The British alchemist went from highs to lows to a premature death in the Rudolfine era
When it comes to alchemists in Bohemia working under Rudolf II, two names stand out: Edward Kelley and John Dee. Their stories are intertwined, but each deserves his own.
Kelley — also spelled Kelly — claimed to be able to speak to angels, and also said he possessed the most sought-after knowledge of the era: how to turn lead into gold.
He came to Prague Castle with fellow Englishman Dee, by way of Poland. While Dee, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, is regarded as a serious scholar according to the standards of his time, Kelley
His claim to be able to hear angels was a cover story to explain why his ears had been cut off. He said they were removed because the sound of the angels was too intense. In reality, they were lopped off by the executioner in Lancaster in 1580 as punishment for forgery, or some accounts say “coining”, meaning forging money. After this, he grew his hair long to cover his ears and changed his name from Edward Talbot to Edward Kelley.
Much of his life story is disputable, since he cannot be taken at his word, but it is fairly certain he was born in 1555 in Worcester. He may have attended Oxford and may have trained as an apothecary’s assistant.
He began to wander across Britain, eventually meeting astrologer and scholar John Dee in 1582, and convincing him he could talk to angels. The two became famous for seances using a sort of magic mirror made of volcanic glass and a crystal ball. Dee would use his magic mirror to summon the angels, while Kelley would translate their “Enochian language”. Kelley during this time found a manuscript in Wales described as The Book of Saint Dunstan, along with containers of red and white powder or liquid meant to be used in transmuting metals.
At one of these seances, he made predictions about the royal succession in Poland. This led to an invitation to Krakow for the both of them; Dee brought his family.
After hearing of Rudolf II’s great interest in all things occult, the duo then traveled on to Prague Castle in August 1584, and were received with much royal largesse by the emperor. Kelley may have claimed that angels sent them.
But Rudolf II was not the only person spreading money around to discover alchemical wisdom. Vilém of Rožmberk, who was High Treasurer and High Burgrave of Bohemia, among other titles, also sought wisdom from the duo.
Kelley was often in the Rožmberk estates in Třeboň and Český Krumlov, carrying out his alchemical research as the Burgrave’s expense. Turning lead into gold was not cheap, it seems.
Kelley was in Prague in 1586 and reportedly succeeded in using a red liquid to change mercury into gold in the presence of the emperor, or convinced him that he had recently done so. How the trick was accomplished is not known, but certainly there was some fakery involved, perhaps a false-bottomed crucible. Rudolf, though, fell for the chicanery. The trick in the long run would be Kelley’s undoing.
The magic also began to wear off on the unlikely pairing of Dee and Kelley. The latter claimed an angel possibly named Madimi had told him that the two should have all of their possessions in common including their wives. Dee finally gave into pressure to agree, and on May 22, 1587, Kelley had relations with Dee’s much younger wife, Jane, who gave birth nine months later to a boy named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee.
Dee’s wife had been a lady in waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth. She married Dee in 1578 when she was 23 and Dee was 51.
Little is known of Kelley’s wife. After a one-month courtship, Kelley married an English widow, Jane or Joanna Weston (née Cooper), shortly after he arrived in Třeboň, Bohemia, and he became stepfather to the poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, also known as Elisabetha Ioanna Westonia. Kelley had a son, Jan Adam Kelley, with his new wife.
Dee left Kelley to his own devices, and returned to England to advise Queen Elizabeth in 1589.
Rudolf, also was growing frustrated with Kelley. The Emperor tried a carrot and stick approach to get the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone. First came the carrots: In an effort to encourage Kelley to produce more gold, the Emperor made him “Knight of Imany,” referring to Kelley’s alleged Irish nobility, in either 1589 or 1590.
In a case of keeping up the Joneses, Vilém of Rožmberk tried to curry Kelley’s favor as well, and gave him two estates — Libeřice and Nová Libeň — and the associated villages.
With his income and money from his dowry, he bought a brewery, a mill and some houses in a gold mining area. In Prague he bought two villas, including according to legend, the Faust House at Prague’s then-cattle market, now known as Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square). The address of the other building is less certain.
But Kelley’s fortunes turned as quickly as they rose. He let his temper get the better of him by fighting a duel, which was forbidden at the time. An argument in a pub, where an imperial official named Jiří Hunkler accused Kelley of being a fraud, led to the duel. Hunkler was killed, and Kelley had to flee. He was caught and imprisoned at Křivoklát Castle.
This is where the stick comes in. Rudolf sent jailers to question him to finally reveal his secrets for making gold, the formula for the elixir of life, the meaning of his numerical coded papers and so on. Kelley tried to escape by jumping from a high window, but he shattered his leg, which had to be amputated. After he recovered from his fall he was in financial distress and had to borrow money.
Rudolf kept a close watch on Kelley, and gave him another chance to produce more gold. The Emperor again lost patience and imprisoned Kelly in 1596 in the city of Most at Hněvín Castle. The stick was now turning into a cudgel, and conditions were worse than the last time.
Kelley did not learn his lesson from his first imprisonment. For a second time, he attempted to escape by jumping from a window. He fell badly once again, landing on a coach, which his wife sent to spirit him away. His life of fakery had cost him both ears, one leg and the use of the other.
Rudolf ruled that Kelley could never return to England and must stay instead in Most at the castle there under a sort of house arrest. Kelley could not even protest the unfairness, as he could not produce the alchemical secrets Rudolf had paid dearly for. In fact, he did not have a leg to stand on.
The pain from the second botched escape was more than Kelley was willing to endure. He took poison and ended his life at the age of 42 on November 1, 1597.
Edward Kelley was born August 1, 1555, in Worcester, England. Little of his early life can be verified.
A popular theory states that either Edward Kelley and John Dee (or both of them) were secret agents sent by Queen Elizabeth I to spy on Rudolf II, and that the numerical code on some papers was how they sent messages back and forth.
In Prague, Kelley is associated with the Faust House, a 14th century mansion originally owned by Duke Jan I (Hanuš) Ratibořský. The idea that Kelley lived there is often repeated and generally accepted, but the evidence is mostly circumstantial, based on the general location and description.
The building lot is alleged to have been a pagan worship site on the route between Prague Castle and Vyšehrad. The address is Karlovo náměstí 502/40, Prague 2–New Town. The association with Faust is a full tale in itself. The building now houses a pharmacy and is part of a medical school. Some mural fragments are inside but not on public view.
The second building Kelley owned is a matter of dispute. The House of the Donkey by the Cradle (U osla v kolébce) at Jánský vršek 8 is promoted as the location of Kelley’s workshop and there is even a museum there, but there is little to support the claim beyond some recent hucksterism.
Křivoklát Castle, built in 1190 and remodeled several times, served as a prison for many centuries and saw a long list of famous inmates, including for a time a very young Charles IV, before he became Emperor.
After Kelley died, his family was left destitute. His son, Jan Adam Kelley, was last heard of around 1620 in Most, the same city where his stepfather died, when he was declared a public nuisance.
His step-daughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston, fared a little better. She married a lawyer named Johnnes Leo in 1603 but died in childbirth in 1612 at the age of 30. She is buried in the St. Thomas’ Church in Prague’s Malá Strana district.Her tombstone is on a side wall in the church’s interior garden.
Kelley’s wife, Jane Weston, died in 1606 and little is known about her final years.
There is a statue of Edward Kelley at Hněvín Castle in Most.