Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Norton, Thomas (fl.1477)

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1415582Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 41 — Norton, Thomas (fl.1477)1895Bertha Porter ‎

NORTON, THOMAS (fl. 1477), alchemist, was a native of Bristol, and probably born in the family mansion built towards the close of the fourteenth century, on the site of which now stands St. Peter's Hospital (see William Worcester, Itinerary, ed. Nasmith, p. 207). His father was doubtless the Thomas Norton, bailiff of Bristol in 1392, sheriff in 1401, mayor in 1413, and the ‘mercator,’ who represented the borough of Bristol in the parliaments of 1399, 1402, 1411, 1413, 1417, 1420, and 1421. The alchemist seems to have been returned for the borough in 1436. According to Samuel Norton [q. v.], Thomas Norton was a member of Edward IV's privy chamber, was employed by the king on several embassies, and shared his troubles with him when he fled to Burgundy. The old house in Bristol remained in the possession of the family till 1580, when Sir George Norton, grandson of Thomas the alchemist, sold it to the Newton family. The Nortons afterwards resided at Abbots Leigh in Somerset.

Norton probably studied alchemy under Sir George Ripley [q. v.] At the age of twenty-eight he visited Ripley, and entreated to be taught the art. Ripley, soon perceiving his ability and earnestness, agreed to make him his ‘heire unto this Arte.’ He became possessed of the secrets in forty days. Norton's zeal does not appear to have been rewarded. Twice, he says, he had succeeded in making the elixir of life only to have the treasure stolen from him; once by his own servant, and again by a merchant's wife of Bristol, who is reported, without apparent foundation, to have been the wife of William Canynges [q. v.] Fuller, without giving his authority, states that Norton died in 1477, having financially ruined himself and those of his friends who trusted him. A Thomas Norton of Bristol in 1478 made himself noticeable by accusing the mayor of high treason, and challenging him in the council-room to single combat. It may have been the alchemist, and the date of the writing of his ‘Ordinal’ may have been mistaken for that of his death. It has been suggested (Lucas, Secularia, p. 125) that the alchemist may also have been the Norton who was master-mason of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, and thus have come into contact with Canynges.

Of the same family were Sir Sampson Norton [q. v.] and Samuel Norton the alchemist [q. v.], probably great-grandson to Thomas.

Norton was the author of a chemical tract in English verse, called the ‘Ordinal of Alchimy’ (both Bale and Pits call it ‘Alchimiæ Epitome’), which, though anonymous, reveals its authorship in an ingenious manner. The first word of the proem, the initial syllables of the first six chapters, and the first line of chapter seven, put together, read as follows: ‘Tomas Norton of Briseto, A parfet master ye may him trowe.’

Norton's belief in the value of experiment and proof was striking for his age. On p. 22 of his ‘Ordinal of Alchimy,’ he writes:

And blessed is he that maketh due proofe,
For that is roote of cunning and roofe;
For by opinion is many a man
Deceived, which hereof little can.
With due proofe and with discreet assaye,
Wise men may learn new things every day.

The whole work is singularly fresh and bright, and in style of versification has been compared to the works of Surrey and Wyatt (Ascham, Schole Master, 1589, p. 53). Interspersed with reverential remarks respecting ‘the subtile science of holy alkimy’ are naïve practical instructions for the student. Warton (Hist. of English Poetry, 1871, iii. 131) pronounces Norton's work to be ‘totally devoid of every poetical elegance.’

Norton's ‘Ordinal’ was published in Latin in Michael Maier's ‘Tripus Aureus,’ Frankfort, 1618, and in ‘Musæum Hermeticum,’ Frankfort, 1678 and 1749, and in J. J. Manget's ‘Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa,’ Geneva, 1702; in German by David Maisner in ‘Chymischer Tractat,’ Frankfort, 1625 (a translation from the Latin translation); in English in Elias Ashmole's ‘Theatrum Chemicum,’ London, 1652. Manuscript copies in English are in the Brit. Mus. (Harl. MS. 853 [4]; Sloane MSS. 1198, 2174; Addit. MSS. 1751[2], 1873, 2532 [1], 3580 [6]), in the Bodleian Library (Ashmolean MS. 57 (transcribed by John Dee [q. v.] in 1577), 1445, ii. i. (where the author is called Sir Thomas Norton), 1479, 1490), in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, and in that of the Marquis of Bath.

Norton was also the author of a work, ‘De Transmutatione Metallorum’ and of ‘De Lapide Philosophorum,’ in verse (Hist. MSS. Comm. 1st Rep. p. 30), neither of which appears to have been published.

In Walter Haddon's ‘Poemata,’ 1567, p. 82, are some verses ‘In librum Alchymiæ Thomæ Nortoni Bristoliensis.’

[Bale's Scriptorum Illustrium Summarium, ii. 67; Pits, De Illustribus Angliæ Scriptoribus, p. 666; Barrett's Bristol, pp. 677–8; Lucas's Secularia, pp. 124–5; Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum, passim; Ashmolean MS. 972, f. 286; Waite's Lives of Alchymistical Philosophers, pp. 130–3; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 186, 8th Rep. ii. 583.]

B. P.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.207
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line
221 i 12 f.e. Norton, Thomas (fl. 1477): before Addit. MSS. insert Sloane MSS. 1198, 2174, and omit 300 [1]