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Kelley, Sir Edwardlocked

(1555–1597/8)
  • Louise Schleiner

Kelley, Sir Edward (1555–1597/8), alchemist, was born at Worcester on 1 August 1555. Little is known of his background and early life but he was said by Ashmole to have been at first an apothecary. In 1583 he married the widowed Jane Weston, née Cooper (1563–1606) of Chipping Norton, whose children he later helped to educate. Anthony Wood believed he had studied at Gloucester Hall, Oxford, perhaps under the alias of Talbot, though this cannot be confirmed. Colourful traditions about his early years were current in the seventeenth century, mostly gathered in Morhof (Morhof, 152–8) and since repeated in popular works on alchemists. Allegedly his ears were cropped about 1580 (Nash, 446), perhaps for a forgery of ancient title-deeds, and he was said to have exhumed a corpse to 'question the dead' about a gentleman's prospects (Weever, 46).

In 1582, when the mathematician and astrologer Dr John Dee sought a new medium for angel séances, Kelley began working for him. For the next seven years they would conduct sessions, with prayers for enlightenment and in the spirit of Dee's ecumenical hopes that alchemy and angelic knowledge would heal the rift of Christendom. Along with Kelley's wife and Dee's whole household, the two left England in September 1583, funded by the Polish nobleman Albrecht Laski, and settled eventually in Bohemia under the patronage of Vilem Rožmberk at Trebon in 1586. In the séances, Dee took notes of Kelley's spirit messages, including the code of an angelic language. In one of the extant copies of Dee's Book of Enoch (BL, Sloane MSS 3189, 3191), Kelley's skilled draughtsmanship is evident in hundreds of diagrams; its care suggests that he was, at least initially, committed to the spiritual enterprise of angel séances that Dee directed. Whatever had been Kelley's initial attitude, he later repeatedly tried to end the sessions but Dee insisted on continuing, even to the extent of acting upon the supposed order of a spirit 'Madimi' that the two men have intercourse with each other's wives.

Kelley, who had access to gold and silver mines, worked on his alchemy until various noblemen believed that he was 'projecting' gold. Rudolph II knighted him as Sir Edward Kelley of Imany and New Lüben. The official decision was recorded in 1589, though there are indications that he actually received his knighthood a few years earlier. Also in 1589, Kelley left Dee at Trebon, probably to join the emperor's court at Prague, and the latter returned to England. Several of Kelley's writings survive, including two alchemical verse treatises in English (in E. Ashmole, Theatrum, 1651, 324–33, and in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, Old Royal Coll., MS 242, p. 240), and the three treatises he dedicated to Rudolph II from prison were published as Tractatus duo egregii de lapide philosophorum una cum theatro astronomiae (1676). The treatises have been translated as The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelley (1893).

The long-standing view of Kelley as a charlatan corrupting a credulous and innocent Dee is not supportable in the light of new scholarly study of the papers documenting their careers, and their tense, quarrelsome, highly eroticized partnership. Whatever Kelley's opportunism, both men viewed alchemy and angelology as enterprises that were at once physical and spiritual. To Elizabeth Jane Weston (bap. 1581?, d. 1612), a widely admired neo-Latin poet, Kelley was a 'kind stepfather' (Bassnett) who took her in after the deaths of her two grandmothers; the poet celebrates the Latin tutor Kelley hired for her, one John Hammond, noted by Dee as tutor earlier to his children.

In 1591 the emperor imprisoned Kelley on a charge of killing an official named Jiri Hunkler in a duel, and perhaps also to ensure that he did not leave with his supposed alchemical secrets. At the time, Elizabeth I of England was trying to persuade him to return home, using Sir Edward Dyer as her intermediary. Kelley was released in 1593 and resumed his alchemical metallurgy. In 1595 he was again imprisoned, this time in Most, where his wife and stepdaughter sought help from the imperial counsellor Jindrich Dominaček z Pisnic, whose relative Ludmila or Lydia had married Kelley's brother Thomas. Kelley died, still a prisoner in Most, in either late 1597 or 1598, reportedly of injuries sustained in an escape attempt.

Sources

  • The private diary of Dr John Dee, ed. J. O. Halliwell, CS, 19 (1842)
  • R. J. W. Evans, Rudolf II and his world: a study in intellectual history, 1576–1612 (1973)
  • M. Casaubon, ed., A true and faithful relation of what passed for many years between Dr John Dee and … some spirits (1659)
  • Elias Ashmole (1617–1692): his autobiographical and historical notes, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols. (1966 [i.e. 1967])
  • The alchemical writings of Edward Kelly, ed. and trans. [A. E. Waite] (1893)
  • S. Bassnett, ‘Revising a biography: a new interpretation of the life of Elizabeth Jane Weston (Westonia), based on her autobiographical poem on the occasion of the death of her mother’, Cahiers Elisabethains, 37 (1990), 1–8
  • A. Bauer, Die Adelsdocumente österreichischer Alchymisten (1893)
  • W. P. W. Phillimore, ed., Oxford parish registers (1909)
  • E. J. Weston, Parthenicon libri tres (1607–1610)
  • A. Truhlář and K. Hrdina, eds., Enchiridion renatae poesis Latinae in Bohemia et Moravia cultae (1982)
  • K. Hrdina, ‘Dvě práce z dějin českého humanismu’, Listy filologické, 55 (1928), 14–19
  • J. Svatek, Anglicky alchymista Kelley v Čecach: obrazy z kulturnich dějin Čech. Dil. prvni (1891)
  • C. Fell-Smith, John Dee, 1527–1608 (1909)
  • private information (2004)
  • D. G. Morhof, De metallorum transmutatione ad Joelum Langelottum epistola (1673)
  • J. Weever, Ancient funerall monuments (1631)
  • T. Nash, Collections for the history of Worcestershire, 1 (1781)
  • Johann, von Tetzen, ‘Des Weltberuehmten Engellaenders Edoardi Kellaei aussfuehrlicher Tractat dem Kayser Rudolpho zugeschrieben’, Drey Vortreffliche und noch nie im Druck gewesene Chymische Bücher (Hamburg, 1670)

Archives

  • BL, Sloane MSS 3179, 3181
  • Bodl. Oxf., Ashmole MSS
  • Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen

Likenesses

  • portrait, repro. in Casaubon, True and faithful relation, frontispiece
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)
Camden Society