Edward Kelley

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Painting showing Edward Kelley performing necromancy in a graveyard

Sir Edward Kelley, also known as Edward Talbot (1 August 1555 – 1597/8), was an English Renaissance occultist and scryer. He is best known for working with John Dee in his magical investigations. Besides the professed ability to see spirits or angels in a "shew-stone" or mirror, which John Dee so valued, Kelley also claimed to possess the secret of transmuting base metals into gold, the goal of alchemy, as well as the supposed philosopher's stone itself.

Early life

Much of Kelley'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 (based on notes Dee kept in his almanac/diary). 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 by the time he met Dee.

According to some accounts, Kelley was pilloried in Lancaster for forgery or counterfeiting. Both his ears were supposedly cropped, a common punishment during the Tudor Dynasty. He usually wore a cap on his head, and it was thought this was to hide his lack of ears. Some accounts say that he first worked as an apothecary's apprentice: some say he worked as a notary in London.

With John Dee

Kelley 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. Kelley professed the ability to do so, and impressed Dee with his first trial. Kelley became Dee's regular scryer or medium. Dee and Kelley devoted huge amounts of time and energy to these "spiritual conferences". From 1582 to 1589, Kelley's life was closely tied to Dee's. In those seven years, they conducted conferences or seances. Dee also believed that the angels held knowledge that would aid the English in their discoveries of new and uncharted lands on Earth.

About a year after entering into Dee's service, Kelley appeared with an alchemical book (The Book of Dunstan) and a quantity of a red powder which, Kelley claimed, he and a certain John Blokley had been led to by a "spiritual creature" at Northwick Hill. With the powder (whose secret was presumably hidden in the book) 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, including in Bohemia (present Czech Republic) where he and Dee resided for many years.

Travels through Europe

In 1583, Dee became acquainted with Olbracht Łaski, a Polish nobleman interested in alchemy. In September of that year, Dee, Kelley, and their families left England with Łaski for the Continent. Dee and Kelley lived a nomadic life in Central Europe, meanwhile continuing their spiritual conferences. While Kelley was apparently more interested in alchemy than in scrying, Dee seemed more interested in making contact with the angels. Kelley's supposed value was as a medium, as only he was able to understand and scribe their language. According to those close to Dee (particularly his son Arthur) there was no little tension between the two men and their families as they journeyed through Europe. Some claim that "Dee seems to have driven Kelly to the brink of insanity, forcing him to perform long skrying sessions on a nearly daily basis."

Kelley 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 Kelley 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 Kelley out of the window.

In 1586, Kelley and Dee found the patronage of the wealthy Bohemian Lord William of Rosenberg, a senior official from a powerful family who also shared Kelley and Dee's alchemical interests and is known to have participated in spiritual sessions with the two men. Kelley and Dee settled in the town of Třeboň and continued their research there, and according to Dee's diary it was during this time that Kelley is said to have performed his first alchemical transmutation (on 19 December 1586). Kelley's skilled draughtsmanship is evident in the notes taken by Dee during certain séances (these notes are available in Dee's translation of the Book of Enoch). These notes show Kelley's initial commitment to the alchemists' mutual goal. However, he soon began to waver and expressed a desire to stop. Dee insisted that they continue.

Though it seems the two shared an intimate and often cooperative partnership, it was often characterised as "quarrelsome" and "tense" by contemporaries and historians. Also they were clearly involved in activities that could be seen as heretical to the Catholic Church of the time, so a certain amount of tact and secrecy was required. Kelly left Dee at Třeboň in 1589, possibly to join the emperor's court at Prague. Dee returned to England. They did not see each other again.

Final years

By 1590 Kelley was living an opulent lifestyle in Europe, enjoying the patronage of nobility: he received several estates and large sums of money. Meanwhile, he continued his alchemical experiments until he had convinced Emperor Rudolf II that he was ready to start producing gold, the purpose of his work. Rudolf knighted him Sir Edward Kelley of Imany and New Lüben on 23 February 1590.

In May 1591, Rudolf had Kelley arrested and imprisoned in the Křivoklát Castle outside Prague, supposedly for killing an official named Jiri Hunkler in a duel; it is possible that he also did not want Kelley to escape before he had actually produced any gold. In 1595, Kelly agreed to co-operate and return to his alchemical work; he was released and restored to his former status. When he failed to produce any gold, he was again imprisoned, this time in Hněvín Castle in Most. His wife and stepdaughter attempted to hire an imperial counselor who might free Kelley from imprisonment.


Kelley died while being held as a prisoner in late 1597/early 1598 of injuries received while attempting to escape. However, according to the account of Simon Tadeá, Rudolf II's geologist, he poisoned himself in front of his wife and children.

In 1674, Sir Thomas Browne, an acquaintance of John Dee's son Arthur Dee, stated that Kelley was "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."