Water of Life

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday, I get to mention James IV of Scotland again, which is lovely because he’s one of my favourite kings. Amongst his revenues and expenses is a small entry for June 1st 1495. It is written in Latin, but translates as:

“To brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bols of malt.”

This might not sound very significant, but it is cited as the first ever historical mention of Scotch Whisky. ‘Aqua vitae’ is a Latin translation of the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ and both mean water of life. It is easy to see how the word ‘uisge’ has become ‘whisky’.

There is relatively little to know about Friar John. He was a monk at a monastery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. We know that in 1488 the king had given him fourteen shillings on Christmas day and that at Christmas in 1495, he was given black cloth to make livery clothes as he was a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary.

06 01When I tried to find out how much a boll weighed, the answer seemed rather vague. A boll was a dry weight measure. You could measure in chalders, bolls, firlots, pecks and lippies. How much it was depended on what you were measuring, but most reckon a boll of malt was around 140 lbs. So that’s quite a lot. The amount of whisky today’s distillers could make from eight bolls of malt is anything up to 1500 bottles. So we can conclude firstly that, to use such a large quantity, the monks knew what they were about and had already been making it for quite some time. Secondly, we can conclude that James IV really needed a lot of it.

Of course he probably didn’t drink it all himself. It could have been used to disinfect wounds. James had an interesting sideline as an amateur dentist, so perhaps he gave his patients a swig before he pulled out their teeth for them. It may even have been used as embalming fluid. But another thing we know about James IV was that he was very keen on alchemy. Alchemists were extremely fond of distilling. In their quest to get at the essence of things, they distilled pretty much everything they could get their hands on. Aside from turning lead into gold, one of the their most important goals was the secret of prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely. Distilled alcohol was great for preserving herbs, fruit and meat, so maybe it could do the same thing for the living tissue of the human body. It was a magical fluid. A cold substance that made you warm. It seemed to combine the two elements of fire and water and it definitely had a seemingly magical effect on both the body and the mind.

We don’t know what happened to Friar John, but in 1505 King James granted the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh a monopoly on the production of Whisky. As a drink for humans it was thought to be medicinal and useful against all sorts of things from colic to smallpox.

Incidentally, the first mention of whiskey in Ireland is earlier, in 1405. It involves a chieftain named Richard Magrannell who died one Christmas after he drank too much of it. So clearly, the water of life wasn’t for everyone. Aqua Vitae turns up in some alchemical recipes as one of the main ingredients for making a ‘quintessence’, the fifth element that would cure all ills and make us immortal. And we definitely know that King James and his unusual friend John Damien were working on that between 1501 and 1508. The other key addition seems to have been horse dung, so I think maybe I won’t bother.

Bury Me

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday is the birthday of King James IV of Scotland. I like James IV, he dabbled in surgery and employed a flying alchemist who he made Bishop of Tongland. He was also killed in battle and, like Richard III, his body was subsequently lost. Unlike Richard, it will probably never be found.

James was born, possibly at Stirling Castle, in 1473. His father, James III, wasn’t a great king and people didn’t like him very much. There were two rebellions during his reign. He was killed in battle during the last one in 1488. James, who was then just fifteen, had been set up as leader of the second rebellion. He was afterwards crowned King. When he realised the part he had unwittingly played in his father’s death, he chose to wear an iron chain around his waist, as an act of penance during Lent, for the rest of his life. Every year he had the chain made a few ounces heavier.

James, was a Renaissance Man. He was a keen patron of both science and the arts. His interest in medicine seems particularly unusual for a king. We know he tried his hand at blood letting and knew how to treat and dress ulcers. He was also interested in dentistry. There are least two occasions when he actually pulled teeth for his subjects. He took out two teeth for one of his own barber-surgeons. Records show that the King paid the man fourteen shillings for the privilege: “To Kynnard the barbour for twa teith drawn furth of his hed by the king, 14s”. His enthusiasm was such that he granted the Incorporation of the Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh which would later become the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.

03 17 holyrood palaceJames had Great Halls built his castles in Stirling and Edinburgh and filled his palaces with tapestries. In 1503, he married Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VII of England and built for her, a new palace at Holyrood. He employed poets, one of whom was the first to translate Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ anywhere in northern Europe. James spoke many languages. As well as Latin, French, Flemish, German, Spanish and Italian he also spoke Scottish Gaelic and is the last Scottish King known to have done so. When he heard of a pair of conjoined twins who were born in the Scottish Borders, he had them brought to his court, where they were raised and educated. They also learned to speak many languages and were particularly good at music. They played instruments and sang songs in two parts, treble and tenor.

King James also had some, by modern standards, other peculiar interests which reflect his general curiosity. In 1493 he conducted a language experiment. He wanted to know what was the natural language of mankind. He sent two children to be raised by a mute woman on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth. He imagined that if they heard no other language, the words they would use when they became old enough to speak would be the original language. The language of God. We don’t really know what happened, but common sense suggests they did not speak at all. Some insisted though, that the children spoke perfect Hebrew. Probably those people did not know what Hebrew sounded like.

03 17 an alchemists laboratoryFrom about 1501, James employed an alchemist called John Damian who had come from France but was possibly originally from Italy. He had alchemical laboratories at Stirling Castle and at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Damian was hoping to produce quinta essentia, the fifth element, from which he could make the Elixir of Life. James was pretty excited about it, but not everyone was. One of the poets at court, William Dunbar, didn’t like him at all. He referred to him as ‘the French Leech’. I’m not sure if this was because he was some kind of doctor or because his projects drained so much of the King’s money.

03 17 stirling castleIn 1507, John Damian came up with a new project. He would build himself some wings and fly. On September 27th he strapped on his wings and launched himself from the top of Stirling Castle, hoping to fly to France. He didn’t of course. He plummeted straight to the ground and landed in a dung heap. Surprisingly, he lived. Although he did break his thigh bone. Damian blamed his lack of success on the feathers he had been sent. He had asked for eagle feathers, but some of them had been the feathers of a hen. Whilst he would have been able to soar with eagle feathers, the hen feathers were naturally attracted to the ground and had propelled him straight to the dung heap.

The poet, William Dunbar must have been delighted by the incident because he wrote a rude poem about it called ‘The Fenyeit Freir of Tungland’ (The False Friar of Tongland). It has the flying alchemist attacked by birds and buried up to his eyes in filth. I don’t know how true this story is, because the people who wrote about it didn’t like him very much, but there is a seventeenth century carpenter’s bill from Stirling Castle which refers to the place where ‘the Devil flew out.’ If John Damian really did put on wings and jump from the top of the castle, it may be the first recorded attempt at human powered flight. James was not put off by his alchemist’s lack of success, he was still employed at the court when the King died in 1513.

James was killed in a battle against the English at Flodden. England was, at the time, at war with France and James was in a difficult position as he was an ally of both sides. He was excommunicated for his decision. His body was taken to England and given to King Henry VIII. As he had been excommunicated by the Pope, there was no question of burying him in consecrated ground. So he was left embalmed but uninterred in a shed at Sheen Priory at Richmond upon Thames. Even when the King did receive permission from the Pope to bury his enemy, somehow he didn’t bother. The body was lost when the Priory was dissolved in 1539. It seems, in the intervening time, his head may have become detatched and then used as a football. It may then have been stolen by Queen Elizabeth I’s master glazier and eventually thrown away in a charnel pit at a church in Cripplegate in the City of London.

Alternatively, it may not have been James’ body that was taken from the battlefield in the first place. There are many legendary resting places of James IV. Some claimed that the king had taken off his distinctive surcoat before the battle, so that he could fight with his army as an equal. They also said that the body that was taken to London had no iron chain about the waist. In the eighteenth century a well was being cleared at Hume Castle in Berwickshire. They found a body in it that did have a chain around the waist. Unfortunately they lost that too. The same story is told of Roxburgh Castle in the Borders, about a body found in the seventeenth century. In 1570, a convicted criminal offered to show the Duke of Albany where the King was really buried, but he declined.