Blog Reviews

Magician John Dee and his strange friendship with Edward Kelley

Eliz AshworthToday I welcome guest blogger Elizabeth Ashworth, author of many historical novels and several books of non-fiction. Elizabeth’s new book The Merlin’s Wife tells the story of John Dee’s life from the point of view of his wife, Jane. Dee was the most famous magician in the reign of Elizabeth I. My review of the book follows the article.

John Dee and his strange friendship with Edward Kelley

By Elizabeth Ashworth

It would be impossible to tell the story of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, without writing about his relationship with Edward Kelley. Kelley was employed by Dee as a medium or scryer in his quest to have conversations with the angels. Whether Kelley’s visions were genuine or whether he was a charlatan no one will ever know for certain, but it seems that John Dee had complete faith in his abilities.

Dee A_Magician_by_Edward_KellyThere is no question that John Dee was an intelligent and educated man. He was born in London on July 13th 1527, just before Henry VIII’s Reformation, and lived through the turbulent reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary, who returned the country to Catholicism, Elizabeth and finally James.

At the age of 15 he went to study at St John’s College, Cambridge where he spent 18 hours a day at his work, allowing himself four hours a night to sleep and two hours to eat and drink. He graduated in 1546 and went on to gain an MA from the newly founded Trinity College before going to study mathematics and science at Louvain in Belgium. He was known as one of the most learned men of his time. He tutored a young Robert Dudley, who would become the Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and later he became a key advisor to the queen, possibly a spy and the originator of the sign 007 (with the 7 stretched over the 0s to represent the palm of a hand shielding secret eyes).

He developed an interest in a range of sciences. Some such as geometry, cartography, and astronomy seem quite normal to us. Others such as astrology and alchemy, the belief that it is possible to transmute base metals into gold, seem odd. But we must remember that Dee didn’t have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge and such ‘sciences’ were considered mainstream in his lifetime. Even Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity in the following century, made an in-depth study of alchemy.

It was in the pursuit of more knowledge that John Dee began to experiment with making contact with higher beings or angels. He was assisted in his work by various scryers, but none so successful as Edward Kelley.

Kelley was born in Worcester and was only half Dee’s age. He sometimes called himself ‘Talbot’ and is said to have performed necromancy (raising the dead) in a churchyard at Walton-le-Dale in Lancashire. He also seems to have been in trouble for forgery of some description and may have been pilloried in Lancaster and had his ears cropped as a punishment. It therefore seems surprising that Dee employed him in his household and paid him a good wage. But Kelley was able to make contact with the angels where others had failed, providing Dee with names and ciphers and visions that held the tantalising promise of the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone – the key to alchemy, transmutation and everlasting life.

One person who expressed doubts about Kelley was Dee’s young wife, Jane Fromonds. She had an intense dislike of the man and did not trust him. That, however, did not deter John Dee and his faith in Kelley’s abilities led him to persuade her to agree to a pact that he thought would bring him the knowledge he craved.

The case for Dee’s magic mirror. British Museum. A later inscription tells us that Kelley, with this very mirror, “did all his feats upon the Devil’s Looking Glass.” Photo courtesy Stella Maris Mackenzie.

To many modern minds, the idea that a reputable scientist and scholar could believe in magic is difficult to comprehend, although as Shakespeare rightly said ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. I think that John Dee who is credited with inventing the phrase British Empire and who petitioned Queen Elizabeth to create a royal navy as well as a national library lost much of his credibility because of his association with Edward Kelley. Even in his lifetime he was viewed with some suspicion and called a conjuror, a dabbler in black magic.

He died in 1608 at Mortlake, cared for by his daughter Katherine, after a time as Warden of the Collegiate church of St Mary in Manchester (now Manchester Cathedral) where Jane died in a plague epidemic in 1604.

Kelley had by this time been dead for some years. Having fallen foul of the Emperor Rudolph of Bohemia he reputedly fell from a prison window in 1595 whilst trying to escape.

It is a sad story at times, especially for Jane, who stood by her husband throughout their troubled life together – a story of a fine intellect that was possibly wasted in the pursuit of an impossible dream.  

Merlins Wife
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The Merlin’s Wife

I was offered an early review copy of The Merlin’s Wife and it proved to be a fascinating insight into the magical beliefs of Elizabethan England. In this novel Jane, John Dee’s wife, is given centre stage and the story is told from her point of view. Jane represents the voice of sanity and reason, but through instinctive distrust of Edward Kelley rather than through any 21st century sensibilities. Jane is a credible and likeable heroine, and Elizabeth Ashworth gives her enough superstitious beliefs to make her fit comfortably into the magical world view of Dee. All the same, I couldn’t help but feel immensely sorry for her as she is thrust fearfully into Dee’s bizarre world of angels and demons. Apparitions are conjured by Dee’s ‘scryer’ Kelley, to give the partners in magic ‘angelic advice’. Of course the angels, and their supposed advice, are invisible to everyone else but Kelley. When the advice is contrary to all that is holy, then there is a problem – and Ashworth uses this as the lynchpin of her book. (Can’t give too much away here).

Of course when dealing with subtle or invisible realms of perception, it must be no easy task to decide what is real and what is not,  but what was so strange was that Dee himself failed totally to see through Kelley’s self-serving hokum. In The Merlin’s Wife this tension between real and unreal works very well. It helps that Dee is not the main character and so we aren’t privy to his mental processes, but when I’d finished reading, it made me think that Kelley must indeed have been very charismatic to fool someone so intellectually capable as Dee. The poor wives in this novel have no choice but to follow their husbands to various foreign courts, and are totally dependent on their husband’s status and fortune – a depressing, yet no doubt historically accurate state of affairs. I was saddened particularly by Anna, Kelley’s wife – at least Dee seemed to have genuine affection for Jane, whereas Kelley seemed to have none whatsoever for Anna.

All in all, this is a read that will make you marvel at the strange magical world-view of our forbears, but want to rage at the gullibility and weaknesses of human beings. People still study Dee’s Enochian magic today, so The Merlin’s Wife would make a very interesting choice for a book group discussion, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Read an Extract


Past Encounters by Davina Blake


If you were born in the 1950’s as I was, you will no doubt remember wartime stories passed down to you from your parents.

My parents were not old enough to fight in the second world war, but their stories of gas masks and rationing, dried egg sandwiches, and night-time forays into the Andersen shelter at the bottom of the garden, stuck with me. In particular, one story fascinated me – the one about a neighbour of theirs who was taken prisoner early in the war and spent five years in a forced labour camp for the Germans. He struggled to get over his experience more than those who had actually been fighting, and I always wondered why.

Years later, I moved to a small town ; Carnforth in Lancashire. The town itself used to have a big ironworks, long since gone, but now its one claim to fame is that it was once the scene for the famous film ‘Brief Encounter’ starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.  When I went to look around the Station Heritage Centre and found out more about the filming, I discovered the film was made in the last months of WWII. So now I had two ingredients – the story of a prisoner of war, and the story of the making of ‘Brief Encounter.’

Research led me to discover that  in February 1945,  when David Lean was filming ‘Brief Encounter’, on the very same day  we were sending bombs to decimate the beautiful cultural city of Dresden. What if these two events could be brought together? So, I had the third ingredient and an idea was born, the story of a wartime couple torn apart by war. But not just that – ten years later they are married, but neither has any idea what really went on for the other during their separation, or what it will mean for their future relationship. Wartime stories by necessity deal with larger themes of love and death, and people under extraordinary pressure. Rhoda and Peter have always hidden their pasts from each other, partly from self-preservation, and partly to shield the other from the truth. When Rhoda finds a letter from another woman, and the facts begin to surface, will Rhoda and Peter survive knowing the other’s darkest secret?

I was very attracted by the visual style of the film, ‘Brief Encounter’, its light and shadow, the way it made locations significant and tell their own story, so I have tried to keep that in my descriptions. The theme of the film is that hard choices have to be made about loyalty if a relationship is to survive, and I wanted my book to reflect this.

Whilst writing Past Encounters I interviewed people who remembered wartime Carnforth, and drank more tea and ate more biscuits than is probably good for me, whilst scribbling frantically in my notebook. I was also incredibly grateful for on-line sources such as ‘The People’s War’. Memoirs of prisoners of war and soldiers who endured the Great March of Prisoners of War through frozen Germany, also helped give a backbone to the book.

One of my aims is to show just how amazing ordinary people can be, if you scratch beneath the surface. By the end of the book Rhoda and Peter have found and lost loves, fought for survival, endured tragedy, and discovered the hidden depths that make a bond between two people true and lasting.

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