The time of Emperor Rudolf II is strongly associated with magic and alchemy. The emperor was very interested in the occult, particularly in transmutation (the changing of base metals into gold) and in eternal life.
Rudolf invited Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, John Dee, to his court, hoping that Dee might have some of the answers he sought. Dee brought with him an accomplished con artist, Edward Kelley, who managed to convince Rudolf and several members of his court that he was able to make gold out of mercury.
While he had them hoodwinked, Kelley lived extremely well, owning two houses in Prague. When called upon to prove himself, Kelley fled to the city of Český Krumlov, where he took shameless advantage of local nobleman Petr Vok. Dee, who managed to remain on Rudolf’s good side, also spent some time in the area.
Český Krumlov had a strong affiliation with alchemy already, due largely to the efforts of Vok’s older brother, William von Rosenberg (in Czech, Vilém z Rožmberka). He was the leading figure in alchemy of that time, second only to the emperor himself. When he was only eighteen years old, but already in full possession of his family’s estates, William met Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku, an astrologer and physician. While not an alchemist himself, Hájek was helpful in providing assessments of alchemists who wished to work for William.
William had strong ties with Prague and with Prague’s alchemy scene, and many alchemists divided their time between the cities. One such alchemist was Jakub Hořčický z Tepence, who, in his youth, worked for a pharmacist. This gave him valuable experience in creating various distillations. Later, he studied physics at Charles University in Prague. He found his next job in Jindřichův Hradec, where he was the manager of the city’s botanical garden.
He gained a deep knowledge of medicinal plants, which served him well in his next job – as manager of the botanical garden in Prague. This one belonged to a Jesuit order at the Clementinum (part of the Charles University). He created various “remedies” for different ailments, and even managed to cure Rudolf of an illness that had baffled legitimate doctors. Rudolf then made Hořčický his personal physician, and granted him a knighthood.
Another was Bavor Rodovský from Husitřany. Rodovský’s grandfather was said to have the ability to conjure gold; this rumor persisted, despite the fact that the family was sorely lacking in funds. As Rodovský didn’t have enough money to attend Charles University, he was largely self-educated. He was such a gifted student that his learning was superior to that of many of his university-educated contemporaries.
At around the age of 40, Rodovský used his wife’s dowry and his own inheritance to set up an alchemy lab; his experiments were so expensive that he ended up in a debtor’s prison in Prague. William bailed him out, then employed him in various labs in Prague and Český Krumlov; afterwards, Rodovský found employment with the emperor himself.
One alchemist did not fare well at all in Český Krumlov: Anton Michael from Ebbersbach. Michael promised to supply the aging William with an elixir of life. He didn’t, of course, and Petr Vok imprisoned Michael in the castle of Český Krumlov. Michael, who was guilty of the far greater crime of embezzling funds from William, committed suicide in prison on May 15, 1593.