Of alchemists and kings

Fathers of Alchemy from Elias Ashmole’s book on the subject

Dr John Dee is probably England’s most famous alchemist thanks to his employment by Elizabeth I. He cast the horoscope which identified 15 January 1559 as an auspicious date for Elizabeth. Just in case you’re wondering, as well as being an astrologer and mathematician Dr Dee spent quite a lot of his time trying to talk to angels. Rather alarmingly he also managed to get involved in a scandalous wife swapping episode which probably also explains why Dee is notably absent from most school texts.

It turns out that the English had a bit of a reputation for alchemy. Elias Ashmole collated late medieval works in the Theatrum Chemicum Britanium of 1652 (and there is no one who knows me who will be surprised that I didn’t cover that during my recent Zoom class.) He began with the introduction “severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language.”

I was a bit perplexed to find Chaucer on Ashmole’s list until I read the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale and found a counterfeiter – well base metal does appear more precious than it started out! It turns out that the tale is based on a real case which can be found here on the National Archives blog: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/geoffrey-chaucer-and-alchemy/

Ashmole did not comment on whether he believed in the Philosopher’s stone or not.

It also turns out – according to some “histories” that Edward III employed one the form of Franciscan friar Raymond Lull – who somehow or other convinced Edward that he could produce enough hard cash to fund a new crusade. You will all be delighted to hear that Edward’s investment paid off because his alchemist apparently turned several tons of lead into gold which Edward promptly used to pay for his war against the French – oddly I don’t recall reading about effective chrysopoeia during the reign of Edward III. Unsurprisingly Lull disappears form history leaving a tall tale behind him – the real Lull, a Catalonian, died when Edward was a toddler, though it is true that he spoke Arabic and studied various Islamic texts.

It turns out though that in this case there is fire to go with the smoke. A Patent Roll of 1330 identifies Edward III’s interest in alchemical transmutation of base metal and twenty years later John de Walden was arrested and sent to the Tower of London for relieving the Plantagenet monarch of 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver to “work thereon by the art of alchemy.” His arrest would suggest that Edward wasn’t totally convinced by the end product.

Johnathan Hughes, The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth Century England, Bloomsbury Publishing

Alchemy – Nicholas Flamel

The tomb of Nicholas Flamel

For people who are not fans of Harry Potter (strange I know but there are some) Nicholas Flamel is a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And he was a real person who lived in fourteenth century Paris.

Alchemists believed that the world was made up of four elements and that eventually all substances would return to a pure state – so in the case of base metal they were speeding things up in their bid to transmute lead into gold and in the case of the Elixir of Life they were slowing things down. Or put another way they were attempting to work out the secrets of the cosmos.

Now, the problem with this was that until the lead transmuted into gold there wasn’t a great deal of money to be had – although if you found a rich patron then things probably became more straight forward. Though obviously states tended to be a bit twitchy about people manufacturing gold without their say so and the Church had it’s doubts about men usurping God’s role (though apparently Martin Luther found it all very interesting.) Nicholas Flamel paid his bills by working as a copyist, a public writer who wrote letters for people who couldn’t, a landlord and a bookseller – he had a licence from the University of Paris. He also speculated in property.

Apparently Nicholas laid hands on a very old book allegedly written by Abraham the Jew. Flamel translated it being familiar with kabbalah, and lo and behold Abraham knew the secret to the Elixir of Life. The problem was that he wasn’t that well versed in the language or the symbolism so he decided that he needed some help.

He concluded that the best place to go was Spain where he met a Converso – a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Conchez, the Converse, obligingly undertook to help Nicholas. Unfortunately Nicholas had travelled all that way without the book. Conchez died in Orleans and Nicholas spent the next two decades deciphering the text.

Until in 1382 he apparently found the formula and became very very rich.

There are a couple of problems with the story. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence of alchemy in Mr Flamel’s life. The money? His wife Perenelle, who he married in 1368, came from a wealthy family. That and the fact she’d already been twice widowed. His will does not suggest fantastic wealth.

Perenelle was apparently, according to the story, Nicholas’s able assistant.

Nicholas Flamel by Balthazar Montcornet – 17th century

The story – no smoke without fire and all that? Became popular about 200 years after he died… though some writers claim that they saw him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And where does all this come from? Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques was published in 1612 – which possibly goes to show that just because a book is old doesn’t make it totally trustworthy! Unless you happen to think Flamel was an alchemist in which case you might take an entirely different view! And you might also argue that given what I wrote earlier about Church and State views that you might want to look like a mild mannered entrepreneur rather than a proto-scientist.

Did I mention that other alchemist…Sir Isaac Newton?