Read more about Mysteries
For centuries, mysterious scholars toiled away in secluded laboratories in search of an elusive goal – the Philosopher’s Stone. Their quest was to turn ordinary metals into gold and to create an elixir of life, a substance that gives immortality. These secretive scientists were the alchemists.
Alchemy has its roots in antiquity, particularly Ancient China, Greece, and Egypt. It found its way to medieval Europe and became a pursuit that, like the Holy Grail, gripped the imagination and inspired the bold and the bright.
Until Robert Boyle’s writings on chemistry in the 1660s, alchemy was seen as a legitimate and respectable natural study. Some of the greatest thinkers of medieval and early modern Britain dabbled in alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton experimented, St Thomas Aquinas was a keen practitioner, and Charles II even had an alchemy laboratory built in his private chambers. Not everyone liked them, though. German ruler Frederick of Wurzburg kept special gallows for hanging alchemists.
Here we look at six of the most famous alchemists from British history.
1. George Ripley (c. 1415 - 1490)
George Ripley was a canon at Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire. Ripley was not only a leading churchman and one-time chamberlain to Pope Innocent VIII but also one of the foremost alchemists in 15th-century Europe.
Ripley called alchemy ‘this sacred science’ and several important alchemical works are attributed to him. In one of these, The Compound of Alchemy, he touches on the secrets of turning base metal into gold, by ‘the right and perfectest meanes’. In this book, Ripley inducts the reader into the ‘twelve gates’ of the alchemist’s work to create the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Yorkshireman’s work was so influential that in the early 17th century, a clever chap called Leonard Smethley created a stunning illuminated manuscript called the Ripley Scrolls, a visualisation of Ripley’s magic.
Perhaps Ripley really was a magic metallurgist? This could explain how he was apparently able to annually send £100,000 worth of gold in military aid to the Knights of St John in Rhodes.
2. Thomas Norton (pre-1436 – 1513)
Thomas Norton, born near Bristol sometime before 1436, was an alchemist famous for a long rhyming poem in which he waxed lyrical on the secrets of ‘alkimy’, which he learned as an initiate of the old master George Ripley. Norton came from a powerful merchant family and was an alchemist and frequent ambassador for King Edward IV.
In Norton’s famous poem, The Ordinal of Alchemy, he claims to have succeeded in making an immortality-giving elixir, though reportedly he never seemed to have benefited from any successful alchemical work himself. A servant was said to have ruined one of Norton’s experiments by absconding with a precious fluid, and on another occasion, a mayoress who pinched his materials and equipment became very wealthy, perhaps not uncoincidentally.
3. Thomas Charnock (c. 1524 - 1581)
A contemporary of John Dee, the mysterious advisor to Elizabeth I, Kent-born Charnock began his alchemical quest at a young age, inheriting a library of esoteric knowledge from his uncle. Then, as a young adult, he was mentored in alchemy by a priest and an abbot.
For years he laboured away and was purportedly close to a breakthrough when an explosion in his workroom scuppered his progress in 1555. Two years later he was forced into military service. As he was hauled away, he destroyed his laboratory (some sources say he demolished it in anger, while others say he did it to prevent his secrets from being discovered). When Charnock returned from military service in France, he began to work on alchemy again, plugging away until he died over 20 years later.
After Charnock’s death, locals in his Somerset village did not dare to live in his old cottage, thinking him a wizard and believing it haunted. In the late 17th century, some papers written by Charnock were discovered in the wall of this house. In these writings, he claimed to have succeeded in his life’s quest to manufacture the Philosopher’s Stone.
4. Edward Kelley (1555 – c. 1597)
Worcester-born Edward Kelley is one of the most famous occultists in British history. He led a dramatic life, from having his ears cut off by a Tudor court for forgery to working as an alchemist in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and his friendship with John Dee.
Kelley boasted that he had managed to fashion the Philosopher’s Stone and could turn base metal into gold. Rudolf, the Holy Roman Emperor, employed him as an alchemist and made him a baron. The emperor led an expensive lifestyle and was keen that Kelley made good on his promises and churn out some gold. When the fruits of Kelley’s labours were plainly gold-free, the emperor imprisoned him.
Kelley languished in a Bohemian castle cell for six years. When Queen Elizabeth was unable to secure his release, he made a bid for freedom by throwing a rope out of his castle window and attempting to climb down. He fell, broke his leg, and died soon after.
5. Arthur Dee (1579 – 1651)
A doctor to royalty including King Charles I and Tsar Michael I, Arthur Dee was born the son of the famous John Dee, in Mortlake on the south bank of the Thames and is buried in Norwich. It was in 1629, during his 14 years in Moscow working as chief physician to the tsar, that he produced a weighty volume of alchemy, drawing on existing work.
In recent years, scholars have deciphered a portion of Dee’s coded writing on alchemy. The text is Dee’s instructions for creating the Philosopher’s Stone. Dee declares in these notes that if you follow his recipe, ‘You will have a truly gold-making elixir [...] and those who suffer from any illness will be restored to health.’
6. James Price (1752 – 1783)
London-born Price was an eminent scientist who turned his hand to alchemy in the last few years of his life.
In 1783 he performed several demonstrations in alchemy at his laboratory in Surrey, witnessed by several establishment figures such as peers and leading chemists. He was reportedly able to produce gold and silver by mixing certain chemicals and metallic elements together. The Royal Society, the esteemed science academy of which Price was a member, demanded to witness this for themselves. Price tried to fob them off, but eventually agreed to show them his wondrous alchemy.
Having welcomed three members of the Royal Society into his Guildford lab to prove his work to them, he suddenly downed a flask of poison he’d prepared earlier (it was laurel water, heavily distilled to contain a lethal amount of prussic acid) and died in front of his colleagues.