The Birdman of Stirling Castle: An Alchemical Pilot Searches for The Fifth Element
History books are peppered with stories of medieval European Alchemists attempting to turn base metals into gold and to produce elixirs of immortality. However, there was one disastrous alchemical experiment that was only ever attempted once, so far as historic aviation records go. And this dire attempt at “alchemical flight” in medieval Scotland led to the legendary pilot becoming known as The Birdman of Stirling Castle.
Ariel photograph of Stirling Castle, the setting of the medieval flight attempt. (Andrew Shiva/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Promises that Could Never be Delivered
This bizarre story begins when “a penniless” Italian-born cleric by the name of John Damian de Falcuis, found his way to the city of Stirling in Scotland at the end of the 15th century. John was bereft of cash but loaded with charm, evident in that he was recorded as “attending the royal court of James IV of Scotland" at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
John promised the king inexhaustible supplies of gold and that he could produce enhanced medicines with secret Italian alchemical processes. A January 1501 record at the Scottish exchequer informs “John became protégé of King James IV " and received a “great deal of money and other items from the king, to make the quintessence" the elusive 5th element.” And with this money “Master John the French Leech (physician) directed the building of alchemical furnaces at Stirling Castle and Holyroodhouse.”
- Female Phantoms of Stirling Castle: Ghostly Encounters with a Handmaiden and Her Queen
- Unlocking the Identity of the Stirling Knight
- Seeking Life but Finding Death: Deadly Chinese Elixirs of Immortality
Late 19th-century photograph of the Palace of Holyroodhouse from Calton Hill in Edinburgh, home of one of John Damian’s alchemical labs. ( Public Domain )
The beginning of the 16th century in Scotland saw a surge of interest in science, and John’s promise of delivering the elusive “5th element” must have been highly valued. Rumors preceded John that Italian alchemists had made significant advances in alchemy and somewhere between 1501 and 1508 his mesmerism caused him to inherit the powerful position of Abbot of Tongland. What exactly was this “5th element” that John, and thousands of alchemists before him, attempted to create?
The Alchemical Quest for the Fifth Element
Alchemists believed that the Supreme Architect of the universe divided itself into the four elements; Fire, Earth, Air, and Water, which when added to Ether, formed the Quintessence of Matter - the 5th element. This union of the four elements was reflected in the 17th century alchemical symbol of the square, two circles and triangle which illustrates the interplay of the four elements of matter, which together symbolize what is variably referred to as the Philosopher's Stone, The Elixir of life, The Kings Element, or the 5th element - the synthesis of alchemy.
The Philosophers Stone was believed to be hidden somewhere in the arts of rebinding of the 4 elements of the creator. (Public Domain )
The specific alchemical ingredients that John ordered to prepare his Philosopher’s Stone at Stirling Castle are given on page 220 of Eric Holmyard’s 1957 book Alchemy. From the king he was given: “aqua vitae, quicksilver, sal, ammoniac, alum, litharge, orpiment, saltpetre, sliver, sugar, sulphur, tin, verdigris, vinegar and white lead.” Notwithstanding, John failed to produce the Philosopher’s Stone and neither did he deliver gold.
In what appears to be a desperate, bordering on maniacal, attempt to save his name, John performed an extreme stunt directed at silencing his critics - which required that he put his own life on the line. In the autumn of 1507, alchemist John boldly declared to the king that his understanding of the elements would enable him to “fly to France” using a pair of artificial gravity defying, alchemically enhanced wings, that he’d invented.
Illustration ‘ Alchemist.’ (NinjArt1st/ Deviant Art )
For the next 48 hours, Stirling’s very best proto-aeronautic engineers built John’s feathered flying rig, and only two days after his promise of flight he presented himself to the king and his courtiers who were assembled on the battlements of Stirling Castle. The flying device was built using “feathers supplied by the royal poulterers” and with the confidence of the gods themselves John leapt from the battlements into the abyss.
Now, if you’ve ever been in a car crash you will know all too well that time seems to slow down before impact, and that must have happened to John that evening in Stirling. For a split second, that must have lasted forever, John was projecting outwards from the castle battlements and with his chin firmly forward he had a very successful take off, but before he could get his “wheels up”, John plummeted to earth and landed in an undignified heap in a “fresh dung pile” some way below the castle.