John Webster

From Book Owners Online

John WEBSTER 1611-1682

Biographical Note

Born at Coxwold, Yorkshire, son of Edward Webster. Anthony Wood’s statement that he studied at Cambridge has been doubted; he did study chemistry with the Hungarian Johannes Hunyades, in the household of the Earl of Pembroke, in the 1630s. Around the same time he was ordained a minister and became curate of Kildwick, Yorkshire; he was deprived in 1637 for his association with a local radical sect, the Grindletonians. Master of Clitheroe Grammar School , Lancashire 1643, where he remained based for most of the rest of his life, apart from a brief spell as intruded minister at the nearby parish of Mitton in the late 1640s, and time spent in London in the early 1650s.

Webster is noted primarily as a free thinker with interests in alchemy, medicine and the occult; he developed a personal philosophical standpoint, independent of any sect, urging free interpretation of the scriptures (which he often saw as more allegorical than literal), and discounting the role of human learning in salvation. He participated in a celebrated debate on the ministry in London in 1653, and published a treatise on the reform of education (Academiarum examen, 1654). He practised medicine from the 1650s onwards, and his chemical and mineralogical studies led to his Metallographia, or, an history of metals (1671). After the Restoration Webster conformed to the establishment requirements and became magistrate for Clitheroe in 1665. His last book was The displaying of supposed witchcraft (1675), disputing the existence of witches and the ability of humans to have physical contact with the Devil.


Webster assembled a library of at least 1660 volumes, valued at £400, whose contents are known in detail through the survival of a catalogue apparently made by him towards the end of his life, now ms A.6.47 in Chetham’s Library. This has been transcribed and analysed by Peter Elmer, who assessed the subject breakdown as medicine 242 items, mathematics 79, natural science 326, theology 397, history 169, literature 148, linguistics 90, philosophy 56, law and politics 50, miscellaneous 50. The collection is noteworthy for its range of material in alchemy, astrology, and magic. A little over half the total were Latin books, 25% were English, and the remaining languages included French, Italian, German, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew. The books were bequeathed to Webster’s wife Elizabeth, as part of his overall goods and chattels, and appear subsequently to have been dispersed (she subsequently married William Bankes, minister of Clitheroe, in 1686).