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.

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?