Edward Kelley was born on 1st August 1555 in Worcester and had a younger brother and sister. The majority of Kelley’s childhood is unknown but he did receive a good education.
Kelley is mentioned in Anthony á Wood’s ‘Athenae Oxoniensis’ with an entry about Kelley reading; “being about 17 years of age, at which time he attained to a competency of Grammar learning at Worcester and elsewhere, was sent to Oxford, but to what house I cannot tell. However, I have been informed by an ancient Bachelor of Divinity who in his younger years had been an Amanuensis to Mr Thomas Allen of Gloucester-hall, that he had spent some time in that House; whereupon I, recurring to the matriculation, could not find the name Kelly, only Talbot of Ireland, three of which name were students there in 1573, 74, &c… This relation being somewhat dubiously delivered to me, I must tell you that Kelly having a unsettled mind, left Oxford abruptly, without entering into the matricula.”
Some reports also say that Kelley was punished by pilloring in Lancaster on charges of forgery or counterfeiting and had his ears cropped as a mark of his act. However, other reports state he was an apprentice to an apothecary so what Kelley actually did before 1582 when he first approached John Dee is debatable.
When Kelley first approached John Dee, Dee had been attempted to contact what he called angels via a scryer but to date had been unsuccessful until Kelley had shown him that he had the ability to do what Dee was working towards. After this initial meeting Kelley became Dee’s scryer. The pair dedicated many hours to contacting the spirits through conferences and séances, for the next seven years the pair worked closely together.
In 1583 Dee and Kelley along with their families left England for the Continent travelling with Prince Albert Laski, a Polish man interested in their field of work. Dee was looking to gain the patronage of either Emperor Rudolf II of Prague or King Stefan of Poland, however, neither were impressed with the work that Dee and Kelley showed them and so they resorted to leading a nomadic life across Europe. They eventually found a patron in Lord William of Rosenberg in 1586, a man who shared the same interests as Dee and Kelley and even participated with them during sessions.
By 1587 Kelley wanted to stop the long scrying sessions and in an attempt to put a stop to them told Dee that the angels had told Kelley that they must share everything that they have with one another, including their wives. Dee broke off the conferences but the pair did share wives as noted in Dee’s diary on 22nd March 1587, nine months after this Dee’s wife gave birth to a son, although brought up as Dee’s own it could have quite easily have been Kelley’s child.
Their work in Europe eventually caught the attention of the Catholic Church who strongly disagreed with what they were doing and as a result on 27th March 1587 they were summoned to stand in front of Germanico Malaspina, bishop of San Severo and the papal nuncio. Dee handled the interview better than Kelly who stated on record that one of the many problems with the Catholic Church was the poor conduct of many of the priest, a comment that infuriated Malaspina.
In 1590 Kelley was still living in Europe continuing his alchemical experiments when he convinced Emperor Rudolf II that he was close to producing gold en masse. During his early years with Dee, Kelley apparently found an alchemical book entitled ‘The Book of Dunstan’ along with a red powder. Kelley believed that with this powder he would be able to turn any base metal into gold. As a result Emperor Rudolf knighted Kelley and he became Sir Edward Kelley of Imany and New Lüben but just a year later he would be arrested and accused of killing a man in a duel. Kelley was imprisoned in Křivoklát Castle perhaps in an attempt to keep Kelley close by to stop him producing gold for anyone else. In 1595 Kelley co-operated with the Emperor’s demands and was released with his titles restored. This was until Kelley failed to produce the promised gold and was again imprisoned, this time in Hnĕvín Castle. Despite his families attempts to free him Kelley died still in prison in late 1597 from injuries that he received whilst trying to escape.