John Dee and Edward Kelly – through a glass darkly

Doctor Dee and Edward Kelly raising the dead

MICHAEL WILDING tells the extraordinary story of the councillor, the charlatan, and the crowned heads of Europe

In 1582, Dr John Dee advertised for an assistant. A mathematician of considerable reputation in England and in Europe, he was regularly consulted by powerful statesmen such as Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Walter Raleigh. His projects often involved political issues, and made him dangerous enemies.

Dee had a restless and wide-ranging mind. His opinions were sought frequently on navigational briefings for journeys of commercial exploration to North America and to China. He drew up a proposal for Britain to reform the calendar and to come into line with the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (although the English church and political establishment decided this would look too much like conformity to Rome, and so Britain remained ten days out of phase with Europe for the next 160 years).

Sixteenth century mathematics touching on astrological calculations as well as numerical, Dee was also commissioned to select the appropriate date for Elizabeth’s coronation. He immersed himself so deeply in arcana and hermetic philosophy that he earned a hazardous reputation for heterodox thinking, possibly even heresy. He had the largest private library in Britain, some 2,500 books and manuscripts, but he had reached the limits of what he could learn from books. Now, he wanted direct access to the divine. The assistant he asked for had to be “a good seer and scryer of spiritual apparitions, in crystalline receptacles or in open air”. He wanted someone who could communicate with spirits.

This practice could lead to imprisonment. In December 1581, Dee had tried some consultations with an assistant, Barnabas Saul, who two months later was arrested, but released without charge. Four days later, Dee was consulting spirits with a certain Edward Kelly, and so began one of the most colourful stories of an already highly-coloured period.

Kelly was born at Worcester on August 1, 1555, at 4 p.m. Dee recorded Kelly’s date of birth in the horoscope he drew up of his nativity,and in the margins of the almanac he used as a diary. Kelly’s surname is sometimes spelled Kelley, and when he first met Dee he went under the name of Edward Talbot. It is unclear how he and Dee came into contact, but it is possible that he was planted by Dee’s enemies. Dee certainly believed this, later recording in his diary that

[Kelly’s] coming was to entrap me, if I had had any dealing with wicked spirits, as he confessed often times after: and that he was set on, etc

In Antient Funerall Monuments (1631), John Weever tells a story of Kelly in Lancashire engaging in the “diabolical questioning of the dead, for the knowledge of future accidents”. According to Weever, Kelly

…upon a certain night, in the park of Walton-in-le-dale, in the county of Lancaster, with one Paul Waring (his fellow companion in such deeds of darkness) invocated some one of the infernal regiment to know certain passages in the life, as also what might be known by the devil’s foresight, of the manner and time of the death of a noble young gentleman, as then in his wardship. The black ceremonies of that night being ended, Kelly demanded of one of the gentleman’s servants, what corpse was the last buried in Law church-yard, a church thereunto adjoining, who told him of a poor man that was buried there but the same day. He and the said Waring entreated this foresaid servant to go with them to the grave of the man so lately interred, which he did; and withal did help them to dig up the carcass of the poor caitiff, whom by their incantations, they made him (or rather some evil spirit through his organs) to speak, who delivered strange predictions concerning the said gentleman

Kelly’s practice with Dee was less diabolical. They proceeded to summon up a succession of angels and spirits, beginning with Uriel and Michael and moving on to the mysteriously named Nalvage, Ath, Galva’h, and more. The latter two were female and so, according to specialists in the area like Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, agents of the devil. But one of the female spirits told them, “Angels, I say, of themselves, are neither man nor woman.” And one of the most charming of the spirits summoned up was “like a pretty girl of seven or nine years of age.” She told them “I am a poor little maiden, Madini.” She made a strong impression on Dee and seven years later he christened his daughter Madinia.

There were visions, fables and instructions. In large part, this involved establishing a table of names and numbers which could be used to call up spiritual forces, in particular those governing political rulers. Kelly looked into the stone, Dee asked his questions, the spirits in the crystal spoke through Kelly, and Dee wrote down what Kelly said. No description of the stone survives, but it seems that Dee had more than one. Drawings in the margin of the spiritual records suggest that they were spherical balls, and from evidence in the records we can assume they were of crystal. In the British Museum there is a black obsidian mirror, of Mexican origin, which is said to have belonged to Dee. It is doubtful, however, whether this was used in the scrying sessions.

The notes were later transcribed, and the records of these sessions bound up into books. Other manuscript books were compiled which abstracted and collated the infor­mation given. They survive in the British Library. The major part is recorded in MS Cotton Appendix XLVI parts I and 2. This was transcribed and published by Meric Casaubon, as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdomes in the World (1659).

As well as spiritual instructions, other information was sometimes given. Dee asked about

…the vision which yester night was presented, unlooked for, to the sight of E. K. as he sat at supper with me, in my hall, I mean: the appearing of the very sea, and many ships thereon, and the cut­ting off the head of a woman, by a tall black man, what are we to imagine thereof?

He was told:

The one did signify the provision of foreign powers against the welfare of this land: which they shall shortly put in practice: the other, the death of the Queen of Scots. It is not long unto it

The date was May 5, 1583. Dee noted in the margin, “The Queen of Scots to be beheaded”. At some later date he added,

So she was, anno 1587 at Fotheringhay castle. And also the same year a great preparation of ships against England by the King of Spain, the Pope and other princes called Catholic, etc

That was the Spanish Armada of 1588. Kelly had seen into the future – or made informed guesses.

Then a Polish count, Albert Laski, visited England and sought out Dee and Kelly. He was concerned to find out through their spirit-raising sessions if he might succeed to the Polish crown, and whether he had English ancestry. Holinshed recorded that Laski had

…a white beard of such length and breadth, as that lying in his bed, and parting it with his hands, the same overspread all his breast and shoulders, himself greatly delighting therein, and reputing it an ornament

But though English authorities provided one of their spies as a servant to Laski, they could not discover the purpose of his visit.

In 1583 Laski, Dee and Kelly left England at dead of night and set out for Poland. They had hoped Laski would support them financially in their spiritual researches, but Laski went bankrupt. The spirits told Dee and Kelly to go to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, in Prague. The spirits also gave Dee messages to deliver to the Emperor Rudolf and King Stephen of Poland, instructing them to reform their ways. It was not the most ingratiating way to secure royal patronage, but Dee did it. He also told Rudolf he could make the philosopher’s stone.

The Order of the Inspirati – Mohammed, Appoloneus Tyaneus, Sir Edward Kelley, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, John Dee – after Francis Cleyn (Franz Klein), etching and line engraving, published 1659
NPG D25548. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Dee had one audience with Rudolf, and was then fobbed off to deal with senior court officials. In the meantime, rumours of the spiritual predictions of imminent apocalyptic change reached the papal nuncio, Filippo Sega, who reported to Rome that Dee and Kelly

…are on the way to being the authors of a new supersti­tion, not to say heresy, and are known to the Emperor and all of the court

The new nuncio, Lord Germanico Malaspina, Bishop of San Severo, asked Dee and Kelly to explain themselves to him. They delayed for eight months but finally met. Dee assured the nuncio that their activities were not irreligious. All might have been well but then Kelly delivered a diatribe about corrupt priests, which, Dee was later told, “had so filled that most reverend lord with inward fury that he had said, if it had not been for certain respects, he would have had the said Edward thrown out of the window”. (Defenestration was a traditional way of dealing with troublesome opponents in Bohemian politics.)

Pressure was brought to bear on Rudolf, who then expelled Dee and Kelly from the Empire for necromancy and other prohibited arts. Four months later Rudolf relented and let them settle on the estates of Count Vilém Rožmberk, at Trebon in southern Bohemia. They undertook a series of alchemical experiments there and in December 1586 Dee recorded in his diary that

E. K. made a public demonstration of the philosopher’s stone in the proportion of one small grain, upon one ounce and a quarter of common mercury, and produced almost an ounce of most pure gold

Dee’s son Arthur told Sir Thomas Browne, the author of Religio Medici, that

Count Rožmberk was their great patron who delighted much in alchemy. I have often heard him affirm and sometimes with oaths that he had seen the projection made and transmutation of pewter dishes and flagons into silver which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of them. And that Count Rožmberk played at quoits with silver quoits made by projection as before

Elias Ashmole recorded that

I have received it from a credible person, that one Broomfield and Alexander Roberts, told him they had often seen Sir Ed Kelly make projection, and in particular upon a piece of metal cut out of a warming pan, and without Sir Edward’s touching or handling it, or melt­ing the metal (only warming it in the fire) the elixir being put thereon, it was transmuted into pure silver: the warming-pan and this piece of it was sent to Queen Elizabeth by her ambassador who then lay at Prague, that by fitting the piece into the place whence it was cut out, it might exactly appear to be one part of that warming-pan

Kelly had now become increasingly reluctant to continue summoning up spirits. He tried to train Dee’s eight year-old son Arthur in scrying, but without much success. Kelly then received a spiritual message that he and Dee were to hold their wives in common. The wives were unenthusiastic, but Kelly made a number of further consultations with spirits and the instruction was confirmed. The “cross-matching” seems to have taken place on May 22, 1587, but not repeated. The following day, the last known spiritual consultations Dee and Kelly held together are recorded – although years later, back in England, Dee was to experiment with other scryers.

Fifty-three years later, Arthur Dee gave one of the crystals used by his father and Kelly to the apothecary Nicholas Culpeper “as a reward for having cured a liver complaint of his with the greatest rapidity, A.D. 1640.” According to Culpeper this was the crystal that had been given to Dee by an angel in 1582, which Dee gave to Kelly, who gave it to Lord Rožmberk but then retrieved it.

Culpeper records,

I have used this crystal in many ways and have thus cured illnesses, but with its use a very great weakness always sets in and lethargy of the body. And further a certain demoniacal apparition which exercised itself to lewdness and other depravity with women and girls, used to tempt me, but by making the sign of the cross and speaking these words, ‘Pah Adonai, by thy strength am I fortified. Phorrh! Phorrh! Haricot! Gambalon!’ the apparition used to fly soon or instantly, with noise and evil smell. For these obscenities I have given up the use of the crystal, and to witness these things I have written them on this sheet on the 7th day of March in the year 1651

William Lilly bought the crystal from Culpeper’s widow and tried his own experiments on it with Elias Ashmole. They conjured up “a female devil lewd and monstrous”, he records for February 10, 1658. The crystal is now in the Wellcome Collection in the Science Museum, London.

On February 28, 1588, nine months after the cross-matching, Jane Dee gave birth to a boy, who was baptized the following day, and named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee. Theodorus Trebonianus, the gift of God at Trebon. Was this Dee’s child or Kelly’s? Did anyone ever know for sure? The question is never raised in the diary let alone answered. Could Kelly have children anyway? In the spiritual transactions of April 4, 1587, Kelly was told of his marriage, “barrenness dwells with you”, suggesting that he was sterile. There is no record of his having children. His wife had a son and daughter by a former marriage, the daughter later famous as the neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Weston, “Westonia”.

Kelly’s achievements in producing gold soon became known to the Emperor Rudolf, Queen Elizabeth and her senior statesman, Lord Burghley. Rudolf invited Kelly back to Prague, installed him in the court to work on alchemical experiments, and in 1589 appointed him to the order of the Equites Aureati (the Knights of the Golden Spur, a Holy Roman Imperial chivalric order originating in the 14th century). He was now Sir Edward, and possessed of considerable property. Dee returned to England.

Burghley wrote to Kelly at the instruction of Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that he might return to England and put his alchemical skills at the service of the state. Kelly replied that

…being in security, and …of some expectation and use more than vulgar, of his Majesty’s privy council…I cannot see how I might easily or honestly depart, much less so steal away…But if it may please my most gracious sovereign and country to redress the injuries done against me heretofore and to call me home to the like honour; assuring me of so much lands of inheritance by year to serve her, as I shall leave behind me in Bohemia for her; then will I declare myself openly, take leave of his Majesty and kingdom and repair home to her highness

Burghley then sent the poet and courtier Edward Dyer to try to persuade Kelly. But, suddenly, Kelly was arrested and gaoled. Some said the arrest was for debt, others that an alchemist executed at Munich had named Kelly as an accomplice. Yet others opined that Dyer’s visit made the Emperor suspect Kelly was about to return to England with secrets, that Kelly had offended a powerful Czech family, that Kelly had prepared a medicine for the Emperor which Kelly’s enemies claimed was a poison, and lastly that a rival alchemist had challenged Kelly to make proof of his art and Kelly refused. Czech reports, not known in England, said that Kelly had killed a court official in a duel. The official had been asking Kelly why one of his ears had been lopped. Kelly at some point had had one, if not both, ears lopped – a mark of punishment for some criminal offence that has never been explained. Forging title deeds and coining are often mentioned in later ac­counts, but no supporting evidence has ever been produced.

And then towards the end of 1593, after some two and a half years in gaol in Pürglitz castle, Kelly was released, and back in favour with the Emperor. In 1595, Kelly wrote to Dee, inviting him back to Rudolf’s service.  Dee stayed in England, wisely enough, for on 1 November 1596 Kelly was arrested again, probably for debt.  

Kelly was now imprisoned in Most Castle where he wrote his Latin treatise The Stone of the Philosophers, which he dedicated to Rudolf:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, an indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised and admired by the wise. Nay, the saying that none but fools and lawyers hate and despise alchemy has passed into a proverb

Nonetheless, he decided to escape. John Weever wrote that Queen

Elizabeth of famous memory, sent (very secretly) Captain Peter Gwynne with some others, to persuade him to re­turn back to his own native home, which he was willing to do: and think­ing to escape away in the night, by stealth, as he was clambering over a wall in his own house in Prague (which bears his name to this day, and which sometime was an old sanctuary) he fell down from the battlements, broke his legs, and bruised his body; of which hurts a while after he de­parted this world

It is generally believed that Kelly fell not from his house but from prison. Dee’s son, Arthur, told Sir Thomas Browne

…that Kelly dealt not justly by his father and that he went away with the greatest part of the powder and was afterward imprisoned by the Emperor in a castle from whence attempting an escape down the wall he fell and broke his leg and was imprisoned again. That his father Dr John Dee presented Queen Elizabeth with a little of the powder, who having made trial thereof attempted to get Kelly out of prison. And sent some to that purpose who giving opium in drink unto the keepers, laid them so fast asleep that Kelly found opportunity to attempt an escape and there were horses ready to carry him away! But the business unhappily succeeded as is before declared

The Czech scholars Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš believe that the most authentic report about Kelly’s imprisonment (and his death) is given in a manuscript written by the evangelical priest, Rudolf’s alchemist and seeker of precious stones, Simon Thadeas Budek of Lessino and Falkenberg:

That Keleus when he was imprisoned at the castle of Most (he had a wooden leg and was without both ears, and had long hair), was lowered through the toilet by his wife and daughter in the year 1597 at Christmas time … His brother awaited him with a carriage, but he (Kelly) fell into a ditch and broke his leg in three places, so he was taken back to the castle to be tended to. He was to be transported to Prague to the Emperor, but he asked to have his wife and daughter with him, which they granted him. He then spoke to his wife in English and Welsh and with his daughter in Latin and asked to have some water brought to him and immediately after ingesting it he died

Some long continued to believe Kelly had succeeded in producing gold, and really had the secret of the philosopher’s stone. But in his 1617 book on pseudo-alchemists, Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, Michael Maier concluded of Kelly:

If he had anything except the colour extracted from gold, why did he not live for himself and avoid high positions, from which he would fall headlong as far as both his life and fame are concerned? However, with his skill of extracting sulphur from gold and projecting it into metals he not only won the prince’s favour and a good reputation, but he also got money and fortune. And he would not have been in need of all these if he had not been foolish and a man of very poor judgement and if he had had the real tincture

Author’s references

  • Ashmole, Elias, Elias Ashmole 1617–1692: His Auto­biographical and Historical Notes, His Correspondence and other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols, Oxford, 1968
  • Casaubon, Meric, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a Gen­eral Alteration of most States and Kingdomes in the World, London, 1659
  • Dee, John, The Diaries of John Dee, ed. Edward Fenton, Charlbury, 1998
  • Holinshed, Raphael , Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols., London,  1808, 4:507-8
  • Karpenko, Vladimír, and Purš, Ivo, ‘Edward Kelly: A Star of the Rudolfine Era’, in Ivo Purš and Vladimír Karpenko, Alchemy and Rudolf II: Exploring the Secrets of Nature in Central Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Prague, 2016
  • Kelly, Edward, Two Excellent Treatises on the Philosopher’s Stone together with the Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy, ed. and trans. A. E. Waite, London, 1893
  • Maier, Michael,Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, 1617
  • Weever, John, Ancient Funerall Monuments, London, 1631
  • Wilding, Michael, Raising Spirits, Making Gold, Swapping Wives: The True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly, Nottingham, 1999
  • Wilding, Michael, ‘Edward Kelly: A Life’, Cauda Pavonis: Studies in Hermeticism,n.s. 18, 1 & 2 (1999) 1–26; reprinted, revised, in Stanton J., Linden, ed., ‘Mystical Metal of Gold’: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture,New York, 2007, 35–89