Dee, Kelley, and – Shakespeare?

When writing about lesser-known historical figures it’s tempting to insert some “stars” to keep the reader’s attention. Dee and Kelley moved in exalted circles, so I have plenty of courtiers, alchemists, nobles and other characters to play with if I so choose.

I didn’t expect William Shakespeare could be one of them.

While it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Bard was aware of Dee – many sources agree he likely based “The Tempest”‘s Prospero on him – it didn’t occur to me that he might have known him personally until I found sources that propose that Shakespeare was a spy working under the name “Francis Garland, he acted as Dee’s courier, and witnessed one of Kelley’s transmutations.

Sound implausible? I thought so too. Only Burns and Bridges have put forth a connection between the three men and even they admit it sounds farfetched.

But consider:

  • Dee’s mentions of Garland in his diaries correspond with Shakespeare’s “lost years”.
  • Acquaintance with Dee (and his connections) would explain Shakespeare’s apparently sudden popularity with Elizabeth’s court in 1593.
  • Kelley dedicates his alchemical poem “Concerning the Philosopher’s Stone” to one “G. S. Gent.”, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon baptismal record lists him as “Gulielmus Shaksper”.

Burns asserts that Shakespeare’s plays show familiarity with alchemical imagery and secrets; I’m no expert on Shakespeare or alchemy so I don’t feel competent to judge. She also suggests that Kelley reference to G. S. as his “especiall good Friend” might mean Shakespeare was Kelley’s student and thus an alchemist himself – again I can’t say.

Bridges theorizes a connection between Kelley and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in his text for exhibit at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I still can’t decide. Given multiple suggested identities for the Dark Lady, maybe one could fit. Somehow, it still smells like one connection too many.

I find the idea that “Francis Garland” was a spy the easiest to believe. Sixteenth century travel was dangerous, difficult, and rare. Any mobile, learned man would be a catch for Burleigh and Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymasters. If Garland was a courier this reinforces the notion that Dee and Kelley were spies as well – or perhaps being spied upon, given Burleigh’s attempts to lure Kelley back to England to make gold for his queen.

All tempting to play with, but Shakespeare’s not going to cameo in my book. I’m not writing a sixteenth century spy thriller (though that would be awesome). Also I’m in the process of deciding which secondary characters stay and which go – it’s no time to add more!

What do you think – was the Bard a spy? If so, for who and why? Or is this all wishful thinking? As ever, I’d love to hear your take.


Burns, T. (2008). Francis Garland, William Shakespeare, and John Dee’s Green Language. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition2(15). Retrieved from

Campbell, J. S. (2009). The Alchemical Patronage of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Awarded Research Masters Thesis). Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Vincent Bridges. (n.d.). [Mp3]. Retrieved from


biweekly links 3-23-2016

black and white photo of candles, talismans, ritual knives, a crystal ball, and a book with a pentagram inscribed in the cover
An altar with some of Doreen Valiente’s ritual objects. Courtesy the Doreen Valiente Foundation/Culture24

Early modern English Muslims, 20th century occult collections, and fin-de-siècle French Satanists for you:

bright, clear, and glorious – John Dee’s “shew stones”

Tradition and folklore show Dee and Kelley viewing spirits in a crystal ball. But was this the case? As with everything Dee and Kelley-related legend and rumor obscure reality so what Dee’s “shew stones” looked like and whether they still exist is open to debate.

The most well-known scrying receptacles associated with Dee are the crystal ball and black mirror in the British Museum. Many authors attribute them without question but recent scholarship shows no provenance for either object. We only have Horace Walpole’s claim that the black mirror belonged to Dee and the crystal ball has no obvious origin.

I’m a little more convinced by the Wellcome Collection’s crystal. It claims a reliable chain of custody from Dee through the mid 17th century.

So much for tradition. What evidence did Dee leave us?

The spiritual diaries mention two roundish objects. The first is a “stone in a frame” he received from an unnamed friend. He sketched it in the margin:

Dee's first "shew stone"
The “stone in the frame”, taken from the diaries via Ackermann and Devoy

The other shew stone materialized in Dee’s study on November 21, 1582, several months into his partnership with Kelley. He described it as “big as an egg: most bright, clere, and glorious.” Author Aaron Leitch suggests it might have been a lens rather than a ball.

Of course I’d be tickled to death if the real deal still existed but this looks unlikely, or at least unprovable.

For inspirational purposes I keep this little thing on my desk while I’m writing:

my own shew stone
Found at the local renn faire

Not especially clear or glorious, but it’s egg-shaped and pretty to look at. It helps me get into my character’s heads, staring into something similar and waiting for the curtain to rise.

Selected Sources:

Ackermann, Silke, and Louise Devoy. 2012. “‘The Lord of the Smoking Mirror’: Objects Associated with John Dee in the British Museum.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (3): 539–49.

Leitch, Aaron. 2014. The Essential Enochian Grimoire: An Introduction to Angel Magick from Dr. John Dee to the Golden Dawn. Llewellyn Publications.

Whitby, Christopher Lionel. 1982. “John Dee’s Actions with Spirits: 22 December 1581 to 23 May 1583.” Ph.D. Thesis, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

trust no one: the (un)reliability of historical sources

Given the sheer oddity of Dee and Kelley’s story (two men talking to angels!?) it’s no surprise that wild tales grew up around them. But, I want to write something historically accurate so I’ve been slowly winnowing out the facts from the legends. The further I go the stranger it gets, and Stephenie Woolterton’s post on bias in historical research reminds me that “facts” are always filtered through those relating them.

Trust no one
Yes, I was X-Files fan back in the day. Courtesy

I’ve found two broad interpretations of Dee and Kelley’s partnership:

  1. Kelley was a fraud, full stop. Espoused mostly by Dee’s biographers, it makes sense at first glance but on closer examination seems inadequate. Their partnership went on for 7 years – if it was a con Kelley deserves credit as the best actor/storyteller of his age! It also ignores Kelley’s repeated attempts to leave Dee’s employment and his doubts about the holiness/usefulness of the spiritual messages. Why question it if he had Dee fooled? Why start the fraud in the first place?
  2. Kelley channeled something outside himself and the seances can be taken at face value. A minority opinion embraced by some modern-day occultists, it sidesteps their work’s resemblance to earlier magical systems (even Kelley points this out) and the English grammar and structure of the alleged “angelic” language.

If the historians can’t be trusted, the primary sources aren’t much better. Save a few letters and other miscellanea we only have Dee’s account of 1582-1589 and he’s not completely reliable.

Dee’s “private” diary was written in the margins of almanacs and wasn’t all that private. Erasures suggest that Kelley edited it with Dee’s knowledge and one can infer Dee expected that it might be read by others. Susan Bassnett points out that Dee left out significant information about Kelley’s stepchildren and brother – who and what else did he leave out, and why?

The spiritual diaries appear to be verbatim transcripts of Dee and Kelley’s seances, but they are incomplete. Not everything has survived to the present, and some pages were destroyed before their importance was known. We only have what Kelley saw fit to share with Dee and have little notion of any communications he received/created without Dee’s direction.

Indeed, very little is certain about Kelley at all. His early life is a series of rumors (did he raise the dead? Did he lose one ear, both ears, or no ears for forgery?) and almost everything else is from Dee’s diaries. He often comes off as a selfish, temper tantrum-throwing brat but given their tumultuous relationship  it’s fair to say Dee had his own biases.

And here I show my own. I think Sledge comes closest to the truth when he suggests that Dee and Kelley’s work was the product of a mix of fraud, mental illness, and self-hypnosis. My hard-headed modern mind can’t accept a supernatural explanation but I doubt Kelley came up with 7 years worth of prophecies and magic on his own. I also suspect the more heretical material wouldn’t have shocked him so if he’d consciously invented it.

Dee pushed Kelley into frequent altered states and documented the “spirits’” every word. Is it unimaginable that with Dee’s constant encouragement Kelley might start to believe his own lies, but be resentful and angry from overwork? In this sense I don’t think Kelley was the cardboard-cutout con artist put forth by Dee’s biographers. Far more likely that Enochian magic came out of a shared madness between the two, with Kelley’s delusions directed by Dee’s obsessions.

In the end, does any of this really matter? I’m writing fiction, after all, and am free to make up what I can’t prove. Much as my inner history geek wants to know “the truth” I have to accept that reality is often subjective – one of the themes of my novel. Just because a thing isn’t objectively real doesn’t make it any less relevant.

Selected sources:

Bassnett, S. (2006). Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee. In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought (pp. 285–294). Dordrecht: Springer.

Laycock, D. C., Kelly, E., Dee, D. J., & Duquette, L. M. (2001). The Complete Enochian Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Angelic Language As Revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley. Weiser.

Sledge, J. J. (2010). Between Loagaeth and Cosening: Towards an Etiology of John Dee’s Spirit Diaries. Aries10(1), 1–35.