The first part of this critique is found here, and covers his introductory chapters.
This second part concentrates upon a number of specific assertions and topics found throughout the book. All too frequently he resorts to what I wouldn’t say are arguments, rather Hughes style is to say that something is ‘this’, and often not provide any real argument for it being so, it is taken for granted that he is correct, and sometimes he provides a reference to back it up. Usually that reference is entirely correct, or leads to a manuscript itself. In the latter case, he often seems to be quoting a small bit of text and interpreting it to mean what he wants it to mean, which may or may not be a relevant or accurate interpretation.

Three different ways of bringing out the errors are followed. One is to follow specific ideas and concepts through the book, to see what Hughes makes of them at different places. The second is to focus on a specific claim and his placing of it in historical context, compared to my interpretation and what I have read elsewhere. Lastly there are some individual errors.

So, firstly, the Unicorn. To Hughes, this is an animal with alchemical symbolism, I argue otherwise. The unicorn appeared in heraldy by the 15th century or so, and was well known of in various ways though stories and bestiaries by the 13th, but he provides no evidence and only some vague correspondences for a 14th century link between heraldry and alchemy. That Unicorns were used as an alchemical symbol in the 16/17th century is not in doubt, but in the 14th? I don’t think so.

His mentions of Unicorns include:
Page 63-4, the Chymical wedding reference re. Unicorn, Hughes, mentions what the unicorn means according to the old and new testament etc, and near top of page 64 of the paperback edition,
“These powerful white, horned beasts symbolised in their free state the powerful, elusive force of mercury, and the potentially destructive power of sulphur, the forces of nature. These horned beasts penetrated the earth, enacting the sexual dynamics of the interplay of mercury and sulphur, and trapped,they became fixed mercury or aqua vitae the servant of the alchemist and the source of gold. Their horns reminded him of the horns of the moon and the redemptive chalice.
These symbols had become common places of alchemical illustrations by the seventeenth century but their origins lay in the late Middle ages. … a potentially subversive threat to conventional religion, and this was demonstrated by George Ripley in the fifteenth century in his meditation on the green lion lying in the queen’s lap with blood flowing from his side”
reference 34 follow.
Ref. 34 is to See also Dastin’s Rosarius, Ashmole MS 1416,fo. 119V for a reference to the lion.

Thus there is no reference given for unicorns being used by alchemists in the 14th century; and it seems odd that Hughes mentions it in relation to sulphur and mercury, which would make a unicorn a hermaphrodite, when the general thrust of medieval thought was that the unicorn was masculine; hence why it can be tamed by a virgin. Also he calls sulphur and mercury forces of nature, which simply isn’t true, outside the context of some specific alchemical texts, and they probably wouldn’t have been thought of as such either even by an alchemist, given the popularity of hiding your intentions and recipes behind veils of allusion.

From page 63/4:
“The horns of these creatures represented power, masculinity, authority and penetration, and yet they were also hollow vessels, female and associated with the chalice. Their Duality served the purposes of the alchemists” ref 32.
Ref. 32 is to Jung Mysterium conjunctionis p274ff. I don’t have the same edition that he does, but it does after all have an index. On page 281 it says “… for, like the unicorn, he was softened by love in the lap of a virgin.”, the context being the need for renewal of the Fisher King in Grail myths. Page 423 note at bottom mentions that Wolfram von Eschenbach calls the carbuncle a healing stone which lies under the horn of a unicorn. Page 500, note, says that the unicorn signified mercury and was well known in 16/17th century alchemy! Which is definitely not proof of a link to 13/14th century alchemy nor that it is seen as a duality of male and female.
Another mention on page 5 is of the unicorn and a stag in the forest, meaning spirit, soul and body, which is taken from the very much not medieval book of Lambspring! So I see no actual evidence for the Unicorn being seen as a duality and of importance in 14th century alchemy.

There is also mention of a Unicorn, on page 99, as illustrated in Edward III’s copy of the Secreta Secretorum. The problem here is, as above, the lack of evidence given for Unicorns having alchemical symbolism at this time. Instead, in the medieval period, there was a well developed symbology of the Unicorn indicating masculine virility, or identified with Christ and the Virgin Mary. There is an entire book about them in medieval art and literature:
Of course there is no mention of alchemy.
In this case it is far more likely that the unicorn is a symbol of masculine virility, placed there as an inspiration for the reader, who is after all a man. This hypothesis is backed up by the preceding link from google books, which discusses on page 40 how the unicorn is seen as fierce and wild and willing to fight.

Quote from bottom of page 98 onto page 99,
“In this work it is asserted that the king who is able to harness the four humours and elements and integrate the forces of mercury and sulphur will exhibit the strength and ruthlessness necessary to rule and judge and protect his people. These twin forces of mercury and sulphur are closely identified with the power of the king over his realm. This is signified in the representations through the manuscript of the mythic-horned beasts which are not naturally conceived and which integrate the powers of mercury and sulphur. They include the dragon, the most obvious symbol of sulphur, but which is also the uroboros, the reconciler of oposites including the twin poles of mercury and sulphur, and the two mercurial beasts the white hart (included in the MS are images of a hart with huge antlers and a stag hunt {ref 34 is to BL Add MS 47680, fol. 75, 99}, representing the fixation of mercury) and the unicorn, which also in its fierceness and strength represents sulphur and the power of a king who will also be the servant of his subjects. By integrating these might opposites (on another page there is an illustration of the lion and unicorn fighting){ref 35 is to BL Add MS 47680, fol 92} the king will become like God unleashing great forces for good and ill; he will become the alchemist who has achieved the philosopher’s stone, transforming his kingdom …”

Which is all very well if you agree with what he says about the symbolism, if you do not, it means nothing. Surely it is far more likely that powerful beasts are illustrated because they are symbolic of the power and importance of kingship, especially with lions etc. Why else were they so popular in heraldry of the 13th century? I note also that according to the BL manuscripts online, Add MS 47680 only has 76 pages! Not 92, as in his reference, it only goes as high as f.76v! It is noted as incomplete, but where’s the rest of it? – remember that I have found only 76 pages, specifically following Hughes reference to the MS; that he says there are more pages than I can find is extremely confusing, and right now I’d rather believe the BL online MS.

If we look at the illustrations in the MS itself, helpfully digitised in the last few years and free to access at the BL website,
we find some of a lion and eagle, a lion and rabbit, but I can see no sign in MS 47680 of a unicorn or a stag/ hart, what is his reference for that idea? Morover folio 75 doesn’t have any animals on it at all, all of which suggests some confusion in Hughes references and notes about relevant texts.

Page 104 in the index, but actually page 105 in the paperback states that John Dastin’s vision develops the alchemical motif of the unicorn in the virgin’s lap.
Reading the edition of Dastin’s “Visio” in Theisen’s article in Ambix, I see no mention of unicorns or laps, just virgins who are devoured by a serpent, which seems rather hard to equate to a unicorn. Now the mention of virgins who get consumed by mercury is a bit different from a virgin taming a wild creature, especially since the king/ gold is not wild; if anything the wild creature is the serpent, so ultimately I fail to see how the alchemical motif is developed. I can also find no mention of unicorns in the later version of the Dream that is contained within Ashmoles “Theatrum Chemicum”, in the 1652 printed edition. So at this stage I do not understand what Hughes is trying to say, since his claim does not fit with the visio itself.

The Index gives page 124 as having unicorn in it, but I couldn’t find it.
Next, page 160, but actually page 159, Hughes claims that alchemical symbols were adopted, such as in the 1390’s, “The marriage with the Daughter of Charles VI will transform the child, Isabella, into a ‘beautiful white pearl’ and ‘through her conjugal chastity, not only will the fury of the unicorn be appeased, but the unicorn itself will be taken in the net’ an allusion the myth that the unicorn would lay his head in the lap of the virgin and appease his lustful fury” reference 123, which is “Letter to Richard II”, page 69.
The reference may be correct, but so what, there’s nothing alchemical about this! As previously mentioned, the imagery of the unicorn as rampantly masculine and tameable only by a virgin is entirely separate from any alchemical notions, and the presence of this concept does not indicate any alchemical meaning; neither does mention of a pearl.

The key point here is that at no point does Hughes actually show that the Unicorn was linked to alchemy in the 14th century in England. It is more likely that, after becoming so popular in the medieval period, it was imported into alchemical symbolism, but that would be after the 14th century. His examples can just as easily be explained by reference to the common medieval cultural ideas about Unicorns. Thus, use of the unicorn and matching it to both sulphur and mercury and so on, is simply mis-informing the reader.

Now, having set the Unicorn free from Hughes odd ideas, we move onto the Secreta Secretorum:
Page 95 of Hughes – “The copying and illustration of the Secreta Secretorum, a work of Muslim alchemical traditions, for an English King in waiting represents the culmination of the emergence of the alchemy as a political force in the Latin West, something that exists in the earliest known work of Arab Alchemy, libert de Compositione Alchemiae de Morienus which Robert of Chester introdued to the Latin world.”
But the Secreta Secretorum (hereafter SS) isn’t a work of alchemical traditions, except insofar as Hughes completely misses the complexity and integration of Islamic alchemy from which the SS has abstracted a small amount of information. Williams makes it clear in the chapters about the development of the text in his book “The Secret of Secrets: The scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin middle ages “, how it is an acretion of several texts over centuries, with no known Greek exemplars, but it has Hellenistic roots to it, as you would expect given that Arabic culture had absorbed Hellenistic stuff including alchemy and medicine.
And how is alchemy acting as a political force? Hughes really doesn’t actually make the case for it doing so. How does the “Book of the Composition of alchemy” show alchemy as a political force anyway? It merely tells the story of Morienus and Prince Khalid ibn Yazid.

Later on page 96 Hughes writes – “The circumstances facilitating the use by the political community in the 1320’s of a practical science and a theoretical philosophy of healing and regeneration could not have been more propitious.”
But how is this the case? Did Edward II take alchemical elixirs? Did he use it as a tool to persuade others that he was the proper King? No, he did not, and Hughes adduces no evidence that he did beyond some rather anemic links between the symbolism Edward used and alleged alchemical symbolism. E.g. equating the king with gold, or a bull or a lion, is perfectly normal medieval symbolism. No alchemical relation is required for it to be used, although a later author can read such meanings into the texts easily enough, but this misses out whether or not the people of the time actually thought that.

See also page 100, which has “The King too must demonstrate in his rule that he embodies the qualities of sun and moon and the principle of the divine spirit of mercury that existed before creation and is manifested with the help of its body, sulphur.”
But who says that sulphur is the body of the spirit of mercury, where does he get this idea from? That the divine spirit of mercury existed before creation is, I believe, simply Hughes misunderstanding the allusions and allegory within the Testamentum, but the bald way he states it loads it with a physical reality and meaning which is simply not medieval or in its proper context.

He continues, “The illustrations in Edward’s copy of the Secreta Secretorum reinforce this connection with numerous illustrations of the sun and moon and an illustration of Alexander/ Edward with Aristotle/ Edward’s alchemist receiving the white stone whose mother is the moon which is mixed with water, and the red stone whose father is the sun mixed with fire. Ref 40”
ref. 40 is to BL Add MS 47680, fols. 46, 48a.

But of course the sun and moon are perfectly normal astrological symbols so their presence in the MS in no way proves an alchemical link, rather one between Kings and the sun. And two illustrations is hardly numerous!
Turning to the manuscript, on f.48r, we see a king with a learned man, probably a physician, greeting a normally dressed man with 2 horses, and a silver and a gold coloured object is falling down from the bag around the horses necks/ the visitors waist. There is at least mention of stones in the text nearby, and of white going to red. So f48 is an alchemically related section. “The moon is its mother” is correct, that comes from the Emerald Tablet in the Secreta Secretorum.
Which is all very well, but following this logic, the Secreta is also about artillery, given the illustration on folio 44v of a cannon. Since this page is about war and fighting it makes sense that it is illustrated by such a picture, but nobody would claim that the Secreta had great influence on the adoption of gunpowder weapons, would they? All we can rationally say, without a great deal more information, is that Edward III was likely to have learnt that alchemy existed and a little of the philosophical background. This is shown also by the records indicating his interest in alchemists throughout his reign, but this doesn’t mean alchemy was politically or even culturally important during it. In order to prove that I might expect some letters between important people making alchemical references, or unmistakeably alchemical symbolism, except of course that that only really developed in the late 14th/ early 15th century.

Onto John Dastin:
On page 101, Hughes states that Dastin is the author of 9 letters on the theory and practise of alchemy, and references “The letters of John Dastin”, by Wilfrid Theisen, Ambix, 2008. But Theisen quite clearly says that not all of the letters attributed to Dasten are original, writing that, regarding the letter to Pope John XXII which starts ‘Hoc est secretum secretorum’, it appears to be a later work, the text consisting of parts of other Dastin works which have been assembled to make the letter. And the ninth letter, which starts ‘O venerande pater gratias ago’, is virtually a copy of a work by Arnold of Villanova, whom Theisen places as a contemporary of Dastin; of course he means the alchemical Arnold, or even if he does’t, it’s a bit hard for him to be a contemporary of Dastin since the real Arnold of Villanova died in 1311 or 1313, a decade before Dastin allegedly started writing.
So if two of the letters are spurious, how many did Dastin really write? Probably not nine, more like 3 or 4. Either way Hughes has misunderstood things completely.

Page 120, Hughes mentions John Dastin writing 2 treatises dedicated to Cardinal Orsini, “…explained how behaviour was determined by the link between the humours and the planets: the moon (silver and quicksilver) determined the mercurial unpredictable part of the psyche; Venus (copper) the instincts; Mars and Jupiter (iron and tin) discipline; and a man normally could not resist the influence of these celestial bodies or the elements beneath them which determined the general laws of nature and the natural rythms of the body.”
Again, all this is pefectly normal for the period, but irrelevant if you can’t show a link to Edward’s court or anything else in England at the time, which Hughes has signally failed to do in his book.

Page 104, “Edward III can be identified in Dastin’s vision as the sun or gold the child of mercury ‘of seed most cleare and pure’. This highest of all the planets enjoys perfect health because his
Complexion is most temperate
In heate and cold and in humidity,
In erth also there is noe debate
and in him fire so burns that of corruption he taketh no sickness
{ref 71 to Bodl. MS poet 121, p. 374ff.; Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.}
Mercury advises her son that he must save his brethren by encountering the dragon and undergoing a death and rebirth. The notion of the king’s death and rebirth could apply to the death of Edward II, in all probability murdered by this time, and the rebirth of the kingship, golden and untarnished through the seed of the dead king who, alone of the sons of Mercury/ Isabella is ‘of her children of seed most cleere and pure.’ {ref 72 to Bodl MS poet 121; Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, p. 374ff.}”

But yet earlier, page 97, Hughes refers to “The femininity and sexual degradation of Edward’s father meant that special significance was given in his copy of the Secreta Secretorum to the conservation of heat by encouraging the production of the humours of choler and blood….”
So how is a pure seed supposed to come from one who is degraded? Or you could understand it as meaning the Royal bloodline, but such a simile is so obvious as to be visible everywhere you look, and if anything would have been transferred to alchemy from its use in royal propaganda, rather than from alchemy to propaganda.
This is especially since the Visio carries on in ways which are perfectly normal for alchemical symbolism but not so obviously related to the situation Edward III faced. Hughes thus picks out one single bit of the Visio, the death and rebirth of the king, but this is primarily a Christian idea, not alchemical at first, and there is no need to apply it to such a King.

And page 96, “Erghome suggested that Edward II of Caernarvon failed because he did not have any knowledge or understanding of the forces of nature that a king aught to have.” Erghome was apparently writing a later political analysis of the reigns of Edward II and III.
The point here is again that the influences on how kings and their courts viewed the world, does indeed likely come from the Secreta Secretorum and its ilk; where Hughes errs is in making a big fuss about alchemy in this context. It is well known that Kings were supposed to have a good idea of how the world worked, but this covered medicine and astrology, both of which are discussed in the Secreta Sectretorum, and both of which are very clearly not alchemy although they overlap somewhat. Moreover, he wrote earlier on page 91:
“The long reign of Edward III (1326-1377) provided alchemists with the opportunity to demonstrate the political significance of their art. Edward’s reign coincided with the popularization of Muslim alchemy in such Latin works as the Pretiosa Margareta Novella (the new pearl of great price) of Petrus Bonus (1330), and in the absorption of alchemical, occult themes in the vernacular literature of the court writers Chaucer, Gower and the Gawain poet.”

But anyway, here the issue is, why would alchemists want to demonstrate the political significance of their work? No reason that I can see. Who was actually seeing alchemy in a political way at the time, nobody that I have ever heard of. Hughes asserts numerous times that so and so saw X in the light of Y alchemical theme, but all the examples I have read so far are based on astrology or medicine or heraldry. Even worse, it seems quite clear that muslim alchemy had been popularised before, see for instance Roger Bacon, and why would the popular work the New Pearl of Great Price instantly be transported to England to affect people, given that it was likely written in Italy or Yugoslavia? Where is the evidence that his works were affecting things in England in Edward III reign? Only if you assume that works attributed to Dastin are based on Petrus Bonus and the original Dastin, but Hughes sidesteps such complexities and shows little understanding of the evolution of alchemy during the century, and no concern with relative dates. He is somewhat right about Gower and perhaps the Gawain poet, these are not my specialist topics, but they are later 14th century works and indicate how alchemy was becoming well known, rather than anything to do with politics.

As previously mentioned, Hughes doesn’t pay much attention to the use of cover names. So a study of his equation of sulphur with the sun and mercury with the moon is of interest. This immediately runs into difficulties.
If one looks forwards in the book, you find him repeatedly claiming that the sun is sulphur and the moon is mercury, based on, well, it isnt clear at this point, but later on, e.g. page 45 of the paperback, it seems to be his own understanding of John Dastin’s vision. (Only the bit he quotes makes me think of amalgamating mercury and gold, a very common alchemical operation, not of uniting mercury and sulphur at all) and the section in question is not present in many of the manuscripts.
So, page 45, Hughes assumes Dastin’s ‘dream vision’ is
“John Dastin in his dream vision celebrated a marriage between the sun (sulphur) and the moon (mercury) when during the time of Aries when the spirit of life is inspired
“The sunne that sitteth so hegh and a loft,
His golden dew droppes still clearly raigne downe
By means of Mercury that nowen first made softe
Then there shall be a glad conjunction.”

The relevant reference number is 18, to “vision of John Dastin Bodl MS Laud poet 121; Ashmole Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.”

Amazingly, I cannot find this MS Laud poet 121 at all. The appropriate library databases can be searched online, but are complex and not properly integrated, yet I am sure I have searched the correct one and it doesn’t have one. Again, google finds no other mention of “Bodl MS Laud Poet 121”, so I cannot tell where this is really from. The other reference given is for the well known Theatrum Chemicum. The problem there is that the section Hughes uses for his excerpt is a preface to the work itself, a preface which is simply not present in the Theisen version of it (which also lists the MS of the work still extant, and doesn’t include the alleged Laud version, see “John Dastin’s Alchemical Vision”, by Wilfred Theisen, Ambix, volume 46 part 2, July 1999). So the question is, where did Ashmole get his version from? I don’t know, but at this stage we certainly can’t say it is 14th century at all!
Moreover, if we quote the preface from the Theatrum Chemicum at length, a different interpretation is possible:
4) Of this matter above betweene Starrs seaven,
By Gods and Goddesses all of one assent,
Was sent Caducifer to Earth downe from Heaven
Saturnus as Bedell by great advifement,
For to summon a general Parliament,
By concord of all both old and young of age,
To say in Breife their Councell most prudent,
for Common proffit to knitt up a marriage.
5) Betweene twaine borne of the Imperiall blood,
and descended from Jupiters line,
of their Natures most pure and most good,
Wythowte infeccion their seede is most divine:
That noe eclips may let them for to shine,
So that mercury doth stint all debate,
And restraine their courage by meaknes them incline,
That of frowardnes they be not indurate.
6) For the sunne that sitteth so heigh a loft,
his golden dew-droppes shall cleerely raigne downe,
By the meane of mercury that moven first made soft:
Then there shalbe a glad conjunccion,
Whan there is made a separacion:
And their two spermes by Marriage are made one,
And the said Mercury by Devision,
Hath taken his flight and from both is gone.
7) These be the two Mercuries cheife of Philosophers, revived again with the Spirit of lyfe,
Richer than rubies or pearles shut in coferurs,
Washed and baptized in waters vegitative,
the body diffevered with heate nutrative:
by moderate moysture of Putrefaccion,
So that there is no excesse nor no strife
Of the foure Elements in their Conjunccion.

Now, reading this in situ, the section that Hughes quotes appears to me to discuss the matter of gold, the sun, marrying the moon, silver, and it clearly suggests that mercury softens gold, that mercury flies from both, but which both? Surely gold and silver, or gold and whatever base metal you prefer. Certainly you wouldn’t say that mercury softens and then departs when you want an actual marriage between mercury and sulphur! Instead, I think Hughes has repeatedly confused mercury the cover name for silver with that of mercury the ingredient of metals; it is easily done because the alchemists themselves were never very clear on the matter, nevertheless there are a number of other places where he simply equates mercury with the moon and gold with sulphur, which is a dangerously wrong thing to do because the words mean different things at different times and places, as you can clearly see in the 16th century work “Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite” by Humphrey Locke. Anyone reading the works attributed to Dastin will see that there are different meanings of ‘mercury’ meant, and Hughes just does’t go into this at all, meaning the reader ends up with no understanding of an important point. The use of cover names is almost as old as alchemy itself and is important enough to be singled out for mention by the likes of Principe in his “The secrets of Alchemy”.

Hughes work hinges upon a claim based on John Dastin being involved in the court of Edward III right from his coronation. For instance:
On page 33, with reference 77, he claims: – “In 1328 he composed a dream vision that employed metaphors drawn from the world of Edward III’s court. ref 77”

Reference 77 is to “The earliest surviving manuscripts are BL Harl MS 1147 and bodl Ashmole MS1450. For a printed edition see Manget, vol. II, pp. 324-6”
So the reference is not to proof that Dastin was related to the court or used metaphors drawn from it, but simply to editions of the Visio.
So where else does he mean? The Ashmole 1450 does have a visio and is 15/16th centuries, but there is nothing about the Harley 1147 in Macleans lists of such MS, unless I’ve written the number down wrongly. Nor is there in Theisen’s paper, instead he mentions a Harley 1747, but that too is 15th century. Therefore there’s nothing even early 15th century of the text, which doesn’t prove that it wasn’t written in 1328, but does rather make you doubt the precision, and with that, ideas about metaphors related to the court. Not to mention that if Dastin was around at that time, what was he doing in the court and why aren’t there any other records?

The metaphor thing is suspect too.
So if we read the Theisen version of the Visio, the english one being based on a 17th century English translation of the latin, and the latin based on a 14th century copy with some comparisons to a 15th century one, we find that there is a family of 7 planets, with one chosen as their king, but most of the other planets are infected with leprosy, and so deformed. The king tries to comfort them, and says that if one of them that is without fault dies for the others his blood will cure the leprosy. Their mother, mercury, says that one of them is perfect, and then the old god tells the king that he should be born again otherwise he cannot die and perfect his brothers. He seems to sleep with the daughter of his mother, or in other words, gold sleep with silver I reckon. I don’t think Edward III slept with his sister…

More importantly, the king in this tale is actually already perfect; the logical conclusion is that Edward II is perfect and merely needs to be reborn, instead of murdered/ left to die/ exiled in secret, or else it could mean the idea of Royalty itself being reborn. But on the other hand the theme of a king redeeming his subjects who are imperfect maps just as well onto Christ dying for our sins, especially since that is what actually happens in the visio, and there’s a virgin involved too.

Plus, the idea that mercury and sulphur were king and queen, or gold and silver were king and queen, goes back a while. It’s mentioned in the Turba Philosophorum, which also has a story about venom being used in alchemy, like in the Visio. So the basis of Dastin’s ideas is seen to be in prior alchemical works. What is new is the way it is presented, with the imperfect planets begging to be improved from their leprous state, and as even Hughes admits, the marriage of brother and sister is suggested in the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, but even that only works if you assume that the Sun and moon are the father and mother referred to in the Emerald tablet, rather than the principles sulphur and mercury, which is surely at least as likely given the general current of Arabic alchemical thought.
Anyway, after all that I still never found any convincing relationship between Dastin’s writings and Edward III’s court, and it isn’t as if Hughes provides any.

Edited in Feb 2016 to add- he also doesn’t, as far as I can recall reading, provide any evidence that people in general or in England were understanding Dastin’s poem in the way he says they were.  So far only he has such an interpretation of the poem.  It would be great if some evidence survived from the period of someone utilising it politically in this fashion, but none seems to have done so, and thus Hughes is fantasising, rather than practising actual history.  Now, back to the original post.

So ultimately Hughes has simply not done any real work with the corpus of Dastin MS and printed editions. Real work includes working out which are genuine, when parts were added or taken away and the various mutations that take place in MS texts. If you don’t do that, you end up with a great deal of confusion, e.g. the original and later variations of the “Compound of Compounds” attributed to Albertus Magnus are different so you cannot draw conclusions from the later version about alchemy at the timeof theearlier.
Because of this, Hughes book is useless for properly understanding the place of Dastin in the culture of the period. It seems likely that there were similar ideas floating around Europe in the 1320’s and 1330’s, but how Dastin fits in is unclear, it isn’t as if we have any good evidence that he even existed!

2nd type of criticism:
The great pavement in Westminster Abbey.
This is an amazing piece of 13th century art, representing the world and the universe as it was known then.
It has been described in detail in Foster, (“Patterns of Thought. The hidden meaning of the great westminster pavement”, London, Cape 1991) and on page 128, he writes that, re the hexagons,
“In using their geometric methods, it should not be assumed that the craftsmen were consciously exploiting any of the symbolic overtones that would have been second nature for Pythagorean or neo-Platonic philosophers, or that they were aware of the systematic mathematical ideas expounded in the many commentaries on Euclid.”
On page 129-130, “The circle, with its endless cicumference, had long been recognised as a symbol of the eternal, even of God himself: the square was seen as matter or the created world. Since the inscription tells us that the subject of the pavement is ‘the measure of the primum mobile’,
that is the ninth sphere which represented the boundary between the created universe and the divine realm beyond, the interplay of squares and circles within the design can readily be seen as an appropriate metaphor for this interface between temporal matter (squares) and eternal divinity (circles).

Then in chapter 7, on divine order, it is clear that the 4 elements are part of it the pavement, there’s a great deal of information, including numbers, squares, circles, and 6 secondary qualities of the elements mentioned, which oddly enough Hughes doesn’t…

Now this is what Hughes himself wrote about it, on page 106:
“..but this royal church was certainly the focus of alchemical activity that resulted in visual representations of therelationship between the crown and alchemy; and one that survives is the cosmati pavement laid for Henry III in 1268. Interlacing circles represent the divine purpose of the creator, with special emphasis placed on the number sixty, the number of points in a radius of a standard circle. Sixty stone lozenges surround the pavements central work, each covering an angle of six degres. Six-sided hexagrams, symbols of god’s creation of the world in six days, form the abbeys pavements and the six planets revolving around the earth. The other key number is four, four roundels surround the central circle representing the four elements and four cardinal points of north south east and west; and in the centre is the circle, the reconciliation of the four elements representing the quintessence of Christ and mercury. Edward III was crowned in this central disc of Egyptian onyx marble, containing a gold circle which signified the quintessence, the manifestation of mercury from the four elements, a mathematical and alchemical demonstration of the working of the divine purpose. This would be summed up in the inscription around the centre written by John Flete (c. 1398-1466), a monk and almoner of the abbey… explaining that the pavement was a representationof the primum mobile and the universe of which the central circle is the microcosm. The spot where Edward III was crowned was a squared circle (Dastin described the alchemical process as converting the quadrangle into a round by dividing it into twelve triangles proceeding from the centre to the circumference of the circle). 84 {Trin coll. MS 1122, fol. 88R; Thorndike History of magic pp. 85-102} This circle formed from the four corners of the earth was regarded as a magic circle associated with Solomon’s hexagram, used to invoke the holy spirit so that when Edward III stood in this circle at his coronation the light of the Holy Ghost descended upon him, a point reinforced by the appearance of the seal of Solomon in Edward’s copy of the Secreta Secretorum. When the young edward stood in this circle at his coronation this light would be seen to descend on him, the culmination of God’s work of creation in the six days suggested by the six sided figures. 85 {John North, The Ambassador’s Secret, pp 154-63, 180} “

The small flaw here is that the pavement was laid in the 13th century, rather before the obsession with the quintessence and mercury and suchlike; it is legitimate to suggest that the meanings of it were re-interpreted in the 14th century, but the problem is that his evidence is alchemical writings of uncertain date and source, which in themselves do not provide a definite connection to the Monarchy and the pavement. Moreover this link between the circle and square that he brings up from Dastin, is surely adequately explained as Dastin using the well known symbolism of the circle and square (used in the 13th century as the 4 elements and the primal material) as indicating that matter is turned into the divine substance, the philosopher’s stone. Thus Hughes gives no proper discussion of the topic and smushes the 70 odd years into one set of ideas. And what evidence does he give for the purpose of the four corners of the earth being to invoke the Holy spirit at Edwards coronation? None that I can see. If the pavement already contained this information, why would it suddenly become important in the coronation of Edward III? Moreover, who from the 14th century viewed coronations in the way Hughes suggests, as ‘the culmination of God’s work of creation’? I don’t know. Certainly there is some mystical stuff going on around medieval kingship, but Hughes provides no references and anyway, such views are not related to alchemy except possibly via overlapping sources such as astrology or simple matter theory of the time, only again Hughes provides no references or argument or anything, he just states it as fact.

Also John Flete did not write the inscription around it in the 14th century, rather he recorded the 13th century inscription in the 14th century. Moreover, there is no evidence that alchemy was a particular concern in England at the time the pavement was laid. Regarding Hughes comment that the pavement is a “visual representaitons of the relationship between the crown and alchemy”, that is destroyed simply by the application of Occams razor and the lack of actual evidence Hughes gives for relationships between the crown and alchemy. I see also that Hughes view of the pavement is somewhat impoverished compared to that given by Foster. When you strip away the suggestions and bald statements, I see no way in which you can claim that Hughes has proved his hypothesis.

There were a couple of other ideas that I wanted to put in here but ran out of time, energy and interest to do proper research on. There are almost certainly more odd things to critique.

Individual comments and errors:

On page 77,of chapter 5, which is about “the cultural impact of alchemy”, Hughes waxes on at length about a uroscopy treatise, the four elements and four humours, how they interact, and how individuals differ depending on the predominance of specific humours. Utterly nothing to do with alchemy, yet he insists on saying that blood and phlegm “or sulphur and mercury”, but what about bile etc? Merely transposing 2 of the 4 humours into sulphur and mercury may even have been done by an alchemist or two, but is hardly representative of thought of the period and there’s a lack of good references too.
On page 78, he says there’s an alchemical subtext to the Canterbury tales, in the epilogue to the Cannon’s yeomans tale, which celebrates at its opening
“the warm sun (sulphur) and renewing and regenerating rain (mercury); and it is their union which brings about the phenomenon when “The drought of March hath perced to the root” and the sun and water engenders the new life that inspires the mating of the birds and the wander lust of pilgrims.” {ref37 which is to Chaucer Complete Works II pages 1-19}

Actually this suggested meaning does sound plausible; the problem is that I can’t find any evidence for it actually existing – no epilogue to the Canon’s yeomans tale, no mention of roots or warmth.

Instead, I find it in the general prologue to the entire work! E.g. the BL MS Lansdowne 851 version, folio 2r, which is here:
So that rather makes Hughes suggestions mince; there’s no need to take alchemical stuff out of context. Instead it is a purely medieval non-alchemical vision of what happens in spring, more medical and natural philosophical than alchemical.

In chapter 7, he wrote,
The alchemical texts, and presumably the advice of Edward’s physicians and counsellors, stressed how important it was for the young king in waiting to recognize his place in the divine alchemical work and to prove it by attaining, through daily regimen, a humoral balance that would result in just and moderate rule, bringing health and prosperity to the body politic.

Where does he justify the idea that alchemical texts say these things? How is a humoral balance anything other than standard medieval medicine? Who was writing explicitly alchemical texts at the time to instruct Kings about how to live? Nobody apart from Hughes, and as discussed above, I find him unpersuasive.

Regarding the Testamentum of pseudo-Lull, Hughes relies a lot upon it, but greatly simplifies matters, leading to potential confusion. And it is hardly good scholarship to gloss over all the things which threaten your interpretation.
He writes:
“The most influential single work in this tradition in England was the Testamentum, which was written in England in the royal hospital of St Katherine, opposite the Tower of London where it faces the Thames, and dedicated to Edward III in 1332. … It {St Katherines} was an appropriate place to conduct secret alchemical experiements.”

Why is St Katherines, opposite the Tower of London, an appropriate place to conduct alchemical experiments? He isn’t clear on that. Why would the Testamentum be dedicated to Edward III, especially since, as Thorndike wrote in his “History of Magic and Experimental science”, :
“The Testament or a portion of it is represented as drawn up in the church of St Catherine in London in 1332, but the date is open to suspicion because an Edward of Woodstock or of Caernarvon is represented as King of England. Edward of Woodstock was never King of England and in 1332 was only two years old, while Edward of Caernarvon who reigned as Edward II had died in 1327.”

In contrast, Michela Pereira wrote in her “The Alchemical Corpus attributed to Raymond Lull”,
“Nonetheless, there is no sure evidence for the date 1332, and no fourteenth century manuscript of this work has been found. In fact, as Bohigas rightly noted, for the moment the only date about which we can be certain is 1443, when the work was translated into Latin in England. But 1332 is probably not far off from the true date of the composition of the original Catalan Testamentum, since it is cited in the Liber de secretis naturae seu de quinta essentia, written during the second half of the fourteenth century.”

Or in other words, the 1330’s is good enough for a date, but not necessarily 1332. Hughes ignores this complexity and mentions 1332 repeatedly throughout the book. E.g. Page 92, “This comprehensive survey of the theory and practise of alchemy was, according to the colophon of the Catalan Manuscript, written at St Katherine’s near the Tower of London at the instigation of one ‘A’ (possibly signifying Alpha or God) for Edward III between 1329 and 1332.” {ref. 5 to “The identity of A is unknown bu could refer to God (alpha). Oxford Corpus Christ MS 244. A fifteenth century manuscript translated from Catalan into Latin in 1443 by Lamberton G. in the priory of St Bartholomews and copied in 1455 by John Kirkby. Edited Michela Pereira, Testamentum. For an English version see Bodl. Ashmole. MS 1418.”}

Here he claims Pereira as an authority, which is a good start. More pseudo-lullian rubbish is mentioned on the page, but there’s no way they are actually from the 1330’s. But then, on page 93, Hughes writes,
“The Testamentum provides proof of interest of Edward III and his court in Majorcan alchemy and lends plausibility to the attribution of these other Catalan works of alchemy from Majorca bearing the name of Raymund to the English King’s patronage.”

This only works if you find evidence that the King could read Catalan and that there were definite relations of alchemical ideas, but there is no period evidence for it.

As an aside, references for pseudo-lullian stuff are no.s 6, 7 and 8:
6- Vatican 58 466, fol. 119V Annales minorum, ed Lucas Wadingus, 25 volumes, Rome 1731-1886, 3rd edition, Florence 1931, volume 4, paged 177-9 for “De 24 experiementis completed in 1330 and containing liber mercurum. and Hughes says it was supposedly written at St Katherine’s in London in 1332; number 7 is for the Liber naturae et Lumen nostra lapidis as being dated at St Katherine’s London in 1337, see Patai, Jewish alchemists, page 128!
Number 8, for the claim that the pseudo-lullian de Liber de Secretis Naturae, which has Rupescissas de Quintessence and the Testamentum, and so is post 1356, refs. Pereira, “The alchemical corpus attributed to Raymond Lull” (no page numbers given), and Corpus Christi Camb. MS 112 and Corpus Christi Oxford 244.

But back to the Testamentum – It is entirely possible that it was written in England yet the author had nothing whatsoever to do with King Edward, and Hughes provides no other evidence for a connection, merely evidence that Catalans were known in London and there were good trade links, which is a start, but hardly enough. Moreover, the incorrect reference to Edward as king makes one imagine that it was either written by a foreigner unfamiliar with the court and people in it, or else added long afterwards, again by a foreigner who was unfamiliar with names of Kings and princes of England. Either way, Hughes theory takes a hit. After all, if the author was really involved with the King, why would he have used the wrong name?

More importantly from my point of view, Pereira continues, on page 23 of “The corpus”,
“It would therefore seem that the initial transmission of pseudo-Lullian alchemy to England occured at the beginning of the fifteenth century after the formation of a distinct corpus explicitly attributed to Lull. It is, in fact, in England that we find the oldest known MS of these works, first organised miscellanies of them, a corpus of them, and popularisation of pseudo-Lullian doctrine by George Ripley.”
Which is rather in opposition to Hughes entire book, which takes it for granted that pseudo-Lullian alchemical ideas were commonplace in England in the 1330’s and onwards; in fact this is one of the central points of it, although since he doesn’t pay much attention to the texts and what they say that isn’t clear at all (Which is of course also the sign of a poor historian). Moreover, since Pereira wrote her book, Rampling has shown that Ripley got his Lullian alchemy via an intermediary, Guido Montanor, who wrote earlier in the 15th century. If the Testamentum and it’s ideas were popular and powerful in England in the 1330’s, why is there no real evidence for them being known in England at the time and affecting later authors e.g. Chaucer, who mentioned Arnold of Villanova but not Lull. Why did Ripley use an intermediaries work as his source? Why did it take until the 1440’s before the Catalan Testamentum was translated to Latin in England? And so on. More questions are raised than answered, and I feel an application of Occam is required. Certainly Hughes appears completely unaware of the gaping hole in his argument, made by someone whose works he has referenced, or else he is such an amazing historian who is so correct that he feels no need at all to address the probloem.

So if we take for granted that pseudo-Lullian ideas were not common in England in the period under discussion, where does that leave us? It puts more pressure upon John Dastin’s works to conform to Hughes ideas. But this in itself is a little difficult, given what has been said above. It would at least make Dastin’s works stand out as being amongst the earliest references to a particular strand of alchemical thought which was to be influential down the centuries. It is fun to speculate about the intellectual connections that spanned Europe, between an English monk called Dastin, Petrus Bonus of Ferrara, and the Catalan alchemists. The link being the idea that mercury by itself or mercury with the mercuries or sulphurs or seeds of gold and silver makes the philosopher’s stone. How did the idea spread? Who influenced what aspect of it, given that even the works most likely written by Dastin do not agree well on thepurpose of mercury/ mercuries? Are manuscripts of the works waiting to be found and properly collated in European libraries? Given that Thorndike grants reality to Dastin on the basis of a number of letters to the Pope and a cardinal or two, is it more likely that Dastin was writing abroad and never came back to England or became involved in alchemy in England, except perhaps at the end of his life?

But Hughes isn’t interested in these points, and is desperate to create a link to the Kings of England instead, despite the lack of evidence.
Pereira writes in her “Alchemical Corpus attributed to Raymond Lull”, page 41, that Lulls name as an alchemist is found, at the earliest, on a list of alchemists in a text from the 2nd half of the 14th century. Hughes instead tends to mention the later myths and legends about Lull and his pseudonymous works in great detail, without proper discussion about them being later myths, because their existence bolsters his contention that the alchemy of the Testamentum was known in England at the time. Of course it seems just as likely to me that because the legends grew up later in the century, they arose when the Testamentum was translated and disseminated, and as such do not support the link to the King; medieval people were just as happy to believe secret conspiratorial ideas then as we are now, and secret links between kings and alchemists make nice juicy gossip even if there is no basis in fact.

On page 47, Hughes wrote:
“The corrosive agents sulphur dioxide and ammonium chloride, and the invention of the serpente around 1300, facilitated the process of evaporation, sublimation and distillation through gentle and controlled heating that allowed the extraction of the spiritual essence of any substance, (And this was ultimately the primal mercury) from the corruptible four elements.”

These two corrosive agents have nothing to do with gentle and controlled heating at all! Or rather, they permit a somewhat lower temperature approach to alchemy, the problem being that anyone who has actually read the Testamentum can see that, if we take the practical stuff at face value (And this is also seen in the Semita Recta), mercuric chloride is used, which is precisely what Hughes doesn’t mention! Also, naming it sulphur dioxide when the alchemists had other names for stuff you got from burning sulphur isn’t that helpful, and anyway, you didn’t use the serpente when making sulphuric acid that way, nor do you use it when burning things with sulphur, if anything the latter is done in a crucible or a sealed vessel not distilling things. Hughes knowledge of practical alchemy is sadly lacking, as we have already seen.
According to C. Anne Wilson the serpente is mentioned in BL Add 25031 written in a 13th century hand, about the value of aqua vitae against cold diseases etc. Calling it the serpente rather than serpent seems very odd, although one internet reference suggests the word comes from the Consilia medicinalis of Taddeo Alderotti, which fits with Hughes idiosyncratic use of words, often unusual words which are never used elsewhere. But putting around 1300 as a date is still a bit off, it should be more like the 1280’s or 90’s. It would be nice to know where he got this from, but of course he doesn’t give a reference to this or to the use of ammonium chloride and sulphur dioxide.

It so happens that I have found the probable source of Hughes insistence that the Emerald tablet says “The above is as the below”, which I mentioned with some venom in the first part of this critique. Namely, Ortolanus’ commentary on the Emerald Tablet, written perhaps in the 1350’s, but again, the date is open to question, one source definitely saying 1358. This commentary also often contains a section on the quintessence.
“Ortolanus, Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est
sicut quod est superius,23 “That which is above is as that which is below, and that which is below
is as that which is above”. Ortonalus’ commentary interpreted the text in the traditional
manner as a reference to solids and vapor-he wrote “earth” and “spirit”.2″
(from “The study of Spiritual alchemy” by Merkur)
The important thing to remember though, is that the full context is:
That the Stone must be divided into two parts.
Consequentlie, he toucheth the operation of the stone, saying: That which is beneath, is as that which is above. And this he sayth, because the stone is divided into two principall parts by Art: Into the superior part, that ascendeth up, and into the inferiour part, which remaineth beneath fixe and cleare: and yet these two parts agree in vertue: and therefore hee sayeth, That which is above, is like to that which is beneath. And this division is necessarie, To perpetuate the myracles of one thing, to wit, of the Stone: because the inferiour part is the Earth, which is called the Nurse, and Ferment: and the superiour part is the Soule, which quickeneth the whole Stone, and raiseth it up. Wherefore separation made, and coniunction celebrated, manie myracles are effected in the secret worke of nature.

Which is taken from a 16th century English translation of Hortulanus, found on

The basic problem here is that if my suggestion is correct, Hughes has used a 16th century translation to cover the variety of possible understandings in the 14th century; it seems likely that he has gotten some of his fixation with mercury and sun and moon from reading Hortulanus too, but it is important to note that Hughes seems unaware of the wider variety of alchemical thought of the period and of how much it varied from decade to decade and text to text. Merely picking out the bits you think make sense and linking them together is not sensible.

Hughes insistence that:
“At the heart of alchemical philosophy lay the notion that before all creation all was formless chaos, primordial, maternal water that was known as the philosopher’s mercury.”

is answered by quoting the English translation again:
“He giveth us also an example of the composition of his Stone, saying, So was the world created. That is, like as the world was created, so is our stone composed. For in the beginning, the whole world and all that is therein, was a confused Masse or Chaos (as is above saide) but afterward by the workemanship of the soveraigne Creator, this masse was divided into the foure elements, wonderfully separated and rectified, through which separation, divers things were created: so likewise may divers things bee made by ordering our worke, through the separation of the divers elements from divers bodies. ”
It is certainly meant to be taken as an allegory, and instead phrasing it as he does is a mistake.

Other small issues include the index being out by one or two pages, which might be down to the shift from hardback to paperback, or something else that went wrong in the publishing process.
There are more erroneous references, e.g. page 99, ref. 37 is to a Testamentum, edited by Crisciani. Oddly enough I can find no mention anywhere in the bibliography or the internet, of a Testamentum edited by Crisciani.

Page 102, Hughes writes that re. The battle of Bannockburn, “… an event presaged, according to the alchemist, Robert of York, by a comet seen over York in 1315.” Given that the battle took place on midsummer of 1314, that is indeed some good prognostication. Or maybe Hughes has mistyped and meant to say that Robert wrote about his successful prognostication in 1315?

And later on that page, he states as fact that King Robert the Bruce (King of Scotland) asked for alchemical information, basing it on Patai, Jewish Alchemists! Oddly enough the evidence for this is slender, consisting of a tale told in the pseudo-lullian work “De secretis naturae sive quinta essentia” (on the secrets of nature of the fifth essence), which was first printed in 1514. On page 183 of Patai, “The Jewish Alchemists”, he says “We mentioned above that the earliest manuscript of the De sect. states that it was written in Paris in 1319. This date fits with the statement contained in text of the book itself…. The King referred to must have been Robert I the Bruce, who was King of Scotland from 1306-1329….”

The problem here is that Principe, (Secrets of Nature), referencing works by Michela Pereira, says that this text was made up after “The Book of the Quintessence” by John of Rupescissa was written, and we know this because it contains large sections of it, combined with additional materials. This makes sense because as I keep saying, the emphasis upon the/ a quintessence is of a later date in the 14th century than Hughes thinks. It certainly suggests that the King Robert reference is not to Robert the Bruce, and since the date is spurious, it is merely a legend or fictional idea that the author had. Therefore we have more evidence of the poverty of the research carried out by Hughes.
Moreover, Pereira in her “Alchemical Corpus attributed to Raymond Lull” also says, on page 39, that the King Robert of legend might well be Robert of Anjou.

Elsewhere on page 97 there’s the usual statement that Edward III read the Secreta Secretorum, which is not exactly provable, and re. The Secreta,
“In this work it is asserted that the king who is able to harness the four humours and elements and integrate the forces of mercury and sulphur will exhibit the strength and ruthlessness necessary to rule and judge and protect his people.”
Well, talking about the ‘forces’ of mercury and sulphur is simply stupid. A force is something that moves other things, without being embodied, but the real point is that at no point in alchemy are sulphur and mercury forces. They are actual real substances in the crude sense, which make up metals, which can act upon other substances, or they are insensible qualities of a kind made from the 4 elements. The elements are qualities impressed upon a substrate; if anything is a ‘force’ it is heat or moisture, but these are qualities and therefore the word force is hardly appropriate in a medieval context. Basically this is an example of Hughes seeing things in too modern a way.

Page 60, Hughes writes that John of Rupescissa was burnt at the stake in 1362? This appears to be another error of Hughes. I can find no evidence for it and plenty against it. There’s this, which seeems to have such a person executed in 1360 or 1363, which isn’t what Hughes wrote, and remember that Rupescissa is also known as John of Roquetillade. Other sources, like this

say he died in 1366, and a search of the online version of Leah de Vuns book about Rupescissa, doesn’t find such a topic. The Histoire literaire de France, 1981 edition page 86, has an article on John of Roquetillade, which seems to be the more accurate rendering of his name, in which the idea that he was burnt at the stake is declared to be wrong, and is due to certain people, an English author or two amongst them, confusing the burning of two friars minor in in 1362 with John, who was also a friar minor. Again, we have clear evidence of Hughes poor research.

He also has an odd interpretation of things to do with thequintessence, regarding the extraction of the quintessence of antimony, he writes “He described this as a blessed secret of secrets because it represented the redemption of corrupt matter containing the basest of metals into a pure spiritual essence.”{ref 16 to Book of the quintessence of the fifth essence, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS 16 (1866)}
Which I think is entirely the wrong way to intepret it! It is a blessed secret because “it does away with the ache of all wounds and wonderfully health”; since it is extracted from antimony I do not think that the quintessence can be described as redeemed, insofar as Rupescissa does not describe it as being brought out thanks to payment of some sort, rather it is extracted from, isolated from, the common 4 elements. And a spritual essence doesn’t come into it, this is pure havering by Hughes. If we turn to page 2 of the same edition, we find that the quintessence is “… for whi, as quinta essencia superior, that is, heavene of oure lord god, in reward of the 4 elements, is incorruptible and unchangeable, right so quinta essencia superior inferior, that is to seie, mannys heaven, is incorruptible, in reward of the 4 qualities of mans body, and so it is proved naturaly that oure quinta essencia, that is, mannes heavene, is itself is incorutible.” (Spelling modified somewhat by myself from the 15th century English) It has to be said again, that the quintessence is, to John and many others, a real thing, not a spiritual airy fairy one, which has real life applications.
There is more on pages 60-61 of Jungian type rubbish that is wrong and irrelevant!

Summary and end of this part of the critique

What I have tried to do here is indicate either how Hughes is certainly wrong, or else his explanation for something is weaker than the already known explanations which he usually ignores. So what does that leave us?

Not a lot, I am afraid. It leaves us only a little wiser regarding the connections between English Kings and alchemy and astrology. I didn’t get to his sections on Chaucer and Gower, but there is much more meat to be had there and a better argument to be had. The book certainly suggests areas for further investigation, but stripped of Hughes overwrought imaginings this is a much shorter book. In the end, if Hughes had read the sources sympathetically and with proper concern to accuracy and context, I am sure he could have produced something useful. Instead, he chose to impose his own interpretations upon a loose network of facts, without proper concern for the contexts and situation. This book could still be useful to someone who is already familiar with alchemy and of appropriately skeptical mindset, but otherwise is a menace. It could also be a better discussion of the occult in general and it’s cultural involvement in the period, if only he hadn’t decided to focus so much on alchemy.

In fact, it is well known and accepted that 14th and 15th century English kings were at times interested in alchemy. What Hughes does is expand this known interest into a fantastic building which exists only in his own head. There is a great deal more work to be done on the motifs and ideas imported, promulgated and invented in England in the 14th and 15th centuries, but this book does little to further it. Instead he abuses his texts, misunderstands the meanings of them, messes up the historical record and leaves behind a tangle of thorns which will confuse innocent members of the public for years to come.