Edward IV and the Alchemists: Jonathan Hughes Looks at the Significance, in Alchemical Terms, of This Reign, and What the King Himself Made of Alchemical Prophecy

By Hughes, Jonathan | History Today, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Edward IV and the Alchemists: Jonathan Hughes Looks at the Significance, in Alchemical Terms, of This Reign, and What the King Himself Made of Alchemical Prophecy


Hughes, Jonathan, History Today


FIFTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH alchemists, influenced by the account of creation in Ovid's Metamorphoses, meditated on the creation of the four elements from formless chaos and attempted to accelerate in their furnaces what they believed to be the natural evolution of gold through the heat of the sun. The king depicted at the foot of the genealogical trees, like gold at the base of diagrams showing the interaction of metals, represented the culmination of an alchemical process whereby the forces of history forged the pure gold embodied by the monarchy. Court alchemists such as John Kirkby, physician at St Bartholomew's in Smithfield and to Henry VI (r.1422-61, 1470-71), and Sir George Ripley, a canon of Bridlington and alchemist writing in the period between 1450 and 1476, were equally interested in the evolution of kingship as well as metals. They saw themselves within a tradition of prophetic understanding of the workings of national destiny that reached back to Merlin (who was described in the sixteenth century as the founder of British alchemy). This fulfilment of God's alchemical work was enacted in the coronation ceremony, which took place on a mosaic of interconnecting circles constructed in 1268 that symbolised the great work of creation from chaos (represented by an Egyptian onyx disc showing the four undifferentiated elements) to order, represented by another gold circle with a black marble centre (the alchemical symbol of Sol or Gold) on which the king was crowned.

By the mid-fifteenth century the gold of the Lancastrian English kingship, under the stewardship of the insane Henry VI, was perceived to be sick and leprous. The term `Lupus' or wolf, which signified leprosy and the base metal antimony, was beginning to be applied to a king whose grandfather, Henry IV, was believed to have been cursed for his usurpation of the throne in 1399 with this disfiguring disease. His grandson's ailment was diagnosed as premature senility, an excess of the humour of phlegm, and a commission was issued in 1456 to the leading alchemists including Gilbert Kymer, John Kirkby, and the chief justice Sir John Fortescue, to search the writings of the ancients to find through alchemy a cure for the King's sickness. They turned to the writings of the thirteenth-century English alchemist Roger Bacon (1214?-94). In his adaptation of the standard treatise for princes, Secreta Secretorum, Bacon saw the health of the realm and of the king as residing in the attainment of a balance of the four humours. In Henry's case this involved redressing his watery, phlegmatic imbalance through stoic counsel and increasing his body's dryness and heat, choler and blood, through bloodletting and the intake of fiery substances such as distilled alcohol. George Ripley applied Catalonian alchemy, recently introduced to England via John Kirkby, to the problem of reviving a discredited monarchy. In his Cantilena and in an emblematic alchemical work known as The Ripley Scroll (the earliest copy of which dates from around 1460), subversive imagery of sexual conjunction, including sexually rampant fighting lions, marriages of opposites such as the sun and moon, incest, dragons and venomous toads are used to suggest that the King must undergo a symbolic death and rebirth to discover his choleric potential, a heroic and more aggressive martial will that would redeem his kingdom and reverse the recent humiliations at the hands of the French. Ripley addressed the dilemma facing the English governing class in the 1450s in the Cantilena exclaiming:

   There was a certaine Barren King by 
   birth 
   Composed of the Purest Noblest 
   Earth 
   Sanguine and Devout yet hee 
   Sadly bewailed his Authoritie. 

Ripley even conducted experiments in an alchemical bath that involved grinding: down gold coins faced with Henry's image and bringing about their rebirth in a marriage with mercury.

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