The Importance of Alchemy In Tudor England

It's generally accepted that alchemy set the foundations for many modern sciences, including chemistry and medicine.

However, an alchemist work space would bear little resemblance with a laboratory as we know it today, with magic and the occult featuring very heavily in their work.

It's is extremely difficult to say when alchemy started, but early practitioners claiming to have "magical" powers were known from antiquity. Throughout the centuries, this art reached Arabia and Egypt, as well as Rome and Greece, finally arriving in Europe in the 12th century. The etymology of the word is uncertain, but most historians believe it's derived from Arabic "al-kimia", a reference to the Elixir of Life prepared by Egyptians. It's assumed that "kimia" alludes to the black soil in the Nile delta, which was seen as a Primordial Matter (the Khem) from which all other substances derived.

After centuries of slow progress, during the Tudor period, alchemy was at its highest in Europe during the 16th and 17th century. Such was its importance that even Shakespeare dedicated "The Tempest" in 1610 to this art, with the main character being a powerful sorcerer. It's believed this was loosely based on Dr John Dee, a real-life alchemist and Queen Elizabeth's personal consultant.

As understanding of natural world developed, more and more alchemists and physicians were seen as "magic" by an illiterate and uneducated population. Most "doctors" made no attempts to correct this mistake and even advocated being able to control unseen natural forces. Astrology, numerology and talismans commonly outlined many treatments and experiments, but this was regarded as separate from "black magic", which was associated with diabolical interventions.

Alchemists considered themselves experts in many fields, from astrology to primordial chemistry and enjoyed a great deal of power during Tudor reign in England. It is well documented that Queen Elizabeth I consulted an astrologer to find the most suitable date for her coronation, and later in life, sponsored a project to find the "Elixir of life".

Even during the 16th century, when magic and science were starting to be regarded as separate entities, most Tudor alchemists still dreamt of finding the Philosopher's Stone, which would not only be a source of Eternal Youth and Health; but also give them power to transmutate metals (iron, lead and others) into valuable gold and silver. They believed that all elements were composed of the same matter, just differed in terms of purity. So, what we call a transformation from iron into gold, they would see it as simple purification process. Unfortunately, during this period, the field was full of charlatans and cheats and it wasn't until the 18th century that scientists started to separate real achievements from magic inventions.