A Spurious Wizard

08 01 edward kelleyToday I want to tell you about Edward Kelley who was born on this day in 1555 in Worcester, England. He was born at 4pm. We know this because the famous mathematician and occult philosopher, John Dee wrote out a horoscope for him and because Edward Kelley said so.

We don’t know much about his early life. He may have studied at Oxford under an assumed name. He may have had both of his ears cut off as a punishment for counterfeiting. Maybe both of those things happened. However in 1582 he met with John Dee. What followed was an extremely tortuous seven year working relationship in which it is not clear which of them was the bigger victim.

In the sixteenth century the study of science and the belief in magic were not mutually exclusive. Dee was advisor to Queen Elizabeth I on astrological and scientific matters as well as being a skilled mathematician. He was also very keen to speak to angels which he thought he could do with the aid of a scryer (a crystal ball gazer). Kelly presented himself as a man with just such a skill and Dee was terribly impressed.

The following year Kelley approached Dee with an alchemical book called the Book of St Dunstan. Kelley claimed that he had been led by a spirit creature to Northwick Hill where he had found the book along with a box containing a red powder. The book explained how to use the powder to turn base metals into gold. He seems to have used the powder to produce small quantities of gold over the years, but Dee was still mainly interested in talking with angels. He believed they could grant him god-like wisdom and eternal life. Dee and Kelley along with their families spent six years travelling around central Europe, moving from one court to another, Dee wanting to talk to the angels, Kelley wanting to pursue alchemy.

Kelley could see the angels in either a crystal ball or a mirror and they spoke to him in an angelic language that Dee describes as the language that Adam used to speak to God, the original, lost language of Man. It is entirely possible that it is a language made up by Kelley but, if so it is not clear whether Dee was complicit in the deceit. The angels tapped out letters on something that sounds a bit like a ouija board. They delivered the first third of their message backwards and the rest forwards. They also provided Kelley with a translation into English in the form little strips of paper coming out of their mouths. It all sounds like nonsense, but the style of the angels messages is very different from Kelley’s own. He may have been plagiarising another source but none has ever been found. Kelley genuinely didn’t like doing it. He was afraid of the beings he saw and didn’t trust them. The fact that Dee insisted on long scrying sessions almost every day almost drove him to the brink of madness.

Among the messages that the angels provided were that Jesus was not God and that there was no sin. This sort of talk got them into a lot of trouble with the Catholic Church. It led to a hearing with the papal nuncio in Prague and Kelley almost being thrown out of a window for mentioning the awful behaviour of Catholic priests. Throwing people out of windows was quite popular in Prague at the time, so he probably had a lucky escape.

The angels also told Kelley that he and Dee should share everything, including their wives. Dee was reluctant but had to do what the angels said. Nine months later Dee’s wife gave birth to a child that was probably Kelley’s. Dee returned to England shortly after that and the two did not see each other again.

07 18 voynich manuscriptIt has been speculated that either Kelley, or Dee and Kelley together were responsible for concocting the Voynich Manuscript and selling it to Emperor Rudolf II for 600 gold ducats. It is an unusual document which is written in an unknown language. It does sound like their sort of thing.

It’s hard to know whether Kelley really believed in what he was doing or not. He is generally thought of as a charlatan. Historian A. N. Wilson calls him a ‘spurious wizard’ but it also looks to us as though Dee was a bit of a slave driver. He ended his life imprisoned by Emperor Rudolph II in a castle not far from Prague. In a series of events that sound like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but without the happy ending, he had convinced the emperor of his ability to turn base metals into gold. Having failed to do so, he had been locked up. He died as a result of a broken leg following a fall. The injury is said to have happened whilst he was trying to escape. But did he jump or was he pushed?

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A Rum Tale

07 31 drunken sailorsToday I am marking the passing of a three hundred year old tradition. On July 31st 1970 at 11 am the last daily rum ration was issued to sailors of the Royal Navy. It is known as Black Tot Day and was a sad event. Some wore black arm bands to mark the solemnity of the occasion. One navy training camp held a mock funeral. But instead of being sad, let’s take a look at how the bizarre tradition of giving alcohol to troops on active service came about.

The rum ration had been introduced in the seventeenth century as an alternative to beer. Sailors on a long voyage couldn’t drink water because in couldn’t be stored without spoiling, so they drank beer instead. On a long voyage though, it did mean carrying an awful lot of liquid. The daily ration per seaman was eight pints a day. In 1665 the British captured Jamaica from Spain and they discovered rum. It quickly replaced beer and the ration was a generous half a pint of rum. I’m surprised anybody got anything done at all. However this situation persisted until 1740. An admiral named Edward Vernon (whose nickname was Old Grog for reasons too dull to explain) decided it was causing a few problems. He said it led to many fatal consequences to their morals as well as their health and decided to water down the ration at a rate of four parts water to one part rum. He also added lemon or lime juice to disguise how awful the water was. The new drink ‘grog’ was named after him. He didn’t realise it at the time, but the citrus juice was also helping to prevent the sailors developing scurvy. The ration was still half a pint but mixed with two pints of water and split into two servings.

In 1824 it was decided that the half pint of rum was causing a bit of a discipline problem and the ration was reduced to a quarter of a pint a day. In 1850 there was talk of ending it altogether, but instead it was halved again to one eighth of a pint, which is still around three measures a day. Then in 1969 it was put to the government that The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend. The government agreed adding that it definitely not a money saving exercise.

The rum that was issued to the Navy was overproof, which means that it was stronger than the rum we can buy. It was 50% ABV (alcohol by volume) rather than 40% proof. The word ‘proof’ in relation to alcohol comes from the way pre-1740 sailors used to check that their rum had not been watered down. They would pour a little on some grains of gunpowder and set fire to it with a magnifying glass. If the flame went out, it was underproof and had been watered. If the powder burned it was proof. If it was overproof, the whole lot would explode.

A Busy Man

07 28 Hooke 1Today I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Hooke who was born on this day in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He was a sickly child, though I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was. He was also the sort of child who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He was also pretty good at drawing and used to make his own drawing materials from chalk, coal and iron ore. His father expected him to find work as a clockmaker or an illustrator of manuscripts.

He studied at Westminster School and afterwards at Christ Church College, Oxford. He quickly discovered his lifelong love for mechanics, he really enjoyed building things. At Oxford, around 1665, he became assistant to Robert Boyle, refining the equipment that he used for his experiments.

To put him in some sort of historical perspective King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and his successor, Oliver Cromwell, was not keen on scientific research. He didn’t like anything very much, except God, the Bible and being very serious. Hooke became part of a small group of people who were trying to keep alive the spirit of scientific enquiry. They may or may not have called themselves the Invisible College. I hope they did, because it’s a great name. Then in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. He was a much more enlightened person, as we have discussed before when we’ve talked about theatre. Under his reign Hooke and his circle formed the nucleus of the newly formed Royal Society.

Hooke’s role in the Society was as Curator of Experiments, which meant the when he or anyone else came up with a theory, he would design an experiment to test it. He must have learned loads of different things from this work but it led to his tendency to claim credit for other people’s ideas. Not that he didn’t have plenty of his own. He invented the anchor escapement, which regulates the movement of a pendulum clock and the balance spring inside a watch. He improved the design of the microscope to make it easier to focus and also introduced a way of lighting the specimen being examined. Through it he observed a microscopic structure inside plants which he named ‘cells’ because they reminded him of the cells in a honeycomb. He also observed the same structure in fossil samples and was able to conclude that they were once living things.

07 28 Hooke 2In 1665 he wrote a book called Micrographia. It was the first book to be published by the Royal Society. It contained loads of detailed drawings of things that he had observed through his microscope. It was a hugely important book because it revealed a world that nobody knew existed. It was also the first scientific best seller. Samuel Pepys said it was “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” The drawings are pretty amazing and Hooke drew them all himself.

He was a busy man, his work at the Royal Society was not his only job. He was also Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seems to have been responsible for surveying more than half the buildings damaged by the fire. He also had a hand in the design of the Greenwich Observatory, Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, in later life he grew rather bad tempered and fell out with a lot of people. There was an argument about who invented the watch spring between himself and Christiaan Huygens which raged on long after the death of both of them. Probably his most famous falling out was with Isaac Newton and it was over who had come up with a theory about gravity. The two men just didn’t get on at all, Newton was a single minded sort of a fellow whereas Hooke had a much more creative approach and his ideas were all over the place. It was probably his irascible nature that is the reason we have no real idea what he looked like. There must have been paintings of him, but no one bothered to keep them. The Royal Society certainly had one but it mysteriously went missing after Isaac Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society.

Apologies for such a long post. Thank you for bearing with me. I can’t show you a picture of him, so here are some of his lovely illustrations instead. Also, as you’ve read this far I’m going to reward you by telling you that in Hooke’s personal diaries he often inserted a special symbol that recorded every time he had an orgasm.

07 28 hooke 3

Huge Mystery

07 26 jane bunford coloured and croppedToday I want to tell you about Jane Bunford who was born on this day in 1895 in Bartley Green in the Northfield area of Birmingham. She is the tallest person British person ever. When she died in 1922 her height was estimated at 7′ 11” (2.41 metres) and until 1982 she was the world’s tallest woman.

At age 11 she was 5′ (1.52 metres) tall, which is not unusual. But in 1906 she fell off her bicycle, hitting her head on the pavement. She suffered a fractured skull. It was a serious injury but she eventually recovered, or seemed to. Her pituitary gland, which controls growth, was damaged and Jane began to grow. She was always a shy child and didn’t enjoy the attention her height brought her. Before she was thirteen, her parents took her out of school because she was too tall to sit comfortably in the classroom. She was 6’6” (1.98 metres) tall. Two years later she had reached 7′ (2.13 metres). By her 21st birthday she was 7′ 10” (2.39 metres).

The role of the pituitary gland in growth was not proved until 1915, so, at first, her sudden growth must have seemed very strange. She was diagnosed during her lifetime, but no treatment was available.

It is also thought that she held the record for the worlds longest hair. She wore her long, straight auburn locks in two plaits which fell to her ankles. Her hair was 8′ 1” long, she must have looked amazing. Someone even tried to buy her hair but she refused. She rejected several other opportunities to benefit financially from her size and appearance. Fair enough, it just wasn’t her thing. It does mean though that there are no known photographs of her. We only have stories from local people who remembered her as a shy and gentle woman with a deep voice who was much loved by children. She was also seen standing outside, cleaning the upstairs windows of her home whilst standing on the pavement.

After her death on April 1st 1922, her body was placed in a coffin that was 8′ 2” (2.5 metres) long which was locked in the church overnight on 4/5 April, awaiting the funeral the following day. Her pallbearers were four schoolboys who remarked that the coffin was rather light for someone of her size. Unfortunately, they never thought to ask why.

In 1971 the Guinness Book of Records heard about a medical specimen that was held at the University of Birmingham. The skeleton of an unidentified giantess who died in Northfield, Birmingham in the 1920s.. A photograph of the skeleton appeared in the 1972 edition of the Book of Records and the discovery piqued interest. Who could she be? Birmingham University were pretty cagey about it and refused to reveal the identity of the skeleton or how they had come by it. None of her relatives admitted having given (or sold) her body for medical research, but by that time her close relations had all died. Eventually the university admitted that the skeleton was Jane’s but we still don’t know how they came to have it, or what became of her beautiful hair.

Despite controversy, the skeleton remained on display until 2005, although no more photographs were allowed. Then the law changed and her relatives were able to reclaim her remains and she was finally laid to rest in an unmarked grave. I’m not going to show you the photograph of her skeleton as, from what I’ve read about her, it’s clearly not what she would have wanted. So I’ve drawn you this picture instead.