Edward Kelley claimed he could talk to angels — and turn metals into gold
The castle of Hrad Krivoklat, west of Prague, was built in the 12th century, complete with a Gothic chapel. Statues of the twelve apostles gazed at worshippers from high above and at the altar stood a statue of Jesus, flanked by angels with golden wings.
The chapel lasted while the castle went through many changes. By the 16th century Hrad Krivoklat functioned as a prison, and in 1591 a highly unusual prisoner was sent there, a lone Englishman of middle age and cropped ears named Edward Kelley.
Kelley was held in a cell at the command of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, born a Hapsburg prince. The Englishman had important decisions to make if he had any chance at all at winning his freedom. He was no doubt forbidden to avail himself of the castle chapel while making his decisions. But if he had, those winged angels might have carried special significance to him. Perhaps they would have comforted him.
Or perhaps not.
After months of imprisonment, Kelley was in fact due to be released, but for a single purpose. The emperor expected much of the man who came to Prague with the renowned John Dee in 1586. Rudolf had favored him, enriched him, and spoiled him. The English commoner even held an imperial title: He was Sir Edward Kelley of Imamyi, “Baron of Bohemia,” and he lived in high style in Prague.
Why did this bounty rain down on Kelley? Because Rudolf, an emotionally erratic Hapsburg obsessed with art, philosophy and magic, was convinced that Kelley possessed a secret of alchemy. There had been tantalizing glimpses of his power. However, Kelley had not come through as yet with what the emperor sought. He’d been arrested for dueling. But it was believed the true reason for his imprisonment was to force him to produce what the emperor wanted. And that was gold — and with it, a road to immortality.
While deciding what to do, Kelley reflected. This is only speculation — but these could be the turning points in time that flitted through his mind:
March 1582: John Dee, illustrious scholar, astrologer, mathematician, physician, and philosopher, was in residence at his house, Mortlake, when a knock at the door produced a young man who called himself Edward Talbot, in the company of a Dee friend, Mr. Clerkson. Talbot was a name used by Edward Kelley.
They had arrived at a prestigious address. Dee had a unique relationship with Queen Elizabeth. He was her personal astrologer — Dee selected her date of coronation — and adviser, but their meetings were discreet and their communications guarded. Courtiers at the pinnacle of her court — Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton — also believed in Dee. But endorsement could not be open because Dee’s methods skirted heresy. During the reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, he was arrested under suspicion of casting the horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth with an eye to predicting the succession. This was treason. He managed to exonerate himself, and found favor with Elizabeth but she did not financially reward him to the extent that he wished. Money worries dogged Dee for his entire life.
As for “Talbot,” he was born in St. Swithin’s, Worcester on August 1, 1555, according to a discovered astrological chart. Kelley may or may not have attended Oxford. He always wore his hair long or donned a monk’s cowl or cap with hanging flaps to conceal the fact that his ears were missing. It was said he had been pilloried for “coining” (forging or adulterating coins) and lost his ears as punishment.
Clerkson brought Kelley to Dee because he had heard that the Queen’s conjurer was in need of a new “skryer,” or crystal gazer. Such men were not uncommon. “Almost every parish, and apparently several aristocratic households, boasted a ‘cunning man,’ who for the price of a beer or a bed would summon spirits or tell fortunes,” says The Queen’s Conjurer: the Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Elizabeth I.
Dee had lofty motives for wanting to communicate with spirits of the other world: to elevate and unite mankind in an era of religious wars, hunger and disease. He sought to understand the universe. On his next visit to Mortlake, Kelley gave him what sounds like a winning audition. After looking into one of Dee’s crystals for a quarter of an hour, Kelley said he’d made contact with an angel named Uriel, “the angel of light.” Uriel had a number of messages for Dee.
Kelley was hired.
1583: A boat sailed from England, carrying Dee, Kelley and their respective families. Destination: Poland. Dee had a much younger wife named Jane and small children; Kelley had recently married a widow with children. The trip was paid for by Albert Laski, a Polish count who came to England as an envoy to Elizabeth and was introduced to Dee and Kelley by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Laski was a known dabbler in the occult, and soon spent much of his time at Mortlake.
Dee and Kelley had been focusing a tremendous amount of time on their “conferences” with angels. Kelley acted as medium, and Dee pondered the communications, which had to be decoded. The language that the various angels — Uriel was joined by Michael as well as other celestials — used was “Enochian.” These were the pure words God spoke to Adam, before the Fall. Dee sought to decode the entire language and capture the wisdom of the angels in a book.
In recent weeks, the angels, through Kelley as medium, had begun to urge Dee to leave England, at the same time that Laski was making his offer. Dee was also worried that Elizabeth’s support of his work was wavering. Rumors abounded that Dee and Kelley were practicing necromancy, which was communication with the dead. Dee did not want to clarify to anyone that it was actually angels they spoke to. Not yet. So it was time to leave England.
March 1587: Dee and Kelley, full of dread, were summoned to appear before the papal nuncio Germanico Malaspina, bishop of San Severo, in Prague, the cosmopolitan city of Bohemia.
The last four years had been difficult ones. Laski ran out of money almost the instant they arrived in Poland, and the two men and their families wandered through Central Europe, conducting their “actions” with the angels as they sought aristocratic sponsors.
They finally were given permission to present themselves in Prague, where Emperor Rudolf held court. Although Rudolf was intensely interested in magic, his court was dominated by papal and counter-Reformation forces. It was a treacherous climate. Dee had managed to obtain an audience with the reclusive Rudolf but that didn’t prevent him from falling under suspicion of necromancy again. It also didn’t help that Rudolf’s uncle, King Philip II, was planning to declare war on Elizabeth I and all English Protestants were anathema.
Dee acquitted himself well under questioning by Bishop Malaspina, professing himself a pious man who would never cause religious discord in Prague or traffic in the black arts. Then it was Kelley’s turn to speak. What he chose to say was astounding:
“It seems to me that, if one looks for counsel or remedy that might bring about a reformation in the whole church, the following will be good and obvious. While there are some shepards and ministers of the Christian flock who, in their faith and in their works, excel all others, there are also those who seem devoid of the true faith and idle in their good works. Their life is so odious to the people and sets so pernicious an example that by their own bad life they cause more destruction in the Church of God than they could ever repair by their most elaborate, most long and most frequent discourses. And for that reason their words do not carry the necessary conviction and are wanting in profitable authority.”
The papal representative remained calm. But he said later, privately, that he had wanted to “throw Kelley from a window” — a common way to resolve conflict in Prague. For a time Kelley and Dee were able to evade arrest or formal censure. But eventually the emperor turned on them. The order came to leave Prague within six days.
May 1587: Dee and Kelley found a new sponsor: the wealthy Bohemian noble Vilem Rozmberk. He had a passion for alchemy and had set up several laboratories for experiments — Dee and Kelley now had one of their own. Although Dee was less than enthusiastic, Kelley threw himself into this work. Alchemy was the quest to transform base metals into noble ones — silver and gold — through the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary elixir.
Kelley had brought with him from England a mysterious red powder he said he’d discovered buried in the ground. As a demonstration before dignitaries visiting the laboratory, Kelley dropped a speck of it into mercury held in a crucible. To all who witnessed it, shimmering gold appeared. Soon the news spread across Prague, Europe and even back to England: Kelley had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and could produce gold.
Now the balance of power between Dee and Kelley shifted. Dee wanted Kelley to communicate with the angels and obtain the wisdom of the universe. But his skryer wanted to focus on the alchemy experiments that were earning him fame. This was the time, when the angels communicated something new and shocking: Dee and Kelley must share wives.
With great reluctance, Dee’s young wife slept with Kelley. Nine months later, Theodorus Dee was born. In 1589, the Dees returned to England. Kelley would never see them again.
It was not long after Dee’s departure that Kelley reached his height of riches and renown. The Emperor’s interest in alchemy went deeper than filling the imperial treasury. Rudolf was as unusual a ruler as Elizabeth I. He never married, recoiled from religious mania, and maintained a cautious stance among war-crazed relatives. “Wise hesitation” is what his supporters called it. His enemies found him inert and unfit to rule a Catholic empire. Modern-era historians speculate that Rudolf was clinically depressed.
One aspect of Rudolf’s personality that comes through in the letters and papers of the late 16th century was fear of death. Alchemy’s ultimate promise was immortality. He threw money, property and titles at Kelley, but there was a catch. The Englishman must deliver. He must turn base metal into gold.
Despite his tantalizing experiments, Kelley could not prove his abilities to the emperor’s satisfaction. And so Kelley was imprisoned in Hrad Krivoklat. After his release, he was again given a chance to perform successful alchemic experiments. He failed.
Kelley tried to flee Prague, but was captured and jailed in another imperial castle. It is said that Edward Kelley died after he crawled out of a Bohemian prison window and fell to the ground. Other reports say he survived to see 1600, but maintained a low profile.
As for Emperor Rudolf, the mercurial ruler was perceived as mentally unstable by those in the imperial court by 1598. He died at the age of 59 in 1612, nine months after he had been stripped of all effective power by his younger brother.
Kelley is considered a charlatan today, someone who was able to convince wise and astute people of mystical abilities … until his tricks ran out.
But that is incorrect. Edward Kelley did perform an act of alchemy. It was on himself.