The king who thought one weird trick—with alchemy—could fund his empire

It’s not unusual for world leaders to try to fund their empires in unusual ways—just look at the spate of countries that have used prostitution and illegal drug sales to boost their GDP. But Henry VI’s strategy was even more unusual.

A primarily European fad called alchemy was taking over the continent, and Henry didn’t want to be left out. As Charles Mackay wrote in the classic (and free!) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Henry was aware of alchemy as a great way to get free gold. Though the British Parliament banned alchemy in 1404 (after all, it could destroy the economy), Henry pursued it in 1455.

The king granted four patents and commissions to knights, smart citizens, chemists, monks, and priests to search for the philosopher’s stone (the magical alchemical substance that also provided the British title to the first Harry Potter book). Henry’s patent explained his reasoning:

To the great benefit of the realm and the enabling of the king to pay all the debts of the crown in real gold and silver.

He had a reason to give the patent to priests, too—he believed their experience transforming bread and wine during communion would give them a leg up turning metals into gold.

Unfortunately, King Henry’s amazing solution to the fiscal crisis never yielded precious metals. The next year, he appointed a commission to judge if alchemy was possible or not. They never issued a report.

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