The Last Years of Edward Kelley, Alchemist to the Emperor

Charles Nicholl

The winter night falls early in the small Czech town of Sobeslav, and with it comes a cold, creeping fog laced with coal-smoke that leaves a bitter coating in the mouth. The town square is deserted; the tall-spired church a hulk. There is a cramped little beer-cellar full of gaming machines, but it is decidedly not the old ‘inn’ which stood on the square in the days when Sobeslav was a staging-post between Prague and the southern stronghold of Cesky Krumlov, seat of the powerful Rozmberk family. It was at this inn, on the evening of 3 May 1591, that the English alchemist, clairvoyant and con-man Edward Kelley was arrested by officers of Emperor Rudolf II. At the time of his arrest Kelley was an internationally famous figure, but thereafter the story grows confused: he disappears from view into the dungeons of 16th-century Bohemia. News of his death reached England in late 1595, and for a long time this provided the death-date in such biographies of him as existed (there is still no full biography). But the report was false. He is discernible in Bohemian documents for a couple of years after this: the date of his death is more probably November or December 1597, at the age of 42. I have always had a sneaking fascination for Kelley, and hoped that a visit to the Czech Republic might shed some light on the foggy circumstances of his last years.

The best-known part of Kelley’s story concerns his long partnership with the magus John Dee. It begins with his arrival at Dr Dee’s house, in the Thameside village of Mortlake, near London, in early March 1582. Dee, then in his mid-fifties, was the Queen’s chief consultant on all matters occult. He was renowned as a mathematician, physician, astrologer, geographer and, in the popular parlance, a ‘conjuror’. His visitor was, at this point, an altogether more shadowy figure. We know that he was 26 years old, and came from Worcester; that he had served apprentice to an apothecary; that he had been in trouble with the law. And we know that he was using an alias, for he first appears in Dee’s diary not as Edward Kelley but as Edward ‘Talbot’. The purpose of his visit that morning was, in Dee’s words, ‘to see or shew some thing in spiritual practice’ – in other words, to display his gifts as a ‘skryer’ or spirit-medium. Dee was cautious, and had good reason to be. ‘In that vulgarly accounted magick’, he explained, he ‘neither studied or exercised’. He was, however, ‘desirous to have help’ in his ‘philosophical studies, through the company and information of the blessed angels of God’. Having made what was to him a vital distinction – between the conjuring of evil spirits and the invocation of angeli boni – Dee brought out his ‘shew stone’, or crystal ball. The soi-disant Talbot ‘then settled himself to the Action … and within one quarter of an hour (or less) he had sight of one in the stone’. The angel identified itself as Uriel. It ‘spake plainly’, in a mixture of Latin and English, ‘to the hearing of E.T.’. The séance proceeded smoothly – suspiciously so – and the successful skryer was engaged, informally at first, and later at a generous salary of £50 per annum.

Kelley remained Dee’s link to the angels for a further seven years, first at Mortlake, and then, from 1583, during their long and controversial travels in Central Europe. Their names are for ever linked, invariably with Dee as the reverend but credulous old magus, and Kelley as his unscrupulous deceiver and exploiter. He is described as a ‘grand Imposter’, an ‘egregious scoundrel’, and a ‘terrible zombie-like figure’. This last comment – the phrase is Edith Sitwell’s – glances at a ten-acious feature of the Kelley legend: it is said that he had no ears, having had them cut off in the pillory in his youth. The partnership has inspired plays and novels, from Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist to Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Dr Dee. Its apotheosis, in this picaresque sense, is the notorious occasion at Trebon Castle in southern Bohemia, when the spirits revealed to Kelley their wish that he and Dee should ‘hold their wives in common’. That Jane Dee was blonde and beautiful is not attested in any document I know of, but it is a fact that she was nearly thirty years younger than Dee, and had been one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Dee consented to this ‘doctrine of cross-matching’ reluctantly, and Jane even more so. ‘She fell a-weeping and trembling for a quarter of an hour,’ but at length agreed, saying: ‘I trust, though I give myself thus to be used, that God will turn me into a stone before He would suffer me, in my obedience, to receive any shame or inconvenience.’ The shenanigans that followed are discreetly recorded in Dee’s diary. Nine months later Jane bore a son; he was christened Theodorus Trebonianus, meaning ‘the gift of God at Trebon’.

Kelley the spirit-medium (or cunning ventriloquist) has gone down in the folklore, but in Europe he became more celebrated in another branch of the occultist repertoire: alchemy. Dee believed Kelley to be an alchemical grand master – a climactic moment was reached in May 1588: ‘E.K. did open the great secret to me, God be thanked.’ Another devotee was the poet and diplomat Sir Edward Dyer, who ‘laboured much in chymistry’ under Kelley’s tutelage, and was present at one of his transmutations in Prague. ‘I am an eyewitness thereof,’ he later recalled, ‘and if I had not seen it I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test.’

Alchemy was the passion of the age, and nowhere more so than at the Court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. When Dee left for England in 1589, Kelley remained. His bruited alchemical skills brought him fame and fortune, and even a Bohemian knighthood: he is henceforth Sir Edward Kelley of Imamyi, ‘Baron of Bohemia’. (This ‘Imamyi’ is a mysterious and probably fictitious Irish name: he claimed descent from the noble ‘house of Imamyi in the county of Conneghaku’ – the latter is presumably a Bohemian version of Connaught.) In a letter of July 1590 he describes himself grandly as ‘seized in lands of inheritance yielding £1500 yearly, incorporated into the kingdom in the second order, of some expectation and use more than vulgar.’ He has been invited to join Rudolf’s Privy Council, though is ‘not yet sworn, for the love I bear unto my sacred Queen & Country’. (Rudolf was a Habsburg and a Catholic, and was nominally but not personally an arch-enemy of Elizabeth.) Kelley was also receiving regular letters from Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief adviser, begging him to return home ‘to honour Her Majesty … with the fruits of such great knowledge as God hath given him’. Or if he could not personally return, perhaps he might send her a small quantity of his gold-making powder, ‘in some secret box’, just enough ‘as might be to her a sum reasonable to defer her charges for this summer for her navy’.

This is the climax of Kelley’s fortunes; the sudden fall – the inn at Sobeslav – is just around the corner. But even here, in this well-lit part of his life, I find it hard to grasp his personality and motivations. Behind the folkloric stereotypes – the ghoulish Svengali, the sham magician, the charlatan – the face is unclear. What was he like? We have little idea of his physical appearance. The only known portrait, by the Dutch engraver Franz Cleyn, dates from the mid-17th century and is probably guesswork. It shows a gaunt, long-faced, bearded man, wearing a fur-trimmed cloak and a four-cornered hat like a cleric’s biretta. The only contemporary hints I can find seem rather at odds with this, for an Englishman who visited him in Bohemia in 1593 describes him as ‘fat and merry’; another source calls him a ‘weighty’ man. Certainly Kelley was no ascetic. His fondness for wine is often mentioned. A drunken incident in Prague gives us a vividly nasty glimpse of him: ‘In this company of drinking was Alexander’ – a Polish servant – ‘unto whom E.K. (when the drink on a sudden had overcome him) said he would cut off his head, and with his walking-staff did touch him fair and softly on the neck, sitting before him.’ The following morning there was a further altercation: ‘E.K. took up a stone and threw after him, as after a dog, and so came into the house again in a most furious rage.’ Kelley’s violent temper and mood-changes are often noted by Dee. The walking-staff with which Kelley stroked Alexander’s neck may itself be significant. In a letter from Prague in April 1586, the Papal Nuncio refers to ‘Giovanni Dee e il zoppo suo compagno’ – zoppo means ‘lame’. It is possible that Kelley was disabled in some way (and disability is traditionally associated with the psychic powers he claimed). There is a reference, during one of the séances, to his difficulty in kneeling.

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