I was looking for something else when I came across this quote from a report by commissioners sequestering valuables at Walsingham priory, in 1538 :
“A secrete privye place within the howse, where no channon nor annye other of the howse dyd ever enter, as they saye, in which there were instrewmentes, pottes, belowes, flyes of suche strange colers as the lick non of us had seened, with poysies, and other thinges to sorte, and denyd gould and sylver, nothing ther wantinge that should belong to the arte of multyplyeng.”
Assuming it is a true report, it reminded me that, despite the various laws passed against it and Papal bulls, there were a lot of clergy involved in alchemy in one way or another in England from the 13th century to after the reformation. (Although in this case perhaps the laboratory hadn’t been used for years)
From there it was a flash of neurons to thinking that with the clergy out of the way and their hidden places in monasterys gone, that would retard the practise of alchemy. The desctruction of their libraries would retard the spread of knowledge as well. Of course alchemy had spread amongst normal folk in the previous century, but it is clear that various monks, friars, priests etc. were still interested in it. And we know that alchemy continued to be of interest to various people after the death of Edward IV and during the reign of Henry VII because of the writing and copying of the Ripley Scroll, of Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy, and the copies of other works which date from the late 15th to early 16th century, as well as Lord Grey of Codnor’s continued interest in the subject. There’s also William Blomfild, who wrote an alchemical poem addressed to queen Elizabeth, but started out as a Benedictine monk at Bury St Edmunds, the problem being that we can’t tell when he became interested in alchemy, although he was arraigned for conjuring in 1544 but he appears to have gotten off it.
Now whether the reformation did affect the knowledge and practise of alchemy we can’t really tell, but it seems to me that it is likely; even if some alchemical books fell into the hands of someone who was inspired by them, many more were lost, as well as the equipment.
Interestingly though, the alchemist Thomas Charnock, who wrote to Queen Elizabeth in 1565, claimed to have learnt the secret of the red stone in the 1540’s from I.S., a monk of Salisbury. It seems permissible to suggest that such a person, having seen the destruction of many priorys and monasterys and loss of their learning, might be more inclined to tell the secret to someone of good repute.
But in order to make any more of it I need a better idea of what texts were copied and read in the early 16th century, and more evidence for clerical alchemical practise and of secular alchemical practise. I have a horrible suspicion though that the evidence just does not exist any more.
Quote from “Religious identities in Hendy VIII’s England”, by Peter Marshall, page 153