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.”
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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.
John’s planned flight from Stirling Castle’s battlements to France was interrupted soon after takeoff with a series of technical issues. (Author provided)
The following afternoon John awoke in intensive care with a wide range of damage, including “a shattered thighbone,” surrounded by a team of high-ranking clergy who pressed him to resign his prestigious title of the Abbot of Tongland. John’s failed alchemical efforts to produce the 5th element and especially his doomed flight, were immortalized in a satirical poem by William Dunbar entitled A Ballad of the False Friar of Tongland, How He Fell in the Mire Flying to Turkey : “John failed to make the alchemical quintessence” so he flew to Turkey, but because birds plucked his wings John “landed up to his eyes in a mire.” That last bit was true.
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John Damian de Falcuis, The Birdman of Stirling Castle, like so many historical figures in Scotland who dared to stick their head above the parapet, has received much criticism and ridicule. But I personally hold him as lovable rogue, a trickster, a magician, a bullshitter, the quintessential medieval player. It was a result of admiring these less sinister qualities that John Leslie the Bishop of Ross, a later 16th Century chronicler, blamed John’s failed flight on the fact that "he used chicken feathers” being unable to collect a “sufficient number of eagle feathers,” which apparently John insisted that he needed before he made his doomed flight!
If John had only just given his idea for a flying device a little more development time he might have done what Otto Lilienthal the “Flying Man” of Germany did in 1891, when he became the first person to make controlled untethered glides routinely. If John hadn’t been in such a rush to quell the flames of his critics, today, the grandfather of the first hand-gliders, bat-wings, monoplanes, and later biplane forms mightn’t be Lilienthal the “Flying Man,” but de Falcuis, The Birdman of Stirling Castle.
Otto Lilienthal the “Flying Man” of Germany making his first unassisted solo flight in 1891. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Drawing of the Medieval Birdman of Stirling Castle. Source: Historic Environment Scotland/ Open Government Licence
By Ashley Cowie
Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland , vol. 2, HM General Register House (1900), cxi, 414.
Page 219-220 of 'Alchemy' by E. J. Holmyard, ISBN 0486262987
Small, John, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar , vol. 2, Scottish Text Society (1893), 139-143.
What about George Cayley (with his governable parachute) that demonstrated the chambered lifting wing, stabilisers, control surfaces, but then again all the best flight tech comes from Yorkshire. Aviation went wrong when the pilot went across the border to Lancashire and set up what became BAE Systems. Or Ada Lovelace, that was working on a model for powered flight.
All these attempts are based on the account of Daedalus, Elmet the flying monk tried the same thing five hundred years before this, they will not work, a human doesn't have the muscle mass to support the wing loading (your own weight). A moor polymath did have some success around the same time in Spain, but he will have used a fixed wing, like Otto. The account for Icarus and Daedalus are probably true, anyone could build a basic glider with Minoan tech, it is very good, they had the finest spinners and weavers, to produce aero-linen (they used it for sails, as did the first planes). Reeds for aerostructures, actually good elliptical wings if you want. They even used pine resin and aero-linen to build composite hulls for their ships, aero-linen is nearly as good as glass fibre! It would appear the Chinese had something up and running, see bamboo-copter on Wikipedia.
I don't get the connection between the ancient elements and flight. But just a passing observation, they are an excellent description for the states of matter, e..g. Earth (solid), water (liquid), air (gas), fire (plasma).