King James IV (r. 1488-1513), besides being one of Scotland’s most charismatic and internationally active kings, was also an advocate of education and a generous patron to the arts and sciences. As a king with such a renaissance spirit, European intellectuals were naturally drawn to Scotland to join the court of James IV. Among the interesting courtiers of the king, one ambitious man stood out from the rest of the crowd—John Damian of Falcuis.
In the second half of the 15th century (possibly around 1470) John Damian of Falcuis was born in Italy, the heart of the Renaissance. Young John had a wide variety of interests, but he decided to embark on a career path in medicine. He either studied or practiced in France, later earning him the nickname, the “French Leech,” but eventually found himself employed as the court physician of the Scottish King James IV.
Damian landed in Scotland around 1500 or 1501 and soon found that King James IV was willing to fund studies and experiments that expanded well beyond the typical realm of a court physician. Upon discovering this, John Damian of Falcuis must have been delighted, for he was not only interested in medicine, but was also passionate about alchemy and experimental engineering.
James IV patiently provided funding as John Damian attempted to change base metals into gold, a favorite hobby of alchemists. In between his failed alchemical experiments, Damian also studied how to produce life-prolonging elixirs. Despite his attempts in these fields always ending in disappointment, James IV continued to support the energetic dreamer, and even bestowed on Damian the title of abbot of Tongland.
It was after he had become an abbot that John Damian of Falcuis attempted an experiment that would secure his name in history. This time, however, he was not going to try to create gold or produce an elixir of life. In this experiment, he wanted to achieve what mankind often dreams of while gazing up at the clouds—he wanted to fly.
In 1507, John Damian of Falcuis became obsessed with an idea. After observing and studying birds, Damian deduced that the ability of flight had to come from wings. Therefore, to achieve flight, John Damian simply concluded that he needed to manufacture his own personal set of feathery wings.
With his plan concocted, Damian sent his aids to scavenge the land for eagle feathers—for some reason he had concluded that eagle feathers, and only eagle feathers, could do the job. With all the plumage gathered together, the ambitious inventor pieced together two large wings that he could attach to his arms.
John Damian took his great flight in late September 1507, in the city of Stirling, Scotland. Outfitted in his carefully crafted wings, he climbed to the battlements of Stirling Castle, which stood an estimated 70 feet above the ground. Once he was atop the wall, Damian presumably took a few deep, but shaky, breaths as he looked over the surrounding landscape. Yet, in the end he mustered his courage and leapt from the castle walls. Frantically flapping the makeshift wings with as much energy as he could exert, Damian soared away from the side of Stirling Castle. Nevertheless, he only traveled as far as he could jump, and after that short trip, he was violently pulled down to the hard earth by the unsympathetic force of gravity. Damian was granted a bittersweet blessing, for the force of his crash was somewhat dissipated by the trash heap or dung pile in which he landed. In the end, despite having jumped from the walls of a castle, John Damian of Falcuis only suffered a broken leg as a result of his unsuccessful flight and messy landing. Damian never retried the experiment, but he publicly claimed that his unfortunate crash only occurred because hen feathers had been mistakenly woven into the wings.
Although John Damian was unsuccessful in most of his experimental endeavors, King James IV still found the man’s resolve and determination in the face of failure to be charming. Even after the pseudo scientist broke his leg by jumping from the walls of Stirling Castle, the king’s support never wavered. John Damian of Falcuis was still on the payroll of the Scottish monarch when English forces killed King James IV in 1513, during the Battle of Flodden.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Illustration of an ornithopter (man with manufactured wings) illustrated prior to 1830 from the Tissandier Collection of early European flight designs, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Mystery at the Castle, Season 2, Episode 10