John Dee Part 2: Prestall and Murphyn
Welcome to the Poison Room, and to part two of a story about John Dee. Sorry for the delay in episodes. I thought that, even though I couldn’t record, I could at least carry on researching, but, uh, no. That didn’t happen. So now I’m running a bit behind schedule, but I’m gonna try and catch up. So the next episode won’t be out this weekend, but hopefully it’ll drop on Monday or Tuesday, and then the one after that will be back to the weekends. Hopefully. But enough about that. We’re here to talk about John Dee and his rivals.
Let’s start with a brief recap. The first of our key players is John Dee, alchemist, Catholic priest, and perpetually broke academic failing to get research funding because his interests don’t match up with Elizabeth’s court, and also because someone keeps republishing a book associating him with the interrogations of some Protestant martyrs and calling him a ‘great conjuror’.
The other two characters are grifters Vincent Murphyn and John Prestall. Of the two, we know least about Murphyn. His role has been to lead the propaganda campaign against Dee, drag his name through the mud, and capitalise on the repeated publication of the Actes and Monuments, the book that’s perpetually hampering Dee’s quest for patronage.
John Prestall, on the other hand, is a way more ambitious grifter with a habit of getting into failed plots against monarchs and somehow surviving. He was a career alchemist who traded on a professed ability to transmute metals into gold in order to get out of sticky situations. He also liked to try and enhance his career by trashing other alchemists who he perceived as rivals, and that included John Dee, who he’d first started targeting possibly to spite William Cecil. Prestall had later developed a particular reason to target Dee when, in 1567, the Earl of Pembroke, patron of John Dee, had become his patron, too.
Last time we saw Prestall, it was 1571, and he was fleeing to Scotland to avoid being arrested for involvement in one of the several plots to free Mary queen of Scots and put her on England’s throne.
We’ll start by following what happened to Prestall next. Getting to Scotland didn’t mean he was out of danger – Cecil had spies everywhere. Even if he couldn’t reach him, Cecil knew where Prestall was and what he was doing. And what Prestall was doing was making friends by supposedly transmuting gold for them. I presume it was more him promising to do these things rather than actually doing them, because. Y’know. Chemistry. But Cecil is a believer in alchemy, so this is a credible report, as far as he’s concerned. And Cecil doesn’t really want Prestall making gold for people in Scotland. Especially not if there’s a chance they’re Catholic rebels trying to raise money for another plot against Elizabeth. Remember the Earl of Moray from the Elizabeth and Mary episodes? Mary’s step-brother who becomes regent for young James after Mary’s forced abdication? Cecil actually tries to get Moray to hand over Prestall, and Moray refuses. Because who would want to hand over a guy you think can make gold (Devine 2009: 87)?
However, as we all know, Regent of Scotland is not a job that has a positive impact on one’s life expectancy, and in January 1570, Moray was assassinated. Just to remind you, this is also the same year that Pembroke dies, and another edition of the Acts and Monuments is published.
After the assassination of Moray, Prestall pops up in Flanders, where he meets up with a guy called John Story, because literally every other man in Elizabethan England is called John. Story is an exiled Catholic, and the two of them start plotting to kill James, make Mary the queen of Scotland, and then invade England. Because Prestall apparently just can’t help himself when it comes to getting involved in plots against monarchs (Devine 2009: 91).
But Prestall has evidently learned something from his past experiences, and this time decides to play it safe – or even more dangerously – and both join in plotting against Elizabeth and handing over the names of Catholic spies to Cecil (Devine 2009: 93-94).
Towards the end of 1570, Cecil decides to make a move against this latest batch of plotters, and in August, John Story is abducted and brought back to England.
Throughout 1571, Prestall continues to play both sides – both joining in plots and informing on other exiles; but he’s losing popularity among the exiles, apparently because he’s obsessed with Scotland (Devine 2009: 99). Back in England, in May, indictments are issued against Prestall’s arrested co-conspirator John Story, Prestall himself, and a bunch of other conspirators. Propaganda printed at the time paints Prestall as being as central to the plot as Story, and of planning to use violence and his evil occult powers to kill Elizabeth (Devine 2009: 104).
In 1572, Prestall is involved in one more detailed plot against Elizabeth, which would have involved him leading 500 men up the Thames to destroy Elizabeth’s navy with alchemical wildfire, paving the way for an invasion from Scotland. But this plot fizzles out, much like Prestall’s standing with the other exiles was (Devine 2009: 108).
For unknown reasons, Prestall returns to England in late 1572. Later he claimed that it was because Cecil explicitly asked him to return. If this is the case, Michael Devine suggests it was probably because Cecil wanted him to make some gold for England (2009: 109). Whatever the reason, when he gets back to England the same thing happens that happened before in 1564: he’s arrested, and put in prison.
So now Prestall’s back in prison, let’s pause his story and go back to catch up on what was happening with John Dee during his absence. Pembroke, his patron, died in 1570, which is not great for someone like Dee who needs rich people to financially support his research, and to further his standing at court. He does some alchemical work for the Sidney family, probably with an angle towards trying to bolster the family finances (Parry 2012: 86). But Dee’s experiments are hampered by the poor quality of English glass, and goes on a trip to Lorraine in 1571 in search of higher quality glassware. He has Elizabeth’s support in this trip, because she herself is also in to alchemy, and she wants him to pick up some stuff for her, too (Parry 2012: 86). He returns from the trip pretty damn ill, and Elizabeth actually sends her own physicians to check up on him (Parry 2012: 87).
Apart from nearly dying, these years are a relatively quiet period in Dee’s life, in terms of the stability of his reputation. It’s a productive time for him, he settles down to writing and researching, and in 1574 travels around England and Wales a bit more on the hunt for old documents to aid his research.
We’ll talk more about some of the things we writes in a bit, because… there’s a lot of historical context necessary to understand them, and we need to understand them because they have consequences. But first, back to Prestall.
On the 5th of July 1574, Prestall is released – on a large bond – for good behaviour. His bond was £900. Two men appeared and agreed to each be a surety of £200 of his bond, with Prestall saddling responsibility for the remaining £500 himself.
One of the two men acted at the behest of a man named Richard Vernay. The third man agrees to pay his part because of the promises from Vernay that Prestall will be kept under close surveillance. (Devine 2009: 110)
It is far from improbable that his release was once again precipitated by him promising to do alchemy and make gold (Devine 2009: 111), and he starts coining in Essex when he’s released.
In October of 1575, Vernay dies, leaving the other two men solely on the hook for their part of Prestall’s bond. Shockingly, Prestall has failed to produce any gold, and one of the two men petitions the Council to be released from his part of the bond. This was probably granted, though we don’t know for sure (Devine 2009: 113).
Around this time, Prestall decides it’s a good idea to start up another slander campaign. This time it’s not John Dee, but another alchemist called William Medley. About the same time as Dee had been leaving for Lorraine in 1571, Medley demonstrated a technique for ‘transmuting’ iron into copper (Parry 2012: 92).
The technique up until this point had been smelting. Medley’s technique is a chemical process that required lower temperatures. He wasn’t the first person in history to discover it, but he’s the one who happened to be in Elizabeth’s court when he revealed the technique. Obviously, Medley wants to make some money off his process, and sets about getting investors, but disagreements over patents and leases stalled several plans (Parry 2012: 88-91).
So if you’re an alchemist and/or career-grifter constantly looking to improve your standing at the expense of others, and competing with other alchemists for patronage, Medley is an obvious target. Prestall’s attacks against Medley draw on the same techniques Murphyn had been using against Dee: rumours, lies about his activities, and forged letters (Parry 2012: 92-93).
Prestall once again teams up with Vincent Murphyn, and with a former friend of Medley’s; Thomas Curtiss. They forge a letter from a relative of Medley’s, Thomas Wotton, to the Earl of Leicester, suggesting that the cause of the delays in Medley’s alchemical enterprises is not due to technical difficulties, as Medley was claiming, but instead due to evil intent (Devine 2009: 115).
Lots of people have invested in Medley’s work. Including Leicester, and others who were encouraged by him to do so, so Prestall and Murphyn had picked their target well. Leicester orders Medley arrested on the 1st of September 1576.
Leicester then writes a letter to Wotton, thanking him for the information. Obviously, Wotton has no idea what Leicester is talking about. He tells Leicester that he didn’t write the letter, he has no idea who did, and unless Leicester is talking about Wotton’s relative William Medley, he has no idea who the man is or what’s he’s done. And if the letter was concerning his relative, then he has no knowledge of such actions or behaviour, either. Tl;dr: ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ (Eland 1960: 11-12).
But someone does know who wrote the letter. Lady Mary Sidney, who Dee himself had been working for. She’s Leicester’s own sister. She writes to Cecil telling him it’s a forgery, but Cecil doesn’t seem to do anything with this information and Medley remains imprisoned until 1578.
So that’s what Prestall is doing between 1574 and 1576, but what about John Dee? Well, one thing that happens is his first wife, Katherine Dee, dies on the 16th of March, 1575. Apart from that, Dee keeps on researching and writing. In 1570 he writes a manuscript called ‘Brytannicae reipublicae synopsis’, which was concerned with international politics, trade, and ethics (Roberts 2006). This sets the tone for other writings that were to follow.
In 1576 Dee produces a manuscript, dictated over 6 days, called General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation (Parry 2012: 114). But before we get into the rest of its contents, there’s an element worth noting: in it he claims that he himself was a prisoner alongside Bartholomew Green, rather than, as the Acts and Monuments had thus far portrayed him, as a sinister conjuror. This is also the manuscript that claims that Foxe, the author of the Acts and Monuments was complicit in including the forged letter.
And speaking of the Acts and Monuments, another version of it is also published that same year. This time, however, there are some notable differences. The document that mentioned the priest Bartholomew Green is still there – the one that simply noted that Dee had been kind to him. But those mentions of Dee as a ‘Great Conjuror’? Gone. Murphyn’s forged letter about the treatment of Green is still there, but without the part that claims Green was sent to Dee, and without that ominous ‘whereunto conjecture you’.
Why does this happen? Because: politics. Dee has finally figured out how to make himself useful at court, in the hopes of bolstering his reputation and securing patronage. As is always the case in academia, people prefer it when they can see how your work is actually useful to them. So Dee’s writings at the time focused on giving advice about the British Empire, and the international religious and political affairs in Europe. That’s not to say he abandoned his alchemical themes or dropped his natural philosophy. Instead, he just found a way to combine the two, in a way that allowed influential players at court to use his work to support their desired course of action on the geopolitical stage.
And if you’re an influential courtier who happens to want to use someone’s work to support your cause, it’s better if that person doesn’t have a bad reputation. It’s reasonable to think that someone who wanted to use Dee’s work approached Foxe and told him to remove the offending details (Parry 2012: 121). Maybe someone like the Earl of Leicester, who very much wanted to use Dee’s work for that purpose.
The Earl of Leicester, by the way, is a man called Robert Dudley. He’s a man that always comes up in histories of Elizabeth, because he was one of her favourites. We met him before, in the first episode on Elizabeth and Mary. He’s the one Elizabeth suggests as a potential husband for Mary queen of Scots when Mary is first trying to select her second husband. The one that everyone thinks is Elizabeth’s lover.
We also met the Dudleys last episode. Robert’s father was the man who had risen to favour in Edward’s court when the Lord Protector fell from grace. He’s the one who tried to install the Nine Day Queen. The one who was protecting Dee’s father, Roland, and involved him in that plot.
Oh, and remember I said that Dee was doing some work for the Sidneys around this time? Mary Sidney’s maiden name is Dudley. She’s Robert’s sister. So the Dudleys and the Dees have some history.
Before we get back to Dee’s writing, it’s time to get to the historical context that’s necessary to understand it, which means we need a brief overview of parts of the very complicated international politics of Europe at the time. Of particular importance are Spain, the Netherlands, and France.
The Netherlands was important to England as the primary place to which they exported wool cloth, and this meant that England had historically tried to stay on the good side of whoever was in control of the Netherlands. Up until now, that had been the Habsburgs – that Catholic family that produced the Holy Roman Emperors. In particular, the Netherlands was controlled by Philip II of Spain. Their shared interest in protecting the Netherlands helped England and Spain work around their differences in religion and maintain an alliance, particularly in the face of concerns that France might make a move on the Netherlands.
In the 1560s that threat lessened as France became preoccupied with its own religious schisms and internal conflicts, and Spain got richer and more powerful due to colonial exploits such as attacking indigenous people, enslaving them, and forcing them to mine gold for the Spanish Crown. To some in England, this started to make Spain look like more of a threat than an ally, and they were concerned that Spain might try and make a move to invade England to reclaim it for Catholicism, especially with Mary Queen of Scots conveniently hanging around ready to be installed on the throne (Bucholz & Key 2009: Ch. 4). You may remember this particular possibility was of great concern to Cecil. Further, many enterprising nobles and businessmen would also like to get in on this whole colonialism thing, since it seems to be working out really well for Spain, and they don’t want Spain to monopolise it.
So: the Netherlands is very important for English trade, it’s owned by Spain, which is Catholic, and traditionally England wants to stay on the good side of whoever owns the Netherlands. There’s stuff going on with Catholic plots against Elizabeth, which makes people wary of countries like Spain, especially since Spain is currently in a very strong position militarily, particularly in the naval department, since, y’know. You need lots of ships if you want to sail around the world claiming everything you see as yours, enslaving people, and searching for more riches.
And having such a strong military, as well as France being preoccupied with civil war means that Spain’s reasons to not invade England in order to reinstall a Catholic monarch perhaps don’t look as compelling as they once did.
On the flip side, if you have a lot of money, have just discovered a bunch of new lands, and you’re surrounded by your messy, back-stabby European family, you might be a bit worried that someone like, for example, England, might decide that something like, for example, piracy, is a good idea.
And if the English decide to start doing something like… trading slaves to your Spanish colonies in return for gold and other goods, in a way which you consider illegal, you might get a bit upset and do something like attack an English slaving fleet in 1568. Which is exactly what happens.
This isn’t a war-provoking event. Though the English slaving ships had covert approval from Elizabeth, it was a private venture. But it’s still a private venture in which a bunch of people, including many courtiers and Elizabeth herself, had invested. Only two ships from the fleet survived: one commanded by the captain of the fleet, and one commanded by some unimportant guy who will probably never do much with his life, called Francis Drake.
But let’s get back to the Netherlands. Because on top of all that other international politicking and tension, Protestantism was growing in the Netherlands, and along with it: unrest. This was not a new thing. It had been going on across Europe since the 1520s. But in the Netherlands, the response had been particularly brutal. Hundreds of people were executed as heretics (Tracy 2008: 66-67). But by the 1560s, Calvanism in particular has gained a decent foothold in the Netherlands.
And they’re all pretty fed up of being persecuted by Spain. In 1566 William of Orange rallied a group of nobles – including both Catholics and Protestants – into a league to oppose Spain meddling in the Netherlands, especially with regard to the ‘murdering heretics’ policy (Bucholz & Key 2009: Ch. 4).
The next year, 1567, Philip decides to send in 10,000 troops to maintain order. Instead, it leads to riot and rebellion. This whole situation presented some difficult decisions for Elizabeth – does she support the rebels, or Spain? Does she do nothing and wait and see what happens?
This situation brings us back to 1568 – the year Spain attacked the English slaving-fleet and made the mistake of leaving Francis Drake alive. And this event sort of takes the decision out of Elizabeth’s hands, when a Spanish fleet is forced to shelter in English ports due to a storm. Weirdly, Philip thinks that Elizabeth will seize the gold bullion those ships happen to be carrying, and pre-emptively retaliates by having English merchants in the Netherlands arrested, and their ships impounded. Even more weirdly, this leads Elizabeth deciding to definitely take the gold bullion sitting in the Spanish ships in her ports (Bucholz & Key 2009: Ch. 4).
After this Elizabeth turns a blind-eye towards English piracy of Spanish ships, allowed Dutch rebel ships to use English ports, and secretly sent money to the rebels. Publicly, of course, she condemned the revolt in the Netherlands. Philip was not fooled. So there’s… definite antagonism between England and Spain, and unofficial piracy, but no outright declaration of war, and no sending of armies to invade.
In 1571, as we learned in the second episode on Elizabeth and Mary, Mary and Norfolk conspire with an Italian banker living in England by the name of Roberto Ridolfi. He and Mary’s advisor, Leslie, go to Rome to seek financial aid from the Pope and Philip. Ridolfi and Leslie paint a picture of a grand plan to free Mary, and put her on the throne in both Scotland and England, and restore Catholicism to England. So, y’know, things are tense.
By late 1575, Spanish control of the Netherlands had fallen apart, and Elizabeth warned Spain that if negotiations failed and war resumed, she would support William of Orange (Adams 2008).
In August 1576, there’s a particular crisis when Philip’s Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands lose patience with the fact that Philip hasn’t paid them, and turn to looting and pillaging. At the same time, Dutch pirates have been causing grief for English ships, and the Dutch even tried to prevent England from using the port of Antwerp. Which, as far as England is concerned, is Super Not Cool. This is the event that prompts Dee to dictate the ‘Memorials’ (Parry 2012: 116).
Now we can talk about Dee and his manuscript. The ‘Memorials’ isn’t an abstract treatise on Navigation. The book discusses navigation in relation to a specific goal – establishing an English naval force. In the last few pages he dives into English history and holds King Edgar up as an example of what England should be doing. He pulls together a bunch of ancient documents to demonstrate how awesome Edgar and his navy was. (Escobedo 2004: 58-59). Oh, and he also uses ancient genealogy to claim that America belonged to Britain because a Welsh prince, Madog, son of Owen (o-wine) Gwynedd (Gwyneth) had discovered and colonised America way back in 1170, and those colonies totally still existed because they’d found some Welsh-speaking people over there. Unfortunately they didn’t find any brass plates that would conclusively prove where Madog had landed. Oh and also it was colonised by a Trojan called Brutus, and also King Arthur, whose colonies also survived somewhere along the North-West Passage. And Elizabeth is totally a descendant of Arthur, and also Madog had bequeathed her his lands. Using the same genealogical reasoning, he also argues that Elizabeth is entitled to much of Europe (Parry 2012: 94-95). Incidentally, Dee also discovers that he himself is a descendant of Madog. Fancy that.
He also spends a notable amount of time complaining about and denying Murphyn’s slanders, which takes up over 10% of the manuscript (Parry 2012: 120). Not that he’s bitter or anything.
But the ‘Memorials’ is more than just a rant about slander and a genealogical justification for the pursuit of empire. As I said, it also offers policy advice: England needs a decent navy, in order to protect itself from international enemies such as the Dutch provinces Flanders, Holland, and Zealand. This was, as I said, in response to events at the beginning of August. Dee produces his manuscript over six days – which is a ludicrously impressive turn-around, but, unfortunately for him, it’s still too slow.
By the time he finishes the manuscript, Elizabeth and Cecil had secretly advised William of Orange of terms for a settlement, making the anti-Netherlands suggestions in the ‘Memorials’ unwelcome.
But Dee goes away, revises it, and publishes it in 1577. One of the revisions Dee makes between the manuscript and published version is softening his claim that Foxe himself had been in on the plan to include the forged letter in the Acts and Monuments, to one that Foxe himself had been duped; probably this was in response to Foxe taking the damaging material out of the latest edition of the Acts and Monuments. Before the Acts and Monuments disappears from our story, here’s a throw-away detail that it amused me to discover: if you remember, Drake set off on his piracy/circumnavigate the world quest in 1577. Apparently, during this voyage, he frequently read to his crew from Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (Bucholz & Key 2009: Ch.4 ‘England and Spain’). Hopefully he had the 1576 edition.
But just as the political situation changed over six days during the writing of the ‘Memorials’, it changed a lot more as Dee revised his manuscript.
By January 1577, Leicester had been proposed as commander of an army, should one be sent to the Netherlands. And Leicester is really keen to do this. Dude is in love with the idea of going to war. He wants Elizabeth to lead a protestant revolution in Europe, starting with Holland. By the summer, negotiations had broken down between the Dutch and the Spanish, and Leicester leading an army to the Netherlands seemed like a strong possibility.
The revised Memorials is published in September, 1577. This version contains a notably different attitude toward the Netherlands, advocating for committed support of the Dutch. Which just happens to be the desired course of action of Leicester. Instead of identifying the Dutch provinces as ‘false friends’, as he had done in the manuscript version, Dee transfers that label to the French and Catholic Flemings (Parry 2012: 123).
Unfortunately for Dee, the political situation had changed once again, when France’s civil war ended. This freed France up to join in the situation with the Netherlands. For those already in favour of helping the Dutch, this provided an air of urgency – they had to act now, before it was too late. But for the Catholics and more conservative Protestants in Elizabeth’s court, it provided good grounds to urge caution and non-interference. In the light of the new political situation, Elizabeth considered Dee’s book to be too incendiary, and Elizabeth prevented Dee from distributing it (Parry 2012: 127). So Dee’s zero for two on timing. Also, I think this might make Dee the first banned author actually mentioned on this podcast. Only took 15 episodes.
Despite this, Leicester still keeps Dee around, even bringing him along to audiences with Elizabeth. And Dee keeps writing. He contributes to a manuscript by Humphrey Gilbert, called ‘Discourse on How Her Majesty May Annoy the King of Spain’, which is a great title, and in it Dee repeats his advice to Elizabeth to exploit Spain’s current weakness and help the Dutch (Parry 2012: 128). And just to drop it in here, because there’s no real good place to mention it, Dee also remarries in 1578. Much to her father’s disapproval, his new wife is Jane Fromoundes.
Dee writes several more manuscripts in this political vein. Immediately after Memorials is published, he starts work on another manuscript. This one is called ‘Limits of the British Empire’. He expands it several times over the following months, between late 1577 and July 1578. Glyn Parry argues that the primary purpose of this work is in response to the changing circumstances in another politically fraught situation: the marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and the French duc d’Anjou, brother of the current king of France (Parry 2012: 130-31).
It’s literally impossible for there to be a marriage proposal for Elizabeth that everyone is happy with, and this one is no different. In particular, Leicester and Francis Walsingham do not like it. One of their concerns is that Anjou might soon try and take the Netherlands. Frustratingly for them, however, Elizabeth doesn’t take their concerns seriously. That is, until the 9th of August, when they receive word from Walsingham that Anjou is about to become sovereign of the Netherlands. This would put France in control of England’s access to the ports of the Netherlands, and even Elizabeth doesn’t want that. Leicester uses this news to get Elizabeth to agree to send him to the Netherlands at the head of an army. But, much as with decisions to execute people, Elizabeth is prone to change her mind over things like this, so there’s no real expectancy that she’ll actually follow through (Parry 2012: 131).
In response to this, Leicester turns to Dee, summoning him to the court, then residing at Norwich. And just days later, on the 15th of August, Dee left the house in Mortlake, and headed to court. He takes his new manuscript with him. Leicester was probably hoping that Dee’s new work would convince Elizabeth to stick to the plan of sending him off to the Netherlands at the head of an army (Parry 2012: 132). But once again, things change too quickly for Dee and his manuscript. By the time Dee gets to the court, the French ambassador had managed to reassure Elizabeth that she didn’t need to worry, and the briefly okayed invasion doesn’t happen.
And now we’re going to drop the politics briefly, because I have a plot twist I’m pretty confident y’all will not have seen coming. If someone were to make a TV series of Dee’s life, the episode which covered his arrival at Norwich would end with Dee sitting disappointedly in his room, staring at his manuscript when, suddenly, a messenger bursts into his room, intensely serious, urgent, and secretive, demanding he follow him immediately.
The next, and final shot would be Elizabeth’s Privy Council standing around a newly delivered and unwrapped bundle, staring at three wax dolls.
The dolls were found, in a dunghill. Wish I knew more about how exactly that discovery was made, but I don’t. What I do know is that one had Elizabeth’s name on it, and two, according to a report from the Spanish ambassador, were dressed as Privy Councillors. The ambassador also reports that they were all impaled with a number of ‘pig’s bristles’ (Parry 2012: 132). Dee’s own diary mentions only one doll, stating it was found in the Lincoln’s Inn Field in London, and was pierced through the breast with a large pin (Crossley 1851: 21).
So the Privy Council kind of freak out about these wax dolls, because they’re clearly evil Catholic satan magic designed to kill Elizabeth and some councillors, right? If you’ve listened to Episode 7 on curse tablets, you might have some questions about those assumptions, and you would be right to do so. But we’ll get to that later. For now, everyone operates on the assumption that this is definitely malicious magic meant to kill Elizabeth. And the Privy Council decide that the dolls were probably part of a larger Catholic conspiracy. Elizabeth’s health hadn’t been great over the summer, and she was definitely not well in September, which added fuel to fire of the Council’s panic (Devine 2009: 118).
But conveniently for them, an alchemist just so happens to have arrived at the same time as the wax dolls are delivered. So obviously, they summon Dee and demand he do something to counteract the threat the dolls represent. Dee obliges, but we don’t actually know what exactly he does. He doesn’t write down the details in his own diary entries, and only one of the councillors actually has the balls to even stick around and watch. He reports to Elizabeth that Dee has taken care of it, but again, he’s short on the deets.
The Council order an investigation into the villains behind this magical plot, and send Dee off to London to help with that. On the 30th of August they arrest a guy called Henry Blower, and then a couple of weeks later, his father, too (Devine 2009: 120). This isn’t enough for the Council – they want the people who’d tried to kill Elizabeth found. Under torture, the younger Blower names Thomas Harding, a known conjuror and protestant vicar in Islington (Devine 2009:120). Harding is arrested in mid September, but they can’t get a confession out of him. Blower maintains his claim that it was Harding. So the investigation isn’t going well.
Now. It’s been a while since we caught up with our good friend John Prestall, and I know you’ve been super worried about what might have happened to him. Fear not! He re-enters our story here, when he’s arrested in October.
We don’t know exactly what lead to his arrest – I mean, the fact that he’s repeatedly been involved in conspiracies to kill monarchs definitely doesn’t work in his favour, but this time it wasn’t actually him.
Glyn Parry notes that it could just have been his reputation for conspiracies that led to him being arrested as a likely suspect, or… it could maybe have had something to do with John Dee (2012: 134).
On the 8th of October, 1578, Dee had had a two hour audience with Elizabeth, and he had another audience on the 13th. The day before this second meeting, the Privy Council order Cecil to dig up everything he had about Prestall’s 1571 indictment for treason to kill Elizabeth. (Parry 2012: 134-5; Devine 2009: 120).
Two days after Dee’s second meeting with Elizabeth, she ordered Leicester to examine the men in the tower. i.e.: Prestall and Harding. Leicester does this personally. Once again, torture was involved. But after a month, all Leicester’s got for his efforts is the name of a fellow conjuror who had been involved in the coining operation for Vernay back in 1574 (Devine 2009: 121). This is not what Leicester and his allies had been hoping for. A month later, the Privy Council sent for another friend of ours, Vincent Murphyn. We don’t know who gave them his name – could have been Prestall or Dee (Parry 2012: 135).
Without some dramatic confessions and naming of fellow conspirators, efforts to uncover, or construct, some grand Catholic conspiracy against Elizabeth that would drag down Catholic courtiers grinds to a halt. But this doesn’t stop Leicester having Prestall and Harding condemned to death for high treason in early 1579. But Prestall manages to avoid the death penalty once again due to shifting influences at court.
I’ll get back to why the sentence gets commuted to life imprisonment, but Prestall drops out of our story here, so before we get back to that, I’ll give you the tl;dr of the rest of his life.
He spends the next ten years in prison, for a crime he didn’t commit, and didn’t actually exist, possibly because Dee wanted revenge.
But, as we’ve seen, Prestall is a pretty nasty man. He’s a grifter and a self-interested opportunist with no regard for other people. He’d had no qualms about framing other people, forging documents, defrauding his stepson of his inheritance, conspiring to kill monarchs, informing on fellow conspirators, and scamming people with promises of alchemical gold. Even if he wasn’t guilty of this particular crime, he was guilty of a lot of other crimes. I don’t have any sympathy for him.
But… his fate is still kind of… sad. The time in prison kinda’ broke him.
He does eventually get out of prison, once again, in 1588, due to the influence of a small group of men, including the very man who’d condemned him to death – Leicester. Another courtier, suffering from an illness that he thought Prestall could cure, approached Leicester, who, along with his brother, was also ill at the time, petitioning for Prestall’s release. Personally, I wouldn’t trust a guy I’d ordered to be executed and then kept in jail for ten years to look after me if I were ill, especially not when he had a history of plotting to kill people, using the same set of skills he’d use to cure me, but apparently Leicester is desperate enough to agree to this, and Prestall is released on bail (Devine 2009: 128- 130).
He then disappears for a year, possibly because his alchemy doesn’t help anyone. What Leicester had was probably malarial fever, and in September 1588, he dies of a fever-exhaustion combo after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Leicester’s brother, who’d been ill due to a leg wound, had the leg amputated in January 1590, and subsequently died from blood poisoning (Devine 2009: 130-31).
After this Prestall is just… well, he really hates Elizabeth and Cecil, and feels that they wronged him, by not giving him immunity when he’d asked for it in the fallout of two of the failed conspiracies (Devine 2009: 133). He has this idea that Cecil and Elizabeth are out to get him. Which, I mean. On the one hand, it would be totally reasonable if they were, given his track record. On the other hand, if they did want him dead, he wouldn’t be alive to sit and talk about how they wanted him dead.
He demonises Cecil and Elizabeth, but when it came to Leicester, the guy who’d most recently condemned him to death and had him imprisoned in the tower, he thought they were totally good buds by the end (Devine 2009: 133-34). He also seemed out of touch with reality in terms of his own importance, suggesting that even had they tried to execute him 500 men would have stopped it happening, some using force of arms (Devine 2009: 134).
His conspiratorial notions about why Elizabeth and Cecil are persecuting him get more outlandish too. In his first plot against Elizabeth Prestall had advised the chief conspirator, Arthur Pole, that he would take the throne when Elizabeth died. Pole’s ancestry could be traced back to a royal bloodline, and now Prestall had decided that he was part of that ancestry, too, and that was why Elizabeth and Cecil were persecuting him (Devine 2009: 135). He wasn’t, and it wasn’t.
And at the same time he also thought that he should be made a member of the Privy Council, and that it was Cecil who was preventing that from happening, as well as preventing Elizabeth from appointing Prestall as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Devine 2009: 136).
These ramblings, reported in voluntary depositions given by a couple that Prestall had visited, are the last we know of him. His story ends with a whimper.
But all that’s over a decade after the discovery of the wax dolls that lead to his arrest. So let’s get back to 1579. Leicester is using the discovery of the dolls to full effect to push his Catholic conspiracy narrative. He also starts to spread rumours that the French are using magic and love potions to make Elizabeth fall in love with Anjou (Parry 2012: 135). Which, as some of you may think, possibly actually aligns closer with what a wax doll with a needle through its breast might be used for.
Unfortunately for him, the fact that Leicester uses the dunghill dolls to try and push his ‘Catholic conspiracy!’ story backfires when, around November of 1580, a conjuror called Thomas Elkes confessed that he was the man behind the wax images, which he said had been created as part of a love charm for a client (Parry 2012: 136). Which makes Leicester look foolish for having imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured a bunch of people who had nothing to do with it. Whoopsie.
On top of that, in early 1579, Leicester’s enemies had revealed to the queen that he had secretly married Lettice Knollys on the 21st of September 1578. This displeased Elizabeth, since, as we know, Dudley was a man that people knew Elizabeth held feelings for. She would never marry him, but she wanted strict control over who he could marry.
The confession of Thomas Elkes and Leicester’s fall from grace are why Prestall’s death sentence was commuted. Walsingham too, suffered from the fallout, and neither were welcomed back to court until early 1580, which meant Dee was also without access to the court until then, as well.
Now, I know ‘tense’ is the standard state of international politics, but things were particularly tense in the September of 1580, because, once again, Elizabeth and her council were worried about the possibility of France gaining control of the Netherlands, and Leicester was once again using this to push the idea that she should send him to the Netherlands at the head of an army. He really wants to lead an army. Which means that once again, Leicester has need of Dee’s mythic Arthurian genealogy arguments (Parry 2012: 139).
At the same time, in the late summer of 1580, rumours appeared about a potential Catholic plot involving coining. A Catholic plot? Unusual, I know.
An Irish alchemist called Richard Stanihurst was arrested, and Murphyn takes this opportunity to start spreading a story that Dee was also involved in this plot. This time, he doesn’t hide behind anonymity or forgeries to do it. Everyone knows the source of these stories, including Dee, who, on the 14th of September that same year, initiates legal proceedings against Murphyn.
Glynn Parry points out that this opens up the possibility that Catholic opponents of Leicester were behind Vincent Murphyn’s renewed attacks on Dee – to undermine Dee was to undermine a significant part of Leicester’s strategy (Parry 2012: 139). Alternatively, it could just be that Murphyn blamed Dee for what had happened to Prestall, and for his own questioning, and wanted revenge. Could be both. I find it a bit weird, though, that this time he does it under his own name. It certainly doesn’t work out well for him.
Elizabeth actually comes to visit Dee in September, and makes it clear that he has her support, and she tells his he really should come to court more often (Parry 2012: 139).
Dee puts in a declaration against Murphy at the London Guildhall Court. The next day, Murphyn, who is in prison, writes a letter to Cecil, passing it to a fellow prisoner and agent of Cecil, who forwards it to him a few days later, on the 26th of September (Parry 2012: 139). His letter claims he has knowledge of the Catholic plot, and Dee’s involvement in it, but he’s vague on details – he’s happy to give them to Cecil in person, but not in a letter. And he complains about what a nasty person John Dee is – this man who he’s never met, who’s taken him to court for damages. He claims Dee is seeking damages of £666, which shows what a spiteful and malicious man Dee was (Parry 2012: 140).
Now, I tried to find a copy of this letter, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it in time for this episode. I’m sure many of you will have raised an eyebrow at the claim that Dee was seeking £666 in damages. Seems a bit of a significant number. In the apocalyptic thinking of the time, 666 was certainly a number that was known as the number of the beast. It was generally thought to refer to a specific year (Hadfield 2002). I don’t know anywhere near enough to make an authoritative suggestion, but in my brief research, I didn’t see anything that would discount the possibility that Murphyn has picked this number deliberately to further the association between Dee and evil Satan magic.
On the other hand, I found an article in The Spectator, written by author Christopher Howse, in which he recalls, just after finishing his degree, looking at a book in the British Library which had once belonged to John Dee. Apparently, in the margins of the book Dee had made notes, as he frequently did. In this particular note, he was reportedly casting the numerical values of his own name, and the result was 666 (Howse 2016). It may shock you to learn that I did not have time to figure out which book Howse is talking about, go to the British library and try and verify this, but assuming Howse has remembered Dee’s marginalia accurately, this would give Dee a specific connection to the number. On the other other hand, even if that was the case, it seems unlikely to me, based on what I know, that he’d think it a good idea to publicly associate himself with that number.
Whatever the case, Dee wins his suit and is awarded £100 in damages. And this letter is kinda’ Murphyn’s last gasp at hurting Dee. We don’t know what he actually said at the time, back in 1580 – he claims that he revealed all during the court proceedings, but the records from that have unfortunately been lost. But he repeated his allegations under interrogation in 1582, so we can get a decent sense of them from that (Parry 2012: 141).
The outline of the plot he reveals concerns the younger two of the three brothers of the Hastings family, and a bunch of other unnamed Catholic nobles. Murphyn claims they recruited him to use alchemy to coin money for them over in Ireland toward the end of 1579. This money would, of course, be used to fund a Catholic invasion that would free Mary queen of Scots. At the same time, merchants and Catholics in London – including Richard Stanihurst – the guy who’d been arrested in 1580, were going to overthrow the city. The ultimate goal of the plot was to kill Elizabeth, get Mary to marry one of the Hastings brothers, and then take the throne of England and Scotland (Parry 2012: 140).
And by 1582, at least Murphyn has incorporated Dee’s court case against him into his narrative, claiming that it actually proved that what Murphyn had been saying about him was true. Without the original court records we can’t know for sure whether he was already using this detail, but if this is his story, it does explain why he’d attack Dee using his own name. Anyway. He claims that in 1580, he’d had a sudden change of heart, and fled to London to try and warn Elizabeth about the plot. The conspirators had pursued him and tried to assassinate him, but when that failed, decided that they’d get him arrested by having him be falsely accused of something (Parry 2012: 140). So the fact that Dee took him to court proves that Dee was part of the conspiracy, because he was clearly doing this at the behest of the other conspirators in order to discredit Murphyn.
A couple of weeks after Dee’s court case, Elizabeth writes to Dee, at the behest of Leicester, asking him to come to court and explain this genealogy thing properly. On the 3rd of October Dee presents Elizabeth with a draft of the ‘Limits’ – that manuscript he’d gone to present in 1578 when the dunghill dolls were discovered. He explains his ideas throughout the afternoon, and Cecil is there to hear it. He isn’t convinced, however. Possibly this is due to his own learning on the subject – he thinks Philip’s claim is stronger – but also very probably because the position Dee’s ideas are being used to support is Leicester’s war ambition, and Cecil is not in favour of that plan (Parry 2012: 141). For one, war is expensive, for another, they could lose.
Dee continues to explain his ideas to Cecil for the next two days. Dee recorded that Cecil treated him well, and took notes on what he was saying. On Thursday, Cecil interviewed Murphyn. On Friday, when Cecil saw Dee again, he basically just blanks him (Parry 2012: 141). Yikes.
Luckily for Dee, however, this ultimately goes nowhere. The following Monday Elizabeth visited Dee to reassures him that Cecil totally enjoyed his work, and a few month after that, Cecil sends Dee some venison as a gift. So even if Cecil did take Murphyn’s accusations seriously for a short time, he evidently dismisses them pretty quickly (Parry 2012: 142).
And thus Murphyn’s story also ends with a whimper. His final attempts to frame Dee get him sued, ordered to pay Dee £100, thrown in debtors prison, and don’t harm Dee. Dee however, never sees the money. He claims he released Murphyn from the debt in February 1581, having reasoned that Murphyn has been sufficiently punished financially through having to pay the daily fees for being stuck in debtor’s prison. Because making people pay interest on their fine and preventing them from working is certainly going to help them pay their debt. Not that I have any sympathy for Murphyn, but uh, screw that system. In March Cecil moves Murphyn to the King’s Bench Prison. We know he’s interrogated about the Catholic plot again in 1582, when he again makes his accusations against Dee, but they have zero impact on Dee.
After that, Murphyn also disappears from the records. I guess you could say Dee won. Unfortunately, getting Foxe’s book, and the slanders of Prestall and Murphyn out of the way doesn’t mean Dee finally succeeds in embedding himself fully in Elizabeth’s court. His presentation of the ‘Limits’ was the highest he’d ascend. In late 1580 the international situation had changed to the extent that Leicester had decided they needed a French alliance after all, and thus ceased to have any use for Dee (Parry 2012: 142). After this, he’d never have that kind of influence at court again. And there are other things – and other people – that have a profound impact on his reputation. One of them is a guy called Edward Kelly. It was this later period of Dee’s life that I originally intended to talk about before I discovered Prestall and Murphyn, and I think it’s traditionally the part of his life that most people are interested in, because it’s when he starts doing more angel magic, and who doesn’t’ want to hear about angel magic? But, I am done talking about early modern European politics and religion for a while, so there will be future episodes on John Dee, but not for a while.
Before I finish, I just want to take a moment to talk about how we know what we know about some of these events. The source for detailed information on John Prestall is Michael Devine – and it’s available online if you want to read the full account of Prestall’s life. The main source for both his and Vincent Murphyn’s interactions with Dee is Glyn Parry. No one has compiled an account specifically of Murphyn’s life, and he doesn’t have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. As I’ve tried to make clear throughout these two episodes, we can’t know for sure why Prestall and Murphyn first attacked Dee, or whether it was Dee that brought up Prestall’s name in relation to the dunghill dolls. We don’t know whether it was Prestall or Dee who gave up Murphyn’s name, or, whether it was even one of them. But it seems highly likely that it was one of those two, and Glyn Parry’s timeline of Dee’s meetings with the Queen and the arrest and questioning of Prestall make a compelling argument that it’s a distinct possibility Dee had something to do with it – he certainly had motive, after all.
Equally, it’s entirely reasonable to think that Prestall first attacked Dee to get to Cecil, especially when coupled with his own ambitions to become a popular alchemist. Dee is competition, and he’s not the only alchemist Prestall goes after. There’s good reason to think we understand most, if not all, of Prestall’s motivations.
Murphyn is the man I find most interesting, because he’s the one we know least about. His overall life trajectory, and all the other people and events that influenced his actions are unknown. The only link we have is that he was Prestall’s brother-in-law, and a career grifter himself. I have nowhere near enough knowledge to make an informed comment on this, but from the lack of evidence (always a dangerous starting point, I know), it doesn’t seem likely to me that he had the same high ambitions at court as Prestall. He seems to be content to make a living out of his grifts, and to be friends with Prestall. And the fact that he’s willing to do so much for him to drag Dee, makes it reasonable to suspect that he was equally as unpleasant as Prestall. And that’s what I have to say about that.
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Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that has engaged in precisely zero Catholic conspiracies.
The voice in your ears has been: definitely a descendant of King Arthur.
- Adams, S. (2008) ‘Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
- Bucholz, R. & Key, N. (2009) Early Modern England 1485-1714: A Narrative History, Wiley-Blackwell.
- Crossley,. J. (Ed.) (1851) Autobiographical Tracts of John Dee, Chetham Society.
- Dee, J. (1577) General and Rare Memorials
- Devine, M. (2009) John Prestall: A Complex Relationship with the Elizabethan Regime, Masters Thesis.
- Eland, G. (Ed.) (1960) Thomas Wotton’s Letter-Book, 1574-1586, Oxford University Press.
- Escobedo, A. (2004) Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England, Cornell University Press.
- Foxe, J. (1576) Actes and Monuments, Acts and Monuments Online.
- Hadfield, A. (2002) ‘review of A Protestant Vision: William Harrison and the Reformation of Elizabethan England’ Reviews in History, (review no. 302).
- Howse, C. (2016) ‘John Dee thought he could talk to angels using medieval computer technology’, The Spectator, 16 January.
- Parry, G. (2012) The Arch Conjuror of England, Yale University Press.
- Roberts, R. J. (2006) ‘Dee, John’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
- Young, F. (2019) ‘The Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Democratisation of Magic in Post-Reformation England’ Religions Vol. 10: 241.