Edward Kelley

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For other people named Edward Kelley, see Edward Kelley (disambiguation).
Edward Kelley
Drawing of the 16th century Edward Kelly, created in the 19th century by Michał Elwiro Andriolli
Born (1555-08-01)1 August 1555
Worcester, England
Died 1 November 1597(1597-11-01) (aged 42)
Most, Bohemia

Sir[1] Edward Kelley or Kelly, also known as Edward Talbot (1 August 1555 – 1 November 1597), was an ambiguous 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 in a crystal ball, which John Dee so valued, Kelly also claimed to possess the secret of transmuting base metals into gold.

Legends began to surround Kelly shortly after his death. His flamboyant biography, and his relative notoriety among English-speaking historians (chiefly because of his association with Dee) may have made him the source for the folklorical image of the alchemist-charlatan.


Birth and early career[edit]

Much of Kelly’s early life is obscure. He claimed descent from the family of Ui Maine 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. His sister Elizabeth was born in 1558, and he had a brother Thomas who later joined him in Dee’s household.[2] This information comes from Dee’s diaries and parish records; however, much of Kelly’s life before meeting John Dee is not known.[3] He may have studied at Oxford under the name of Talbot; whether or not he attended university, Kelly was educated and knew Latin and possibly some Greek.

Anthony à Wood records in Athenae Oxoniensis that Kelly, "being about 17 years of age, at which time he attained to a competency of Grammar learning at Worcester and elsewhere, was sent to Oxford, but to what house I cannot tell. However, I have been informed by an ancient Bachelor of Divinity who in his younger years had been an Amanuensis to Mr Thomas Allen of Gloucester-hall, that he (Kelly) had spent some time in that House; whereupon I, recurring to the matriculation, could not find the name Kelly, only Talkbot of Ireland, three of which name were students there in 1573, 74, &c... This relation being somewhat dubiously delivered to me, I must tell you that Kelly having an unsettled mind, left Oxon abruptly, without being entitled into the matricula." According to several accounts, Kelly was pilloried 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."[3] Most accounts say that he first worked as an apothecary's apprentice.

With Dee in England[edit]

Kelly 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. Kelly professed the ability to do so, and impressed Dee with his first trial. Kelly became Dee's regular scryer. Dee and Kelly devoted huge amounts of time and energy to these "spiritual conferences". From 1582 to 1589, Kelly'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".[4]

Kelly 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. Kelly had also hired a Latin tutor for her, named John Hammond.[4]

About a year after entering into Dee's service, Kelly appeared with an alchemical book (The Book of Dunstan) and a quantity of a red powder which, Kelly claimed, he and a certain John Blokley had been led to by a "spiritual creature" at Northwick Hill. (Accounts of Kelly'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) Kelly 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[edit]

In 1583, Dee became acquainted with Prince Albert Łaski, a Polish nobleman interested in alchemy. In September of that year, Dee, Kelly, and their families left England with Łaski 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 Kelly lived a nomadic life in Central Europe. They continued with their spiritual conferences, though Kelley was more interested in alchemy than in scrying.

Kelly 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 Kelly 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 Kelly out of the window (defenestration was a somewhat common tradition in Prague at the time).[3]

In 1586, Kelly 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 Kelly and Dee's alchemical interests, and is known to have participated in spiritual sessions with the two men.[3] Kelley and Dee settled in the town of Třeboň 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 Kelly is said to have performed his first alchemical transmutation (on 19 December 1586). Kelly'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 Kelly's initial commitment to the alchemists' mutual goal, but somewhere along the line, this goal was clouded by Kelly's sudden desire to end their sessions. However, Dee insisted that they continue. In 1587, possibly as an act to sever the sessions, Kelly 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 Kelly to end the fruitless spiritual conferences so that he could concentrate on alchemy, which, under the patronage of Rožmberk, was beginning to make Kelly wealthy.[4] 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.”[2] 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 Kelly'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.[3]

Though it seems the two shared a basically cooperative and innocent partnership, it was often characterized as "quarrelsome" and "tense". Kelly 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.[4]

Apogee and fall[edit]

By 1590, Kelly was living an opulent lifestyle. He received several estates and large sums of money from Rožmberk. Kelly 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 Kelly of Imany and New Lüben on 23 February 1590 (but it is possible that this happened in 1589). Rudolf had Kelly arrested in May 1591 and imprisoned him in the Křivoklát Castle outside Prague, supposedly for killing an official named Jiri Hunkler in a duel, but it is also likely that he did not want Kelly to escape with his rumored alchemical secrets.[4] Rudolf apparently never doubted Kelly's ability to produce gold on a large scale, and hoped that imprisonment would induce him to cooperate. Rudolf may also have feared that Kelly would return to England. Elizabeth I was trying to convince him to return to England at the time. In 1595, Kelly 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 Hněvín Castle in Most. His wife and stepdaughter attempted to help him by means of an imperial counselor, but Kelly died as a prisoner here in late 1597 or early 1598 of injuries received while attempting to escape.[4] 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."[5]

A few of Kelly'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).[4]

The Enochian language[edit]

Main article: Enochian

Kelly's "angels" sometimes communicated in a special "angelic" language called Enochian. Dee and Kelly claimed the language was given to them by angels. Some modern cryptographers argue that Kelly 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, Kelly has been suspected of having fabricated that book too, in order to swindle Rudolf.[6]

The angelic language was supposedly dictated by angels whom Kelly 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 Kelly, 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 Kelly nor Dee appears to have noticed or remarked on this.

Another argument against Kelly's fabrication of angelic is that the English translations are in a very different style of writing to that of Kelly's own work. This raises the possibility that Kelly 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, thereby proving that Kelly 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 the philosopher's stone.

References in fiction, film and music[edit]

  • Both Dee and Kelly are referred to in the classic Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin.
  • Gustav Meyrink's 1927 novel The Angel of the West Window describes John Dee's and Edward Kelley's astrological and mystical experience.
  • In the 1951 Czech film The Emperor and the Golem, Edward Kelley is a fake occultist and conspirator.
  • Both Dee and Kelley appear as characters in Episode Four of the 1973 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Elizabeth R. Kelley offers Elizabeth his prophecies about the death of a prominent person (which turns out to be Queen Mary of Scotland) and harangues one of the conspirators against Elizabeth, hinting that he has foreseen the plot to assassinate her, finally observing the conspirator's execution for treason with a wry smile.
  • Dee and Kelley are discussed in the Hammer House of Horror episode Guardian of the Abyss (1980).
  • The 1980 novel "Život alchymistův" by the Czech author Václav Kaplický describes Edward Kelley's life.
  • In the 1987 novel The Solitudes and its 1994 sequel Love and Sleep by John Crowley, details Edward Kelley meeting with renaissance magician John Dee and their subsequent travels in Europe.The third of Crowley's Aegypt sequence Daemonomania sets out the parting of Dee and Kelley, outlining Kelley's death in Bohemia.
  • In Patricia Wrede's 1989 novel Snow White and Rose Red, Kelly and John Dee trap a faerie spirit in a crystal, and Kelly is shown to be experimenting in alchemy.
  • Kelley appears in Peter Ackroyd's 1993 novel The House of Dr Dee. In addition to the story narrated by John Dee himself, which features Kelley as an important character, the novel also features a second (entirely fictional) story narrated by Matthew Palmer, who inherits Dee's mysterious residence in the 1990s. Ackroyd's novel fictitiously places the house in the Clerkenwell section of London rather than at Mortlake - reinforcing many of the novel's themes (radicalism; sacred london; Dee as 'Cockney visionary')[7] but inaccurately representing actual events from Kelley's association with Dee.
  • Edward Kelley figures prominently in the 2000 novel School of the Night, which is part of the Elizabethan mystery series by Judith Cook, The Casebook of Dr Simon Forman—Elizabethan doctor and solver of mysteries. John Dee is also mentioned, but does not appear as a character.
  • In the 2002 alternate history novel Ruled Britannia, Edward Kelley was burned in the first chapter, weeping and trying to call to William Shakespeare for help.
  • In Brian Stableford's science fiction story, “The Philosopher’s Stone”, published in the July 2008 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, Kelley and Dee appear in a fictionalized version of their meeting and beginning collaboration.
  • In the 2009 novel Vampire a Go-Go by Victor Gischler, Edward Kelley is the narrator and one of the main characters, with John Dee in Prague.
  • The 2010 play Rudolf II, by Edward Einhorn, features Kelley's stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston and details some of Rudolf's relationship with Kelley.
  • In the film Angel Heart, Krusemark gives the pseudonym Edward Kelly when he removes Johnny Favorite from the hospital.
  • The 2010 play Burn Your Bookes by Richard Byrne traces the rise and fall of Kelley as an alchemist through his relationships with John Dee and Elizabeth Jane Weston.
  • The heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded the song The Alchemist, from their 2010 album The Final Frontier, about John Dee and Kelley.
  • The characters in the Robin Wasserman novel The Book of Blood and Shadow search for a miraculous machine purportedly created by Kelley, and built by his stepdaughter.
  • Both Dee and Kelly are referred to in the book Shadow of Night (2012) by Deborah Harkness.

• Kelley and John Dee both appear as central characters in the (2011) Giordano Bruno series novel, "Prophecy" by S.J. Parris


  1. ^ Charlotte Fell-Smith, John Dee: 1527-1608. "Dee is careful to give his former skryer his full title 'Sir Edward Kelly, Knight, at the Emperor's Court at Prague.'" .
  2. ^ a b Dee. John. The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the Catalog of His Library of Manuscripts. Ed. James Orchard Halliwell. 2006. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 March 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e Linden, Stanton J. "2." Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture. New York: AMS, 2007. 35-79. Print.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Louise Schleiner, "Kelly, Sir Edward (1555–1597/8)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 4 March 2012
  5. ^ Bibl. Bodleian Ashmole MS 1788
  6. ^ Kennedy/Churchill, pp.60–68
  7. ^ Berry Lewis. My Words Echo Thus: Possessing the Past in Peter Ackroyd (University of South Carolina Press, 2007), p. 75


  • Meric Casaubon, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee.... (1659) Republished by Magickal Childe (1992). ISBN 0-939708-01-9.
  • Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee: 1527–1608. Constable (1909).
  • John Dee, Quinti Libri Mysteriorum. Manuscript 3188, Sloane Collection, British Library. Also available in a fair copy by Elias Ashmole, Sloane MS. 3677.
  • Kennedy, Gerry; Churchill, Rob (2004). The Voynich Manuscript: the mysterious code that has defied interpretation for centuries. Vermont: Inner Traditions. ISBN 978-1-59477-129-3. 
  • Louise Schleiner, ‘Kelley, Sir Edward (1555–1597/8)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 4 March 2012
  • Linden, Stanton J. "2." Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture. New York: AMS, 2007. 35-79. Print.
  • Dee. John. The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the Catalog of His Library of Manuscripts. Ed. James Orchard Halliwell. 2006. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 March 2012.

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