Will the Real Nicholas Flamel Please Stand


Page from Flamel’s Notebook

Last week was the week of the “great sort out” since I was running out of storage space for files. I came across my old notes for the book “Close to the Edge” and amongst them were the notes I made for the story of the monk and alchemist George Ripley of Bridlington Priory. In the margin of these notes I had scrawled – ‘check out Nicolas Flamel’. I never did check him out…until now.

So who was Nicolas Flamel?

He was a Frenchman (c1330-1418), a scribe and seller of books and manuscripts who apparently discovered (according to 17th century accounts) the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone – although that rather depends on which texts you read.


19th century image of the man himself

His life is well documented…by himself. He had two shops in Paris, married a well-endowed widow and in their later years together they were both wealthy and philanthropic. Like many educated men in Medieval days he dabbled in alchemy and knew of the existence of a book which, once deciphered would reveal the secrets of the universe, how to make gold from base metal and how to live forever as a bonus.

One day, as all good stories go, a man came into his bookshop wanting to sell a book. Flamel recognised it immediately  (because an angel told him about it in a dream the night before), handed over a couple of florins without a quibble and became the proud owner. The  book was that of Abraham the Jew, written part in arcane symbols and part in ancient Hebrew.

For more than twenty years Flamel worked diligently trying to translate the text before deciding that he needed a bit of help from learned men within the Jewish community. At that time Jews were persecuted in France and many had fled to Spain and so, to Spain our hero must go. He dressed as a pilgrim and on his journey met a merchant who, just by chance you understand, was able to introduce him to a venerable Jewish scholar. He recognised the book for what it was and agreed to go to Paris with Flamel to work on its translation.

Three years passed, the old scholar died, but Flamel managed finally to decode the book. He writes of his success in changing mercury into silver and then into gold. Apparently he put his new found skill to good and charitable uses, living quietly with his wife, working in his bookshops and dying at the age of 80. He was buried in the Church of St Jacques la Boucherie in Paris.


Flamel’s tombstone

He was not allowed to rest in peace though. Treasure hunters from near and far came looking for the red powder that acted as the catalyst to the transmutation. His house was ransacked and many of the sculptures he had commissioned were damaged with inscriptions and symbols torn off and carted away.

And what happened to the book of Abraham the Jew?

Flamel bequeathed his papers and his library to his nephew and for 200 years these were passed down from father to son and nothing more is heard of the book. Then, in the 17th century we hear of an hapless heir of Flamel who was daft enough to demonstrate to King Louis XIII the transmutation process. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s advisor, took a keen interest and soon after said heir was carted off to prison, tried and ultimately executed. This gave Richelieu the right to confiscate all the man’s property. It is alleged that Richelieu had possession of the book until his death and after that it vanished.

Perhaps one day, some book lover fossicking in the second-hand bookshops of Paris will stumble upon it…or perhaps not

George Ripley and the Philosopher’s Stone

In researching my book Close to the Edge I came across all manner of weird and wonderful people who left their footprint on the sands of the East Yorkshire coast and whilst wondering what to give you as a New Year offering I remembered George Ripley, a Canon at Bridlington Priory who worked something of a portfolio career in the heady years of the 15th century. He pursued not only his religious vocation, but also became an “expert” alchemist, chamberlain to the Pope and financial backer (allegedly) of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Rhodes when they were hassled by the Turks. In between times, he fitted in a marriage (permissible in those days for churchmen) and sired two sons.

George left the Priory, where he studied the Physical Sciences and legged it to Europe, living for a while in Rome where  Pope Innocent VIII took a shine to him and created him Chamberlain and Master of Ceremonies. In 1478 he returned to these shores and, wrapped in his bony bosom, (OK – poetic licence here – I just picture him as tall, thin and bony) lay The Secret – that of Transmutation.

He made known this secret in his best known alchemical opus – The Compound of Alchemy in which he discloses “the right and perfectest meanes” to make the Philosopher’s Stone – that elusive stuff that magicks rusty old scrap metal into gold and silver bling and, as an added bonus, produces The Elixir of Life. This work, written in verse, describes the twelve stages or “gates” of the alchemical process. A century later his recipe is translated into pictures known as Alchemy for Dummies, no, sorry I mean the Ripley Scrolls.


Ripley shuffled off his own mortal coil around 1490 and  achieved post-mortem stardom when The Compound of Alchemy became a best seller. That and his other works contributed to a resurgence of interest in alchemy particularly in the following couple of centuries.

You want in on the secret too?

Here’s the first verse from the first of the twelve gates. You will find all the rest at http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ripgat1.html


Calcination is the purgation of our stone,
And restoration also of its natural heat.
Of radical humidity it looseth none,
Inducing solution into our stone most mete.
Seek after philosophy I you advise
But not after the common guise,
With sulphur and salts prepared in diverse ways.

Good Luck and a Very Happy New Year to you all.

P.S. Click on the image if you want to see it in all its glory. It’s part of the Scrolls and ta very much Wikipedia Commons.