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A Story of Rose Nobles – Alchemical Gold and the Infinite Game

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“The only coinage of nobles which has been attributed to alchemy was that made by Edward III in 1344.  The gold used in this coinage is supposed to have been manufactured in the Tower, the adept in question was not Raymond Lully, but the English Ripley.”

– From Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers,  by Arthur Edward Waite (1888)

We know that a good story, told with assurance and a sanguine nod, is an entryway to a complex house. Generations can pass inside, each new teller in turn captivated by the intricacies of  its construction.  Whispers of hidden halls draw some deeper, seeking temple foundations beneath a common wood floor.

And then someone passes by and mentions the entire house, history and all, is built with ephemeral and misleading words, oh you thought that was a hallway? You must have misread, or misheard, you’re still standing awkward, awaiting entrance on the porch outside.

There is a story that recounts Raymond Lull’s time minting coins for King Edward in the Tower of London. This story is a perfect example of the houses we are discussing, its construction paid for with 14th century gold coins, minted in the 15th century. Shall we investigate?

“The first gold that K(ing) Edw. 3. coyned, was in the yeare 1343, and the peeces were called Florences, because Florentines were the coyners, as Easterlings of Sterling money: Shortly after he coyned Nobles, of noble, faire & fine gold, the penny of gold; afterward the Rose Noble then current for 6, shillings 8. pence, & which our Alchimists do affirme (as an unwritten verity) was made by projection or multiplication Alchimicall of Raymond Lully in the Tower of London, who wold prove it as Alchmically, beside the tradition of the Rabbies in that faculty, by the inscription; for as upon the one side there is the kings image, in a shippe to notifie that he was Lord of the seas, with his titles, set upon the reverse a crosse floury with Lioneux, inscribed ‘Jeus autem transiens per medium eorum ibat.’ (Luke 4:30 – Jesus passing through the midst of them went his way) Which they profoundly expound, as Jesus passed invisible & in most secret manner by the middest of Pharisees, so that gold was made by invisible and secret art amidst the ignorant. But other say that text was the onely Amulet used in that credulous warfaring age to escape dangers in battailes.”

– from Remaines Concerning Britaine, by William Camden (1636)

Within the official histories provided to us,  Raymond Lull (ca. 1232 – ca. 1315) is a figure worthy of respect. He was a scientist, theologian, and rational mystic whose far reaching genius allowed him to imagine philosophical machines six centuries prior to the invention of the computer. Mathematical complexity does not always make for interesting table talk, however, and in order to travel through the popular imagination he had to pick up attributions for a few more indulgent inventions.  The elegance of Lull’s angelic machines has been lost beneath the luster of transmuted gold.

As Mariano Tomatis points out in his discussion of storytelling,  infinite games and the mythology of another paper house, Renes Le Chateau, “the end of (an) infinite game is constantly threatened by anyone who claims to own the “ultimate solution” of its problem. Any contribution academically sound is immediately rejected by the large community of players, because every demystifying statement closes at least one of the possible extensions of the game, thus threatening the very purpose of the infinite game, which is to continue indefinitely. 

(Note: For an opportunity to enter our story and purchase an exemplar of one of Llull’s philosophical machines, the last remaining, supremely limited edition Llullian Ars Combinatoria Wheel designed by Liminal Analytics – Click Here)

A passage in a 17th century text that states coins minted in Britain after 1343 by a person who died in North Africa sometime between 1314-1315 might seem a bit spurious.  Perhaps a passage from a 19th century text that places the events at least within Lull’s lifetime will do better at bringing some clarity to his involvement in creating the mysterious coins which have come to be called Rose Nobles: 

alchemical medals

“Among the earliest of the coins, whose undisputed existence was regarded as visible proof of hermetic labors, were the so-called Rose nobles made from gold artificially prepared by Raymund Lully. This celebrated alchemist (1235—1315) was invited by Edward II, King of England, about the year 1312, to visit his realm; on his arrival he was furnished with apartments in the Tower of London, where he transmuted base metals into gold; this was afterwards coined at the mint into six millions of nobles, each worth more than three pounds sterling. These Rose, or Raymund nobles as they were also called, were well known to the antiquarians of the sixteenth century, and were reputed to be of finer gold than any other gold coin of that day. On the obverse of these coins is represented in a very rude fashion a ship floating on the sea decorated with a royal ensign and carrying the king, who bears in his right hand a naked sword and on his left arm a shield. Around this design: Edward D[e]1 Gra[t1a] Rex Angl[le] Z Franc[1ae] D[om1]n[u]s 1b[ernle]. (Edward by the grace of God King of England and France, Lord of Ireland.)

On the reverse a conventional rose surrounded by four lions and ducal crowns, alternating with four lilies. The inscription on the outer circle reads: Jhs. Aut. [em] Trans1ens. Per. Med1um 1llor.[um] 1bat. (But Jesus passing through the midst of them went His way.) St. Luke iv : 30. (Wiegleb, Untersuch. Alchemie. Weimar, 1777, p. 217.)

Rose nobles are figured by Lenglet du Fresnoy in his Histoire de la Philosophie Hermetique (Paris, 1741, Vol. II, p. 8.), who remarks, “They are less rare in the north of England than in the capital; one of my friends had several, some of which weighed ten ducats.” These coins are said to have been worn as amulets to preserve from danger in battle, and to have been used as touch pieces in connection with the gift of healing by royal touch. {Pettigrew, Superstition in Medicine and Surgery. London, 1844, p. 129.)

Lully himself, in his ” Last Testament,” declares that while in London he converted twenty-two tons’ weight of quicksilver, lead and tin, into gold. This relation is vouched for by Cremer, Abbot of Westminster (Maier’s Tripus Aureus. Francofurti, 1618, p. 183), and the Raymund nobles are described by William Camden, the English antiquary {Britannia sive regnorum Anglice descriptio, 1586), and by John Selden (Mare Clausum, 1635). Robert Constantine, in his History of Medicine (1545), states that he found public documents confirming the report that Lully made gold in the Tower by order of the King, and Dr. Edmund Dickenson relates that the workmen who removed the cloister which Lully occupied at Westminster found some of the powder, by which they enriched themselves. Historians who do not believe in transmutation, point out chronological discrepancies which throw doubts on the pretensions of Raymund Lully. (See Wiegleb, op. cit.)”

– From Contributions of Alchemy to Numismatics, by Henry Carrington Bolton (1890)

Although perhaps this is not really a better telling of the story, for in the preceding example of the tale poor Raymond is left to escape England with only 3 years left in his life to pen and publish a Last Testament.  While this would be a hard task for most, it becomes even more difficult since, according to the historical record, he undertook a series of strenuous missionary and intelligence gathering trips to North Africa during the 11 years between 1304 and 1315, when he finally died following complications from being attacked while proselytizing in Algeria.

Not even King Edward can hold his head in the various tellings of this tale, with the interplay of factual dates confounding grandfather, father and son, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, and the dating of the coins themselves sometimes falling into the hands of Henry IV.

In the stories surrounding the origins of the Rose Nobles, how enchanting it is to see Lull’s hand in creating “the earliest of the coins, whose undisputed existence was regarded as visible proof of hermetic labors.”  So much easier to say that than to pick up the Herculean task of study it would take attending to the true mercurial depths that await us in Lull’s writings.

For us to call it all farce and falsity, however, misses a grand opportunity to join this infinite game.

First of all, there is still the Englishman, Ripley, to account for, or did we forget that while Lull held our attention throughout this investigation, in the opening quote A.E. Waite had already put us on another trail.

Second, and perhaps more important, we desperately need to ask how is it that a hammered out bit of metal is able hold up the economy of a nation? What magic is it that even allowed a story about the origin of a coin to bear seven centuries of retelling? Or is the importance really in the tale itself?

“In the King’s fifth year, by another indenture with Lord Hastings, the gold coins were again altered and it was ordered that forty five nobles only instead of fifty as in the last two reigns should be made of a pound of gold. This brought back the weight of the noble to one hundred and fifty grains as it had been from 1351 to 1412 but its value was raised to 10s.

At the same time new coins impressed with angels were ordered to be made, sixty seven and a half to be struck from one pound of gold, and each to be of the value of 6s 8d, that is to say the new angel which weighed eighty grains was to be of the same value as the noble had been which weighed one hundred and eight grains.

The new nobles to distinguish them from the old ones were called Rose Nobles from the rose which is stamped on both sides of them, or ryals or royals a name borrowed from the French who had given it to a coin which bore the figure of the King in his royal robes, which the English ryals did not.

Notwithstanding its inappropriateness, however, the name of royal was given to these 10s pieces, not only by the people but also in several statutes of the realm. “

– From The Gold Coins of England: Arranged & Described, by Robert Lloyd Kenyon – (1884)

Ah, and there we have it, we know that a good story, told with assurance and a sanguine nod, is an entryway to a complex house, which, once entered, can lead one ever deeper into a maze of false leads.  It’s the old trope of 1,001 Arabian Nights, keep the story going and stay alive another day.

In this case however it was the monarchy who was protecting itself, and who better to blame for fluctuations in the economy than the dubious figure of the alchemist.

These are no mere coins, but blessed talismans, transmutation having proven the King’s right to rule the realm in which they are traded. “These coins are said to have been worn as amulets to preserve from danger in battle, and to have been used as touch pieces in connection with the gift of healing by royal touch. ” Here the sacral nature of the economy is assured. Though lesser coinage may be cast into the fold, the likeness each bears to the Rose Nobles allows it to carry some part of the subtle significance the true talismans possess. Each coin points back to the  promise of  “healing by royal touch.

It’s an infinite game, even the skeptical responses, such as one theory that the Rose Nobles were coined using funds gained through a wool tax, contains new pathways for play. Wool tax? Subtle cant for fleecing the flock?

Or better yet, why talk about the economy at all? There’s this powder you see, and just a tiny bit of it will make you rich, or immortal, or whatever you want really…


This article originally appeared at The Art of Transformations website


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    Section Editor of Limitless Mind, David is a researcher, writer and multimedia specialst focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness

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