Robert Paston

We've passed the £6,000 mark this week – which is wonderful news. Thank you very much everyone – and don't forget to keep spreading the word among your friends! Let them know we have a new reward on offer: tea and a tour at Oxnead Hall, to follow in the footsteps of Robert Paston himself.

Robert Paston (1631-1683) was an interesting man. An inventory of his library survives, which shows that he was extraordinarily learned. His books included works by leading past and contemporary figures from all around Europe, writing on history, politics, religion, philosophy, science and alchemy.

One of the more intriguing things about Robert is that he spent considerable time and effort on alchemical experiments. He had a laboratory at Oxnead and employed a full-time lab assistant, working with fellow alchemist Thomas Henshaw to try to make the fabled Philosopher's Stone. This mysterious object was reputed to turn base metals into gold, and had been sought by alchemists for centuries – but the experiments never succeeded. Sadly, like many of Robert's other money-making efforts, it was a failure!

The mid-17th century was a fascinating period, when the foundations of modern science were being laid down. Robert Paston seems to have had something of a foot in both camps – on the one hand, seeming to subscribe to beliefs in more old-fashioned ideas about alchemy and magic, while at the same time also operating within a more scientific outlook that formed what we would recognise as the beginnings of modern chemistry.

One wonders whether Robert was just interested in making money, or whether, like many others at the time, he felt that all the new developments in exploration and science, and the new discoveries about the world, meant that anything was now possible, and that age-old mysteries of life, like the Philosopher's Stone, were about to be revealed. Perhaps both ideas went through his mind.

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