In England the first known alchemist was Roger Bacon, a scholar of outstanding attainment, who was born in Somersetshire in 1214. He made extraordinary progress even in his boyhood studies, and on reaching the required age joined the Franciscan Order. From Oxford he passed on to Paris where he studied medicine and mathematics. On his return to England he applied himself to the study of philosophy and languages, with such success that he wrote grammars of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues.
Although Bacon has been described as a physician rather than a chemist, we are indebted to him for many scientific discoveries. He was almost the only astronomer of his time and in this capacity rectified the Julian calendar which, although submitted to Pope Clement IV in 1267, was not put into practice until a later Papacy. He was responsible also for the physical analysis of convex glasses and lenses, the invention of spectacles and achromatic lenses, and if not for the actual construction, at any rate for the theory of the telescope. As a student of chemistry he called attention to the chemical role played by air in combustion, and having carefully studied the properties of saltpetre, taught its purification by dissolution in water and by crystallisation.
From certain of his letters we may learn that Bacon anticipated most of the achievements of modern science. He maintained that vessels might be constructed which would be capable of navigation without rowers, and which, under the direction of a single man, could travel through the water at a speed hitherto undreamt of. He also predicted that it would be equally possible to construct cars which 'might be set in motion with marvellous rapidity, independently of horses and other animals,' and flying machines which would beat the air with artificial wings
It is scarcely surprising that in the atmosphere of superstition and ignorance which reigned in Europe during the middle ages Bacon's achievements were attributed to his communication with devils, and that his fame spread through Western Europe not as a savant, but as a great magician! His great services to humanity were met with censure, not gratitude, and to the Church his teachings seemed particularly pernicious. She accordingly took her place as one of his foremost adversaries, and even the friars of his own order refused his writings a place in their library. His persecutions culminated in 1279 in imprisonment and a forced repentance of his labours in the cause of art and science.
Amongst his many writings there are extant two or three works on alchemy from which it is quite evident that not only did he study and practise the science, but that he obtained his final objective, the Philosophers' Stone. Doubtless during his lifetime his persecutions led him to conceal carefully his practice of the Hermetic art and to consider the revelation of such matters unfit
for the uninitiated. 'Truth,' he writes, 'ought not to be shown to every ribald, for then that would become most vile which, in the hand of a philosopher, is the most precious of all things.'
Sir George Ripley, Canon of Bridlington Cathedral, Yorkshire, placed alchemy on a higher level than many of his contemporaries by dealing with it as a spiritual and not merely a physical manifestation. He maintained that alchemy is concerned with the mode of our spirit's return to God who gave it. He wrote in 1471 his 'Compound of Alchemy' with its dedicatory epistle to Edward IV. It is also reported of this Canon of Bridlington that he provided funds for the Knights of St. John by means of the Philosophers' Stone.
In the sixteenth century Pierce, the Black Monk, wrote on the Elixir the following:
'Take earth of Earth, Earth's Mother, Water of Earth, Fire of Earth and Water of the Wood. These are to lie together and then be parted. Alchemical gold is made of three pure souls, purged as crystal. Body, soul, and spirit grown into a Stone, wherein there is no corruption: this is to be cast on Mercury and it shall become most worthy gold.'
Other works of the sixteenth century include Thomas Charnock's 'Breviary of Philosophy' and the additaminta thereto, and 'Enigma' in 1572. He also wrote a memorandum in which he states that he attained the transmuting powder when his hairs were white.
In the sixteenth century also lived Edward Kelly, born 1555. He seems to have been an adventurer, and is reputed to have lost his ears at Lancaster on an accusation of producing forged title deeds. Whether
this is true or not, the fact remains that Dr. Dee, a learned man of the Elizabethan era, was very interested in Kelly's clairvoyant visions, although it is difficult to determine whether Kelly really was a genuine seer since his life was such an extraordinary mixture of good and bad.
In some way or other Kelly does appear to have come into possession of the Red and White Tinctures, since Elias Ashmole printed at the end of 'Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum' a tract entitled 'Sir Edward Kelly's Work' and says:
'Tis generally reported that Doctor Dee and Sir Edward Kelly were so strangely fortunate as to find a very large quantity of the Elixir in some part of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, which was so incredibly rich in virtue (being one upon 272,330), that they lost much in making projection by way of trial before they found out the true height of the Medicine.'
How true that may be is a moot point, but it is a fact that in March 1583 the Count Palatine of Siradia, Prince of Poland, Adalbert Alask, while visiting the Court of Queen Elizabeth, sought an acquaintance with Dr. Dee to discuss his experiments, in which he became so interested that he was accompanied by Dee and Kelly and their families on his return to Cracow. The Prince took them from Cracow to Prague in anticipation of favours at the hand of the Emperor, Rudolph II, but their attempt to get into touch with Rudolph was unsuccessful. In Prague at that time a great interest was evinced in alchemy by all and sundry, but in 1586, by reason of an edict of Pope Sixtus V, Dee and Kelly were forced to flee the city.
They finally found peace and plenty at the Castle of Trebona in Bohemia as guests of Count Rosenberg, the Emperor's Viceroy in that country. During that time Kelly made projection of one minim on an ounce and a quarter of mercury and produced nearly an ounce of best gold, which gold was afterwards distributed from the crucible.
In February 1588, following a breach between them, the two men parted, Dee making for England and Kelly for Prague, where Rosenberg had persuaded the Emperor to quash the Papal decree. Through the introduction of Rosenberg, Kelly was received and honoured by Rudolph as one in possession of the Great Secret of Alchemy. From him he received besides a grant of land and the freedom of the city, a councillorship of state and apparently a title, since he was known from that time forward as Sir Edward Kelly. These honours are evidence that Kelly had undoubtedly demonstrated to the Emperor his knowledge of transmutation, but the powder of projection had now diminished, and to the Emperor's command to produce it in ample quantities, he failed to accede, being either unable or unwilling to do so. As a result he was cast into prison at the Castle of Purglitz near Prague where he remained until 1591, when he was restored to favour. He was interned a second time, however, and in 1595, according to chronicles, whilst attempting to escape from his prison, fell from a considerable height and was killed at the age of forty.
In the seventeenth century lived Eugenius Philalethes or Thomas Vaughan. Vaughan came from Wales and his writings were regarded as an illustration of the
purely spiritual mystery within the science of alchemy, but whatever the various interpretations put upon his work, Vaughan was undoubtedly endeavouring to show that alchemy was demonstratable in every phase of consciousness, physical, mental, and spiritual. His work, 'Lumen de Lumine,' is an alchemical discourse and deals with his subject in the phases I have mentioned. His medicine is a spiritual substance inasmuch as it is the Quintessence or the Divine Life manifesting through all form, both physical and spiritual. His gold is the philosophic gold of the physical world as well as the wisdom of the spiritual. His stone is the touchstone which transmutes everything and is again spiritual and physical, and the statement that the Medicine can only be contained in a glass vessel signifies a tangible glass container as well as the purified body of the adept.
Thomas Vaughan was a Magus of the Rosicrucian Order and he knew and understood that the science of alchemy as such must manifest throughout all planes of consciousness.
Eirenaeus Philalethes, by reason of his very numerous writings, must be mentioned. There has been much discussion as to whether this was the name of another adept, or merely another pen name for Vaughan. Mr. Waite has attempted to prove to his satisfaction that they were two different men. 'Personally, I should attribute both names to Thomas Vaughan, but although the question of these authors' identity may make interesting debating material, it is of negligible importance from the standpoint adopted in this book.
In his preface to the Open Entrance from the 'Collectanea
[paragraph continues] Chymica,' published by William Cooper in 1684, he gives testimony:
'I being an adept anonymous, a lover of learning, and a philosopher, decreed to write this little treatise of medicinal, chemical and physical secrets in the year of the world's redemption 1645, in the three and twentieth year of my age, that I may pay my duty to the Sons of Art, that I might appear to other adepts as their brother and equal. Now therefore I presage that not a few will be enlightened by these my labours. These are no fables, but real experiments which I have made and know, as every other adept will conclude by these lines. In truth, many times I laid aside my pen, designing to forbear from writing, being rather willing to have concealed the truth under a mask of envy, but God compelled me to write and Him I could in no wise resist, who alone knows the heart and unto Whom be glory for ever. I believe that many in this last age of the world shall be rejoiced with the Great Secret because I have written so faithfully, leaving of my own will nothing in doubt for a young beginner. I know many already who possess it in common with myself, and am persuaded that I shall yet be acquainted in the immediate time to come. May God's most holy will be done therein. I acknowledge myself all unworthy of bringing those things about, but in such matters I submit in adoration to Him, to Whom all creation is subject, Who created all to this end, and having created, preserves them.'
He then goes on to give an account of the transmutation of metals into silver and gold, and also of the fact that the medicine administered to some at the point of death affected their miraculous recovery.
Of one occasion he writes:
'On a time in a foreign country I would have sold so much pure silver worth £600, but although I was dressed like a merchant they said unto me presently that the said metal was made by Art. When I asked their reasons it was answered "We know the silver that comes from England, Spain, and other places, but this is none of these kinds." On hearing this I withdrew suddenly, leaving the silver behind me as well as its price and never returning."
Again he remarks:
'I have made the Stone: I do not possess it by theft but by the gift of God. I have made it and daily have it in my power, having formed it often with my own hands. I write the things that I know.'
In the last chapter of the Open Entrance is his message to those who have attained the goal:
'He who hath once, by the blessing of God, perfectly attained this Art, I know not what in the world he can wish but that he may be free from all snares of wicked men so as to serve God without distraction. But it would be a vain thing by outward pomp to seek for vulgar applause. Such trifles are not esteemed by those who have this Art, nay, rather they despise them. He therefore whom God hath blessed with this talent has this field of content. First, if he should live a thousand years and every day provide for a thousand men, he could not want, for he may increase his Stone at his pleasure, both in weight and virtue so that if a man would, one man might transmute into perfect gold and silver all the imperfect metals that are in the whole world. Secondly, he may by this Art make precious stones and gems, such as cannot be paralleled in Nature for goodness and greatness. Thirdly and lastly, he
hath a Medicine Universal, both for prolonging life and curing of all diseases, so that one true adeptist can easily cure all the sick people in the world I mean his medicine is sufficient.
'Now to the King, Eternal, Immortal and sole Almighty, be everlasting praise for these His unspeakable gifts and invaluable treasures. Whosoever enjoyeth this talent, let him be sure to employ it to the glory of God and the good of his neighbours, lest he be found ungrateful to God his Creditor--who has blessed him with so great a talent--and so be in the last day found guilty of misproving it and so condemned.'
His principal works are 'An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of the King,' 'Ripley Revived,' 'The Marrow of Alchemy' in verse, 'Metallorum Metamorphosis,' 'Brevis Manuductio ad Rubinem Coelestum,' 'Fone Chemicae Veritatis,' and a few others in the 'Musaeum Hermiticum' and in Manget's collection. There is also the story of a transmutation before Gustavus Adolphus in 1620, the gold of which was coined into medals, bearing the King's effigy with the reverse Mercury and Venus; and of another at Berlin, before the King of Prussia.
Sir Isaac Newton, the famous seventeenth-century mathematician and scientist, though not generally known as an alchemist, was undoubtedly an experimenter in that particular branch of science. If one follows carefully, in the light of alchemical knowledge, the biography of Sir Isaac Newton by J. W. V. Sullivan, I think it is quite easy to realize the experimental theories on which he was working. Sir Arthur Eddington, in reviewing this book, says:
'The science in which Newton seems to have been chiefly interested, and on which he spent most of his time was chemistry. He read widely and made innumerable experiments, entirely without fruit so far as we know.'
His amanuensis records:
'He very rarely went to bed until two or three of the clock, sometimes not till five or six, lying about four or five hours, especially at spring or the fall of the leaf, at which time he used to employ about six weeks in his laboratory, the fire scarce going out night or day. What his aim might be I was unable to penetrate into.'
I think the answer to this might certainly be that Newton's experiments were concerned with nothing more or less than alchemy.
In the same century Alexander Seton, a Scot, suffered indescribable torments for his knowledge of the art of transmutation. After practising in his own country he went abroad, where he demonstrated his transmutations before men of good repute and integrity in Holland, Hamburg, Italy, Basle, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Munich. He was finally summoned to appear before the young Elector of Saxony, to whose court he went somewhat reluctantly. The Elector, on receiving proof of the authenticity of his projections, treated him with distinction, convinced that Seton held the secret of boundless wealth. But Seton refused to initiate the Elector into his secret, and was imprisoned in Dresden. As his imprisonment would not shake his purpose he was put to the torture. He was pierced, racked, beaten, seared with fire and molten lead, but still he held his peace. At length he was left in solitary confinement
until his release was finally engineered by the adept Sendivogius. Even to his friend he refused to reveal the secret until shortly before his death, two years after his escape from prison, when he presented Sendivogius with his transmuting powder.