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A native of the Isle of Thanet, Charnock spent most of his life in Combwich, a small village on the Steart Peninsula, near Bridgwater in the west of England. His unpublished notebooks are useful, not just for an understanding of Elizabethan attitudes towards alchemy in general, but for the insight they give to Charnock's life and thoughts. Apart from the usual preoccupations of his profession, he also had an amateur interest in Atlantic exploration, and in his study he had an astrolabe, maps, a globe and other navigational instruments. He rather quaintly described the difficulties he found in trying to decipher Medieval English texts on alchemy, which were "as harde to my understanding as yff I had harde one rede a booke off the language off the natione which dwell in the fourth parte off the worlde named America."
His uncle, also called Thomas Charnock, had been an alchemist, as well as the confessor to Henry VII. Thomas' interest in the subject appears to have been stimulated when he inherited his uncle's books while in his teens. Although he married in 1562, and had two children, he preferred the life of scholarly solitude, made clear in the preamble of the treatise he wrote for Elizabeth I. He says that his pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone has in large measure been impeded by "worldly necessities", and that the said Stone is reserved for men who have the gift of "solitariness."
Charnock took this seriously enough to vainly ask Elizabeth to allow him to carry on his experiments in the Tower of London, or another "solitary place." This was probably stimulated by the hostility of his neighbours, which forced him to barricade himself in his cottage. It seems obvious from the hostility he engendered locally that his neighbours had deep superstitious fears, which Charnock did much to encourage, describing himself as a magus as well as a philosopher, who had mastery of "dark and misty terms." After his death, it was reported that no-one would live in his former cottage, which was "troublesome and haunted by spirits and that its owner had a reputation as a troublesome person and a conjurer."
His work was tiresome and demanding, requiring him, amongst other things, to keep a fire burning at a constant temperature. Quite often he would wake up in the night, troubled that things were not going well. Concerns over servants, fires, and the cost of fuel were steady preoccupations. He was also pursued by fairly constant bad luck: "God send me better fortune or else I am clean discouraged and will turn from philosophy to husbandry and go and get me unto the plough." When England went to war with France in 1557, the local Justice of the Peace, who seems to have been a personal enemy, made sure that Thomas was forced into military service. In frustration, he took a hatchet to his equipment, smashing glasses and pots alike. Undaunted, Charnock was back at his experiments seven years later.
Charnock himself was always aware of the ambiguity of his art, warning that Roger Bacon, the founder of English alchemy, had come dangerously close to the occult, and had ultimately been unsuccessful in his quest for the Stone because the Devil was his familiar. His own search for the Stone proceeded in the face of one failure after another. Even so, he kept his fires burning for three years constantly, which "brought him more joy than any worldly goods."
He died in April 1581. Charnock was buried in Otterhampton Church, near Bridgwater.
Charnock married, in 1562, Agnes Norden, and settled at Stockland-Bristol in Somersetshire.
- Breviary of Philosophy. 1557. An autobiographical account of Charnock's alchemistic experiences
- Aenigma ad Alchimiam. 1572.
- Aenigma de Alchimiae. 1572.
- Fragments coppied From Thomas Charnock's owne hand writing. 1574.
- Clerke 1887.
- H. Stanley Redgrove. Alchemy, Ancient and Modern. Kessinger Publishing, 1992. p.6
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Clerke, Agnes Mary (1887). "Charnock, Thomas". In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 10. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- Jonathan Hughes, "The World of Thomas Charnock, an Elizabethan Alchemist", in Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, ed. by Stanton J. Linden. AMS Press, 2006. ISBN 0-404-62342-5.
- Jonathan Hughes, "Base Matter into Gold", in the August 2005 edition of History Today.
- Morris, Tom. The Alchemists: Thomas Charnock (2013) Available online