07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Going to Need a Bigger Cabinet

01 15 british museumThe British Museum opened to the public for the first time on this day in 1759. It was the world’s first national museum. Unlike other national collections at the time, it didn’t belong to a king or to the Church and was freely open to the public. The museum was opened after a man called Sir Hans Sloane left his huge cabinet of curiosities to King George II, on condition that it be available to the public. As he had spent a lifetime gathering over 71,000 items, he wanted his collection to be kept intact. Sloane was a physician who began collecting plants and books about plants, but his cabinet also included coins, jewellery, fish, birds, mammals, scientific instruments, paintings. His interests were wide ranging. After working in Jamaica, he also gathered a lot of cultural artefacts from the Americas. He gave his cabinet in exchange for £20,000 which was to be given to his two daughters. It was actually worth around £80,000 but still The King was reluctant, he wasn’t a fan of the arts and sciences. In fact he hated ‘bainting and boetry.’ The government weren’t terribly keen either but eventually they raised the money with a public lottery. For many years after it opened, it was still referred to as a ‘cabinet’ rather than a museum.

01 15 ole worm cabinet of curiostiesThere had been many cabinets of curiosity all over Europe since the sixteenth century. They were really the forerunners of the museum. They sound like small things, kept in cupboards, but actually they were whole rooms stuffed with anything and everything that the collector was interested in. They usually belonged to royalty or nobility. It was its owner’s world in microcosm and represented his power and influence. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II had one that included a live lion and tiger who roamed about freely. We know this because there are records of the compensation paid to those injured by the animals or to the families of their victims.

The British Museum is a far less dangerous place to visit, but it does still represent the power that the British Empire once had. We have stuff from all over the world there and certainly some things we definitely shouldn’t have. But they are, at least, safe and well preserved. Before the museum opened, three other libraries were added to the collection. These included some very rare books. From the library of Robert Cotton, we have the Lindisfarne Gospels which were saved after the dissolution of the monasteries. We also have the only copies of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘Beowulf’. It’s really a pity the British Museum didn’t get it’s act together sooner as, in 1731, the world’s only copy of Beowulf was very badly damaged in a house fire and around a quarter of the Cottonian Library was either damaged or destroyed completely.

01 15 montagu houseThe original museum was located in a seventeenth century mansion called Montagu House which was on the same site as the present museum. Before it opened, there was much debate among the trustees over who should and should not be allowed to see it. They weren’t very sure about letting in servants, or members of the lower classes in general, in case they upset the museum’s more refined visitors. Eventually they decided just to take a good look at everyone. If they were smartly dressed, well-behaved and didn’t appear to be under the age of ten, then they would be issued a ticket and allowed in. But only in groups of not more than fifteen and they must be accompanied at all times. One group each hour between 10 am and 2 pm. That’s a whole seventy-five visitors a day.


Now there are thousands of visitors there every day and we can wear what we like. The size of the building and the collection has also expanded massively. It’s one of my favourite places to visit in London and this seems like an excellent opportunity to share with you a couple of my current favourite exhibits. The massive gold ship is actually a combined clock and table decoration. It also played music and fired its canons. Every home should have one. Unfortunately, it no longer works. There are three clockwork mechanisms inside. One for the clock, one that played a drum inside and has bellows to operate a tiny organ. The third made it travel across the table. When it stopped and fired all its guns, the guests knew that dinner was about to be served. It was made in about 1585 by Hans Schlottheim. It’s just the sort of thing Rudolph II would have loved and, for a while, everyone assumed it was his, but it seems to have belonged to an Elector of Saxony.

My second offering is far less grandiose, and easily missed. There is a set of tiles depicting scenes from the early life of Jesus. It appears that people who knew young Jesus had a bit of a hard time. Especially if they did anything to upset him. There seem to be quite a few people suddenly falling down dead. If you go and look at this exhibit, you can see Jesus being slapped by his teacher and Jesus pulling a boy out through a keyhole so they can play together. The one I like best though, pictured below is captioned: “Left: Jesus makes pools by the River Jordan. A bully destroys one and falls dead. Right: Jesus restores the boy to life by touching him with his foot. But it is clearly a picture of Jesus kicking him. So I think of it as ‘the picture of Jesus kicking a boy back to life’.



12 14 tycho braheToday is the birthday of Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546 at his ancestral home of Knutstorp Castle in what was then Denmark, but now Sweden. Brahe was an astronomer who, although he worked without a telescope, produced extremely comprehensive and accurate planetary and astronomical observations. He first became interested in astronomy at the age of thirteen when he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was particularly fascinated because it had been predicted. In 1572, he was lucky enough to witness the birth of a supernova, and clever enough to recognise it for what it was.

12 14 ptolomaic universeBrahe was born into a world where everyone believed that the stars were fixed and unchanging, hanging on a crystal sphere. It’s called celestial immutability. The universe then was built from a progressively smaller set of crystal spheres, one inside the other, with the earth at the centre. These spheres held all the stars and planets and also our sun and moon. This meant that nothing in them could change. So when a new light appeared in the sky, almost everyone thought it must be located somewhere between the earth and the moon. Brahe plotted its movement and realised that it must be much further away. In 1573, he wrote a book about it called ‘De Nova Stella’, the new star. So the ‘nova’ part of the word ‘supernova’ was coined by him. No one believed him very much, and he thought they were all pretty stupid. In his preface to De Stella Nova he says: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores”, which basically means: “Oh thick wits. Oh blind watchers of the sky”. By observing and recording the movements of the heavens, he also realised that comets were not atmospheric phenomena, but must be objects that passed through the supposedly impenetrable crystal spheres.

12 14 tychonian systemAlthough Nicolaus Copernicus had, in 1543, published a theory that it was, in fact, the sun that was at the centre of the universe, The church weren’t very happy about it. Brahe came up with his own universe model where both the sun and the earth were at the centre. In Brahe’s geo-heliocentric universe, the sun and moon move round the earth, but all the other planets move round the sun. Everything rolls around inside the sphere of fixed stars. Quite how the sun and moon don’t occasionally crash into Mars in this model, I don’t know. But I bet he did, because he was all about measuring things.

But it’s really the other things in his life that I wanted to tell you about today. Tycho Brahe had a strange life and is really the most eccentric astronomer I’ve ever come across. When Brahe was two, he was pretty much kidnapped by a rich and childless uncle who raised him and paid for his education. His parents accepted this and let them get on with it.

In 1566, whilst at university, he attended the wedding of one of his professors. There, he became involved in a dispute with a fellow student over the legitimacy of a mathematical equation. Seventeen days later, they were still arguing about it. They decided to settle the matter with a duel. We don’t know who won but, although both parties survived and later made up, Brahe lost the bridge of his nose in the fight. Oh, I forgot to say, they were duelling in the dark. For the rest of his life Brahe wore a prosthetic nose made from metal. He had to stick it on with paste and keep a pot of spare paste with him at all times in case it fell off. His false nose is said to have looked very much like a real nose, so maybe he had it painted or something, because it’s not in evidence in any of his portraits. Of course, he might just have been sensitive about it. History records that his nose was made of silver and gold, but tests on his twice-exhumed body suggest that it was either copper or brass. Perhaps he had a gold and silver one that he kept for special occasions.

12 14 uraniborgTycho Brahe would have easily been able to afford a gold and silver nose if he’d wanted it, because he was extremely wealthy. At one point he owned one percent of all the wealth in Denmark. As well as coming from a wealthy family, he enjoyed the patronage of kings. He spent a year at the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Frederick II of Denmark gave him the island of Hven in Øresund. He built himself a castle and observatory there in 1576 called Uraniborg and in 1581 he built an underground observatory nearby at Stjerniborg where he found his measuring equipment was more stable and less affected by weather conditions. 12 14 stjerneborgHe lived with Kirsten Jørgensdatter and, although they were never formally married, they lived together for almost thirty years, until Tycho’s death, and had eight children. He kept a team of students at his observatory and his home seems to have been quite a busy place that required a large staff. He even had a court jester called Jeppe. Jeppe was a dwarf who Brahe was quite convinced had psychic abilities. Once during a dinner party the dwarf announced. “See how your people wash themselves in the sea.” Now, Tycho had sent two of his students off to Copenhagen and expected them back that day. Fearing them drowned, he sent someone up the tower to look out for them. The news was that there was an upturned boat on the shore and two men standing next to it who were dripping wet. Tycho was very fond of Jeppe and used to have him sit under the table during dinner and feed him scraps, which is, I suppose, what passes for fondness in sixteenth century Denmark.

12 14 elkNow that I’ve got you used to the idea of a man with a metal nose who kept a psychic dwarf under the dining table for special occasions, I’m going to mention the elk. Tycho Brahe had a pet elk, a moose, if you will. Quite a large animal. It lived with him in the castle and, when he went out anywhere, it would run alongside his carriage like a dog. The Elk, unfortunately, developed a taste for beer. We know about the Elk because of a letter a man called Lantgrave wrote to him, saying he had heard of an animal called a ‘rix’ that could run faster than a deer. Tycho replied that there was no such animal, but he had a tame elk that was pretty fast and he could send it over for an experiment. Landgrave replied saying ‘Yes please’ and he would swap it for a horse. The next letter from Tycho says that sadly, he could not send the elk because it had died after it got drunk and fell downstairs. Tycho had leant the elk to a friend to entertain his dinner guests. So the poor elk didn’t even die after falling downstairs drunk in its own castle. It died at a party.

Tycho himself met a rather unhappy end. There has been some speculation that he was poisoned after having an affair with the mother of the king. But, as I said, his body has been exhumed twice and no traces of poison have been found. Another possibility is kidney stones, but again this has been disproved. The most likely explanation is the traditional one. That he died from an infection caused by a burst bladder. This apparently happened because he felt it was bad form to get up in the middle of a banquet to relieve himself. Poor, duelling, dwarf-feeding, elk-owning Tycho Brahe died because of etiquette. He is said to have written his own epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.” so perhaps he saw it coming.

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?