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The Real John Dee and Edward Kelley from A Discovery of Witches

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

John Dee and Edward Kelley are two real historical figures in the main storyline for season 2 of A Discovery of Witches. But who were Dee and Kelley, and how do they connect to the history of occultism?

Born in London in 1527 to a wealthy family, Dee was educated at Chelmsford Chantry School in Essex, before attending the University of Cambridge and graduating with a BA in the mid-1540s. He became one of the original fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge after graduation. Remembered today as an important mathematician and natural philosopher, Dee was a courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, and served as her chief astrologer and scientific advisor. He also occupied an important role in the development of Britain’s early empire during the late 1500s, providing important technical and navigational support to several voyages of discovery, including Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580.


However, Dee’s true passion was esotericism and his astrological research led to the publication of Monas Hieroglyphica, or The Hieroglyphic Monad, in 1564. In this book, Dee outlined his vision a unified cosmos and introduced readers to his ‘glyph,’ which represented the moon, the sun, and all the elements. One important contemporary to praise Dee’s work was Elias Ashmole, another key historical figure in A Discovery of Witches, and whose manuscript ‘Ashmole 782’ is a central plot device. Dee’s significance in the royal court began to wane by the early 1580s, which was around the time that occultism became one of his chief preoccupations. That was how he met Kelley.

Monas Hieroglyphica SOURCE

The Glyph SOURCE

Born in 1555, Kelley’s early life is shrouded in mystery. It was not until he became Dee's associate in 1582 that a more detailed record of his life can be found. In the early 1580s Dee had been trying to use mirror scrying and crystal gazing in an attempt to contact angels and potentially unlock the secrets of nature. Kelley, a self-proclaimed medium, claimed to already speak with angels and was therefore invited into Dee’s service. For most of the 1580s, the two men held ‘spiritual conferences’ together, which was the early modern equivalent of a séance. Some of the objects Dee used during these spiritual conferences are part of the collections at the Science Museum in London today, including his scrying mirror and healing crystal.

Dee's Scrying Mirror SOURCE

Dee's Healing Crystal SOURCE

Eventually, Dee and Kelley were invited to Poland by Olbracht Łaski, a nobleman and alchemist to the Polish king Stephen Báthory. From Poland Dee and Kelley travelled to Bohemia, in modern day Czech Republic, where they spent some time in the court of Emperor Rudolf II. Here we can see how Dee’s and Kelley’s real lives resemble aspects of the storyline in A Discovery of Witches.

It was also in Bohemia that tensions began to grow between to two men. Kelley claimed to have spoken with the angel Uriel during a spiritual conference, and according to him, Uriel had explained to him that he and Dee were to share all of their earthly possessions, as well as their wives. While Dee initially agreed to follow these supposed angelic orders, the sharing of wives caused him much grief. Dee ended his friendship with Kelley soon after and return to England, leaving Kelley in Bohemia.

Edward Kelley SOURCE

Kelley’s time in Bohemia was fraught with controversy. Among his various outlandish claims, he stated that he could turn metals into gold. Kelley gave assurances to Rudolf that he would demonstrate this extraordinary feat. However, he always managed to find excuses for why it was inconvenient or impractical for him do so. Kelley was eventually imprisoned for supposedly killing an important court official in a duel, and there are also suggestions that Rudolf did not want Kelley to leave Bohemia before making good on his promise to produce gold. He died from injuries he received while trying to escape from prison.

So there you have it. Dee and Kelley were real historical figures, who were deeply interested in the occult. Dee wrote some important texts on astrology and esotericism, and Kelley was one of the first celebrity mediums of Europe. Their true stories fit, to a certain degree, with the storyline in A Discovery of Witches. However, for those who want to know if Kelley and Dee ever possessed the so-called Book of Life, I’m sorry to say that this is nothing more than fiction.

Further Readings:

Liselotte Dieckmann, Hieroglyphics; the History of a Literary Symbol, (Washington University Press, 1970).

A. Alexander, ‘The Imperialist Space of Elizabethan Mathematics,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 26 (1995), 559-591.

Stephen Clucas, ‘John Dee, Alchemy, and Print Culture,’ Ambix 64 (2017), 107-114.

Stephen Clucas, John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, (Springer, 2006).

Nicholas H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion, (Routledge, 1988).

Bruno Almeida, ‘On the Origins of Dee’s Mathematical Programme: The John Dee– Pedro Nunes Connection,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 43 (2012), 460-469.

Andrew Campbell, ‘The Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Early Modern Italy: The Case of Paolo Antonio Foscarini (C. 1562–1616),’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 43 (2012), 519-529.

Noel L. Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology, (SUNY Press, 1999).

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