Edward Kelley One of the most famous Alchemists of the 16th Century. Spent some time in Prague.
Listen to our podcast on him here: John Dee and Kelley are some of the more interesting characters we took a look at. Between making gold, talking to angels, and even wife-swapping, there’s a lot to cover. John Dee has his own episode.
Sir Edward Kelley or Kelly, also known as Edward Talbot (1 August 1555 – 1 November 1597), was an colorful figure in English Renaissance occultism and
self-declared spirit medium who worked with John Dee in his magical investigations. Besides the professed ability to summon spirits or angels on a crystal ball, which John Dee so valued,
Kelley also claimed to possess the secret of transmuting base metals into gold.
Legends began to surround Kelley shortly after his death.
Much of Kelley’s early life is obscure. He claimed descent from the family of Ui Maine in Ireland. That’s one of the oldest, largest kingdoms in Ireland.
He was born at Worcester on 1 August 1555, at 4 P.M. according to a horoscope that John Dee drew up and based on notes Dee kept in his almanac, which he used as a diary.
however, much of Kelley’s life before meeting John Dee is not known. He may have studied at Oxford under the name of Talbot; whether or not he attended university, Kelley was educated and knew Latin and possibly some Greek.
According to several accounts, Kelley was pilloried (as in whipped publicly) in Lancaster for forgery or counterfeiting. Both his ears were cropped, a common punishment during the Tudor Dynasty. John Weever says, “Kelly (otherwise called Talbot) that famous English alchemist of our times, who flying out of his own country (after he had lost both his ears at Lancaster) was entertained with Rudolf the second, and last of that Christian name, Emperor of Germany.” Most accounts say that he first worked as an apothecary’s apprentice.
…kind of our quintessential charlatans, at least that’s how he’s often portrayed.
With Dee in England
Kelley approached John Dee in 1582. Dee had already been trying to contact angels with the help of a scryer, or crystal-gazer, but he had not been successful. Kelley professed the ability to do so, and impressed Dee with his first trial. Kelley became Dee’s regular scryer. Dee and Kelley devoted huge amounts of time and energy to these “spiritual conferences”. From 1582 to 1589, Kelley’s life was closely tied to Dee’s. In those seven years, they conducted these conferences, including “prayers for enlightenment… in the spirit of Dee’s ecumenical hopes that alchemy and angelic knowledge would heal the rift of Christendom”
Kelley married a widow, Jane Cooper of Chipping Norton (1563–1606). He later helped educate her children and she described him as a ‘kind stepfather’ and noted how he took her in after the deaths of her two grandmothers. Kelley had also hired a Latin tutor for her, named John Hammond.
About a year after entering into Dee’s service, Kelley appeared with an alchemical book (The Book of Dunstan) and a quantity of a red powder which, Kelley claimed, he and a certain John Blokley had been led to by a “spiritual creature” at Northwick Hill. (Accounts of Kelley’s finding the book and the powder in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey were first published by Elias Ashmole, but are contradicted by Dee’s diaries.)
With the powder (whose secret was presumably hidden in the book) Kelley believed he could prepare a red “tincture” which would allow him to transmute base metals into gold. He reportedly demonstrated its power a few times over the years, including in Bohemia (present Czech Republic) where he and Dee resided for many years.
With Dee on the Continent
In 1583, Dee became acquainted with Prince Albert Laski, a Polish nobleman interested in alchemy. In September of that year, Dee, Kelley, and their families left England with Laski for the Continent. Dee sought the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague and King Stefan of Poland in Kraków; Dee apparently failed to impress either monarch. Dee and Kelley lived a nomadic life in Central Europe. They continued with their spiritual conferences, though Kelley was more interested in alchemy than in scrying. (more details in the John Dee episode)
Kelley and Dee’s involvement in necromancy eventually caught the attention of the Catholic Church, and on 27 March 1587 they were required to defend themselves in a hearing with the papal nuncio, Germanico Malaspina, bishop of San Severo. Dee handled the interview with tact, but Kelley is said to have infuriated the nuncio by stating that one of the problems with the Catholic Church is the “poor conduct of many of the priests.” The nuncio noted in a letter that he was tempted to toss Kelley out of the window (defenestration is a sort of Praguer tradition)
In 1586, Kelley and Dee found the patronage of the wealthy Bohemian count Vilem Rožmberk, also known as Lord Rosenberg. Rožmberk was a senior official from a powerful family who also shared Kelley and Dee’s alchemical interests, and is known to have participated in spiritual sessions with the two men. Kelley and Dee settled in the town of Trebon and continued their research there (in Dee’s journal, he states “Oct. 26th, Mr. Edward Kelly cam to Trebona from Prage”), and according to Dee’s diary it was during this time that Kelley is said to have performed his first alchemical transmutation (on 19 December 1586). Kelley’s skilled draughtsmanship is evident in the notes taken by Dee during certain séances (these notes are available in Dee’s Book of Enoch). These notes show Kelley’s initial commitment to the alchemists’ mutual goal, but somewhere along the line, this goal was clouded by Kelley’s sudden desire to end their sessions. However, Dee insisted that they continue. In 1587, possibly as an act to sever the sessions, Kelley revealed to Dee that the angels (namely a spirit “Madimi”) had ordered them to share everything they had—including their wives.
It has been speculated that this was a way for Kelley to end the fruitless spiritual conferences so that he could concentrate on alchemy, which, under the patronage of Rožmberk, was beginning to make Kelley wealthy. Dee, anguished by the order of the angels, subsequently broke off the spiritual conferences even though he did share his wife. This “cross-matching” occurred on 22 May 1587 and is noted in John Dee’s diary: “May 22nd, Mistris Kelly received the sacrament, and to me and my wife gave her hand in charity; and we rushed not from her.” Nine months later on 28 February Dee’s wife Jane gave birth to a son, Theodorus Trebonianus Dee. Although there may have been speculation among the families that the child was actually Kelley’s, it was raised as Dee’s son (references to the child’s communion are present in Dee’s diary); the “cross-matching” incident remained a secret until after the post-mortem publication of Dee’s diaries, so no public controversy ensued.
Though it seems the two shared a basically cooperative and innocent partnership, it was often characterized as “quarrelsome” and “tense”. Kelley left Dee at Trebon in 1589, possibly to join the emperor’s court at Prague. Dee returned to England, and they did not see each other again after this departure.
Apogee and fall
By 1590, Kelley was living an opulent lifestyle. He received several estates and large sums of money from Rožmberk. Kelley was able to access gold and silver mines, and he took advantage of this, working on his alchemy until various noblemen thought that he was able to produce gold.
Rudolph II knighted him as Sir Edward Kelley of Imany and New Lüben on 23 February 1590 (but it is possible that this happened in 1589). Rudolf had Kelley arrested in May 1591 and imprisoned him in the Krivoklát Castle outside Prague, supposedly for killing an official named Jiri Hunkler in a duel, but it is also likely that he did not want Kelley to escape with his rumored alchemical secrets.
Rudolf apparently never doubted Kelley’s ability to produce gold on a large scale, and hoped that imprisonment would induce him to cooperate. Rudolf may also have feared that Kelley would return to England. Elizabeth I was trying to convince him to return to England at the time. In 1595, Kelley agreed to cooperate and produce gold; he was released and restored to his former status. Again he failed to produce, and was again imprisoned, this time in Hnevín Castle in Most.
His wife and stepdaughter attempted to help him by means of an imperial counselor, but Kelley died as a prisoner here in late 1597 or early 1598 of injuries received while attempting to escape. In 1674 Sir Thomas Browne, recollecting his Norwich associate Arthur Dee in correspondence to Elias Ashmole, stated that “[Arthur Dee] said also that Kelly dealt not justly by his father, and that afterwards 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.”
A few of Kelley’s writings are still known today, including two alchemical verse treatises in English, and three other treatises, which he dedicated to Rudolph II from prison. They were entitled Tractatus duo egregii de lapide philosophorum una cum theatro astronomiae(1676). The treatises have been translated as The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelley (1893).
The Enochian language
Kelley’s “angels” sometimes communicated in a special “angelic” language called Enochian. Dee and Kelley claimed the language was given to them by angels. Some modern cryptographers argue that Kelley invented it (see for example the introduction to The Complete Enochian Dictionary by Donald Laycock). Some claim that this was a farce, but are not clear whether Dee was a victim or an accomplice.
Because of this precedent, and of a dubious connection between the Voynich Manuscript and John Dee through Roger Bacon, Kelley has been suspected of having fabricated that book too, in order to swindle Rudolf.
The angelic language was supposedly dictated by angels whom Kelley claimed to see within a crystal ball. The angels were said to tap out letters on a complicated table, something like a crossword puzzle but with all the cells filled in. The first third were tapped out with each angelic word backwards; the following two thirds with each word forwards. There are no significant errors or discrepancies in word usage between the first and following parts. The English translations were not tapped out but, according to Kelley, appeared on little strips of paper coming out of the angels’ mouths.
The angelic word telocvovim is glossed as “he who has fallen”, but it is actually a Germanic-like combination of two other angelic words:teloch (glossed as “death”) and vovin (glossed as “dragon”). Thus “he who has fallen” would be literally translated as “death dragon”, both rather obvious references to Lucifer. However, neither Kelley nor Dee appears to have noticed or remarked on this.
Another argument against Kelley’s fabrication of angelic is that the English translations are in a very different style of writing to that of Kelley’s own work. This raises the possibility that Kelley might have plagiarized the material from a different source. However, no similar material has ever surfaced.
Dee considered the dictation of the angelic material as highly important for three reasons. First, Dee believed the angelic represented a documentable case of true glossolalia, (speaking in tongues) thereby proving that Kelley was actually speaking with angels and not from his imagination. Second, the angels claimed that angelic was actually the original prototype of Hebrew and the language with which God spoke with Adam, and thus the first human language. Third, the angelic material takes the form of a set of conjurations that were supposed to summon an extremely powerful set of angelic beings who, he believed, would be able to reveal many secrets, especially the key to thephilosopher’s stone.
For more see John Dee.