Alchemy In High Places: London, 1680-1700


By the late seventeenth century chemistry was increasing in popularity among the great scientific minds of London. In opposition to alchemy, chemistry was believed to be a practical science which could produce important material results. This did not mean, however, that the practice of alchemy was discontinued.  In fact many important members of the Royal Society in London continued to practice alchemy throughout the seventeenth and even into the eighteenth century, both publicly and privately. Isaac Netwon’s appointment as Master of the Royal Mint-and later President of the Royal Society-is proof that the practice of alchemy infiltrated the upper echelon of London society during this time. 

Section I: Societal Views on Alchemy and Chemistry

    From the mid to late 17th century there were two major sciences that dominated London's scene. Alchemy was practiced both openly and in secrecy for many years and by a wide variety of people, although it was primarily viewed as a science of gentlemen. By contrast, a new, emerging science called "chymsitry" began to make an impact and a push to replace alchemy.  The biggest divide between the two, alchemy and chemistry, was that: "The genuine alchemist was absolutely firm in his belief that the emotional and spiritual state of the individual experimenter was involved intimately with the success or failure of the experiment.  And it is this concept, more than any other, which distinguishes alchemy from the orthodox chemistry that superseded it."(1) Chemistry was primarily seen as a science of artisans upon its emergence. 
    Alchemy attracted a wide array of people from numerous religious affiliations.  Anglicans, Puritans and secretaries, Royalists, Parliamentarians, and Levellers were all identified as being connected to alchemy in some way. In contrast, when it first began to emerge, "chymistry" was seen as a science primarily practiced by political radicals. The principles of chemistry seemed to lead to a communist system with no state, no property and no familial relations. (2) Up until the mid 17th century, alchemy was accepted as a useful science, evidenced by the fact that Newton was President of the Royal Society of London until his death in 1727.  The title was well deserved, albeit fraught with complications- "On 30 November the annual elections to the council, Newton was voted a member and then made the Society's latest president.  It was a long over-due move which previously had been blocked...Although many of Newton's numerous enemies came to regret the appointment, it is seen by historians as a turning-point in the fortunes of the Royal Society.  If that evening the vote had gone the other way, the institution would have almost certainly disintegrated within a decade."(3) 
    Newton's notes on alchemy were retained by the Royal Society and eventually surfaced in 1936 via an auction. Towards the late 17th century, society began to view chemistry as the more practical science that could produce socially relevant substances and it was seen as being useful in manufacture and industry. Georg Stahl promoted this idea, creating an image of chemistry as a useful and specific art. (4) Stahl viewed chemistry as "the rational and well-grounded study of material change, where conversely, alchemy was a confused, futile, and often deceptive undertaking." Further, as chemists began to take on a more prominent role in the London science scene, they began to attack alchemy in order to bolster their own social status and to diminish the prominence of alchemy. Alchemy was painted as the "other" science and used as a foil against which chemistry or other types of science could be set off. (5)  

Section II: Alchemy in the Royal Society

          Despite the fact that chemistry was surpassing alchemy in popularity during this time period, many members of the Royal Society fervently practiced it during these years.   Elias Ashmole (1670-1692), for example, was a founding member of the Royal Society as well as an avid student of alchemy. Ashmole took a very spiritual approach to alchemy, believing that the “Angelicall Stone” could provide for human contact with angels through dreams of revelations. He edited and published three alchemical volumes (which he later presented to Charles II, who was said to have a particular interest in chemical and alchemical studies) and copied letters that had been sent to him about legendary alchemical figures up until his death in 1692.(6) In terms of men who professed a ‘spiritual approach’ to alchemy, Newton certainly fit the description.  Evidently he subscribed to the grandeur idea that “saw himself as the last of the interpreters of God’s will in actions, living on the eve of the fulfillment of the times.  In his generation he was the vehicle of God’s external truth.”  How was Newton able to draw such a prophetic conclusion? Through the use of "new mathematical notations and an experimental method he combined the knowledge of the priest-scientists of the earliest nations, of Israel’s prophets, of the Greek mathematicians, and of the medieval alchemists."(7)  

            Letters exchanged between Thomas Henshaw (1618-1700) and Sir Robert Paston (1631-1683) in the late seventeenth century show that the two Royal Society members were privately pursuing alchemy as well. The early letters contained advice as well as information on proper chemicals, equipment, and technique, while the later letters focused mainly on a treatise that Henshaw had received from his mentor Oughtred. This treatise provided a detailed recipe for the “red elixir” as well as a specific operation with which to produce it in a laboratory. The later letters also point to a feud between the two Society members, most probably due to Henshaw’s belief that the practice of alchemy should adhere to certain esoteric standards.  Conversely Paston felt differently, evidenced by his speaking openly on the treatise and largely ignoring the alchemical tradition of keeping certain findings away from the untrained public. While both Henshaw’s private writings and his more public Royal Society writings addressed the same subjects (usually experiments on dissolvents), he addressed them differently in the public versus private arena. While Henshaw had no problem communicating his findings privately, his public works contained telling omissions. (8)

    Perhaps the most well-known example of a Royal Society member active in the field of alchemy (besides Newton) was Robert Boyle (1627-1691), who also believed that the field of alchemy had connections to the supernatural realm. Boyle is known to have conducted alchemical experiments in the early seventeenth century, and his “Dialogue on Transmutation” (published sometime between 1675 and 1685) overturned common objections to the theory and practice of transmutation. Yet Newton’s connection between alchemy and religion was tempered, in large part due to his unshakeable faith in an omnipotent God.  In the end, “alchemy was alien to his Scripture-bound religion- it savoured of enthusiasm and was too remote from God’s historically revealed word in the bible.” (9)  In 1689, Boyle used his influence to help ensure the Parliamentary repeal of the Act Against Multipliers (which had prohibited the public practice of alchemy). In a letter to John Locke, Newton wrote that Boyle had “procured the repeal of the Act of Parliament against Multipliers,” interpreting this as evidence that Boyle had finally devised the recipe necessary to transform base metals into gold. (10) 

Section III: Newton as Warden of the Mint

The practice of alchemy by notable people in high places in London society reached its paramount point with Newton being appointed to the Royal Mint. Newton’s time at the Royal Mint started March 19th, 1696 when he received the appointment to be Warden of the Mint through the recommendation to the King by his friend Charles Montague who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.  Montague felt the job was a good one for Newton because “tis the Chief Officer of the Mint, tis worth five or six hundred pounds per An, and has not too much bus’nesse to require more than you may spare.”(11) Essentially it paid relatively well and Newton's obligations were limited.  Furthermore this offer could not have come at a more opportune time for Newton, who was, "fully-prepared for a radical and lasting change in his life.  He had been slipping again into a mire of depression and was probably aware that his best scientific work lay behind him."(12) According to John Young, this move from Cambridge to London required Newton to give up his alchemy laboratory, but he still made notes on the subject and kept in contact with people who still did experiments. (13) Yet this is not to suggest Newton somehow ignored the new duties bestowed upon him as Warden of the Mint- in fact, "Newton had gone as far as he could with the work that had obsessed him for so long. Now, as he began a new life, he threw himself into it with the same vigour he had employed as an alchemist and natural philosopher."(14) According to Milo Keyens, Newton’s main preoccupation while at the mint was the recoinage of England’s debased currency. He worked as hard at his job as a civil servant as he did in his scientific or philosophical work. (15) Among the other things he did as Warden was: advise the government on monetary policy, give his views on the management of the money supply and help establish the gold standard and overall make the Warden of the Mint no longer a sinecure job. After three years as Warden, Newton was then made Master of the Mint in 1699 where he became responsible for testing the weight of coins and assaying the metal used in them. (16)


Although most people do not view Newton as primarily an alchemist, it played a significant role in his life and helped to define him as a scientist. Alchemy once occupied a significant role in the Royal Society of London, and Newton was at the forefront of this as President of the Royal Society. As times began to change and chemistry replaced alchemy as the more practical and socially significant science, Newton used his knowledge as an alchemist to help him in his role as Master and Warden of the Mint. This signified the ultimate example of  "alchemy in high places".

Works Cited

1.  Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorceror, (April 1999), Published by: British Commonwealth, United Nations, United States

 2. J. Andrew Mendelsohn Past & Present , Alchemy and Politics in England 1649-1665, No. 135 (May, 1992), pp. 30-78 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present SocietyArticle Stable URL:

3. Paul Scheurer, G. Debrock, Newton's Scientific and Philosophical Legacy, 1988, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Pg. 285

4. Ferdinando Abbri Early Science and Medicine , Alchemy and Chemistry: Chemical Discourses in the Seventeenth Century. Vol. 5, No. 2, Alchemy and Hermeticism (2000), pp. 214-226. Published by: BRILLArticle Stable URL:

5. Lawrence M. Principe Isis , Vol. 102, No. 2 (June 2011), Alchemy Restored pp. 305-312 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyArticle DOI: 10.1086/660139 Article Stable URL: 

6. Janacek, Bruce. “A Virtuoso’s History: Antiquarianism and the Transmission of Knowledge in the Alchemical Studies of Elias Ashmole.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 July 2008. 395-417

7. Frank E. Manuel, Religion of Isaac Newton, Freemantle Lectures, Published Dec. 19 1974, Pg. 23

8. Dickson, Donald R. “Thomas Henshaw and Sir Robert Paston’s Pursuit of the Red Elixir: An Early Collaboration between Fellows of the Royal Society”. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 51, No. 1 (Jan., 1997). 57-76.

9. Michael White, Ibid, Pg. 46

10. Ihde, Aaron J. “Alchemy in Reverse: Robert Boyle on the Degradation of Gold”. Chymia. Vol. 9 (1964). 47-57

11. Ihde, Aaron J. Ibid

12. Scheurer and Debrock, Ibid, Pg. 254

13. Young, John. “Isaac Newton's Alchemical Notes in the Royal Society”.  Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Issue 1, Volume 60, 2006. P. 31

14. Michael White, Ibid, Pg. 263

15. Keynes, Milo. “The Personality of Isaac Newton” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. Issue 1, Volume 49, 1996. 45-49

16. Craig, J. H and Shirras, G. Findlay. “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency”.  The Economic Journal. Issue 218/219, Volume 55, 1945.  220

Photo Credits:

1. Newton and Alchemy from 

2. The entrance to the Royal Society, Tom Morris

3. Sir Isaac Newton from