The Last Years of Edward Kelley, Alchemist to the Emperor
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.
And then there is the question of his ears, or lack of them. This is sometimes said to be a late tradition, dating from the 18th century. It is not. It first appears in print in John Weever’s Ancient Funerall Monuments of 1631: ‘Kelley (otherwise called Talbot) that famous English alchymist of our times … lost both his ears at Lancaster.’ Another, independent testimony is found in the manuscripts of a Czech alchemist, Simon Tadeas Budeck, who describes Kelley as ‘having no ears’. It turns out that these reports are only partly correct, however, for the earliest comment on the matter is in a letter from Prague dated 20 July 1593, in which an Englishman named Parkins reports being questioned about Kelley by one of Rudolf’s councillors. Among the enquiries was ‘if I could give any account of the diminishing of one of his ears, or of his good or evil behaviour in England’. Parkins knew Kelley, so it seems likely that Kelley had had just one ear mutilated in the pillory. The alchemist Budeck also describes him as being ‘long-haired’, perhaps to conceal the disfigurement – ‘crop-ears’ are ‘privileged to wear long locks by ancient charter’, says a humorous pamphlet of the day. This may also be why ‘Mr Talbot’ declined to take his hat off before praying to the angels, as complained of by Dee in his diary entry for 4 May 1582.
The limping, fleshy, long-haired, violent and rather hysterical character who emerges from eyewitness reports is rather different from the daemonic deluder of legend, though scarcely more admirable or likeable. Yet in a way this aura of unpleasantness makes his success even harder to understand. What was it about him that – despite all this – held so many in his spell?
In his dealings with Dee, the sheer scale of his deception is staggering. Dee left reams of manuscripts recording the messages of angels and spirits, all of them dictated to him by Kelley: the ‘spirituall diaries’, as they are called. The first printed edition, A True & Faithful Relation of what passed for Many Yeers between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits, edited by Meric Casaubon and published in 1659, is a stout folio running to several hundred pages. In the conventional view, these messages and visions came from Kelley himself – he made them up – in which case we are dealing not just with a story of sustained deception, but with an extraordinary feat of imagination. The utterances of Uriel and Madimi, of El and Il and King Carmara and scores of other spirits, are not voicings from the spirit-world, but improvised dramatic monologues performed by Kelley. Most of it is high-sounding esoteric flannel, but often the words have a strange rolling beauty: ‘I will hold up his house with pillars of hyacinth, and his chambers shall be full of modesty and comfort; I will bring the east wind over him as a lady of comfort, and she shall sit upon his castles in triumph.’ Here is an edited transcript of Kelley in full flight, in front of the ‘shew-stone’ at the lodgings he shared with Dee in Prague near the Bethlehem Chapel:
E.K.: I see a garland of white rose-buds about the border of the stone: they be well-opened. But while I consider these buds better, they seem rather to be white lilies. They are 72 in number, seeming with their heads, alternatim, one to bend or hang toward me and another to you. A voice cometh shouting out from the lilies, saying Holy, Holy, Holy, and all the lilies are become on fire. The noise is marvellous great which I hear coming through the stone: as it were of a thousand water-mills going together.
A voice: Male & in summo: & mensuratum est.
Another voice: The seal is broken.
Another: Pour out the sixth viol that the earth may know herself.
E.K.: Now I see beyond like a furnace-mouth, as big as 4 or 5 gates of a city. It seemeth to be a quarter of a mile off. Out of the furnace-mouth seemeth a marvellous smoke or smother to come. Bye it seemeth to be a great lake of pitch, and it playeth or simpereth as water doth when it beginneth to seethe.
Often the visions are lurid and apocalyptic – ‘Here appeareth … a man in the fire, with flaxen hair hanging down upon him, and is naked unto his paps, and seemeth to have spots of blood upon him’ – but sometimes there is a touch of surreal humour, as when ‘E.K. saw three little creatures walk up and down in the sunshine’; they were ‘very small, not a handful long, like shadows or smokes, and the path wherein they walked seemed yellow’; they pipingly announce their names to be Da, Za and Vaa. We are not far here from the fairy-world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; elsewhere we seem to have strayed into an early draft of Dr Faustus. Sometimes these sessions are accompanied by optical tricks – objects are miraculously discovered; books lie conveniently open – and sometimes by strenuous physical effects on Kelley: ‘he thought verily that his bowels did burn.’ ‘His body had a fiery heat, even from his breast down unto all his parts, his privities and thighs.’ ‘He started, and said he felt a thing creeping within his head, and in that pang became all in a sweat; and he remained much misliking the moving and creeping of the thing in his head.’
These are brief extracts from a rolling seven-year performance. Reading them in extenso (which one can now do conveniently in the 1998 edition of Dee’s diaries by Edward Fenton) it is sometimes hard to believe that they are just inventions. The performance is so good – is it possible, after all, that Kelley himself believed in it? That he did hear voices and see things when he knelt in front of the ‘shew-stone’? The instabilities of his personality could support this idea – in other words, the ‘spirituall diaries’ are a casebook of schizophrenic imaginings – but the many instances where the spirits say and show things thoroughly convenient to Kelley argue against it: the ‘cross-matching’ episode is only the most notorious of these. We must take him as a showman, a con-artist, a brilliant actor, though one whose very brilliance may suggest an ambiguous closeness to the part he is playing.
It is, in fact, as another kind of actor that Kelley makes his first appearance in Dee’s life: as a spy. This is quite clear from Dee’s diary, though it features surprisingly little in the Kelley mythos. The suspicion that ‘Mr Talbot’ was some sort of spy or provocateur was in Dee’s mind from the beginning: he had long experience of the parlousness of his occult studies, and of unscrupulous people who tried to make capital out of this. Over the next few months his suspicions were amply confirmed. On 29 May 1582: ‘I understood of Ed. Talbot his wicked nature and his abominable lies &c.’ On 16 July 1582: ‘I have confirmed that Talbot is a cozener’ (in other words, a ‘cheat’ or ‘deceiver’). Perhaps it is at this point that Talbot’s real name is revealed: in his next appearance in the diary he is, for the first time, ‘E. Kelly’. A fragmentary entry, 1 August 1583, also seems to be about Kelley – ‘a Worcestershire man, a wicked spy, came to my house: whom I used as an honest man and found nothing being as I used’. Dee also found that Kelley had been snooping through his personal diary, and even brazenly altering it. Thus, in the original manuscript, the entry reading ‘I have confirmed that Talbot is a cozener’ is scored through, and beside it Kelley has written: ‘a horrible and slanderous lie’. None of this quite explains what he was up to as a ‘wicked spy’. The answer is probably found in an undated marginalium, in which Dee comments, retrospectively, on Kelley’s first arrival at Mortlake – ‘his coming was to entreat me if I had had any dealing with wicked spirits, as he confessed oftentimes after: and that he was set on, &c.’ His role was thus to provoke: to draw Dee into forbidden and incriminating magical practices. By whom he was ‘set on’ does not appear: one could round up the usual suspects. Dee had many political enemies, who mistrusted the influence of occultism at a time of increasing religious tensions.
These entries are fascinating forensic traces of the edgy opening stages of their relationship. Dee knows that ‘Talbot’ is a cheat and a spy, yet is also so clearly in his thrall, both because he believes him to be genuinely gifted as a medium, and because there is some magnetic power Kelley holds over people. He makes poor Dr Dee positively palpitate: ‘My heart did throb oftentimes this day, and thought that E.K. did intend to absent himself from me.’ He has also an unsettling effect on Jane Dee: ‘Jane in a marvellous rage all that night and next morning till 8 of the clock, melancholic terribly for the cozening.’ This is in early May 1582; that ‘the cozening’ refers to the deceptions of Kelley is confirmed by his attempt to obliterate the entry. A couple of years later, in Poland, Kelley informed Dee of the following ominous vision concerning Jane, transmitted by the spirit Nalvage:
He showeth an house, and six or seven on the top of it with torches. They are like shadows; when they sit they are like apes. They set a fire on it and it burneth mightily. Now your wife runneth out, and seemeth to leap over the gallery rail, and lie as dead. And now come you out of door, and the children stand in the way toward the church, and you come by the yern door, and kneel, and knock your hand on the earth. They take up your wife; her head waggleth this way and that way. The stone house quivereth and quaketh, and all the roof of the house falleth. Your wife is dead; the right side of her face, her teeth and all, is battered. She is bare-legged. She hath a white petticoat on.
These are the lurking antecedents of the ‘cross-matching’ of 1587, and they lead to another Kelley puzzle: his marriage. The first mention of this is on 29 April 1582, when he announces that the spirits have commanded him to marry, adding grimly: ‘which thing to do I have no natural inclination’. The date of the wedding is not recorded, but it was before the end of April 1583, when Dee first refers to Kelley’s wife. She was Joan Cooper (or Cowper) of Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire; her age was 19. Things did not start well. In early July Kelley rants: ‘I cannot abide my wife, I love her not, nay I abhor her.’ Dee describes him as ‘marvellously out of quiet against his wife’ and says certain friends of hers have made ‘bitter reports against him behind his back’. Again on 18 August 1583: ‘Great tempest of wind at midnight; E.K.’s very great anger against his wife.’ That Kelley was an ill-tempered and possibly violent husband need not surprise us, but the situation is more complicated. It has recently been discovered that Joan Cooper was already a widow when she married Kelley, and had two children. Her earlier marriage to John Weston, ‘clerk’, had taken place at Chipping Norton on 29 June 1579, and she had buried him in the same church on 6 May 1582. Kelley’s reluctance may suggest he was under some kind of pressure to marry her.
Whatever the circumstances, Joan’s future, and that of her two children, lay with Kelley in Bohemia. Her daughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston, later became famous there as a Latin poet and scholar, and died in Prague in 1612. She wrote an elegy on the death of her mother, In Obitum … Dominae Ioannae, published in Prague in 1606. It was this little-known book that proved the connection, for ‘Lady Joanna’ turns out to be Joan Kelley, ‘widow of the magnificent and noble Sir Edward Kelley of Imany, Golden Knight of His Holy Imperial Majesty’s Council’. In the text Elizabeth speaks of her childhood: how her father died when she was still a baby, but ‘the fates pitied her’ and provided her with a stepfather, ‘for which I was happy’. Of her stepfather she says: ‘ceu pater alter amavit’ – ‘he loved me as another father.’ Here is another, hitherto unsuspected piece of the Kelley jigsaw: the family man. We can allow him some credit, after centuries of bad press, as the protector and perhaps even educator of his scholarly stepdaughter. The other child, John Francis, became a student at Ingolstadt, but died there in 1600, aged about twenty.
After this brief excursion into the shadowy reality behind the legend of Edward Kelley, I turn to the no less shadowy circumstances of his last years. The exact reason for Kelley’s fall from the Emperor’s favour remains unclear: the usual telling of the story is that Rudolf had tired of, or in some way ‘seen through’, Kelley’s duplicities. This may be true, but is only one of many speculations voiced at the time. Other suggestions – debts, political suspicion, a duel, obscure wranglings at the Rudolfine Court – are also voiced. The documents cannot tell us why it happened, because no one really knew, but they can tell us how it happened. The royal edict, indicting Kelley as a criminal and a fugitive, is dated at Prague Castle, ‘this Thursday, St Sigismund’s day, 1591’ – that is, 2 May 1591. The man ordered to bring him in was Rudolf’s ‘quartermaster’, Gregor Böul. The wheels of court payment ground slowly, and years later Böul had still not been reimbursed for his efforts: this is fortunate for our purposes, because his complaint to this effect, delivered to Minister Trautsohn on 22 March 1597, gives a detailed account of the operation. This can now be added to certain English intelligence reports from Prague, to provide for the first time a full account of Kelley’s arrest and imprisonment.
Around midday on Tuesday 30 April, a deputation of officials and soldiers descended on Kelley’s house in the Na Slovanech district of Prague. They had ‘commandment to bring him up bound, the cause concealed’. They came ‘in great number’, carrying chains and fetters and ‘irons of torture’. Kelley was not there, however: ‘he was departed the night before … so secretly as his own family was kept from it.’ The soldiers contented themselves with ransacking the house – they ‘broke open his doors, thrust their halberds through his beds’ – and arresting the servants; ‘chief extremity’ was used on his younger brother and confidant, Thomas Kelley. The house was put under guard, and Kelley’s laboratory sealed up. All the ‘elixirs’ in it were impounded; also certain ‘boards’, perhaps wall-panels, painted with arcane hieroglyphs. Learning of Kelley’s escape, the Emperor ‘cursed in the Dutch manner’, and issued the promulgation of 2 May referred to above. Armed with this edict, Quartermaster Böul left Prague with a posse of officers and soldiers: 25 people, travelling in four ‘wagons’. They headed south, towards the fiefdom of Count Rozmberk, Kelley’s powerful patron. By midday on 3 May, the party had reached Tabor, a beautiful little town founded by the famous Czech Protestant, Jan Zizka: you can still see the maze of underground passages beneath the town, where the Protestant rebels hid. In the afternoon Böul pressed on, with a small guard, to Sobeslav, ten miles south of Tabor, and here, in that no longer extant inn on the square, they found Kelley. Böul does not describe the actual arrest, but that able English intelligencer Thomas Webbe, despatched to Prague a few weeks later, had it that Kelley
went six Dutch miles towards the Lord Rosenberg, to a certain town under his jurisdiction, where he being weary, and without suspect, he reposed himself after dinner on a bed, and slept. In which time, the Emperor’s guards entered, took him, entreated him very ill, cut his doublet open with a knife, searching him, and told him they were by the Emperor’s commandment to carry him back again dead or alive, which they cared not, and so prisonered he was carried back again.
A curt report is also found in the Rozmberk annals, written by the Count’s secretary, Václav Brezan: ‘Eduardus Kelleus, the cheating alchemist, escaped from Prague, was pursued by His Majesty’s soldiers, and arrested at Sobeslav.’ The following morning, Böul continues, he brought his prisoner back to Tabor, where the rest of the search-party was, and thence to Sedlcany. Here a courier met them with express orders from the Emperor: Kelley was not to return to Prague, but to be taken directly to Krivoklat Castle. So the party turned their wagons west, and crossed the wide Vltava River. They journeyed for two days, via Dobris and Beroun, along a route that can be traced quite easily today, through beech-woods and apple orchards and old broken hedges rampant with snowberries, and at around midday on Monday, 6 May 1591, Kelley was handed over to the safe-keeping of the castellan of Krivoklat, Jan Jindrich Prolehofer von Purkersdorf.
Krivoklat Castle, known also as Pürglitz, stands sternly on a precipitous wooded bluff which is made almost an island by the curving course of a small river, the Rakovnicky, below it. Kelley was held in the Huderka Tower, a squat, squarish building in the northern corner of the castle’s outer courtyard. It has the look of a large oven, or perhaps even an alchemist’s ‘athanor’ or furnace. The door of the tower is massive, studded with a lattice of iron; the lintel is carved, like others in the courtyard, in the form of drapery, as if a stone curtain had been rolled up above the door. A series of newsletters from Prague, written by an agent of the Fugger banking-house, provide some glimpses of Kelley’s circumstances. ‘He was not even allowed a bread knife: everything was taken away’ (8 May). ‘The English alchemist who was recently taken to Pürglitz as a prisoner, appeared to be in the depths of despair these latter days, and refused to partake of food, so that it was feared he might die’ (15 May). He was imprisoned ‘with no air but that which comes through a hole, through which he can reach for his food bit by bit’ (2 July). An English report confirms that Kelley was ‘closely kept, without any manner of access to him’. An undated petition from Joan Kelley to the Imperial Chamber complains of Kelley’s conditions; he has to ‘eat pieces of old cows-meat’ and she herself has ‘not enough money to get her bowl mended’.
Joan Kelley was under great pressure. At the time of Kelley’s apprehension she had been placed under house-arrest, probably at Nova Liben, near the gold-mining town of Jilove, south of Prague; this estate was part of a huge grant of lands from Count Rozmberk. Then came news of the heavy fine meted out to Kelley: 15,000 thalers (some of it apparently a ‘debt’ to the royal exchequer, to pay the expenses of his arrest and imprisonment, though we know from Gregor Böul’s later submission that the costs of the arrest amounted to only 160 thalers). In the autumn of 1591, Kelley’s estates at Nova Liben were impounded. On 4 January 1592 we hear of two officials installed there, Bernard Taba and Gabriel Dejmek, who were ‘in charge of the house and its lands, and of other lands at Jilove’. The death of Count Rozmberk in 1592 lost Kelley his last ally.
Kelley remained at Krivoklat for more than two years. A jovial Moravian woodcarver I met there knew all about him; and told me, while selling me a cherrywood butter-dish I didn’t really want, how he tried to escape one night, and the rope snapped, and he fell, breaking his leg so badly that he was brought back to Prague to have it amputated. We stared down from the battlements at the patch of rock and scrub where this fall might have ended. I have heard and read this elsewhere, but there is no evidence at all that it happened at Krivoklat. It is probably a refraction of what happened later, and fatally, at another castle; alternatively, it is part of a Bohemian mythos arising from the fact that Kelley was disabled. There are various contemporary reports of Kelley’s release, and none of them mentions anything about an escape or injury. In July 1593, Christopher Parkins reports from Prague that Kelley has been promised ‘his enlargement presently’, but still ‘remains in hold’ at Krivoklat. According to Dee’s diary he was released on 4 October, but the best source puts the date a couple of days later: ‘As concerning Sir Edward Kelley, his delivery has been the 16th day of October, new style’ (i.e. 6 October in England, which was still on the pre-Gregorian system). The writer, Abraham Faulkon, had actually seen Kelley, back home at Nova Liben, in rude health: ‘his Honour … received me very courteously, and [I] must sit at table both dinner and supper, what guests soever his Honour had … His Honour did fish a pond, and gave me good store of fish home with me.’ Kelley’s fondness for fishing is elsewhere mentioned by Dee.
To begin with Kelley was banned from Court. Other alchemists were now in favour with Rudolf, among them the Parma-born mountebank Giovanni Scotta and the Pole Michael Sendivogius, author of the influential Novum Lumen Chymicum. The documentary record of these years is mainly one of crippling debt. Still liable for the 15,000 thaler fine, Kelley is mostly to be found scrounging credit at high interest. On 15 December 1594, he borrows 1100 thalers from a Prague brewer; a couple of weeks later he borrows 3380 thalers from a Silesian nobleman, Baltazar Wagen v Wagenspurgu. He is unable to pay a trifling bill of 30 kopa to the royal tailor, Kristoff Grueber. He is forced to sell his houses in Prague to his sister-in-law Ludmila or Lydda, the Bohemian wife of Thomas Kelley. One recalls a comment of Dee’s: that above all things, Kelley ‘feared want and beggary’. It seems that he clawed his way back into favour, for in August 1595 he was in touch with Dee, with something of the old lofty manner: ‘I received Sir Edward Kelley’s letters of the Emperor’s, inviting me to his service again.’ He also wrote to Sir Edward Dyer, recalling their alchemical studies: ‘Yea, honourable Sir, you know very well what delight we took together.’ Other than these, nothing is known of his activities in 1595. There seems no discernible reason for Dee’s mistaken belief that Kelley was ‘slaine’ in November 1595.
In late 1596, at Nova Liben, Kelley was arrested again. There are rumours that this was the result of a duel, in which he had wounded an alchemist’s assistant, but the more prosaic reason is probably debt. His lands were confiscated and sold to defray his debts. The two principal estates, at Nova Liben and Liberec, were purchased by Stepan Jiri ze Sternbeck for 22,000 kopa (a disadvantageous sale: the properties had been valued at 34,000 kopa), and he in turn sold them on to Kristof Zelinsky ze Sebuzina. A house and brewery in Jilove were nominally in the possession of Kelley’s wife, but these too were forced from her by Zelinsky; she received a token sum of 900 kopa for them. She and her daughter Elizabeth, now 15 years old, fought long in the Bohemian courts for restoration of these appropriated estates. Among those who helped them was the young Prague lawyer, John Leo, who became Elizabeth’s husband.
Kelley was transported to the far north of Bohemia, to Hnevin Castle overlooking the town of Most (or in German, Brüx). The chief archival record of his imprisonment is, once again, an unpaid bill. Expenses were claimed by the castle-keeper, Balthazar Stecher ze Sebnitze, for Kelley’s firewood and food, a servant, and a guard of four soldiers; the outstanding sum was 334 kopa. The period covered in this accounting is just less than a year: from 7 November 1596 to 1 November 1597. It is possible these dates record the day of Kelley’s incarceration at Most and the day of his death. Hnevin Castle no longer exists: after the horrors of the Thirty Years War, the citizens of Most decided that the presence of a castle only increased the likelihood of military attack, and in 1651 Emperor Ferdinand II gave permission for it to be demolished. What stands on Castle Hill today is a loose replica, built in the early 20th century and now serving as a restaurant and conference-centre, but the tall, circular tower, which is built of glazed bricks from the kilns of Branany, is demonstrably set on a pre-existing base, and thus approximates to Kelley’s last abode. The rooftops of Most, over which he looked, have vanished also. The old town was demolished in its entirety in the 1960s, to open up the rich seams of lignite beneath it; the site is now a huge open-cast mine. With it went the graveyard of the old Church of the Assumption – possibly Kelley’s burial-place – though the church itself was moved, brick by brick, and now stands forlorn among some old factory buildings on the edge of the coal-workings. If you were superstitious, you might say that the whole place has been cursed by the alchemist’s ghost, but today the only Briton whose name you’re likely to hear among the tarnished tower-blocks of the new town is that of David Coulthard, who is the official patron of the city’s race-circuit down near Highway 15.
Sequestered in his lugubrious quarters at Most, Kelley spent some of his time writing. His alchemical treatise, De Lapide Philosophorum, published at Hamburg in 1676, was written here. It opens with an indignant letter, in Latin, addressed to Emperor Rudolf: ‘Though I have now twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, an indignity which has been offered to me nowhere else in the world, yet my mind remaining unbound, has all the time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish.’ Despite the ‘calamity’ of his imprisonment, he says, he is ‘utterly incapable of remaining idle’. He concludes:
Nothing is more ancient, excellent or desirable than truth, and whoever neglects it must pass his whole life in the shade. Nevertheless it always was and always will be the way of mankind to release Barabbas and crucify Christ: this I have (for my good, no doubt) experienced in my own case. It is my hope, however, that my life and character will so become known to posterity that I may be counted among those who have suffered much for the sake of truth.
This is audacious to the point of poignancy – Kelley the sufferer for truth; the sacrificed Christ-figure. Another, very different kind of writing is a manuscript copy, in German, of the Bohemian ‘land constitution’, now in the National Museum Library in Prague. A colophon on the last page states that the copy was compiled by ‘Herrn Edwardo Kelleo von Imanii’ and another man named Ritter; this note, perhaps signalling the completion of the task, is dated 22 May 1597, at ‘Brüxer Schloss’ (i.e. Most Castle). Some of the text is indeed in Kelley’s hand – the fluent, rather well-formed script that can be seen in his letters to Burghley in the British Library: surprisingly normal, except for a thick, disruptive back-stroke in the ‘A’ and ‘d’, which slices up through the rightward flow of the script. This copy of the land constitution makes an oddly secretarial conclusion to a lurid career: perhaps he was preparing some legal battle for his estates; perhaps it was just something to do, in the terrible boredom of prison life.
There is only one account of Kelley’s death which has any claim to authenticity. It comes from the manuscript by the Czech alchemist Simon Tadeas Budeck of Leslin, which I quoted earlier on the subject of Kelley’s ears; it was written in about 1604. Budeck described himself as being Rudolf’s ‘prospector’ for ‘treasures, metals, precious stones, and all hidden secrets of nature’: it is probable he had met Kelley. His account, which has never been given in English before, runs as follows:
Edward Keleus was sitting there in Most Castle, with his wooden leg, and his missing ears, and his long hair; and he was kept apart from his wife and daughter. Then at Christmas-time in 1597 he climbed down from his prison; his brother was waiting with a cart down below. But he fell into the moat, and broke his other leg in three places. He was taken back to the castle for his injuries to be tended. He was going to be transported down to the Emperor [i.e. to Prague Castle]. He asked that his wife and daughter be permitted to visit him, and this was allowed. He spoke English to his wife, and Flemish and Latin to his daughter. He asked to be given some water; and then he drank the water, and died.
This is, at the least, a contemporary Bohemian view of what happened. The presence of his wife and stepdaughter in Most is confirmed by a letter of Elizabeth’s written there in 1597. Certain later accounts, which cannot be based directly on Budeck, confirm the scenario. John Weever, though wrongly placing the scene in Prague, says: ‘he fell down from the battlements, broke his legs and bruised his body, of which hurts a while after he departed this world.’ And Dr Dee’s son Arthur, who as a boy had known Kelley and had on occasions ‘scryed’ alongside him, said much the same many years later, adding the flourish that Kelley had given ‘opium in drink to the keepers’. But I prefer Budeck’s version. Its details cannot, of course, be verified, but one seems at last to see a real man, with no more tricks up his sleeve, drinking a cup of water.
Vol. 23 No. 8 · 19 April 2001 » Charles Nicholl » The Last Years of Edward Kelley, Alchemist to the Emperor
pages 3-8 | 6768 words