The Tudor Society

February 1 – Alchemist Roger Cooke

Image from  a 15th century alchemical treatise, Aurora consurgensOn this day in Tudor history, 1st February 1552, in the reign of King Edward VI, alchemist Roger Cooke was born.

Here are some facts about this Tudor alchemist who started his career in the household of Dr John Dee and also worked for Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, and Sir Walter Ralegh...

  • Cooke’s beginnings are obscure, but in 1567, when he was fourteen years of age, he joined the household of Dr John Dee and became his assistant.
  • Cooke helped Dee with his experiments in alchemy and may also have practised scrying, that is to say, using a reflective surface or a crystal for divination.
  • In his diary entry for 28th December 1579, Dee recorded “I reveled to Roger Cokeo the gret secret of the elixir of the salt, an alchemical secret”, which is thought to be alchemical projection with salts of metals. Dee obviously trusted Cooke, and they had a good relationship. However, in 1581 the relationship came to an abrupt end. In his diary entry for 5th September, Dee records what happened:
    “Sept. 5th, Roger Cook, who had byn with me from his 14 yeres of age till 28, of a melancholik nature, pycking and devising occasions of just cause to depart on the suddayn, abowt 4 of the clok in the afternone requested of me lycense to depart, wheruppon rose whott words between us; and he, imagining with hisself that he had the 12 of July deserved my great displeasure and finding himself barred from vew of my philosophicall dealing with Mr. Henrik, thowght that he was utterly recest from intended goodnes toward him. Notwithstanding Roger Cook his unseamely dealing, I promised him, yf he used himself toward me now in his absens, one hundred poundst as sone as of my own clene hability I myght spare so much; and moreover, if he used himself well in lif toward God and the world, I promised him some pretty alchimicall experiments, whereuppon he might honestly live.”
    However, two days later, Dee recorded “Sept. 7th, Roger Cook went for alltogether from me”, and on 29th September, Dee replaced him with Robert Gardner, of Shrewsbury”.
  • We don’t know what Cooke did next, but fastforward to 1600, when Cooke was 48, and he is mentioned again in Dee’s diary. Dee records: “Sept. 30th, after the departing of Mr. Francis Nicolls, his dowghter Mistres Mary, his brother Mr. William, Mr. Wortley, at my returne from Deansgate, to the ende whereof I browght them on fote, Mr. Roger Kooke offred and promised his faithfull and diligent care and help, to the best of his skill and powre, in the processes chymicall, and that he will rather do so then to be with any in England; which his promise the Lord blesse and confirm! He told me that Mr. Anthony considered him very liberally and frendely, but he told him that he had promised me. Then he liked in him the fidelity of regarding such his promise.”
    The Mr Anthony that is mentioned must be the physician and alchemist who went on to sell his secret remedy, "Aurum Potabile”, or drinkable gold. I did a video on him so I’ll give you a link to that. It seems that Cooke was going to work for Anthony, or had been working for him, but excused himself as promised to Dee. In a later diary entry, Dee recorded that Cooke began to distill on 1st
  • Just three months later, on 2nd February 1601, Dee recorded that his son, Arthur, had found Cooke going through a box of Arthur’s papers. Suspecting Cooke of plotting against his father, Arthur took Cooke before Dee. Fortunately, Dee was able to record in his diary “All was mistaken, and we reconcyled godly”. Dee goes on to write that the two were reconciled and that he explained all to his wife and sons. There’s an interesting entry in Dee’s diary just over three weeks later, on 25th February, when Dee records “R. Koke pactum sacrum hora octave mane”, meaning sacred pact 8 o’clock in the morning” with no other details and then the next entry is “March 2nd, Mr Roger Coke went toward London”. Perhaps the pact was regarding Cooke leaving Dee’s service, but promising to keep his work secret. We don’t know.
  • Historian Lauren Kassell notes that a Roger Cooke was employed by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland and Sir Walter Ralegh to build and run a still house at the Tower of London between 1606 and around 1609. Northumberland was known as the Wizard Earl due to his experiments in alchemy and science, and he and Ralegh were prisoners in the Tower at the time. Ralegh was able to persuade the Lieutenant of the Tower to let them convert a hen house into a still house. Charles Webster, author of “Health, Medicine and Mortality in the 16th Century”, writes that Ralegh then studied the chemistry of metals and “prepared his celebrated cordials” and other medicines.
  • Cooke is also linked to Cornelis Drebbel who was working in Prague from 1610 at the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, who was interested in alchemy. A man named Cooke assisted Drebbel with his experiments before returning to England in 1612. It is not known what happened to Cooke after his return, or when he died. He just disappears from the records.

An interesting man!

Image: Image from a 15th century alchemical treatise, Aurora consurgens

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February 1 – Alchemist Roger Cooke