biweekly links 12-14-2016

Queen Elizabeth I’s Vast Spy Network Was The First Surveillance State: repeats old myths about John Dee as the inspiration for 007 but the rest of the article is rock solid factual. I used Alford’s “The Watchers” as background for the “Dee/Kelley as spies” angle and discovered enough about intelligencer Charles Sledd to make him a well-rounded antagonist for my book.

Oil painting of dour Elizabethan man in dark clothes and stiffly starched ruff
Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Pretty glum, no? He was probably only happy when fighting Spain and the Catholic Church.
Through foreign eyes: the forgotten ambassadors to the Tudor court: English espionage got organized under Liz but there was plenty of spy vs. spy at her dad’s court too. Diplomats spied on the king, courtiers, and each other, with varying degrees of success.

In the 16th Century, People Went Crazy for Portraits Made Up of Fruits and Veggies – delightful thumbnail sketch of Rudolf II fave Giuseppe Archimboldo and a nice selection of his proto-surrealist portraiture.

Why the Stone Age could be when Brits first brewed beer: hops only came in during the late medieval period but fermenting was going on long before that. Heather ale? Why not – evidently it has a long tradition in Scotland. Article links extensively to archaeologists’ CVs and publications, and even a few historically-inspired brews. Don’t you just love food archaeology?

the inevitable post

Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.

page of medieval manuscript showing red and blue flowers and strange script
A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In an early draft of the novel I had Edward Kelley stumble across this strange tome in Mortlake’s library, but I ended up cutting that scene because Dee likely never owned it. Bursting further myths, he didn’t create it either – it’s carbon dated to the early 15th century, well over a hundred years before Dee’s time. Nonetheless as a mathematician and steganographer he certainly would have found it interesting. Hell, I find it interesting and I’m just an ordinary schlub.

The manuscript got its popular name from Wilfred Voynich, the bookseller who purchased it in 1912. Before that it passed through many hands and it’s origin is unclear. It currently resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and is available for viewing by appointment only (though they did loan it for an exhibit in DC, see below).

It has a bit of everything, from apparent star charts to plants to segmented pipes or containers to swimming naked ladies. And of course, lots of indecipherable text (available as a TrueType font, if you’re so inclined).

As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. provides a rundown of the most popular theories, which include everything from blatant hoaxing to alien tech. Certainly it seems to have elements of astrology, herbals, and possibly alchemical recipe books (all those pipes), but doesn’t resemble any of these exclusively.

Decryption obsesses many – even the NSA (PDF) took a crack at it. In 2014 Stephan Bax at the University of Bedfordshire in England deciphered ten words for plants and an astrological sign. Just last week Gordon Rugg of the University of Keele declared it a hoax; other parties disagree.

I was fortunate enough to see the real deal when it was on display in the Folger Library’s Decoding the Renaissance exhibit. Somehow I thought the fuel for so much speculation would be bigger – it’s about the size of a modern hardcover novel. The vellum shows few erasures, so someone understood the strange text well enough to write it with few mistakes. The colors are still vivid even after ~600 years, but the illustrations seem hasty and awkward, particularly the human figures.

My own take is… I don’t know what to think. I’m no cryptographer so I’m not competent to judge the plausibility of the various theories (though I’m pretty sure aliens didn’t write it). If it’s a hoax it’s a good one to fascinate so many for so long. If it’s a code I have to wonder what the author(s) were hiding. In any case, someone went to a lot of time and trouble to create it. Again, the real story is about people and their motives and perceptions.

Current research and the upcoming publication of 898 “clone” manuscripts going for $8000 each (and a Yale University Press edition priced for us ordinary mortals) should keep the Voynich Manuscript in the news (well, the news I read) and send researchers down the rabbit hole for years to come. Me, I’ll just peruse Yale’s scans and consider the fiction fodder.


Last weekend I took a break from the book to attend my first costume conference in several years. The scholarship has proceeded by leaps and bounds since I last made anything substantial, but the real treat was seeing old friends and making new ones.

Photo of ship Susan Constant at sunset
Reproduction of the Susan Constant, one of the ships that brought settlers to Jamestown. Author’s own.

Even so, I couldn’t avoid the book entirely.

The conference was in Jamestown Settlement/Historic Jamestown, a recreation of the first permanent English settlement in North America and the archaeological site of the original fort, respectively. Neither Dee or Kelley ever came to the New World, but some of Dee’s acquaintances did.

Settler George Percy presided over the winter of 1609-10 Starving Time. The name rang a bell, and a Google search revealed that he was the youngest brother of Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland, called the Wizard Earl for his interest in early science. Percy’s Syon House was near Dee’s in Mortlake, and they ran in similar intellectual circles: the Wizard Earl led the so called School of Night, a group of men interested in clandestine religion and science.

The Jamestown archaeological museum included a selection of early tobacco pipes. Names of prominent courtiers and nobles decorated many of them, among them Charles Howard, first earl of Nottingham. Howard was Lord Admiral of the English fleet ca. 1585 to 1619. In a rather oblique connection, Jane Dee (nee Fromonds) served as lady in waiting to his wife Catherine before her marriage to John Dee.

Though he wasn’t involved in the Jamestown voyage, Dee acted as navigating consultant to earlier English voyages of discovery. His 1577 publication of General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation was the first to put forth the notion of a “British empire” and advocated English colonization of the New World.

These connections aren’t that surprising. The rich, powerful, and educated of sixteenth century England comprised a small group so most were acquainted with and/or related to each other. I just found it amusing that even when I take a break my interests reel me right back into the book.

And I discovered a costume element I can use to make Kelley (more) miserable, so that amuses.

I came out of the conference wanting to make everything, and while I find myself with some surprise free hours this summer, I’m going to stick to short, simple projects. Much as I’d love to drown in linen and lace the book still comes first.



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


Trebon and back again – an ugly American’s tale

I made one trip out of Prague for the book. It went…ok. If nothing else I learned what not to do next time.

When Emperor Rudolf kicked Dee and Kelley out of Prague his second in command William of Rozmberk gave them refuge in the southern town of Trebon. Most of Kelley’s alchemical successes and the infamous wife-swapping took place while they lived in Trebon Castle and a lot of the 16th century building remains. Of course I had to see it. I’d heard great things about the Czech Republic’s train system and it was only a 2 hour ride – what could go wrong?

Heh heh heh…

First off I severely overestimated my understanding of the train schedule. Prague to Trebon looks easy until I discovered I had to change trains: I had to know both my destination and my terminus, and ideally be able to pronounce both.

Which was my second mistake: I can’t speak Czech. It’s my own damn fault; save a few important words (Praha = Prague, knihy = book) I relied on everyone to speak English (ugly American, me).

My third bad assumption tied into the second: I was under the impression Trebon was a sizeable town and, therefore, full of English speakers. We got off the train to discover it was a one-taxi town – and the taxi driver spoke German.

The upshot was that we missed our first train and while we caught our second we were rushed and highly dependent on our phones’ ham-fisted Google translations.

So, yeah, not my finest travel moment.

I went on the only tour available in our short time-frame – Czech, with English handout. Though they didn’t permit interior photography (the Czech site has a nice photogallery) I got a handle on the smaller scale of a country palace. To my surprise the tour mentioned Dee and Kelley – there’s even a room set up as a makeshift alchemical lab.

Evidently there’s also a medieval-themed tavern named for Kelley on-site, but we didn’t have time to stop in. A mile sprint got us back to the station just in time to catch our ride back to Prague.

In lieu of Trebon Castle pix, have this one of the Rozmberk Palace in the Prague Castle complex. The Rozmberks scaled this one for grand city living.

Interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace, Prague
The interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace in Prague. It’s been a noble’s palace, school for unmarried noblewomen, and is currently the home of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

biweekly links 1-27-2016

“Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons” by George Pendle – recent review of a ten-year old book, and damn was Jack Parsons a strange bird! Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist by day and magician by night, Parsons “treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin” – rather the same way the Renaissance natural philosophers saw no difference between science and magic. Putting on my to-read list.

In difficult times, many readers turn to historical fiction – a psychologist suggests “exploration of the sights, sounds, and events of past eras… help[s] us to imagine how to negotiate the strains of current real-life situations.” Includes reviews of some of her favorites (full disclosure: I’ve not read any of them).

John Dee: Scholar, Courtier, Magician [Video] – if you missed it on my Twitter or Facebook last week, this half hour sneak preview/interview with the curator is well worth seeing. Not only was Dee’s handwriting beautiful but he was a fair artist – check out his doodles.

XETB Plays the Music of John Dee – or music inspired by him, at any rate. Unavailable in my country due to licensing restrictions – can anyone get at it? What do you think?

A Little Bird Told Me: Aleister Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge in Occult Art Show – as ever, you can’t throw the word “occult” around without crashing into Crowley, but he’s not the dominant artist in the show. Some of the usual magic circles and talismans plus other esoteric symbolism.

Researchers confirm site of Salem witch hangings – discovered using witness accounts and modern aerial mapping, the site now overlooks a Walgreens, of all things.

Biweekly links 12-22-2015

Historical links: necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard
Historical links: necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard being mounted for display. Source:

Merry/Happy [insert holiday here]!

First glimpse of lost library of Elizabethan polymath John Dee – delicious animated images of marginalia and pop-up elements in books from Dee’s famous library. A sneak preview of an upcoming exhibit at the Royal College of Physicians that I’d give my eyeteeth to attend. Here’s hoping they do an exhibit catalog!

How much do you know about Elizabethan money? I only got 50%, maybe you can top me.

Where there’s a quill … help to unpick manuscripts from the days of Shakespeare – a crowdsourcing project in which volunteers transcribe 400 year old documents. I love it when technology intersects with primary sources in an effort to make them available to everyone! Check out to get started.

The Studiolo of Francesco de’ Medici – a secret room created in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, it’s a beautiful example of a study/cabinet of curiosities popular in the sixteenth century.

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.

Pop culture roundup

Whenever I tell people I’m writing about John Dee and Edward Kelley, they tend to say:


I’m surprised how often I hear this – they’re “B-list” historical figures but I’m not the first to fictionalize them. A friend suggested I whip ’round the Web to see if they ever showed up in the more accessible worlds of tv/movies/video games and I found a few examples:

Dee may be the inspiration behind white-bearded wizards Gandalf and Dumbledore but seems to be more of a niche/”alternative” character on his own. Director Derek Jarman and author Alan Moore were/are fans; it cracks me up that Richard O’Brien played Dee in Jarman’s punk film “Jubilee”.

Richard O'Brien as John Dee in Derek Jarman's "Jubilee"
Yes, that’s “Rocky Horror”‘s Riff Raff, courtesy

Edward Kelley was harder to find; he’s better known in the Czech Republic than in the English-speaking world due to his gold transmuting feats (“feats?”) in Prague. Still, he turned up in the (now defunct) Facebook game Assassin’s Creed: Project Legacy. The designers clearly did their homework: they included Kelley’s stepdaughter Elizabeth Jane Weston and together with Dee they do alchemy and look at mysterious books.

Man shows little girl a handful of magic red dust
Edward Kelley showing Elizabeth Jane Weston the magic red dust. Image found at

And of course, “Supernatural” introduced the Enochian angel language to a wide tv audience.

T-shirt design found at HideYourArms.Com

I found other brief references: Dee in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age“; an Edward Kelley costume for rent (but only in the Czech Republic). There’s more at their respective Wikipedia pages, but most of the references are literary.

Feel free to include other examples in the comments!


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.