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

Dr Simon Forman – a Tudor version of Pepys…with magic and poison

Simon Forman was born on December 30, 1552, near Salisbury. Unlike Shakespeare for whom there is no evidence of attending grammar school we have Forman’s account of his teacher and his education which began when he was seven. Unfortunately Simon’s father died suddenly and the boy had to leave school taking employment with a merchant who sold herbs and drugs.

Ten years later Simon left Salisbury, apparently after an argument with his master’s wife, and went to Oxford to live with his cousins. It appears that although he was eager to continue his education that he was unhappy in Oxford so when back to Salisbury where he became a teacher.

In 1579 things changed, Simon became a prophet! “I did prophesy the truth of many things which afterwards came to pass…the very spirits were subject unto me”. He also moved to London where presumably there was more need for doctoring, astrology and magic – remember these three things weren’t at odds with one another during the Tudor period. What made the real difference to Forman’s career as a doctor was that he remained in London during the plagues of 1592 and 1594. As a result he became known for his skills and the publication in 1595 of a book entitled Discourses on the Plague. He claimed that he was able to work with plague cases because he had caught and recovered from the disease.

Unfortunately the Royal College of Physicians took umbrage because he lacked their training. They described his herbal medicines as “magical potions.” In short they determined that he was a quack, fined him and told him not to call himself a doctor. Forman ignored them but within nine months a man died soon after taking one of his prescriptions and he found himself in prison. He finally gained a licence from Cambridge University in 1603 despite the fact that he had never studied there.

Forman wrote a lot of books and kept a diary which recorded his own life as well as his consultations with people from all ranks of society. He recorded some of his womanising activities even though he’d married Jane Baker in 1599.

William Lilly

We even know how Forman died thanks to another astrologer, William Lilly. In September of 1611, Forman apparently told his wife that he was about to make his last prophesy, namely that he would die the next Thursday evening which he did whilst rowing on the Thames.

That wasn’t the end of Forman though. Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset went on trial in 1616 for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. Whilst she was still Lady Essex married to Robert Devereux. Frances had gone with her friend Anne Turner to see Forman for potions that would keep Lord Essex at arm’s length and another to attract the attentions of James I’s favourite Robert Carr as he seemed a better financial and political bet than the spouse that she had been required to marry when they were both children. Forman was also accused of providing the poison which added to some tarts killed Sir Thomas Overbury whilst he was in the Tower.

Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset

Ultimately Forman’s papers ended up in the care of Elias Ashmole, the founder of the Ashmolean in Oxford and thus his diary which includes visits to the theatre to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale survive – though not without some dispute as to their veracity.

Kassell, Lauren (2007) Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician

Rowse, A.L. (1974) The Casebooks of Simon Forman