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Norton, Thomas (d. ca. 1477)

Norton, Thomas (d. ca. 1477)

The exact date of this alchemist's birth is wrapped in mystery, and little is recorded about his life in general. But at least it is known that he was born in Bristol, England, towards the end of the fourteenth century, and that in the year 1436 he was elected to represent that town in Parliament. This suggests that he was an upright and highly-esteemed person, and the conjecture is strengthened by the fact that Edward IV made him a member of his privy council and employed him repeatedly as an ambassador.

At an early age Norton showed curiosity concerning alchemy, demonstrating his predilection by attempting to make the personal acquaintance of George Ripley, sometime canon of Bridlington, who was reputedly a man of extraordinary learning, author of numerous alchemical works. For many months Norton sought Ripley in vain, but at length the canon, yielding to the other's importunity, wrote to him in the following manner: "I shall not longer delay; the time is come; you shall receive this grace. Your honest desire and approved virtue, your love of truth, wisdom and long perseverance, shall accomplish your sorrowful desires. It is necessary that, as soon as convenient, we speak together face to face, lest I should by writing betray my trust. I will make you my heir and brother in this art, as I am setting out to travel in foreign countries. Give thanks to God, Who next to His spiritual servants, honours the sons of this sacred science."

After receiving this very friendly and encouraging letter, Norton hurried straightway to Ripley's presence, and thereafter for more than a month the two were constantly together. The elder man taught the novice many things, and he even promised that, if Norton showed himself an apt and worthy pupil, he would impart to him the secret of the philosophers' stone. In due course this promise was fulfilled, though it is reported that Norton's own alchemical research met with various disappointments.

On one occasion, for instance, when he had almost perfected a certain tincture, his servant absconded with the crucible containing the precious fluid; while at a later time, when the alchemist was at work on the same experiment and thought he was just about to reach the goal, his entire paraphernalia was stolen by a mayoress of Bristol. This defeat must have been doubly galling to the unfortunate philosopher, for soon afterwards the mayoress became very wealthy, presumably as a result of her theft.

Norton himself does not appear to have reaped pecuniary benefit at any time from his erudition, but to have been a comparatively poor man throughout the whole of his life. This is a little surprising, for his Ordinall of Alchemy was a popular work in the Middle Ages and was repeatedly published. The original edition was anonymous, but the writer's identity has been determined because the initial syllables in the first six lines of the seventh chapter compose the following couplet:

   Tomas Norton of Briseto A parfet master ye maie him trowe.

Norton died circa 1477, and his predilections descended to one of his great grandsons, Samuel Norton. The younger Norton was born in 1548, studied science at St. John's College, Cambridge, and afterward became a justice of the peace and sheriff of Somersetshire. He died about 1604, and in 1630 a collection of his alchemistic tracts was published at Frankfort.

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