Lately I've been reading The Life and Lyrics of Sir Edward Dyer, by Ralph M. Sargent (1935), a biography of a minor Elizabethan courtier and poet. A key incident in Dyer's life struck me as particularly interesting. It involved alchemy.
Setting out from Utrecht in the middle of June 1588, Dyer required over a month to reach his destination in Bohemia. Only a most alluring prospect or a significant commission, it would seem, could have induced a courtier heavily burdened with debt to undertake such a journey at this time.
Dyer indeed did see an alluring prospect in Bohemia: the ability to turn lead into gold!
For some years now, Dyer's old friend Dr. John Dee had been pursuing his alchemical experiments in the vicinity of Prague, under the protection of Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Empire; with Dee was another English adept, Edward Kelley, who had already achieved a high reputation as an experimenter in the occult sciences. Some time earlier in this year Dyer had received the astounding news from Dee that his collaborator had at last achieved the secret of the ages, that Kelley could indeed transmute base metals into gold ...
In the sixteenth century, at the very dawn of the age of science, interest in alchemy flared up anew throughout Europe … In hidden places and in high places, adepts plied their furnaces, tended their cucurbits and alembics. Demonstrations were held before emperors, princes, cardinals, and wealthy merchants. For this was the age of wonders. Anything might happen ...
Even in England, where the corrosive force of scepticism had eaten deeply into men's minds, alchemy still had the power to fascinate. Elizabeth, while yet a princess, had her horoscope cast by Dr. John Dee, and during the whole of her reign she and many of her nobles continued to consult and patronize him. In 1565 and 1566, at the time of Edward Dyer's advent at Court, the queen had in her employee one Cornelius de Lannoy as a private alchemist. Dyer's friend, the Countess of Pembroke, had an alchemical laboratory constructed for her own use at Wilton.
In such an atmosphere, Dee's astounding claim demanded to be taken seriously. And in fact, there is no indication that Dee was a charlatan. He seems to have been honestly devoted to alchemy—which was, at the time, indistinguishable from any other science.
His collaborator Kelley, on the other hand, appears to have been a man of a different sort.
Kelley's early history is clouded with allegations. One finds accusations of forgery and of counterfeiting against his name. Some time in 1582 he entered Dee's household as a 'skryer', or a medium claiming to transmit spirit messages ... [Later, when settled in Bohemia,] the novelty of the crystal gazing had worn off, so he turned his talents to alchemy. Towards the end of 1586 Kelly claimed to have achieved the grand transmutation ... Dr. Dee, fully credulous, was deeply impressed. Although this experiment had apparently been performed wholly within Dee's observation, the venerable doctor confessed his ignorance of the vital process. Kelley attributed his success to certain tinctures of which he had mysteriously become possessed ...
With the proclamation of Kelley's alchemical skill, grandiose rumors began to drift back to England. The secret of secrets had been solved: Kelley could manufacture gold; he would soon have at his disposal fabulous wealth! ... When, therefore, Edward Dyer found himself on the continent in the summer of 1588, he could not resist the temptation to continue his journey and investigate the alchemical labors of Kelley in person.
Meantime all was not well between Dee and Kelly. The latter, finding his claims to transmutation accepted, became more and more audacious. He told Dee that the spirits ordered them to have all things in common, including their respective wives. The protests of Mistress Dee at this pronouncement began a rift between Dee and Kelly. An open breach occurred early in 1588, so that Kelley withdrew to Prague, taking with him his magical powder, apparatus, and books.
It was to Prague that Dyer hastened. There, his curiosity was rewarded by a demonstration of the mysterious process. Dyer saw it with his own eyes, and later reported as much to the queen:
I do wish your Grace, that that I shall tell you is true. I am an eyewitness thereof, and if I had not seen it, I should not have believed it. I saw Master Kelley put of the base metal into the crucible, and after it was set a little upon the fire, and a very small quantity of the medicine put in, and stirred with a stick of wood, it came forth in great proportion perfect gold, to the touch, to the hammer, to the test.
But Kelley would not reveal how it was done.
[Dyer] knew that Kelley's claim to the making of gold was by no means unique; other alleged transmutations had been enacted by self-styled alchemists, usually to be followed by humiliating exposures of chicanery. Dyer could expect little credence in England for the tale he had to tell. As for himself, however, an experienced worker in metals, what he had seen with his own eyes was enough to remove all doubts of the genuine nature of Kelley's achievement.
As it turned out, both Elizabeth and her Treasurer and closest adviser, Lord Burghley, were willing to be convinced by Dyer's story. The problem now was to get Kelley away from Prague and back to England, where he could commence producing gold on a grand scale. (It never seemed to occur to anybody that the scarcity of gold accounted for its value, and that the more commonplace it became, the less it would be worth.)
Kelley, in any event, was not eager to leave Bohemia, where he was feted as an honored guest by the emperor. No doubt he also was not eager to subject his claims to a more serious test. Once in England, he would have to start making mountains of gold, a possibility that naturally concerned him. Whatever trick he had used to fool Dyer and the emperor (who was already showing signs of hereditary insanity), he could not hope to fake the production of large quantities of the precious metal. So he stalled.
To coax him out of Prague, Dyer once again traveled there. By now, an emboldened Kelley had enlarged his claims.
He proclaimed himself a master of alchemy in all its branches; by means of his secret concoctions, for instance, he could heal most manners of sickness. One can only marvel at the brazen genius of the man which enabled him to carry off such boasts.
His newfound healing powers sufficiently impressed the emperor that Kelley was knighted and awarded large landed estates. Back in England, poor Burghley (then more than seventy years old) was reduced to pleading for a small sample of the all-powerful medicine so as to relieve his rheumatism and gastrointestinal complaints.
Dyer's second trip proved futile, but his efforts were not yet exhausted. In 1590 he again made the trek to Bohemia, only to find Kelley "so deeply involved with the emperor that he could not have left the Empire even had he wished to do so." Dyer and Kelley then made a remarkable bargain. Since Kelley could not leave, he would impart to Dyer the secret of making gold!
Presumably this was yet another stalling tactic; perhaps Kelley just wanted to keep Dyer around for companionship or for protection from the increasingly unstable emperor; or perhaps he wanted Dyer's money (which was freely given in exchange for the lessons - just one of many reasons why Sir Edward ended up nearly bankrupt at the end of his life). Whatever his motive, Kelley proceeded to teach the eager courtier how to master the arcane alchemical process. "The whole winter was given over to the pursuit," Sargent relates. And yet somehow the final secret eluded Dyer, who could not reproduve Kelley's results.
And then things finally went sideways for the famed alchemist.
Kelley's exorbitant claims inevitably led to trouble. Rudolph had expected more than an occasional production of a few grains of gold at a 'demonstration' … Rudolph, never doubting Kelley's ability to make gold, laid his reticence to obstinacy. Relations began to cool between the two. The emperor grew darkly suspicious of ulterior motives in Kelley's conduct distinctly disloyal to his imperial majesty. And then Rudolph thought of Dyer. What was this Englishman doing in Prague anyway? ... Finally some informers brought word that Kelley was preparing to leave the realm. Stirred with the vengeful feelings of a man who feels his confidences betrayed, his expectations about to be thwarted, Rudolph moved swiftly and fearfully.
His officers descended on Kelley and Dyer. Kelley, slippery as always, managed to elude capture. Dyer, not so lucky, was held under house arrest, facing the prospect of torture or execution. "This was the age of the Inquisition, and Rudolph was a demented tyrant who would stop at nothing." Happily, Dyer was able to acquit himself well in his first interview with the emperor and to escape immediate peril, though he remained a prisoner. In short order, an envoy from England arrived to vigorously protest Dyer's confinement. Rudolph relented, and Dyer was free to go. He never returned to Bohemia, and he never saw Kelley again.
Kelley meanwhile had found refuge in the castle of Count Rosenberg at Trebona. When the emperor discovered this, he sent his dragoons to seize Kelley. He was returned to Prague and confined in the White Tower on the Hradschin. Here Rudolph subjected the alchemist to torture, in an attempt to extract his secrets. The task was naturally futile.
Naturally! One can only imagine, with dismay, the sad old charlatan suffering the extremities of torture while unable either to confess his own fraudulence (which surely would have led to his death) or to reveal the precious secret of making lead into gold (which he didn't possess).
In 1593 Kelley was finally released, only to be imprisoned again two years later. In 1593 he tried to escape from his cell by jumping out a window. The attempt proved fatal. The great alchemist—or at least, the great con artist and prestidigitator—was dead.
Sargent sums up,
Faith in Kelly died hard. Although Dyer's expectations of a share in the golden harvest had been crushed by the action of Rudolph, his confidence that Kelley would some day make good his claims seems to have remained with Dyer. And probably he felt that a secret of inestimable worth was lost when Kelley died. How much Dyer had sacrificed to the cause of alchemy in his mistaken devotion to Kelley will never be known.