The Invisible College

Evidence for the Invisible College is far easier to come by. The first mention of an ‘invisible college’ can debatably be traced back to the 1620s. The Rosicrucian literature The History of the Frightful Compacts Entered Into Between The Devil and The Pretended Invisibles included a reference in the title. At the same time, Shakespeare’s close friend Ben Jonson referred to it in a masque a year later, titled The Fortunate Isles and their Union.

Whether or not these Rosicrucian references are relevant to the 1640s society involving Robert Boyle is another matter. In three letters between 1646 and the following year, Boyle draws explicitly his reader’s attention to ‘our invisible college’ or ‘philosophical college’, the aim of which was apparently knowledge-based. Of the letters, the one addressed to the enigmatic Samuel Hartlib is perhaps of most interest, not least as Hartlib’s own circle was renowned for its alchemical pursuits. Bearing this in mind, the creation of the Invisible College as something of a development of Hartlib’s increasing circle seems highly plausible. While it’s unlikely that the evolution of this group directly led to the formation of the Royal Society, Boyle’s influence as a founder member was undoubtedly significant.

All mentions of the Royal Society in both The Rosicrucian Prophecy and The Excalibur Code I’ve attempted to be accurate. It’s less clear whether the Invisible College and the Rosicrucians could have been one and the same.

The Invisible College and Alleged Membership

Historically speaking, a college of this name does appear to have existed sometime during the period 1640–60, prior to the formation of the Royal Society. Based on what little evidence has survived, it included many influential persons, such as the German-born intellectual Samuel Hartlib and the natural philosopher, scientist and inventor Robert Boyle. It is likely the college ended with the formation of the Royal Society.

Sir Isaac Newton was, quite famously, a member of the Royal Society, the president no less. John Harrison, a self-educated carpenter, clockmaker and inventor, was also a member. Among his many exceptional achievements, Harrison was instrumental in developing our understanding of longitudes via the invention of the marine chronometer. For readers who enjoyed the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, it was a mythical Harrison clock that made the Trotter family millionaires.

William Blake, author of the famous hymn Jerusalem, was not involved in the Royal Society, but was a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. Blake’s strange painting of Newton, included in the novel, does exist. Exactly why he painted Newton naked and seated on an underwater rock is a mystery. A most spiritual man, Blake found aspects of the new wave of science offensive and was opposed to the Enlightenment. Born thirty years after Newton’s death, the pair never met, and the painting was probably intended as a slight.

Sir Isaac Newton

Celebrated by some as the most intelligent individual in human history – not least British history – Sir Isaac Newton remains one of the most influential men who has ever lived. Born in December 1642, Newton was both a premature child and a posthumous one; some might also add miraculous. If the man himself can be believed, the coming and unlikely survival of his tiny body occurred an hour or two after midnight on Christmas morning; his mother recounted him being so small he could have fit snugly inside a quart mug. The death of his father – also named Isaac – a few months earlier would be of profound consequence, leading to the young boy spending the first three years of his life with his mother before being raised predominantly by his grandmother when his mother married the local rector. Largely estranged from his mother and distant with his stepfather and future half-siblings, Sir Isaac would nevertheless in time nurse his mother through her final illness, enjoy the inheritance of his stepfather’s literary collection and act as a form of guardian to his half-niece.

The family estate at Woolsthorpe still exists. No longer a family home, ownership is now in the hands of the National Trust and open to the public. The famous apple tree that in later years became a legendary – if not slightly exaggerated – feature concerning the origin of his theory of gravity was destroyed by adverse weather in 1820; poignantly a descendant stands tall outside the frontage of the farmhouse.

The walls of the bedroom that had once been the young Isaac’s still offer evidence of his writings; suggestion in the novel that he was a paper thrift is well supported. After flourishing at the local grammar school in Grantham and later Trinity College, Cambridge, the precocious intellectual famously enjoyed a magnificent academic career there, during which his devotion to astronomy, mathematics, theology and science took on obsessive proportions. Often lonely, he nevertheless cultivated a reputation as a leading light in the Age of Enlightenment. In time, his theories would forever change the world.

While the man’s academic achievements are well documented, the assumption that Newton was devoted to science alone is far from accurate. Indeed, the evidence available suggests that framing of his reputation in such a way is little more than a pretence promulgated by certain elements of the academic community and Newtonian fan base, in the eyes of whom, the very suggestion of any alternative has become a cause of some controversy, if not embarrassment. Evidence collected from a handful of letters penned in Sir Isaac’s tiny handwriting during his life indicates his personal library included no less than 169 books on alchemy and at least one copy of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Complementing this selection were several works by his heroes, including the German physician and alchemist Michael Maier and the Elizabethan statesman and alleged conjurer Dr John Dee. As indicated in The Rosicrucian Prophecy, Dee’s perceived failure to distinguish between magic and mechanic, or science and sorcery, as we do in the modern-day, has long been a cause of consternation, not least because it has hampered the attempts of his supporters in seeing him accredited as a serious scientist. In the view of this author, any argument that Dee or Newton should be penalised for their alchemy is grounded solely in ignorance, not least due to the fact that they were living through a period of transition. Furthermore, one could argue that they were partly responsible for bringing it about in the first place.

Concerning efforts to develop a rounded picture of the historical Newton, one to whom we are most indebted is the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes. A man of business with a love of all things science, Keynes purchased many of Newton’s papers in 1936 before bequeathing them to King’s College a year after the end of the Second World War. In 1942, Keynes made an interesting speech on Newton before the Royal Society Club. Unwilling to settle for the conventional view, he recognised the importance of studying Newton’s life in context, including the academically disturbing aspects.

Where precisely this leaves us concerning a full picture of the man is a far more difficult question to answer. Unquestionably, he was one of history’s rarities; of Newton’s ultimate dreams and intentions, many gaps are still to be filled in. Further to the accusation of paper burnings as mentioned in the book, much of his key work he wrote in code, to save it from falling into the wrong hands. The significance of this is impossible to quantify. While the bathymet and the trip to Holland were undoubtedly a work of fiction, who knows what theories and creations still await our discovery?

Decryption of many of these papers is still to occur.

The School Of Night

Cloaked in secrecy, a clandestine group that matches the characteristics of the School of Night is known to have met during the latter part of Elizabeth I’s reign. Writing in 1592, the Jesuit priest Robert Persons expressly referred to this society that included Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, branding them ‘The School of Atheism’ in accusation of the apparent topic of conversations that took place. As mentioned of Dee, some exiled Catholics in Antwerp made a similar accusation.

Of the group’s real name, little has come to light. Rather than representing any official title, a reference to the ‘School of Night’ comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which some have speculated was a coded admittance of the society’s existence and that Shakespeare was a member.

That meetings of some kind did take place between Raleigh and other prominent statesmen of the day can be confirmed, albeit without any sinister connotations or political agenda. Atheism at the time was a serious charge and potentially could amount to treason. In addition to the name School of Night, it has been suggested the group used the caduceus as their logo and, as such, were also known in certain circles as ‘The Dragon Men’.

Canons Ashby House

Located in the county of Northamptonshire, the house has long been something of an enigma. Whether or not the basic room, located off the landing in the servants’ quarters that includes the strange wall symbols offers evidence a secret society met there is another matter. While coats of arms, including those belonging to Catesby, are easily found, other designs appear to concern stories from antiquity.

The room with the fresco mentioned in The Rosicrucian Prophecy also exists, as do the other areas of the house and grounds. The house, dating from around 1550, was famously the home of the Dryden family and is now cared for by the National Trust. A possible connection with the School of Night or its potential successors would make sense of the coats of arms, though this is unconfirmed.