John Webster’s will

 

John Webster, also known as ‘Johannes Hyphastes’ through his own choice (1610/11 – 1682) studied chemical matters (possibly as part of some medical training) under the Hungarian alchemical goldsmith, Johannes Huniades (1576 – 1646), himself a.k.a. Bánfi-Hunyadi János. Huniades had been born in Nagybańya (modern Baia Mare, now some forty miles into Romania but historically Transylvania). It seems that around 1608 he became resident in England. M. Feingold – ‘The mathematician’s apprenticeship: science, universities and society in England, 1560 – 1640’ (Cambridge, 1984) indicates that Huniades had obviously encountered the German, Joachim Morsius in London by 1619.

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In 1633 it would appear that he was taken on by the English Court diplomat and philosopher, Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) to teach at Gresham College which was rapidly establishing itself as England’s nexus of alchemical, astrological and Hermetic studies. Digby himself moved in and out of Catholicism. Ironically, Cromwell was not entirely antagonistic towards him, perhaps partly on account of favouring freedom in religion but more probably rather seeing him as a ‘representative’ of English Catholicism, even sending him on an unsuccessful negotiation mission to Rome.

The sequencing here provides some difficulties. It is clear that Webster had undergone Huniades’ training in London by the time of taking up his post in Kildwick but calculating that date on the basis of comments in his own ‘Metallographia’, the training would appear to have been around 1635. Furthermore, there is the issue of whether Huniades was already teaching in London prior to being taken on by Digby. Digby seems to have left Gresham in 1635 but Huniades was certainly there until 1642. It is also possible that Webster was taught by him outside the formal structure of Gresham’s. Just as problematic is the fact that in 1633 Huniades evidently received an invitation to organise an academic group in Koloszvár (now Cluj-Napoca in Romania). It is not clear whether he took up the offer. Huniades also seems to have worked for John Dee’s son, Arthur (1579 – 1651), who had travelled around Europe with Dee as a child. This was in spite of Arthur Dee’s somewhat dubious reputation – the censors of the College of Physicians appear to have summoned him but the outcome of this case in unknown. Dee junior went from London to Manchester to Moscow before becoming physician to Charles I in 1637.

Webster took his post at Kildwick in 1634 but was not converted to some sort of ‘mystical religion’ until the following year. Clearly, this final element of the transformation (which was subsequently to mutate again in later years) awaited his contact with Craven. He was known to preach at Grindleton (gratis) as well as Kildwick and the settlement gets almost equal prominence in his will decades later.

By the end of his life Webster seems to have understood Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Italian and French. It would not surprise me if he had also had some knowledge of Hungarian.

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