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A Culpepper Travelogue in England

By William Leonard Carlisle
Ocean, N.J.

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Preface by Lew Griffin
12 May 1998

Bill Carlisle was kind enough to sent me the following account of his trip to England in 1977 to visit sites important to the Culpepper family there. This was one of many trips that Bill and his wife Betty have made to England over the years. Bill has good reason to be interested in the Culpepper family history, since he can trace his ancestry back to the Culpeppers through three different lines. While our understanding of the early family may have improved a little over the last twenty years, as new records have come to light, Bill’s travelogue is still a "classic" for anyone wishing to visit the historic sites related to the Culpeper family in England. The few comments in brackets have been added by me to help clarify Bill’s account, which follows:

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Kent, England

Betty and I were of the opinion when planning our trip to England in 1977, that we may be able to add considerably to the information we already had about the Culpepper family if we visited the County of Kent in the extreme southeastern corner of the island; at the time we had no idea how right we were.


We chose the village of Goudhurst as our first objective as we had learned that St. Mary’s Church, which dominates the town from the crown of a high hill on the east end of the village, contained tombs and other objects of interest identified with this ancient Kentish family.

Goudhurst is in the south central section of Kent almost in the middle of that fascinating and beautiful area of England known for centuries as "The Weald of Kent." It is about 55 miles southeast of Trafalgar Square and 35 miles southwest of Canterbury and can probably claim a population of no more than 500 souls. We made the Star and Crown, the only hotel in town, our base of operations.

The Culpepers were one of the leading families, and perhaps the most important landowners, in this bountiful and prosperous land from the 12th to the 18th century. At a time in history when the ability simply to read and write automatically qualified one to be referred to as "cleric," with special privileges, the records show that between the years of 1505 and 1673, twenty-three Culpepers matriculated at Oxford and thirteen at Cambridge. It is interesting to note that the University of Oxford, for every entrant, spelled the name Colepeper. The Cambridge Register shows that Sir Thomas Culpepper (1578-1661/2) in spelling his name used three "P’s" whereas the others used two.

St. Mary's Church at Goudhurst

St. Mary’s church is first mentioned in a document dated in 1117 by which Ralph de Crevecour conveys his church at Goudhurst to the Abbey at Leeds; the present structure was built in 1480. In the east end of the South Aisle are splendidly carved wooden recumbent figures of Sir Alexander Culpeper (ob 1541) and his Lady. To the right, in the Bedgebury Chapel, there is an elaborately carved stone memorial to Sir Anthony Culpeper (ob 1618) and his wife with their sixteen children. Sir Anthony was a great-grandson of Sir Alexander. According to our records, Sir Alexander was also the father of Thomas Culpeper who was a favorite of Henry VIII and was beheaded in 1541 for his involvement with Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of that illustrious Monarch. Thomas and Catherine were probably seventh cousins. Her mother, Joyce, was the daughter of Richard Culpeper (ob 1484) of Oxen Hoath and Catherine was the fourth child of her mother’s second marriage to the penniless Lord Edmund Howard. Lord Edmund was a brother of Thomas 3rd Duke of Norfolk who was a chief officer of the second Tudor King.

Nearer the Altar may be found the tombs of Walter (ob 1462) of Goudhurst, sometimes referred to as "Squire of Agincourt," and his son, Sir John Culpeper (ob 1480) of Bedgebury. Both tombs are adorned with brasses and I made several rubbings of Walter’s. On the north side of the Altar there is a brass of John Bedgebury, also a veteran of Agincourt, and the first husband of Agnes Roper who, after John’s death, married Walter of Goudhurst in about 1425.

Bedgebury Manor

It was through the marriage of Walter to the young and childless widow, Agnes Roper, that the estate of Bedgebury came into the Culpeper family where it remained for nearly 250 years. It was sold at an unknown date by Thomas Culpeper, the last to have the title "of Bedgebury," who died in 1675 in Fleet Prison, a debtors prison in London. Our line is through Walter.

Today Bedgebury Manor is used as a girls school and the vast lands have been reduced to a relatively few acres surrounding the school. It is about a mile and a half deeper into the weald to the south of Goudhurst and may be seen from the high St. Mary’s Church yard or the upper rear windows of the hotel which stands nearby.

Leeds CastleLeeds Castle

About twelve miles almost directly north of Goudhurst stands Leeds Castle which belonged to the Culpepers, and collateral lines of the Culpepers, for centuries. The location and the appearance in every detail, for me, is the essence of a medieval castle.

On two small natural islands in a lake formed by the River Len, Ledian or Leed, Chief Minister for the King of Kent, in 857 built a wooden castle and protected it by a draw bridge over the water. In 1119 Robert de Crevecour, grandson of Hamon de Crevecour, who fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings, started building a stone castle which continued in the possession of the de Crevecour’s for over a hundred years after the conquest. It then came to the de Leyburn family and in 1272 William de Leyburn conveyed it to Edward 1st as a gift.

Under royal ownership it was one of the favorite retreats for all the English kings up to and including Henry VIII who spent much time there. It remained a royal property for about 275 years when, in about 1547, after the death of Henry VIII, it was given to Sir Anthony St. Leger by Edward VI. Sir Anthony had distinguished himself in Ireland in the service of Henry and the gift of the castle was a reward for a job well done. This same Sir Anthony was the great great grandfather of Catherine St. Leger, who ... [was the wife of Thomas Culpeper (1602-ca.1652)].

Sir Warham St. Leger, the son of Sir Anthony 2nd, suffered great financial reverses in backing Sir Walter Raleigh on his last treasure seeking expedition which ended in total disaster. Sir Warham commanded one of the ships in the squadron, "The Thunder." Because of his losses, he was forced to sell Leeds Castle which was bought by Sir Richard Smith, another Culpeper kinsman, in 1608. The heirs of Sir Richard sold the Castle to Sir Thomas Culpepper of Hollingbourne (ob 1661/2) who again sold it to Sir John, created Lord Culpeper, Baron of Thoresway, in 1644 by Charles 1st. It was through his son, Thomas, sometime Governor of Virginia and 2nd Lord Culpeper, that Catherine, the only legitimate child of Lord Thomas, married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax, thus bringing Leeds Castle into the Fairfax family. In 1747, Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, said his final farewell to his beautiful castle to make his home in the fledgling Royal Colony of Virginia; the only member of the English Peerage ever to do so.

Through the female line, the Castle finally came to the Wykeham-Martin family and in 1926 it was bought by Lady Baillie, an American Whitney heiress through her mother, who on her death, gave it to the English nation for public use. Today it is often used for international conferences of various kinds, but I suspect the British just like to show it off.

Greenway Court in Hollingbourne

Two miles north of Leeds is the village of Hollingbourne. Beyond the village on the right there is a road which leads to the location of Greenway Court, the birthplace of John ... Culpeper ... [son of Thomas (1602-ca.1652), thought by Fairfax Harrison to be the John Culpeper of early Albemarle, NC]. The structure presently standing on the site is not the original one although it is very old. No one seems to know what the old manor house looked like but it must have been large and comfortable judging from the regard with which it was held by the occupants. It was purchased by Francis, the second son of William (ob 1559) of Wigsell and Cecily Barrett Culpeper. Francis, at the same time, also bought Elnothington, which we think is now referred to as Hollingbourne Manor, from Sir Warham St. Leger, the friend of Raleigh. Upon the death of Francis in 1591, Greenway Court passed to his son, Thomas (ob 1661/2), who may have died there.

Culpeper Chapel in Hollingbourne Church

About a quarter of a mile further up the main road may be found the Hollingbourne church and the Manor House. The church is a typical grey-stone English village church but this one is of particular interest to us because of the connection of the Culpepers to whom we are distantly related.

The Culpeper Chapel on the east end of the north aisle dominates the interior of this charming little edifice to the extent that its magnificence tends to detract from an otherwise beautiful fifteenth century house of worship. Upon the death of Lady Elizabeth Cheney Culpeper in 1638, her husband, Sir Thomas of Greenway Court, had extensive alterations made to the existing vault in order to create a suitable memorial to his beloved wife. Her tomb is placed in the middle of the chapel, perhaps fifteen by fifteen feet square, and upon it rests a strikingly handsome carved marble effigy of Lady Elizabeth. Her head rests on a pillow and her feet upon a strange heraldic beast and the artistry of the sculptor is hardly surpassed in Westminster Abbey, even compared to the effigies of Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the chancel there is a plaque commemorating the death of John 1st Lord Culpeper, Baron of Thoresway, friend and confidant of Charles 1st and Charles 2nd. Lord John died in July 1660 after the triumphant return in May of Charles and his entourage for the Restoration largely engineered by Culpeper.

The treasure of the church, however, are the alter cloth and hangings exquisitely embroidered in a very small needlepoint stitch. The cloths are richly decorated with various fruits of Kent and were done by Elizabeth, Judith and Philippa, daughters of John 1st Lord Culpeper when they were in retirement at Hollingbourne during the exile of their father in France with Charles 2nd from about 1650 to 1660. Since I [William. L. Carlisle] was related to the Culpepers, Vicar Norwood graciously gave us a private showing of this beautiful work which is usually reserved for a treat on special holidays.

Hollingbourne Manor
Also known as Colepeper Hall

At the end of the short roadway from the church the main road turns sharply to the right on its way up a rather steep hill to the downs beyond. On the left, at the end of the curve, stands the tall Tudor Hollingbourne Manor house. We found out little about the Manor but it is said that it belonged to the Culpepers during or before the reign of Henry VIII. Nor can we say how long they might have lived there. But there is no doubt of a close connection with this lovely and imposing Manor as the natives refer to it as Colepeper Hall. Perhaps on our next trip we may be able to do better.

Old Soar in Aylesford

Six miles to the west of Hollingbourne is the town of Aylesford, the seat of an important branch of the Culpeper family for many years. It was near here that the manors of Preston Hall and Oxen Hoath are located and it is fairly certain that many Culpepers, because of the proximity of London, gravitated to that city to follow their calling to business, the professions, politics and the church. The manor house of Old Soar, about ten miles southwest of Aylesford, belonged to this branch of the family. Old Soar is one of two buildings still standing in England, the other is in Lincolnshire, which are perfect examples of 13th century manorial architecture. The first known Culpeper to occupy Old Soar was William who died possessing it in 1326. It was originally built about 1290. Because we were unaware at the time, of the ties of the Culpepers to Aylesford and Old Soar, we did not visit them much to our sorrow.

Sir John of Bedgebury, whom we mentioned earlier, was the father of two sons: Sir Alexander of Bedgebury, whose effigy is in St. Mary’s in Goudhurst, and Walter (ob 1515/16).

Great Wigsell, Near Salehurst in Sussex

Sir John, as you will recall, was the son of Walter of Goudhurst and Agnes Bedgebury nee Roper, and had inherited the lands of Bedgebury in Kent through his mother. In addition there were lands in east Sussex that came to him from his father’s side, probably the most valuable of which was Wigsell near Salehurst in Sussex about eight miles south of Goudhurst. Wigsell had been purchased in 1348 by Sir John Culpeper of Bayhall. We know nothing more of this Sir John except that he married Elizabeth Hardres of Hardreshall and that he was the great grandfather of Sir John of Bedgebury.

It appears that before his death in 1480, the Bedgebury and Wigsell heir gave all his lands in Kent to his eldest son Sir Alexander and all his lands in Sussex to his son Walter. This Walter was a sometime Under Marshall of Calais and was married to Anna Aucher, daughter and heiress of Harry Aucher of Lossenham in Newenden. It is not known which Culpeper built the first house, made of timber, but Walter and Anne must have gone there to live in about 1500. Later, the original foundation was used to build the magnificent manor house that stands today and is called Great Wigsell.

In 1618, by right of primogeniture, Wigsell came to John, later 1st Lord Culpeper, who sold it in about 1622 to his step first cousin once removed, Sir Thomas of Greenway Court. Sir Thomas gave it to his son, Cheney, who in turn sold it in 1625, when it went out of the Culpeper family to Richard English, said to have once been a stable boy or a pantry boy in the Culpeper household. English built the present house.

St. Mary’s Church of Salehurst, Sussex

Nearby, on what was once an important roadway from London to Hastings, on an eminence so characteristic in choosing a location for an English village church, stands St. Mary’s of Salehurst. Salehurst was a going village before Norman times and in the Domesday Book (1086) it was recorded that it contained a church. The earliest date given to any part of the present structure is between the years 1230 and 1240.

Salehurst church is the final resting place for many Wigsell Culpepers but it is doubtful that a reliable record of births and deaths during their tenure in east Sussex was ever available. Until the reign of Elizabeth 1st, the keeping of vital statistics was the choice of the local vicar. But William Culpeper of Wigsell, who died in 1559, wrote in his will that he wanted to be "buried in the Parish church of Salehurst where my good dere wife Cicely Culpeper doth lye," and he directed that "ten pounds be set apart for a tome to set on my grave." William was the son of Walter and Anne (Aucher) Culpeper and the great-great-grandfather of John ... Culpeper [thought by Fairfax Harrison to be the early John Culpeper of Albemarle Pct., NC].

Twelve knights and barons...
Yet Culpepers later disappear

That the Culpepers were a leading family in Kent and Sussex is a matter of record. A well known chronicler of the 17th century, feeling that the situation was worthy of comment, said that at one time there were twelve knights and barons alive at the same time in the House of Culpeper.

It is incredible that a family as large and as continually prolific over the years as this one should suddenly seem to disappear. Mr. Leonard Pierce, of Goudhurst, the local Culpeper authority, for lack of a more suitable candidate, invited me to ride on the Culpeper float which had been built to participate in the parade celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth II.  I was a real live Culpeper and apparently the nearest available descendant of the first family of Goudhurst....

Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015


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