The winter night falls early in the small Czech town of Sobeslav, and with it comes a cold, creeping fog laced with coal-smoke that leaves a bitter coating in the mouth. The town square is deserted; the tall-spired church a hulk. There is a cramped little beer-cellar full of gaming machines, but it is decidedly not the old 'inn' which stood on the square in the days when Sobeslav was a staging-post between Prague and the southern stronghold of Cesky Krumlov, seat of the powerful Rozmberk family. It was at this inn, on the evening of 3 May 1591, that the English alchemist, clairvoyant and con-man Edward Kelley was arrested by officers of Emperor Rudolf II. At the time of his arrest Kelley was an internationally famous figure, but thereafter the story grows confused: he disappears from view into the dungeons of 16th-century Bohemia. News of his death reached England in late 1595, and for a long time this provided the death-date in such biographies of him as existed (there is still no full biography). But the report was false. He is discernible in Bohemian documents for a couple of years after this: the date of his death is more probably November or December 1597, at the age of 42. I have always had a sneaking fascination for Kelley, and hoped that a visit to the Czech Republic might shed some light on the foggy circumstances of his last years.
LRB 19 April 2001 | PDF Download