Today 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.
There 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.
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.
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.