Ron Heisler - Michael Maier and England

Article originally published in The Hermetic Journal, 1989.

Michael Maier and England

Ron Heisler ©

Michael Maier's sojourns in England appear to have been more eventful than his biographer, J.B. Craven, ever imagined. But first, some background description. Craven says that Maier stayed at Amsterdam, a natural departure point for England, in 1611. He certainly inspected the natural history collection of Petrus Carpenterius, the Rector of a Rotterdam school, in that year. Carpenterius was Rector at the Walloon school in Norwich in 1598. At Christmas 1611 Maier sent greetings cards to both James I and Henry, Prince of Wales - that to James taking the form of an eight petal rose with a cross. 1 We can't say whether Maier actually conveyed these across the Channel himself.

Maier's friend, the great Marburg chemist, Johann Hartmann, wrote to Borbonius on the 1st (11th) July 1612 that Maier had gone to London with a "Carmen gratulatorium" for the Elector Palatine and his bride to be, the Princess Elizabeth. 2 On the 6th November that year Maier appears to have been included among the Elector Palatine's "gentlemen", who attended the funeral of Prince Henry in London. 3 On the 28th May 1613 Arcana arcanissima was registered with the Stationers' Company, having been approved by the censors. Presumably Thomas Creede, who brought out some first editions of Shakespeare, published the book within a few months. 4 Maier presented copies to Sir William Paddy, head of the London College of Physicians; Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Ely; Lord Dingwall, a good looking favourite of King James with an interest in alchemy; and Sir Thomas Smith. A further copy went to Dr Francis Anthony, the inventor of a fraudulent aurum potabile that was extremely fashionable; a particularly good friend of Maier's, to whom Lusus Serius was dedicated. 5 Anthony's Panacea Aurea ...(1618) contains a letter from Alexander Gill (this must have been the elder Gill) to Maier lauding Anthony's medicine. 6 Gill was high master of St. Paul's school; his pupils included John Milton from 1620 to 1625. 7 Gill appears to have fallen under Maier's spell and then reacted hostilely. He comments in The Sacred Philosophie of the Holy Scriptures (1635, p. 66), "I had beene more than once gul'd with such titles, Arcana arcanorum arcanissima arcana, and the like, wherein these writers sweat more, than for any thing in the booke beside: yet being interpreted, a pious and very profound meditation of the deepe mysteries of the Apostles Creed, I supposed that such bumbast would never be quilted into a treatise upon the grounds of our Religion…" The British Library owns two versions of Arcana arcanissima. One has the common fine engraved frontispiece; the other has a cruder frontispiece dated, absurdly, "CXIIII". This copy's owner was "Johannis Morris". 8 Cornelius Drebbel, the Rosicrucian inventor, most probably met Maier either in the Netherlands or in England. His Tractatus duo (two distinct editions in 1621) is enlivened by a page of Maier's commending the Rosicrucian enthusiast Joachim Morsius.

In Maier's associations there is a pattern of an unexpected dimension. Sir Thomas Smith was Treasurer of the Virginia Company, which was engaged in developing the colony of Virginia. Francis Anthony was appointed to a committee of the Company in 1619. 9 George Sandys, who became Company treasurer in 1621, in his 1632 Commentary on his own translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis remarked, apropos alchemical interpretations of the legend of Jason and the golden fleece, "But he who would know too much of this, let him read Mayerus; who that way allegorizeth most of the fables." 10 Finally, John Selden, the Company's legal adviser, owned two works by Maier. 11 Atalanta Fugiens (1617) may have been deeply inspired by the utopian vision of America.

Elias Ashmole, in describing how Maier came "to live in England; purposely that he might so understand our English Tongue, as to Translate Norton's Ordinall into Latin verse...," ventured the cryptic remark that "Yet (to our shame be it spoken) his Entertainment was too coarse for so deserving a Scholler." 12 The reader is left floundering in the air. What did Ashmole actually mean by this? The answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the correspondence of Sir Thomas Overbury.

The Overbury affair is the greatest murder scandal of the seventeenth century. Overbury, a talented literary man who specialised in creating enemies, was a close friend of the royal favourite Sir Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester - maintaining an extraordinary dominance for a time over this mediocrity. Overbury had schemed himself into becoming a crucial player in the plottings of the parliamentary radicals, the so-called "Patriots". By getting Rochester to exert his charms over the King, they hoped that their man, Sir Henry Neville of Billingbear, Kent, would eventually be appointed to the key office of Secretary of State.

Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, had set her cap at Rochester - and Overbury, for a while, acted as their intermediary. But soon he developed a passionate loathing for the "base" woman and the idea of her marrying Rochester, which he made abundantly and naggingly clear to the infatuated Viscount. With the King's enthusiastic compliance, her marriage to the Earl of Essex was finally annulled, on the unconvincing ground of his claimed impotency. In the meantime, to rid Rochester of his embarrassing companion, it was proposed that Overbury be sent off abroad as an ambassador. Overbury refused the offer, provoked the King's wrath - and was sent to the Tower. Rochester dissimulated somewhat: Overbury long after believed their friendship still held. Perhaps apprehensive that Overbury could still strike back at them from a distance, Rochester and his lover arranged to have various officials at the Tower replaced by their friends. A correspondence was maintained between Overbury and Rochester, the letters being hidden in tarts and jellies. Alas, with the connivance of Sir Robert Cotton most of these were later destroyed.

James I arranged for his own personal physician, Sir Theodor Turquet de Mayerne, to attend Overbury. The apothecary officially appointed was de Mayerne's brother-in-law, Paul de Lobell. However, unofficial aid reached Overbury. His health had begun to decline, and desperate to emerge from the Tower, he thought up the strategem of simulating extreme sickness in order to impress the official doctors and gain the King's sympathy. Sir Robert Killigrew, an amateur alchemist, prepared potions for him and other potions reached him through the agency of Mrs Anne Turner, a black magician and associate of Simon Forman, and discreditable characters such as Richard Weston and the apothecary James Franklin. He even obtained some aurum potabile from Maier's friend, Dr Francis Anthony, as an antidote to poison. 13 Overbury died on the 14th September 1613. Few wept for him. Any suspicions about the manner of his death were suppressed for almost two years. But at the start of September 1615 the King was persuaded to order an official investigation into the affair.

Sir Gervase Elwes, the lieutenant of the Tower, Mrs Anne Turner, Weston the gaoler, and Franklin were executed for their parts in the poisoning. Rochester and Frances Howard were tried and found guilty. But with that exquisite sense of justice prevailing under Jacobean despotism they were eventually pardoned. A large number of manuscript reports of the case have survived, as well as many minutes of the three hundred examinations. Remarkably, although the King ordered that de Mayerne be examined by Sir Edward Coke, no record of his examination is known. Nor was he even called to give evidence at any of the public trials. Modern historians of the affair have voiced the suspicion that something was being concealed. Strangely, not one of them has realised the fact that besides de Mayerne, who signed himself "Mayernus", another physician was present in London in 1613 (assuming he was around when Creede entered Arcana arcanissima with the Stationers in May that year), who signed himself "Mayerus" - i.e. Michael Maier. 14

A careful examination of letters owned by the British Library, written by Overbury and bound in manuscript volume Sloane 7002, reveals several references to "Mayerus" by Overbury. Written in a clear hand, there can be no mistake in this respect. If fs. 281-2, Overbury, using the false name "Robert Killigrew", writes "I have now sent to the leittenant to desire you Mayerus being absent to send young Crag hither, and Nessmith, if Nessmith be away, send I pray Crag and Alllen." The following item (f. 282) indicates a scheme of Overbury's for his letters to be got out of the Tower "under unknown names by May: [f]or the Apotecary, now he is sicke is a fitte time to urge a commiseration of my sickness [with the King]." In f. 286 Overbury explains that "whiles I was abroad [I] was never well however as Mayerus knows, which made me returne so soone..." Overbury was absent from England by October 1608 and did not return till August 1609. He traveled in the Netherlands and France. he certainly stayed at Paris and Antwerp. 15 In f. 286b Overbury claims that "for my sickness of Consumption and Flatus Hypocondriacus, Mayerus may be cald upon his oath if they doubt your presence..." In f. 287 Overbury complains of a "loathing of meat and my water is strangely high, which I keep till Mayerus com." One concludes Overbury had not only the services of Sir Theodor Turquet de Mayerne but also of Michael Maier. The apothecary de Lobell alleged whilst under examination that Rochester "willed him to Dr Maiot concerning physic to be given to Overbury". 16 Is "Maiot" a misspelling of "Maior"?

James Franklin, after he was condemned, began to make curious allegations of wider plots, particularly about the premature death of young Henry, Prince of Wales, in November 1612. A paper of the Attorney-general, Sir Francis Bacon's, relates that "Mrs Turner did at Whitehall shew to Franklin the man, who, as she said, poisoned the prince, which, he says, was a physician with a red beard". 17 Sir Theodor Turquet de Mayerne had tended the prince during his sickness. Mayerne has left five portraits. In none of these is there an indication of red hair. But the engraving we have of Maier by a contemporary shows a man with the bristly, wiry hair consistent with a type of red headed man. Of course, these are vague allegations, quite uncorroborated by any other known evidence. But recent research by Professor Karin Figala and Ulrich Neumann has revealed a rather more complex Michael Maier than J.B. Craven ever imagined. At Padua, in July 1596, Maier seriously wounded a fellow student, was arrested, fined and fled. And from 1618 he acted as an "intelligence" gatherer for Moritz, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel. 18

But there are other facets of Maier to consider. In Symbola Aurea (1617), after stating that he had first heard of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood whilst in England, he tells how the Rosicrucian Brothers had traveled from the Barbary Coast (North Africa) to Spain. 19 He discusses the prophets, with their magic, of Morocco and Fez, and links them to "Mullei Om Hamet Ben Abdela" and "Mullei Sidan". Perhaps he was thinking of the Sufi mystics, who were already being reported by Elizabethan visitors to Muslim lands. Now it happens that in 1609 a sensationally popular book had been published in London, A True Historicall Discourse of Muley Hamets rising to the three Kingdomes of Moruecos, Fes, and Sus , which gave a particularly detailed account of events of 1602 to 1604. Dedicated to the great friend of Robert Fludd, John Selden and William Camden, Sir Robert Cotton, the anonymous author related the "adventures" of Sir Anthony Sherley, his sons and other English "gentlemen" in the Moorish regions. John Davies of Hereford, whose Rosicrucian ties I explain elsewhere, dedicated commendatory verses in various works to several of these travellers, some of whom were his personal friends. One feels that Maier had been privileged with anecdotes from these travels that never saw print in England. Even George Sandys, who later recommended Maier's works, had spent time in the Middle East.

1616 appears to have been Maier's last year in England. Jocus Severus (1617) was written on his road from England to Bohemia, whilst the dedication of Lusus Serius was written in September 1616, "having returned from England, on my way from Prague." The dedication of De Circulo Physico Quadrato was dated Frankfurt on Main, August 1616. It should be noted - perhaps it is relevant - that the final trial arising from the Overbury affair began on May 25th 1616 and was concluded within a day or two.

Although Fludd appears to have got on the wrong side of Maier, who wrote harsh things about him in a private letter, Maier seems to have had access to a manuscript by the English Rosicrucian, the "Tractatus de tritico", which Morsius noted in his album amicorum. 20

Maier's fame in England burned bright for many years. In 1625 Arcana arcanissima was either reprinted or reissued in London; but by a society of booksellers, not by an individual publisher. An English translation of Atalanta Fugiens was made, which never saw print, but has all the signs of being a printer's fair copy and has been related to the watermark of a paper made in 1625. John Everard was translating part of Tripus aureus in 1623. A further MS translation of Atalanta Fugiens, with some of the verse left uncompleted, was done, possibly in the 1670's or 80's; whilst in 1676 a MS translation was made of Silentium post Clamores by Richard Russell, who was possibly the brother of Charles II's apothecary. A full MS translation of Tripus aureus meanwhile had been made, which has been dated at about 1640. 21

The first work by Maier that was actually seen through the press in English translation was Lusus Serius (1654). Behind the translator's pseudonym of J. de la Salle was one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the era, John Hall (1627-1656). My guess is that he was both a Baconian in scientific aspiration and a sub rosa Rosicrucian. He translated two works by J.V. Andreae, The Right hand of Christian Love Offered and A Modell of a Christian Society (each remaining in manuscript only). A friend of Thomas Hobbes, as had been, it would seem, Aretius, he was a highly valued member of the Hartlib circle - that energizing network of friendships that gave birth eventually to the Royal Society. He wrote an outstanding tract on the reform of the universities. It has not been previously realized that several of the designs in his Emblems with Elegant Figures of 1648 are inferior copies of some of the magnificent illustrations to be found in the works of Robert Fludd. Hall died, it is sad to report, of a combination of debauchery and fatness. 22

Two years after Lusus Serius, in 1656, Themis Aurea was brought out in English translation. Dedicated to Elias Ashmole, this edition was registered with the Company of Stationers on the 2nd October 1655. The translator was "Tho: Hodges, gent", who appears to have been a rich royalist Puritan with a loathing for "Heterodox Preachers", whose funeral was held on the 1st May 1656. A "Thomas Hodges" had been among the "Adventurers" of the Virginia Company in 1612. 23

The greatest honour done to Maier came late in the century. Isaac Newton studied his writings meticulously, leaving 88 respectful pages of notes. 24


1. J.B. Craven Count Michael Maier p. 3. Tractatus de Volucri Arborea (1619) p. 43. On Carpentarius see H.W. Rotermund Das Gelehrte Hannover (1823) vol. I. A.McLean "A Rosicrucian Manuscript of Michael Maier" The Hermetic Journal 5 (Autumn 1979). Scot. Rec. Off., Edin., GD 241/212. British Library Royal MS 14B XVI.
2. G. Gellner Zivotopis Lékane Borbonia a vyklad jeho deníka p. 96.
3. John Nichols The Progresses… of King James the First vol. 2 p. 496.
4. Transcript of Registers of Company of Stationers ed. E. Arber vol. 3 fol. 239b.
5. Some of these are listed in Craven. The Andrewes copy, with a special printed dedication, is in Dr Williams's Library, London. On Dingwall see Ethel Seaton Literary Relations of England and Scandanavia in the Seventeenth Century (1935) p. 157.
6. Panacea Aurea… pp. 71-73. Anthony dedicated his Apologia veritatis… pro auro potabile (1616) to Maier.
7. See Dictionary of National Biography. Also C. Hill Milton and the English Revolution for Milton's friendship with both the elder and younger Gill.
8. British Library Pressmark 236 k. 33. A "John Maurice, or Morres" was vicar of Blackburn about this time: Jnl. of Nic. Assheton ed. F.R. Raines p.99.
9. C. Drebbel Tractatus duo facing F5. Abstract of Proceedings of Virginia Company of London 1619-1624 vol. II pp. 7-8,11.
10. George Sandys Ovid's Metamorphosis… (1632, reprinted 1981) p. 253 (333).
11. Selden owned Themis Aurea and Septimana philosophica. Both are in the Bodleian Library.
12. Theatricum Chemicum Britannicum A2.
13. The best work on the scandal is Beatrice White Cast of Ravens. But indispensable is the documentation in Andrew Amos The Great Oyer of Poisoning (1846). Anthony: White p, 241. Anthony was examined on October 29th 1615.
14. James's instructions re. Mayerne are noted Cal. of State Papers (Dom.) 1611-18 p. 307. Amos p. 161 on non-examination of Mayerne.
15. There are extracts from some of these "Mayerus" references in E.F. Rimbault's The Miscellaneous Works of Sir Thomas Overbury (1856) p. li. Rimbault's renditions vary considerably from my readings. Sir Thomas Overbury His Observations in his Travailes… various editions, 1626, etc. Marquess of Downshire Papers vol. II pp 103, 273. Bodleian Library Selden Ms. 3469 f. 50, Degory Wheare to Overbury in France (dated London 10 Oct. 1608).
16. Amos pp. 116 and 140.
17. Amos p. 446.
18. Atti della nazione germanica artista nello studio di Padova ed. A. Favaro vol. 2 (Venezia 1912) pp. 81f., 100.
19. Symbola Aurea… p.290.
20. Source: personal communications from Bruce T. Moran and Karin Figala. C.H. Josten "Truth's Golden Harrow" Ambix III (1949) p. 94.
21. Alchemy and the Occult Catalogue of Paul and Mary Mellon Collection (Yale Univ. Lib.) vol. II p. 286. Ibid. vol. III MS 48 called "Atalanta running". British Library Sloane MS 2175 fs. 145-7. Brit. Lib. Sloane 3645 "The Flying Atalanta", bound with MSS dated "1681" (f. 107b) and "1675" (f. 176b). Held in Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amstedam. Alchemy and the Occult vol. III MS. 56.
22. On Hall see Dict. of Nat. Biog. and references in C. Webster The Great Instauration. À Wood was confused and wrote that Robert Hegge did the translation.
23. Trans. of Reg. of Comp. of Stat. ed Eyre and Rivington vol. II p.14. On Hodges, see Thos. Watson The Crown of Righteousness (1656), a funeral sermon.
24. Keynes MS 32 King's College, Cambridge.