Lectures 

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The Setons & Alchemy

"Alexander Seton", the Scottish alchemist that set continental Europe ablaze ca. 1600 AD

Delivered at the Sauniere Society Conference, Newbattle Abbey, November 2002


In recent decades, most fame of Scottish noble families has gone to the Sinclairs of Rosslyn Chapel. However, we seem to be imprinting present interest upon past importance, for though important, the Sinclairs at least had to share the fame with two other families, the Douglasses and the Setons.

The latter were the true “heirs” of the Knights Templar, at least in the sense that they became the custodians of the Templar properties in Scotland upon the dissolution of the Templar order in 1307.

The Setons were also involved in the building of a collegiate church, which can still be visited. In state care since 1948, it is run by Historic Scotland, and is situated on the A198 between Longniddry and Prestonpans. Unfortunately, it is far less popular than Rosslyn Chapel. Approximately six people visit it per day, and there is the occasional day when no visitor turns up.
The church is no longer used for worship, though the occasional wedding is still held there. Next door is the privately-owned Seton House, built by Robert Adams in 1790, to replace Seton Palace, demolished in 1789.

One theory suggests that the family originally came from Flanders, when they were given land by King Malcolm III. The area was called a Sea-town, hence Seton. However, another theory is that they come from Normandy, from a family de Sei, hence Sei-town, or Seton.
The family is, as mentioned, one of the most distinguished. Their house in Seton was an almost required stop and occasional refuge for any passing monarch or important leader. They remained an important family until they suffered the fate of many Jacobites in the early 18th Century.

What is virtually unknown is that there is possibly more mystery connected with this family than with the Sinclairs of Rosslyn. After all, the “enigma” of Rosslyn Chapel is completely in the eye of the beholder. Nowhere is there evidence that the builder of Rosslyn Chapel left a message for future mankind that required decoding. The link between the Sinclairs and the Templars is also tenuous. But with the Setons, that link is explicit.

So what is this mystery of the Setons? It involves two characters, one Alexander Seton, the other David Seton… the former an alchemist, the latter at the origins of Freemasonry.

Alexander Seton
The story of Alexander Seton is a tale which is little known in Britain, but is all the more popular on the continent, for that is where most of the events occurred. One Scottish treatment was a play that was performed during the 1980s which identified Alexander Seton with the Seton family and Port Seton. “Gold” was by the Edinburgh playwright, Andrew Dallmeyer, performed at the Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh.
The mystery of the play and the real-life mystery centres around an alchemist known as the Cosmopolite, author of New Light on Chymistry. The identity of this author was believed to have been Michael Sendivogius.

However, historical records suggest otherwise. Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy wrote in 1742 a study, in which he pointed out that The Cosmopolite was a Scot, named Alexander Seton.

“Jacques Haussen, a Dutch sea-farer, having been shipwrecked in the German Ocean, was washed up on the coast of Scotland. He was rescued by Alexander Seton, who owned a house and some land along that coast. Seton nursed Haussen back to health and later helped him to return to his own country. Not long after this, in 1602, Seton thought he would like to see something of the world, and crossed over to Holland.
He arrived at Enkhuysen, where Jacques Haussen welcomed him hospitably and gratefully. Unfortunately for him, Seton was anxious to go on to Germany. But before proceeding, he wished to demonstrate his knowledge of the Hermetic Science to Haussen. He therefore transmuted a piece of base metal to gold in his presence. Haussen was so greatly impressed, that he could not resist telling the local doctor, a man named Van der Linden. Georges Morhoff, himself a great authority on the art of transmutation, affirms that with his own eyes he saw a piece of gold owned by Jean-Antoine van der Linden, a grandson of the Enkhuysen doctor, who had carefully marked the ingot to say that the transmutation had taken place on 13th March 1602 at four o’clock in the afternoon.”

It seems that when Alexander Seton died, he left a small quantity of his alchemical precipitate to Sendivogius, and this is where the confusion later descended from. But we will return to that episode later.

First, we must sketch the scene in the Lothians at this moment in time. In the 1590s, practically all coastal towns and villages, in particular North Berwick and Prestonpans, had been subjected to an intense prosecution of “witches”. Their trials and often hangings dominated the news and involved the king. That king would, in 1603, travel South, where he, James VI, would also become James I of England. It was not the best of times to brag about alchemical awareness in the Lothians and hence that Seton kept quiet until he reached the continent is logical – if not sane.

So, in 1602, Seton began his alchemical showmanship…

“Jacob Haussen witnessed the Scotsman Alexander Seton making gold from lead, at Enkhuizen near Amsterdam. Seton engraved upon it the date and time (N.S.): 13 March, 1602, at 4 pm. The Sun was conjunct Mercury and trine Saturn, both to 1ø, square the nodes (4ø), and semisquare Uranus (8’). Neptune held the ascendent with Saturn at the I.C. Venus was just setting, in opposition to rising Mars (1ø).”

When I asked for his opinion, the Dutch astrologer Wim Zitman stated the following:
“Each planet is linked with a metal:
- Sun = gold
- Mercury = mercury
- Saturn = lead
These are the basic ingredients for making lead out of gold. Such experiments, for creating lead, were therefore performed in those places and on those dates where astrologically speaking, there was the highest chance of success.”

Zitman also produced the following chart:

So who is this Seton? Is he related to the Seton family of Port Seton? Straight away, it should be pointed out that whereas most Sinclairs were christened William, most Setons were named Alexander.

What we know about this Seton is that he:
- lives in Scotland,
- near the coast
- is a man of some means, for he is able to travel in Europe for long periods of time.
- is a Catholic, which in 1603 is interesting. It does suggest he was in the same league of the Sinclairs.

What we do not know about Seton is:
- how he acquired his skills. Who was his teacher?

Lenglet du Fresnoy also pointed out how Seton was disinterested in his own skills: “He made gold and silver whenever he was asked to do so, and this not for the sake of increasing his own wealth, but so that he might give it to sceptics and thereby dispel their doubts.” Lenglet du Fresnoy points out this was characteristic of the Adepts of that time, who were like wandering scientists, showing the world their skills, “preaching their Science as though it were a religion”.

And travel Seton did. From Enkhuysen, he left to Amsterdam, nearby. Then to Germany, by way of Switzerland, where he met Wolfgang Dienheim, a professor at Fribourg and a passionate opponent of alchemy. Seton performed a transmutation in Dienheim’s presence, in Bâle, and this is what Dienheim wrote down:

“In the middle of the summer of 1602 by […] Alexander Setonius. He was a native of Molia, a place on a North Sea island.” Dienheim then goes into detail how Seton in front of him and another sceptic transformed lead into gold. “You may laugh at what I have written, but I am still living and am always prepared to testify to the truh of what I saw.”

Dienheim added that Seton was accompanied by only one servant, a man with red hair and beard. Other accounts name the servant as one Hamilton. A tell-tale sign of a Scot, one would think. The second witness, by the way, was Doctor Jacob Zwinger, a professor at Bâle and he later confirmed Dienheim’s account to Emmanuel König, another professor at Bâle.

Before leaving, Seton performed a second transmutation, this time in the house of goldsmith André Bletz. In all these experiments, the witnesses provided the lead and throughout the process, Seton did not touch any of the materials. As such, his witnesses spoke of a miracle and Dienheim even labelled him “this saint, this demi-god”.

Next, Seton travelled to Strasbourg in the summer of 1603. There, someone tried to pass himself off as the person who performed the experiment. The rumour came to the ears of Emperor Rudolph II, who invited this Gustenhover over, but during the audience, it became clear it was a big lie. Gustenhover was imprisoned for the rest of his life.

At the same time, Seton was in Germany, using various aliases and never staying in one town for more than a few days. Why? For one, he was on tour in Europe and he must have realised that though he wanted to impress some with his skills, he did not want to become the next circus act in Europe.
Asked why he displayed his skills so openly, he replied: “I do so in order to show that all metals, whatever they may be, can be brought to perfection. But never forget that I am forbidden to reveal the really important part of the Work.”

His travels took him to Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, where he performed the Work everywhere. Then it was to Munich, where he performed none. Instead, he fell in love. When her father refused his consent, they eloped and married. The travelling continued: there was Crossen, where his aide performed The Work in front of the Duke of Saxony. Seton himself was preoccupied with his wife. Hamilton next decided to return home, claiming his master no longer required his presence.
Interested in love rather than alchemy, Seton might not have realised Saxony would become his undoing. In love, left by his aide, Seton became the pawn in the affairs of state, whereby the Duke wanted to know his secret. Seton, however, did not budge and swore he would suffer any torture rather than give so powerful a weapon into the hands of a heretic. Seton was burnt, broken, with dislocated limbs – but he kept silent.

It is at this point that Sendivogius arrived on the scene. Michael Sendivogius was Polish and living near the place where Seton was incarcerated. Being wise in chemistry, he decided to approach Seton. Finally, he was allowed to enter the prison and speak to the prisoner. No doubt, it had the Duke’s blessing, hoping that Seton would spill some of his secrets to this new potential friend, who might very well have been an undercover agent of the Duke.
Soon, Sendovigius broke Seton out of prison, after Seton had told him he would be rewarded for those actions. They then set course for Poland. But Seton did not tell Sendivogius his secret and shortly afterwards died.
Sendivogius then married the widow, hoping she might know some of her husband’s secrets. Unfortunately for him, she was ignorant, but did give him a copy of his book, The Twelve Treatises of The Cosmopolite, which contained a dialogue between Mercury and Seton. The story then continues with Sendivogius learning “the secret” via the account and enabling him to do the experiment in front of Emperor Rudolph II. But he himself was imprisoned and in the end, of course, went wrongly down in history as The Cosmopolite.

Most of the above information comes from Jacques Sadoul. However, there are others, who quote more on the life of Seton. One of these is Louis Figuier: he writes that Seton lived not far from Edinburgh, a small distance from the village of Seton or Seatoun. This is the present town of Port Seton. Figuier actually adds that there exists a Seton house, the residence of the count of Winton, “and we can infer with some foundation that Seton belonged to that noble Scottish family.”

The central mystery of Seton is that his career was limited to a period of one to two years, 1602-4, particularly in Germany, where he showed his skill, lost his life, but also became regarded as one of the few undisputed alchemists, with an, in essence, brilliant reputation. At each instance, he performed The Work, in front of some of the worst sceptics, in controlled circumstances, leaving each flabbergasted and convinced of his skill.
At the same time, the single most important mystery was the question where and how Seton learned his perfect skills. It is rather amazing that not only is he able to perform the Work, but also that no-one ever knew where he acquired it from.

So how was Alexander Seton related to the Seton family? There is one problem: being a noble family, their family history is rather well known and actually available online. When we check a list of the most important descendents, there is no mention of one Alexander Seton, at least not one who died abroad. However, in the timeframe, there is mention of a Christopher and William Seton, who died “off the coast of Holland”. Of course, at this time, there were still plenty of “Alexanders” in the family, including uncles.

In 1997, Adam McLean researched for Rafal Prinke and stated:
“I have looked at a number of the reference works on the Seton family, including those you mentioned in an earlier letter. I can say quite definitely that there is no prominent member [my emphasis] of this family who could in any way be identified with Seton the alchemist.
The family is so well documented - I looked at a massive 2 volume folio work of nearly 1000 pages on the Seton family. Absolutely exhaustive. In the late 16th century the Seton family was so important, Alexander Seton, the first Earl of Dunfermline, being the Lord Chancellor of Scotland from 1604 onwards. All his movements and interests are exhaustively documented. There is no space in his busy life for a visit to the continent. He owned Seton House near Musselburgh on the Firth of Forth East of Edinburgh.
If there ever was an Alexander Seton he was not part of this noble family.”

I agree that the famous alchemist was not the family patriarch. So where does this leave us?
Alexander Seton was an important person. Did someone else take his name? Any Scotsman will have known this was an important person and going abroad using that name might mean certain privileges would befall its bearer.
Possible, but unlikely, as we know that Haussen did meet Seton in Scotland. Perhaps, as Colin Geddes has proposed, Alexander Seton was not a member of the family, but “just” an Alexander from Seton. This would mean that an alchemist lived in Seton, but “Alexander” was not a member of the Seton family. A third possibility is that Alexander Seton was an illegitimate child of the Seton family.

We will most likely never know the exact circumstances, based on the presently available evidence, so we can only speculate. So the first observation to make is that if Alexander Seton was part of the Seton family, he belonged to one of the most important families of Scotland. They were, particularly, good friends with the Sinclairs and the Douglasses, but, more specifically, they were the ones who became the holders of the estate of the Templars in 1307.

In recent years, a lot of ink has been written – and sometimes wasted – on the role of alchemy and the Templars. One tradition, written down by one Canadian author, Gaeton Delaforge, states that upon the dissolution of the Templars, certain specific Templars sought refuge in Scotland. These Templars were specifically taken out of France because of their knowledge on alchemy. It is furthermore stated that these Templars were later invited to return to France, following a personal invitation of the Pope. True or false? For the moment, there is no evidence to back up these claims. If anything, they should be taken with the required dosage of salt, for Delaforge and other promoters of this story or variants are all connected with the sad affair of the Order of the Solar Temple – the Templar revivalist order that committed murder and/or suicide during the 1990s, both in France, Switzerland and Canada.

At the same time, there has been almost no emphasis outside of academic circles on the fact that the Setons were the true “legal heirs” of the Templars: they became custodians of the Templar estate of e.g. Temple and would continue to hold prominent positions in the Order of the Hospitallers, who acquired most of the Templar domains.
With the knowledge that the Setons administered the Templar estates, might it be that those domains still contained some alchemical documents? As such, did they learn certain of these secrets? One possible scenario involves the Setons discovering some bizarre manuscripts, perhaps written in Hebrew or Arab, which over the years, some members of the family try to decipher. In the late 16th Century, perhaps they succeeded in this. As mentioned, the Lothians were overrun by “witches” and “alchemists” and Seton’s alchemical interest might result from this general interest in occult sciences.

However, Alexander Seton is not the only Seton to be of unknown origin. Another Seton is connected to the origins of Freemasonry.

David Seton
As mentioned by Baigent and Leigh, in 1896, George Seton undertook to chronicle his forebears in A History of the Family of Seton. The document reveals much more Setons than those featuring in the standard noble genealogies, some of them artisans and burghers.

One interesting entry reads: “c.1560. When the Knights-Templars were deprived of their patrimonial interest through the instrumentality of their Grand-Master Sir James Sandilands, they drew off in a body, with David Seton, Grand Prior of Scotland (nephew of Lord Seton?), at their head. […] David Seton died abroad in 1581 and is said to have been buried in the church of the Scotch Convent at Ratisbon [now Regensburg, near Nuremburg].”

Observe the date: 1560-1580, note the link with the Templars and how this David Seton dies abroad as well, in Germany. James Sandilands was first Baron Torphichen, the residence of the Hospitallers in West Lothian, in the shadow of Cairnpapple Hill.

Who is David Seton? Baigent and Leigh: “Not only is there much question about who precisely he was; there is even some question about whether he ever actually existed.” (The Temple and the Lodge, p. 145) For a long time, it was believed he was only mentioned in a poem, but another chronicler is Whitworth Porter, who had access to the Hospitaller archives in Valetta. In 1858, he wrote that Seton was indeed a real person, stating he died in 1591 – 10 years later than George Seton says he did.
Baigent & Leigh, however, have also noted that the Setons were at the origin of the masonic movement, being particularly close to Chevalier Andrew Ramsey, and also holding vast estates, the Eglinton Estates, near Kilwinning, the First Lodge of Scotland.

So another Seton, suggesting that not all Setons have been identified and Alexander Seton might be a true “Seton”, but not as prominent as one might expect. Alternatively, Alexander Seton might have been excised from the records, possibly because of his fame as an alchemist. Note that the Setons were a Catholic family and for someone of their noble family to die imprisoned on the continent on charges of alchemy and like must not have pleased them. So perhaps Alexander Seton suffered the same fate as Akhenaten from the Egyptian records, or of certain Soviet citizens who were edited out of their history and photographs, or as was explained in a recent copy of Fortean Times, certain comments relating to September 11.

So, with the Setons, it seems we have a far more intriguing family than the Sinclairs. For one, it seems that they might in fact be the missing link between the Scottish Templars, whose possessions they took charge of, and the origin of Freemasonry. But it seems that as their chapel is less ornate than that of the Sinclairs, their memory and possible importance goes largely unnoticed. They seem to be the runners up, locked between the Douglasses, whose fame in historic circles is high, whereas the Sinclairs steal the limelight in esoteric circles. But the most interesting people or facts are often those which largely pass unnoticed. And if the Setons did possess valuable information, you would find that they would pretend to be a “normal” family, at the same time quietly cherishing their secret. And only outside of the normal context, such as during foreign trips or in front of outsiders such as Haussen, might the veil of secrecy slip, and the truth revealed.

What stands, however, as proof is that if there is a link between the Templars and the Freemasons, the Setons were a direct line: the administered the Templar properties, then became leading figures of the Hospitallers, and were close to the biggest promoter of Freemasonry, particularly the one figure who claimed that masons descended from Templars: Andrew Ramsay. And in between, we have the figure of Alexander Seton, one of the most famous alchemists of all times…