Engraving of occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley ”in the act of invoking the spirit of a deceased person” (1806)
16th Century Necromancers
Edward Kelley was an ambiguous figure in Renaissance occultism, a self-declared spirit medium who worked with John Dee in his magical investigations. Besides the professed ability to summon spirits in a crystal ball, which Dee so valued, Kelley claimed to possess the secret of transmuting base metals into gold. Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, imperialist and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted his life to the study of alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy, straddling the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable.
Kelley approached Dee in 1582. Dee had unsuccessfully been trying to contact angels with a crystal ball but Kelley professed the ability to do so, impressing Dee with his first trial. They subsequently devoted huge amounts of time and energy to these “spiritual conferences”. A year later, Kelley appeared with an alchemical book and some red powder which, he claimed, he had been led to by a “spiritual creature”. With the powder 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.
Dee and Kelley lived a nomadic life in Europe, seeking the patronage of various monarchs but ultimately failing to impress. Eventually their involvement in necromancy caught the attention of the Catholic Church, and they were required to defend themselves in a hearing with the papal nuncio. Dee handled the interview with tact, but Kelley infuriated the nuncio by criticising the “poor conduct of many … priests.” The nuncio noted in a letter that he was tempted to toss Kelley out of the window, defenestration being a common tradition in Prague at the time.
Then, possibly as an act to end the fruitless spiritual conferences so that he could concentrate on alchemy, which was beginning to make him wealthy, Kelley revealed to Dee that the angels had ordered them to share everything they had—including their wives. Anguished, Dee broke off the conferences, though he did share his wife. This “cross-matching” occurred in 1587, as noted in Dee’s diary. Nine months later Dee’s wife gave birth to a son and although there was speculation that the child was actually Kelley’s, it was raised as Dee’s.
Though it seems the two shared a basically cooperative and innocent partnership, it was often characterised as “quarrelsome” and “tense”. Kelley left Dee at Trebon in 1589, possibly to join the emperor’s court at Prague and Dee returned to England. They did not see each other again.