The Rosicrucians

Dee and Kelley

Ten days before Christmas 1589, Dee and his family returned to Mortlake, finding his cottage ransacked. The excellent library and apparatus he had acquired prior to leaving with Kelley had vanished. Whether the work of William Cecil or looters or both remains unclear.

Of the works that resurfaced, many had Dee’s signature removed and replaced by that of one Nicholas Saunder.

Accusations against Dee and his activities were by no means isolated. A pamphlet published by exiled Catholics in Antwerp in 1592 pointed fingers at Raleigh’s ‘School of Atheism’ and the ‘conjuror that is master’, potentially a reference to Dee.

In the years that followed Dee’s death, a man named Sir Robert Cotton excavated the site around Mortlake and found several documents Dee had buried, many of which concerned his activities on the Continent. His son Thomas then passed on the discoveries to the scholar Méric Casaubon, who published them in 1659, bearing the unfortunate title: A true and faithful relation of what passed for many years between Dr John Dee and some spirits. This, perhaps unintentionally, damning publication of Dee’s spiritual diary would begin a chain reaction that would set his reputation back over three centuries.

As for Kelley, on leaving Trebon, he returned to Prague and within a year was made a baron of Bohemia. Greatly enriched from being graced with Rudolf’s favour, his alchemical experiments continued, leading to further attempts to entice him back to England.

Inevitably, the accusations that had followed him soon resurfaced, leading to warrants being put out for his arrest. Tipped off and already absconded, he was discovered in a tavern in southern Bohemia. Imprisoned, released, imprisoned again, he apparently met his end after a botched escape. Alternatively, the suicide was faked.

Either way, like the spirits, he vanished from history.

Throughout the ‘spiritual conferences’ Kelley himself was often sceptical of his visitations. Never admitting to producing them fraudulently, he was frequently fearful that the entities with which he dealt were more likely to be demons than angels. In the early days, Dee seemed to possess more legitimate concerns, yet clearly not enough to halt proceedings for any prolonged time.

Of the facts, history is vague. In academic circles, the conferences are invariably dismissed; however, it’s easy to forget the modern world is so different to the old. The accounts Dee provided are generous in detail, even to the point of reporting strange physical sensations, ranging from heart palpitations to apparent scars resulting from alleged poltergeist activity. Whether they were the work of spirits, for now at least, perhaps in some ways it comes down to faith. Either the duo succeeded in crossing a divide that conjurors, scientists and others alike have been trying to cross for centuries, or the reputed fraudster succeeded in carrying out one of the strangest cons of all time.