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This post sparked by a short article in “The Ricardian – journal of the Richard III Society”, volume 13, 2003.

I bought it at Tewkesbury from their stall, because it had some interesting stuff in it including “The inventory of a fifteenth-century Necromancer” by Carole Rawcliffe. She is a researcher on medieval medicine, author of the very useful introductory text:


The article is about a Thomas Nandyke, “Fifth on the list of individuals named in the parliamentary Act of Attainder following the collapse of the 1483 rebellion against Richard III…” and he was “nigromansier” to Henry, duke of Buckingham. It seems that Nandyke was actually a chaplain-Physician, but is alleged to have conspired with the bishop of Ely and Duke Henry’s inner council, to attempt at killing Richard III. He survived involvement in that and a further plot against Richard, and it is unclear if he then fled to France to stay with Henry VII or not. Either way, he spent the last 6 years of his life without any involvement in politics, dying in obscurity in 1491, having been living in London and Cambridge, practising physic and astrology.

Where it all goes wrong is here:

“Had Nandyke abandoned his former life in order to practise alchemy? This seems plausible, given the enthusiasm with which physicians at both universities, and especially Cambridge, pursued alchemical studies. They hoped thereby the recover the perfect humoral balance lost at the fall and thus to achieve lasting health and longevity. A number of entries in the 1491 inventory are, at least, suggestive. The books on astronomy, the two brass astrolabes and the other unspecified ‘instrumentes’ would of course, have been essential for a successful medical practise, although no alchemist could proceed without a sound working knowledge of the heavens. None of the more sophisticated distillation equipment generally associated with alchemy (and relentlessly satirised by authors such as Chaucer) appears on the list of Nandyke’s effects, yet he possessed enough basic equipment and materials to conduct practical experiments. His ownership of fifty-five pound of lead, a ‘meltyng ladyll of yron’, two chalkstones, a handsaw, a ‘fier rake’, hatchets, shovels, charcoal, various basins, pans, glass vessels (also essential for uroscopy) and warming dishes offers the tantalising possibility that he was, indeed, engaged in the search for the elusive quintessence, or elixir of life. Lead and iron were the ‘diseased’ base metals which alchemists most often used in their attempts at transmutation into gold.”

Her reference 40 at the end re. Curing diseased metals is to A. E. White, ed. The Hermetic museum restored and enlarged, 2 vols, London, 1893, volume 2, pp 229-29!!!!!

The more widely read of you will realise that the surname is misspelled, it is A E Waite, the famous occultist, whose work she refers to!

Honestly, could a late 20th/ early 21st century historian not manage to find a more up to date reference? There were books by Read, Sherwood Taylor and Holmyard which had a more rational and broader and more historical view than Waite, who was famously a sucker for occult stuff in his youth. Oddly enough though he seemed to have a change of mind in middle age and rejected his earlier works.

Anyway, back to the article. She admits that there are not the usual distillation equipment, which is certainly a good attempt at being sensible, but the simple matter is that, as an alchemist, I can assure you that there is no way you can try anything alchemical from 55lbs of lead, a ladle to melt it in and a charcoal fire. You need other chemicals for it, simple as that. Vitriols, other metals, mercury and sulphur, those are found in people’s attempts at transmutation.

Even worse, she claims the making of the quintessence, but as you might recall from previous posts, the quintessence methods of the time used a lot of other substances and items, such as alcohol, a pelican, stibnite, crucibles, gold, or if you take a more Lullian approach, mercury again. The lack of any of these indicates that either he was an alchemist and his stuff got nicked or removed before the inventory (Yet the putative thief left some nice clothes, silver, plate and books behind) or, far more likely, he wasn’t an alchemist at all. There is also a total lack of relevant books.

Instead, I suggest that he was still a practising necromancer in a way consistent with his medical knowledge and practise. There still exist medieval instructions for making lead lamella, that is plates of lead with occult symbols inscribed upon them, which then have a magical influence.

There is a short section on them in “Magic in Medieval Manuscripts” by Sophie Page. She mentions two MS in the British library, one lamina is for a charm to be worn around the neck of a woman who is trying to conceive, the other is for anthrax fistulas. The first has some characters on it, the second letters and words. Therefore it is clear that knowledge of lead lamina was abroad in England at the time.
Obviously we don’t have enough details, but it seems clear that the lead could be cast from the ladle into grooves carved in the chalkstones, to make flat sheets. The hatchets and handsaw could be for cutting up wood, or the saw could be for cutting the chalkstone into the proper shapes for casting into. Unfortunately I can’t see mention of knives or other carving implements.

My conclusion therefore is that she is mistaken and Nandyke was still a necromancer, not an alchemist.