Origin of Name
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Origin of Culpepper

The Origin of the Name

By Warren Culpepper, February 18, 2012

Culpepper Connections now believes it quite likely that Culpepper, first written "de Colepeper", is based on the first de Colepeper living at "the bottom of Pepenbury". Here is why:

The earliest known Culpepper was Sir Thomas de Colepeper, born in 12th century England. He was one of the recognitores magnæ assise, or justices of the great assise, an important office in the reign of King John. His descendant Sir Thomas Colepeper (probably a grandson) owned and resided in the manor of Bayhall.1

Bayhall is in the English county of Kent in the parish of Pembury, originally called Pepingeberia and sometimes Pepenbury.2 There are no known residences for the Colepepers prior to Bayhall.

Robert 'Rob' Albright Culpepper, Ph.D., argues convincingly that the name form, "de Colepeper", is Norman (northern France) and almost certainly refers to a place (see Rob's text below).

It should also be noted that from the family's earliest days in England, and for the next five centuries, the spelling of Colepeper and Culpeper were both commonly found and seemed to be interchangeable.

Matthew 'Matt' Brady Culpepper called our attention to the fact that "cul" as in cul-de-sac means bottom in French (also see French-to-English online dictionary). and he posited that Colepeper/Culpeper may mean "bottom of Pepenbury".

Indeed, the Colepeper seat of Bayhall lies at the dead-end of a road (today called Chalke Lane) headed south from Pembury. Also, Bayhall is adjacent to a stream and a lake and is at a lower elevation than the center of Pembury/Pepenbury. So its southern position, location on a dead-end road, and lower elevation all fit the idea of Bayhall being at the "bottom of Pepenbury" (Modern day photo and map of Great Bayhall Farm)

Thus, the name Thomas "de cul
Pepenbury" (i.e., Thomas, living at the bottom of Pepenbury) apparently was elided to Thomas "de Culpeper" (or "de Colepeper"). Then later, the "de" was dropped as was the fashion at that time. And perhaps the Colepeper spelling was favored over the Culpeper spelling because the "cul" prefix has a cruder and more explicit connotation than simply "bottom". (See my postscript below.) So thanks to Matt for finding the missing link with the word "cul" and linking it to the Colepeper's ancient seat in Pepenbury. This is by far the plausible theory yet advanced as to the origin of the Culpepper name.

A personal post script: Matt's reminding me of the meaning of “cul” caused me to recall an amusing event circa 1970 related to my name of Culpepper. My wife and I were checking into a hotel in French-speaking Montreal. It was a busy time, and we were told to wait in the lobby until a bellman could assist us with our bags and show us to our room. About five minutes later, the bellman comes walking through the lobby with a huge grin on his face and bellowing “Monsieur KEWL-pe-PER”. It was obvious that he thought something was amusing, but I was clueless. The next day. I commented on this incident to a businessman on whom I was calling. He burst out laughing and said, “You don’t don’t know, do you? In French slang, 'cul' means rectum. So put that together with pepper…”

1 Edward Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, Canterbury: W. Bristow, Originally published 1797-1801, Reprinted 1972, Vol. 5, pp 264-271 (complete text regarding Bayhall from p 271)

2 Wiki Kent: A Quick History of the Garden of England (website), retrieved 2 Feb 2012; and Mary E. Standen, History of Pembury, 1984.

Colepeper is of Norman origin and Refers to a Place

By Robert 'Rob' Albright Culpepper, Ph.D., March 22, 2007

I would like to introduce the idea that ancestry preceding Thomas “the Recognitor” may have been  Norman  - and that the origin of the name is Norman, originally referring to some place/property.  I’ve listed my reasons below.

  1. Hereditary appellations in England were just beginning to take hold in the century following the Norman invasion of 1066.  In fact, the growing fashion among Norman gentry in England (the only kind of English gentry by the 1080s - the displacement of Saxon gentry was nearly total) helped to eventually “mainstream” the practice in England - but this process took 200 years.  Hereditary surnames were virtually non-existent among Saxon families in pre-conquest England (and among the Jutes who supposedly settled Kent), and the rare exceptions tended to be French in origin - usually immigrants from Normandy.

    So the reason that Thomas the Recognitor is the first Culpeper of record has everything to do with the fact that surnames themselves had barely gotten a good start in the England of 1170.  And of those surnames that existed, only a very small percentage went back further than a generation or two.  It was not until late in the late-1200s that usage was general among non-gentry.  For the Welsh, surname usage was not general until the 1500s, and the Scotts not much earlier than that.

  2. The record we have (Villare Cantianum, presumably taken from “pipe rolls” existing at one time) names Sir Thomas de Colepeper, and of course the use of the French “de” as part of the Recognitor’s surname means “of” as in “John of Gaunt.”  Almost all usage of the “particule”, “de”, in the England of the late 11th  and 12th centuries - so soon after the Norman Conquest - was in connection with a French name, e.g., Hugh de Lacy, or  Roger de Beaumont, Hugh de Umfraville.

  3. The use of “of” or “de” signified relation to a property/place.  Just prior to the conquest the Norman-French were beginning to adopt the name of an estate or manor as an hereditary surname, sometimes including “de” in the name, sometimes not.  A key feature of the social system in Normandy was the preservation of large estates, e.g., the practice of gavelkind - passing on entire estates to the oldest child.  In this context, the development of place-related surnames makes perfect sense and place-oriented surnames were pretty much all there were in Normandy, that early on.  It is significant that the Normans, pre-conquest, were beginning to pass on names such as “de Tracy”, for example, with the particule “de” as part of the surname, whether the actual estate/property was still owned or not.

    This differs from the later English custom of using “of” in the way that we’re familiar with - e.g., Thomas Culpeper of Bayhall - because in the latter English usage, you had to have the property to use the title.  In another example, a Walter Culpepper, I believe, was bequeathed a piece of land which enabled him to appropriate the title “of Wigsell”, thereby enhancing his marital prospects.

    This difference in custom is probably why there are no English surnames today incorporating “of”, but you commonly see names from the other European countries beginning with an “of” equivalent - “de” (French and Spanish), “von”, “van” and so on.

    So, Sir Thomas de Colepeper the Recognitor, would fit this pattern.  The use of “de” in the surname makes no sense to me, whatsoever, unless “Colepeper” had, at the genesis of the surname, referred to some place.

  4. Thomas would have been far less likely to have been appointed Recognitor, were he not Norman.   If he were born in 1170, one hundred years after the Conquest, the Normans had all the power in southern England and had pretty much displaced the entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class.  It would be another 50 to 100 years or so before the Normans would even begin to inter-marry with Anglo-Saxons in any significant way.

  5. Finally, the notion that the first Culpepper was an Anglo-Saxon grocer seems highly improbable:

    The linguists who compile these surname catalogs are attempting to give origins for very a large number of names and apparently base their claims solely on patterns of  linguistic similarity.  The linguists who speculate about the Culpeper surname are virtually certain to have had no access to, much less the time to consider, the information we have - i.e., records identifying real people who lived at the outset of surname usage.

    Even if you look at linguistics, the name origin sources I’ve seen identify the word “pepper” as having connections to early French as well as early English.  Additionally, Norman French, due to the Normans’ Viking origins, had vestiges of Germanic vocabulary.  In modern Swedish the English word pepper = pepper, in Norwegian = pepper, in Danish = peber.  So on the face of it, linguistics do not appear to preclude a Norman origin for the name.

    Though linguistics do not appear to preclude Norman origin of the name, i.e., place/title origin, the record of Thomas de Colepeper around 1170, weighs heavily against the “sham grocer”  idea.  In 1170, surnames were new to the English gentry and gentry were the earliest adaptors - so the sham-grocer origin would have had to be very recent indeed to 1170, probably Thomas’ father or grandfather at the very earliest.

So the idea that the son or grandson of an Anglo-Saxon grocer/pepperer, not to mention illegitimate practitioner of this trade, could have taken on a name that would have been known to contemporaries as meaning literally “sham grocer”, become a knight in Norman-controlled England, inserted a “de” into his name either gratuitously or to make it sound as if he was of Norman descent, and then been appointed to government office in Norman England, simply defies credulity.

Lew Griffin's Response to Rob
March 23, 2007

Thanks for sharing your research with us, you've done a great job laying out the case that the Colepepers were of Norman / Viking origins.  I have always favored the idea that the  Colepeper surname came from a place name / property name -- the only problem is that we've never been able to identify the place or property in question, nor the root meaning of "Colepeper."

I agree with you that the word seems to be Germanic in origin, and that this is not inconsistent with a Viking / Norman origin.  However, as a place name, it might well have been an Anglo-Saxon or Jute place or property in Kent or Sussex which was confiscated by the Normans after the Conquest.  So the place, Colepeper, could be Anglo-Saxon or Jute, or even more ancient, while the surname, de Colepeper, is Norman.

If you have reason to believe that the de Colepeper surname originated in Normandy or elsewhere, I'd be interested to hear about it.

Stephen Oppenheimer, in The Origins of the British, notes that the estimate for the number of Normans who actually came to Britain in the Conquest is in the low tens of thousands, which would have been one or two percent of the population at the time.  Most of the so-called Viking genes in Britain were there by about 13,000 years ago.  When the Celtic language swept through as a language of commerce, these folks spoke Celtic.  After the Anglo-Saxon conquest, which again, only introduced probably one or two percent to the existing population, these folks spoke a Germanic language again.  So language and DNA are often two different things, particularly so in the British Isles.

Again, thanks for sharing your research. You have made a significant and useful contribution to our Culpepper family history.

Warren Culpepper: DNA Supports the Above Commentary

Based on findings from our DNA Project, Culpeppers, most closely match the subpopulation group called Ultra-Norse (I1-M253-uN1315). Thus, Culpeppers would appear to descend from the "Vikings", although as Lew points out above, these genes may have been in the British Isles thousands of years before the Viking seafaring traders, warriors and pirates raided and colonized wide areas of Europe from the late 8th to the 11th century.

Some earlier, but not so likely, theories

Other theories about the origin of the name have been published. While we don't necessarily embrace any of them, they are shown here simply to show that we are aware of other ideas.

From The Sussex Colepepers
Colonel F. W. T. Attree, R.E., F.S.A., and The Rev. J. H. L. Booker, M.A, "The Sussex Colepepers", from Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. XLVII, 1904.

No satisfactory explanation has ever been given to the derivation of the name Culpepper.  The first of the family of whom we have any mention was called Thomas de Colepeper, who was born about 1170. Most likely, the name either bore a local signification, or it refers to the occupation of those who first adopted it. If the name is a local one two places have been suggested from which it may be derived:

  • Gollesberghe, in Sandwich, co. Kent, and

  • Goldspur, or Culspore, a hundred in the Rape of Hastings.

If, on the other hand, the name is connected with the occupation of those who first assumed it, then there are several possibilities.

  • The prefix "cole" means "false" in some constructions:
    Coleprophet means a false prophet, and
    Coletragitour a false traitor

    So Colepeper may mean a false pepperer, or sham grocer, i.e., one who traded outside the Fraternity of Pepperers, the Guild whence sprang the Grocers' Company, which was incorporated in 1345.

  • Another suggestion points to the possibility of Colepeper meaning Blackpepper

  • Still another hints at the likelihood of there having been some industry involving the culling or picking of pepper.

From A Dictionary of Surnames
Hanks, Patrick, and Hodges, Flavia, A Dictionary of Surnames, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.


English: occupational name for a herbalist or spicer, from ME cull(en) to pluck, pick (OF coillir, from L colligere to collect, gather) + peper (OE piper; see Pepper)


English: metonymic* occupational name for a spicer. The Pepper surname may also be a nickname for a small man or one with a fiery temper, or anecdotal for someone who paid a peppercorn rent.

*  Metonymic: characterized by the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.

From Encyclopedia of American Family Names
Robb, H. Amanda, and Chesler, Andrew, Encyclopedia of American Family Names, HarperCollins, New York, 1995.

Ranking: 3,070
(the family name's rank in the Social Security Administration's frequency table)

: 14,789
(the number of individuals with this name found in the Social Security Administration's database in 1984.)

: English. Derived from the Middle English word "cullen," meaning to pick or pluck. The names were given to those who worked with herbs or spices.

From a family genealogist

I remember reading somewhere years ago about the Cole family being connected to the family that were peperers (grocerymen). The speculation was made on the basis that the Colepeper coat of arms had COLE features included in it. The assumption is that sometime before 1150 a Cole married a Peperer and became Colepeper.

Culpepper Connections Response:
There is no resemblance between the Cole, Pepper and Culpeper coats of arms, so there is no basis for such speculation.

Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015

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