John (Damian), Master, the French Leich

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John (Damian), Master, the French Leich

Among the several alchemists in the court of King James VI of Scotland, the most noted was the person variously styled in the Treasurer's Accounts as "the French Leich," "Maister John the French Leich," "Maister John the French Medicinar," and "French Maister John." The real name of this empiric was John Damian. He was a native of Lombardy and had practiced surgery and other arts in France before his arrival in Scotland. His first appearance at the court of James was in the capacity of a French leech, and, as he is mentioned among the persons who received "leveray" (livery) in 1501-02, there can be no doubt that he held an appointment as a physician in the royal household.

John soon succeeded in ingratiating himself with the king, and it is probable that it was from him that James absorbed a strong passion for alchemy, as James about this time erected at Stirling a furnace for conducting such experiments, and continued during the rest of his reign to expend considerable sums of money in attempts to discover the philosophers' stone. Bishop Lesley observed, "Maister John caused the king believe, that he by multiplying and utheris his inventions sold [should] make fine gold of uther metal, quhilk science he callit the Quintassence, whereupon the king made great cost, but all in vain."

There are numerous entries in the Treasurer's Accounts of sums paid for saltpeter, bellows, two great stillatours, brass mortars, coals, and numerous vessels of various shapes, sizes, and denominations, for the use of this foreign adept in his mystical studies. These studies, however, were not his sole occupation, for after the mysterious labors of the day were concluded, John used to play cards with the sovereigna mode by which he probably transferred the contents of the royal exchequer into his own purse, as efficaciously as by his distillations.

Early in the year 1504, the Abbot of Tungland, in Galloway, died, and the king, with a reckless disregard of the dictates of duty, appointed the unprincipled adventurer John to the vacant office. On March 11, the treasurer paid "to Gareoch Parsuivant fourteen shillings to pass to Tungland for the Abbacy to the French Maister John." On the 12th of the same month, "by the king's command," he paid "to Bardus Altovite Lumbard twenty-five pounds for Maister John, the French Mediciner, new maid Abbot of Tungland, whilk he aucht (owed) to the said Bardus," and a few days later on the 17th, there was given "to Maister John the new maid Abbot of Tungland, seven pounds." Three years after, on July 27, 1507, occurs the following entry: "Item, lent, by the king's command to the Abbot of Tungland, and can nocht be gettin fra him £33 : 6 : 8."

An adventure that befell this dexterous impostor afforded great amusement to the Scottish court. On the occasion of an embassy setting out from Stirling to the court of France, he had the audacity to declare that by means of a pair of artificial wings he had constructed, he would undertake to fly to Paris and arrive long before the ambassadors. This incident gave rise to a satirical ballad entitled "Of the Fenyeit Friar of Tungland," in which a poet exposed in the most sarcastic strain the pretensions of the luckless adventurer, and related with great humor the result of his attempt to soar into the skies, when he was dragged to the earth by the low-minded propensities of the "hen feathers" he had inadvertently admitted into the construction of his wings.

Although John's unsuccessful attempt, according to Lesley, subjected him to the ridicule of the whole kingdom, it did not result in the loss of the king's favor. The Treasurer's books, from October 1507 to August 1508, repeatedly mention him as having played at dice and cards with his majesty, and on September 8, 1508, "Damiane, Abbot of Tungland," obtained royal permission to pursue his studies abroad during the space of five years.

John must have returned to Scotland, however, before the death of James, since the last notice given to this impostor is quite in character. On March 27, 1513, the sum of twenty pounds was paid to him for his journey to the mine in Crawford Moor, where the king had at that time artisans at work searching for gold.

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John (Damian), Master, the French Leich

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