Hey, stop me if you’ve heard this joke before. An Irish psychic and English alchemist walk into a Polish bar, and get in a duel with local nobility. Oh, hang on. It’s not a joke. It’s a true story. Edward Kelley and John Dee were mystics who worked with royalty, and are of that final generation where hard science mixed with the occult.
Today, August 1, is Edward Kelley’s birthday.
He lived a colorful life, dying in 1597. One of the highlights was traveling throughout Europe with Elizabeth I’s official astrologer, John Dee, and leading seances to nobility.
Not a lot about Kelley’s early life is known. He may or may not have attended Oxford. He did know some Latin, and he was fairly educated. It’s possible that he was punished for forgery in Lancaster in the 1570’s. He may also have apprenticed an apothecary.
Whatever his early life, Edward Kelley began talking with angels, and approached John Dee in the early 1580’s. He believed that he could communicate with angels, and with Dee they had held dozens of seances with Kelley claiming to receive the messages from angels directly, which he then translated and dictated. Kelley claimed that he received the messages in a language called Enochian. And linguists took notice to this claim. Adam and Eve spoke Enochian, Kelley claimed, and it predated Hebrew. Coincidentally, only Kelley understood the language.
Through Dee Kelley met Prince Albert Łaski, a Polish nobleman who had an interest in alchemy.
Thanks to Prince Albert they were able to travel throughout Europe putting on their shows/seances. They also developed an interest in necromancy, which caught the attention of the Catholic church. Both men defended themselves in front of a hearing. Dee handled it with professionalism, showing the skills he learned at the English court. Kelley, however, started on about the conduct of priests. The interviewer wrote in his notes that he wanted to toss Kelley out of the window.
Once they were cleared, another bit of scandal ensued. Kelley apparently received a message that he and Dee should share everything, including their wives. They had a special ceremony, Dee noted in his diary, where Kelley’s wife “gave her hand in charity.” Which, I think, is a euphemism. Dee’s wife had a son nine months later, and rumors spread that it was actually Kelley’s. Whatever the rumors, Dee raised him as his own.
Kelley’s fall came when he was unable to turn metals into gold as promised.
First he killed an official in Prague in a duel, which led him to his first stint in prison. He gave his alchemical paperwork back to the authorities, and gained his freedom. When his research failed to yield gold, he found himself in prison again. He tried to escape and sustained injuries that would eventually kill him.
To this day Kelley and Dee continue to fascinate us for their work and adventures, and because they represent a period in which Kings asked for astrologers to predict the sex of their unborn children, and drawing up horoscopes was an offense punishable, in some cases, by death. Within a generation or so the Enlightenment forever separated the occult practices from hard science. But in this time period the two still overlapped, and men like Kelley and Dee made and lost fortunes off of their ability to see into the future, and promise alchemical miracles.
Whether they believed in what they were doing, or knew it was a scam is up for debate. Perhaps it was a bit of both. It’s impossible for our post-Enlightenment minds to wrap around their thought processes, so I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s still pretty sketchy, though.