Norton ye Alchymyst
I mention this in honour of this weekend’s forthcoming Bristol Con, which I can’t make. I know how much they all like weird Bristol yarns.
But it’s also in honour of the forthcoming half-millennium anniversary of the death of a very important Bristolian, or an utterly insignificant one (delete according to taste).
This is Thomas Norton, a real, genuine, honest-to-goodness, actual alchemist. Bristol’s own alchemist. A man of whom we know not very much, and much of what we do know may be nonsense. All kinds of tales get told about alchemists and, to make matters worse, he was involved in a number of legal disputes in which it suited both him and his enemies to tell a lot of fibs.
In 1466, his father Walter Norton left most of his lands in Worcestershire and Bristol to a son named Thomas, possibly the product of a later marriage. This meant that our Thomas was very cross, and had to seek a career, hence the alchemy. He spent the 1470s on the fringe of the court of King Edward IV, who was interested in alchemy, but Norton probably wasn’t as important as he liked to pretend he was. He ended up in a ferocious dispute with Bristol’s council over some land he claimed that the king had given him. He was also sheriff of Gloucestershire for a year and was employed by the crown to seize the property of one John Stacy, who was accused to practising witchcraft against the king.
In 1479 he charged the mayor of Bristol with treason. The mayor and council fought back, claiming Norton had swindled his younger brother Thomas out of his estates, and had imprisoned him, driving him from country and causing him to drown on the sea voyage as a result. Historians have indeed found records stating that Norton later owned the lands which had originally been left to his brother.
Norton was also said to be a drunkard who never went to church. The dispute reached such a pitch that the King personally intervened – on the council’s side, telling Norton to shut up or else.
Norton’s footnote in wider history is as author of a book called ‘The Ordinal of Alchemy’, a handbook for alchemists written in verse, and full of deliberately obscure references and allusions. This was either a) because he didn’t know jack about turning base metal into gold or b) because – as he put it – alchemy wasn’t for any old pleb; you had to be morally perfect and divinely approved to access the “subtile science of holi Alchymye”. The book was still in use over a century later, and like many alchemists, Norton takes a small amount of credit for inventing chemistry by saying that you should experiment, and observe your results. As he put it: “With due proofe and with discreet assaye, wise men may learn new things every day.”
And so to the Norton yarn… He is supposed to have claimed to have discovered the elixir of life (of course) but that it was stolen from him by a woman. The great Victorian Bristol storyteller Joseph Leech, either riffing on some now-forgotten local legend, or maybe just making it all up, fleshed the tale out. The thief, said Leech, was no less than the wife of William Canynges, the fabulously wealthy merchant. Canynges, good medieval gentleman that he was, took his obligations to church and society seriously, and gave away huge amounts of money to St Mary Redcliffe church.
Mrs Canynges, now that she had the elixir of life, was not at all pleased about this. If she was going to live for ever, she would need all her husband’s money to keep her in suitable style.
Anyway, she and Canynges had a screaming, shouting, crockery-throwing row about this, and she got so worked up that she had a seizure.
Don’t panic, she thinks, just go and get the vial of elixir nabbed from Master Norton …
Only when she gets there, the vial is empty. The elixir has been completely dried up by no less than the Virgin Mary herself, who doesn’t want this greedy baggage taking the money that is meant for the church dedicated to her.
And so perished the wretched Mistress Canynges.
Thomas Norton died on November 30 1513, and in honour of this occasion I think we should do something to commemorate him. Probably too late to organise a major Festival of Alchemy now, but perhaps people could meet up on the site of his house – it was in what’s now castle park, next to the water by the ruined St Peter’s Church – and maybe try and turn some base metal into gold, or perhaps concoct some elixirs.
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