The St Thomas Church alchemist
Colleagues will be aware of the interest I have in the alchemist St Thomas Church. I first became aware of this when, during a Hallowe’en Walk with Fisherton History Society, we stopped outside the Church to be regaled with certain tales. As a former pupil of St Thomas School, for which this was our church, I decided I ought to pay a longer visit having not been since leaving school.
As a retired Chemistry teacher my interest was piqued by a plaque by the North Door which says:
The North Door which once led to a room above the now destroyed North Porch. At one time an alchemist lived there. Outside you can still see the ruined tower from which he dashed to escape the noxious fumes of his experiments.
Who was this alchemist? When did he live? What was the nature of his experiments? There were many questions which sprang immediately to mind.
One immediately available resource was Tim Tatton-Brown’s booklet (available on the St Thomas Church website) entitled ‘The Building of St Thomas’s Church, Salisbury’. Here he says that “it seems very likely that the nave aisle walls and the north and south porches were also being built in the years around 1400”. In a footnote, he notes that “The north porch was demolished in 1835…”.
Thus the alchemist must have lived here in the 15th Century or later – but who was he?
Further research revealed that an antiquarian, Edward Duke (see below), had “lately found (five small crucibles) plastered up in a small niche in a room over the large entrance porch of the Church of St Thomas in Salisbury”.
This was quite likely when the porch was destroyed in 1835.
The report goes on to say that, “The gentleman (Rev. Edward Duke M.A.)… is of the opinion that these carefully concealed crucibles were evidently intended for alchymical purposes. He conceives, however, that they were employed not for the purpose of making gold, but for the higher and more difficult branch of the art, namely making the “Elixir of Life”, which was believed to consist of the “quintessence of gold”.
Thus Duke related the five crucibles to the quintessence.
The question arises, do these crucibles still exist somewhere, perhaps in a museum? Edward Duke lived (and died, in 1852) at Lake House, currently the home of the rock musician, Sting. Edward Duke is known to have kept a small museum at Lake House. Lake House suffered a serious fire at the start of the 20th Century, but it is quite possible that artifacts such as crucibles would have survived. Edward Duke’s collection entered the Pitt-Rivers Collection after his death, and therefore it’s possible that these crucibles could be at Salisbury Museum or in Oxford. Adrian Green (Director) tells me that they’re not at Salisbury.
Edward Duke suggested two possible names for this alchemist, these being Thomas Charnock, a “visionary alchemist, mad man”, who became known to… Sir James Bekinsau, Vicar Choral of the Church of Salisbury, who was born in Broadchalke. To date I have been unable to find any information on Sir James Bekinsau, except that he may have been the brother of John Bekinsau, a theologian, and author of ‘De supremo et absolute Regis imperio’ (London, 1546), dedicated to Henry VIII.
However, I myself believe the alchemist could well have been Dr Simon Forman who the author, Barbara Howard Traister , has described as being “The Notorious Astrological Physician of London”.
Forman was born in Quidhampton in 1552 and, in his Autobiography, states that among other places where he lived in Salisbury, he lived in St Thomas churchyard. During his time in Salisbury he was imprisoned several times for practising medicine without a licence and for possession of ‘suspicious books’. He was also publicly practising necromancy, foigiomercy and to “calle angels and sprites”. The JP responsible for causing his imprisonment on several of these occasions was Giles Estcourt. However, although Salisbury Library has the transcripts of the Quarter Sessions for 1563 and 1574 to 1592, Simon Forman’s name is not mentioned, although Giles Estcourt can be found for several occasions. It seems that crimes more serious than larceny were tried in the Assizes, and it will be necessary for me to access these at the National Archive in Kew.
During his time in Salisbury, Forman tutored the sons of a Mr. Duke of Ashgrove, Wiltshire. He was from a family of prosperous clothiers, the Dukes, who owned property in the parish of Wilsford near Amesbury. In 1578 they bought the Lake estate there, and subsequently built the beautiful house of chequered flint and grey stone, currently owned by the rock musician, Sting. The aforementioned antiquarian, Rev. Edward Duke, M.A., is of this family and so, unbeknown to himself, had a direct connection to the alchemist of St Thomas Church, if indeed it was Simon Forman.
Forman left Salisbury for good in 1589, moving to London. This was in the aftermath of some sort of scandal. During his time in London he writes that, in 1594, he began to search for the Philosopher’s Stone, thus implying that he wasn’t doing this during his time in Salisbury.
Forman eventually achieved success as an astrological physician, but only after many trials and tribulations with the College of Physicians, including being fined for practicing without a licence. Forman eventually managed to circumvent the College of Physicians by obtaining a licence to practice medicine from Cambridge University.
Despite in his day being considered a quack and a charlatan, Forman’s reputation has undergone something of a transformation in recent years, this being due to his meticulous record keeping of patient consultations. He and his protégé, the astrologer Richard Napier, recorded detailed information about their patients’ medical conditions, then treated them through careful calculations using astrological charts. Unusually for their time, Forman and Napier actually recorded people’s symptoms. This means that their patient consultation records are better than any other records from the period.
A fuller account of this article, with illustrations, can be found on the ‘History and Heritage’ section of the St Thomas Church website:
The Reverend Edward Duke MA (1779-1852) was Lord of the Manor of Lake, and lived in Lake House.