrass, as well as those to the Hartlib Papers on the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, where you will find both the manuscript image and a transcription for each letter. Savour these letters. They are both rich and rewarding.

  1. See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  2. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. See History of Parliament online, entry for Sir John Smythe (c. 1592–1632), footnote 12.
  4. See letter of 18 December 1644, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/57a-58b and letter from Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/314a-316b.
  5. See letter of 29 October 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/153a-154a.
  6. See letter of 4 November 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/155a-156b.
  7. See letter of 28 February 1654 from Hartlib to Boyle.
  8. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 155 and Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  9. See letter of December 1645, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/109–12.
  10. See Timothy Raylor, ‘Providence and technology in the English Civil War: Edmond Felton and his engine’, in Renaissance Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 398–413.

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