On His Majesty’s Supernatural Service: Edward III and the Alchemist in the Tower

Either the meaning of the Author or the letter of his writings is deceitful.
Be on your guard, therefore. Everywhere a serpent lurks among the flowers.
Yet scorn not a friend who spoke as plainly as he might.
Beneath the shadowy foliage of words is concealed the golden fruit of Truth.
— Preface to the Testament of Cremer, 1618

Every King is the product of a certain pinch of myth, but few are as consciously mythical as Edward III of England.

A cleansing light of authority after the chaos of his father, the 50-year reign of Edward III – from 25 January 1327 to 21 June 1377 – established England as a military power, held the tiller firm through the Black Death, instituted more robust civil administration and cemented English supremacy over a huge swathe of France at the point of a poleaxe.

The literature of the day didn’t just proclaim a new golden age; it proclaimed a new Camelot and Edward himself was more than willing to step into the pages of balladry and romance, if not as King Arthur himself, then as one of his noble knights.

Edward III and his son in an illuminated manuscript from 1390
Edward III and his son in an illuminated manuscript from 1390

These links between the imagined past and the bright new era were foreshadowed by a verse that entered circulation around the time of Edward’s birth.

The Six Last Kings of the English purported to be the ancient prophecies of Merlin, Arthur’s sorcerous ally. First appearing in 1312 (but only became more widely circulated in the 15th Century, as both pro and anti-Lancastrian propaganda during the Wars of the Roses), everything apparently intoned by the legendary wizard seemed to unfold as predicted: Edward, ‘the boar’ (symbolism linked to Arthur through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Boar of Cornwall’), unleashed a litany of victories that restore national pride after the disastrous reign of ‘the goat’, Edward II.

Events continued unfold sympathetically, albeit with the direct stage management of the monarch, who held great feasts and jousts in the Arthurian image. In 1348 Edward III launched his own chivalric order in – the Order of the Garter – and in 1344 even mooted a full-blown recreation of the Round Table. Edward III even gave back to the lore he had himself plundered so gleefully.

The Anglo-Norman motto of the Order of Garter “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame on whomsoever would think badly of it”) was inscribed as a postscript on the 14th Century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A neat link between the legendary Knights of the Round Table, and Edward’s own revival. That Sir Gawain was a coded criticism of sexual impropriety in Edward’s court only serves to reinforce the association between the two monarchs, the myth and myth-maker.

Edward III as head of the Order of the Garter, drawing c. 1430–40 in the Bruges Garter Book
Edward III as head of the Order of the Garter, drawing c. 1430–40 in the Bruges Garter Book

If throughout his reign, Edward III was tethered to the heroic ideal of Arthurian chivalry, but later flights of fancy identified him more directly King Arthur.

In fact they even gave him his Merlin.

Alchemy was brought to Europe through the Moorish gateway in Spain. Arabic documents which built upon the earlier theories of the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians were translated into Latin by Franciscan friars, opening up a world of occult sciences – the transmutation of base metals into gold, cures, elixirs and rumours of eternal life. Initially the church began to explore ‘natural philosophy’ as a means of understanding God’s creation, but by 1317 the mood had changed completely. While other religious leaders took a more thunderous tone denouncing alchemy as little more than demonology, Pope John XXII issued an altogether more secular edict against the “counterfeit” of gold and silver through the bogus practice of alchemy.

The pontiff was unambiguous in his feelings:

Poor themselves, the alchemists promise riches which are not forthcoming; wise also in their own conceit they fall into the ditch which they themselves have digged.

Nonetheless interest grew. The promise of wealth, long life and riches proving enticing to the learned men of Europe. According The Testament of Cremer (dated to 1618 but purporting to take place in the mid-14th Century), Abbott John Cremer of Westminster was a dabbler in alchemy looking for instruction.

He found a potential mentor in Franciscan philosopher Raymund Lull (also known by Raymond Lull or Raymond Lully):

The more I read the more hopelessly I went astray, until Divine Providence at length prompted me to undertake a journey to Italy, and caused me to be accepted as a disciple by that noble and marvellously learned Master Raymond, with whom I remained for a long time. In his eyes I found such favour that he not only unfolded to me a partial knowledge of this Great Mystery, but at my most earnest entreaty, accompanied me to this island of England, and lived with me here two years. During his stay he thoroughly instructed me in the whole secret of the work.

When he arrived, Lull demonstrated his abilities to Edward III, apparently convincing the monarch that this untapped wealth could fund a new Crusade to recover the Holy Land from the Turks.

An alchemist at work in The Ordinal of Alchemy, circa 1477
An alchemist at work in The Ordinal of Alchemy, circa 1477

Edward III agreed immediately, setting Lull up with a laboratory in the Tower of London where 22 tons of lead and tin were reportedly transmuted into pure gold, which was then minted into new coinage, called the ‘rose noble’. Rather than reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom, Edward III used this supernatural slush fund to finance a renewed onslaught in his war with France.

Lull, depending on which account you believe, was either imprisoned and forced to continue his work, or left the country, taking his secrets with him. A 16th Century addition to the story breathlessly explained that while in his captivity Lull was even visited by angels who bequeathed further secrets upon him.

Edward III did mint a new coin called the ‘noble’ in 1344, and he did dabble in esoteric lore – that much is true.

A Patent Roll of 1330 claims that Edward III planned to use alchemy for the production of silver, naming John le Rous and William de Dalby as suspected alchemists and instructing Thomas Carey to bring them before him with force if necessary. In 1350, the king had John de Walden arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London after paying him 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver to “work thereon by the art of alchemy for the benefit of the king” with less than stellar results.

The king also owned a number of alchemical manuscripts, dedicated to him and ascribed to a “Raymund” (or by those claiming to be his “disciples”).

Pages from a 15th or 16th Century copy of Codicillus, one of the alchemical texts attributed to Raymund Lull
Pages from a 15th or 16th Century copy of Codicillus, one of the alchemical texts attributed to Raymund Lull © Les Enluminures

In actuality there was something of a cottage industry of esoteric writings misattributed to Lull, among them the vastly influential Testamentum, which was reputed to have been written in the vicinity of the Tower of London – fitting neatly with Cremer’s account.

Testamentum defined alchemy as “a hidden part of natural philosophy” that focused on three major topics: the transmutation of lead into gold, the creation of precious stones, and healing remedies. The key to all three, of course, was identified as the Philosopher’s Stone.

This book however, was written in 1322, while the real Raymund Lull – Ramon Llull – died in 1315, when Edward was three-years-old – long before the start of the Hundred Years War and the minting of the noble, and six years before the publication of “his” masterwork.

An etching of Ramon Llull from the 16th or 17th century
An etching of Ramon Llull from the 16th or 17th century

An inhabitant of the Kingdom of Majorca, Llull – who spoke Arabic as well as Latin and his native Catalan – studied the work of Islamic philosophers and thinkers, writing copious volumes of his own on the seek for spiritual truth and much of this was pasted straight into the later volumes of mystical lore, and from the 16th and 17th Centuries Llull was firmly embedded in the murky pantheon of alchemy, gnosticism and hermetic magic in Europe.

This vast canon seems little diminished by the fact its “author” had no part in its composition. That there’s no record of an Abbot Cremer or that Llull had firmly denounced alchemy in his lifetime mattered little as the legend gathered pace.

Much as Faust serves as warning to those who truck with demons, The Testament of Cremer was a warning from the other side of the chalk circle: a bargain with kings is the real devil’s deal.

History of Royals issue 1 is on sale from 14 April. Subscribe now and save 40% on the cover price.


  • The Order of the Garter 1348-1461: Chivalry and Politics in Late Medieval England by Hugh EL Collins
  • Edward III by W Mark Ormrod
  • Arthurian Literature XXII by Keith Busby and Roger Dalrymple
  • The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence Principe
  • Chaucer the Alchemist: Physics, Mutability, and the Medieval Imagination by Alexander N Gabrovsky
  • http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Catalonia/article/viewFile/104763/160234