John Dee was a real historical individual who lived between 1527 and 1608/9. He was a scholar of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. He did not see his studies of science and magic as being at odds, but rather as part of the same great mystery.
Dee’s learning attracted the attention of several very important people. Among these was Bruno’s friend Sir Philip Sidney, an English poet and courtier whom Dee tutored, and who will appear later in the story. Queen Elizabeth herself used Dee as an occasional consultant and advisor. Dee was also famous for his huge collection of books, one of the largest libraries in Europe.
Mortlake is now a district of London, but was then part of rural Surrey. John Dee lived in his mother’s house, remaining there after she died. He added an observatory, laboratories, and rooms to house his huge library. There is nothing left of the house today.
Spoiler Alert: As the novel deals with real historical people and events, clicking on the extra links provided in these bookmarks may give away the plot.
Ned (Edward) Kelley was a real historical cunning-man, not to be confused with the 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Also known as Edward Talbot, he claimed to be able to commune with spirits and angels by using a crystal ball. He worked with John Dee on various magical experiments, and was completely trusted by him. After his death, Kelley became associated with the figure of the typical charlatan magician.
Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be the author of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of writings dealing with Hermetic knowledge and practices. Hermes Trismegistus was actually not an ancient philosopher, but the syncretism of the Greek god Hermes with the Egyptian god Thoth in Hellenistic Egypt. Both were gods of writing and magic, both bearers of wisdom, and both were guides of the dead. Combined as Hermes Trismegistus, this god was believed to be the author of forty-two sacred writings which summed up the teachings of Egyptian priests. These contained philosophy, alchemy and magic, such as the animating of statues to speak prophecy. The epithet ‘Trismegistus’ means ‘thrice-great’ or ‘thrice-wise.’
In 1460, Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, acquired several lost Hermetic books. At the time the texts were thought to be the work of an ancient historical figure called Hermes Trismegistus, who was believed to be a contemporary of Moses. The Hermetic texts attracted much interest from scholars and learned men, and even some members of the Catholic Church, who considered Hermes to have been a pious sage who received revelations from God. Others looked on the teachings with a more suspicious or sceptical eye.
In astrology, Aries is the first sign in the zodiac, named after the star constellation Aries, also called the Ram.
These thirty-six figures are small constellations that become visible on the eastern horizon just before sunrise for a period of ten days. They are called decans, meaning ‘tenths.’ They were used by the ancient Egyptians to mark divisions in the solar calendar. The decans were also very important in ancient Egyptian astrology. Each astrological sign was associated with three decans, ruled over by a planet and given an astrological sign. The decans were also known as star-gods, and were shown in art moving across the sky in boats.
In astrology, the celestial bodies seen moving across the night sky (including the Sun and Moon) are thought to have a direct influence on human lives. In classical astrology there were seven planets: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Each had its own symbol and characteristics. The symbol for Jupiter looks a little like a curly number 4.
This symbol is Bruno’s personal code, used to sign letters of intelligence to Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.
In astrology, the signs of the zodiac are separated into four groups, corresponding to the four classical elements from which it was believed everything in the world was made: fire, earth, air and water. Each group is called a Trigon, and contains three signs. Aries, Leo and Sagittarius belong to the fiery Trigon. Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn make up the earth Trigon. Gemini, Libra and Aquarius form the air Trigon, and Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces belong to the water Trigon.
A Great Conjunction occurs every twenty years, when the planets Jupiter and Saturn appear to align in the night sky. A Greater Conjunction is a much rarer event: the planets Jupiter and Saturn appear to align while entering the sign of a new Trigon. This happens every 240 years. Rarest of all is the Greatest Conjunction, when Jupiter and Saturn align while re-entering the fiery Trigon, in the sign of Aries. This takes place roughly every 1000 years.
Astrology in the Elizabethan period was taken much more seriously than it is today, and the common people as well as the scholars would have been aware of the coming event. These astrological terms even find their way into Shakespeare, showing how popular such observations had become. Here the idea of conjunctions and trigons is used to poke fun at the astrologers and their predictions:
Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction! What
says the almanac to that?
And look, whether the fiery trigon his man, be not
lisping to his master's old tables, his note-book,
Henry IV Part 2 (Act II: Scene 4)
According to astrologers and historians, there had been six Greatest Conjunctions since the Creation. The first was during the life of Enoch, an early biblical figure who was said to be the great grandson of Adam and the great grandfather of Noah. Rather than suffering a mortal death he was taken directly by God at the end of his life.
Another Greatest Conjunction came during Noah’s flood, when God inundated the sin-ridden world. He ordered Noah to build an ark to escape the waters, and to collect on it two of every animal for the repopulation that would follow.
The sixth came during the reign of Charlemagne, the Frankish king and Holy Roman Emperor who united much of Western Europe and converted non-believers to Christianity, and whose reign began a revival of art, culture and religion known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Inspired by the coming conjunction, Richard Harvey predicted that on April 28, 1583, a great storm would rise that would herald the beginning of the end of the world. This prophecy was taken seriously by many, and caused a great deal of worry.
The old religion referred to here is the Catholic faith, and the new is Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation began as a movement to reform the Catholic Church. The leaders of the movement – including Martin Luther and John Calvin – believed that the Catholic Church had become corrupt. In 1517, Martin Luther attached a list of criticisms of the Church to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. The list addressed doctrinal matters such as the sacraments, clerical celibacy, and the authority of the Pope, but Luther was particularly concerned over abuses in the selling of indulgences (official remissions of temporal punishment for sins).
In England, a series of events in the 16th century caused the Church of England to break from the Roman Catholic Church. At first the causes were more political than theological; in the past Henry VIII had even written a book defending the Catholic Church from Martin Luther’s accusations. However, when Henry wished to annul his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon, the Pope would not allow it. Henry broke from the authority of the Pope and established himself as the head of the Church of England, giving himself power over doctrinal disputes, legal issues and the appointment of bishops. This break was not yet a true reformation, and the theology and practices of the new church were disputed for a long time afterwards.
More Protestant reforms were introduced during King Edward VI’s short reign, but in 1553 Mary Tudor came to power and sought a reunion with Rome. Under her rule, Protestant legislation was repealed and Protestants were executed for heresy.
When Elizabeth I ascended the throne she reintroduced (Protestant) Anglicanism as the official religion. She established herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and removed Catholic Councillors from the Privy Council. In 1558 the Act of Uniformity was passed, forcing people to attend service in an Anglican Church every Sunday. Many Catholics continued to attend Mass in secret, however. Puritanism, whose adherents shared the belief that the Protestant reforms had not gone far enough, began to emerge during Elizabeth’s reign.
It is in these confused times, after generations of religious upheaval, that this story is set. John Dee clearly favours Elizabeth and the Protestant faith. Bruno is a Catholic ex-friar, but he has been excommunicated for his radical ideas. He sees Elizabeth as a more enlightened ruler.
At this point in history, witchcraft was considered an evil practice, where people talked to demons and entered into pacts with the devil. Witchcraft was punishable by law; those found guilty would be hanged or burned alive. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, fear of witches was strong, and witch-hunts were carried out to find and eliminate the culprits. Anyone could be accused, from those carrying out occult practices like John Dee to those whose herbal remedies were a little too effective! Things that were radical and new, or simply not understood, were often labelled devilry or witchcraft, like Bruno’s special memory techniques, mentioned later in the story. What Bruno, Dee and Kelley are engaged in here is extremely dangerous.
Barnes is an area of London located on the River Thames, and was historically a part of Surrey. Barn Elms is now an open area, home to a wildfowl wetland and sports fields.
Marriages were solemn religious affairs, traditionally celebrated afterwards with a large wedding feast featuring exotic dishes, music and dancing.
The galliard was a form of music and dance popular all over Europe at this time. The galliard dance involves leaps, hops, and a large jump called a cadence on the last two beats, landing with one leg in front of the other (the posture).
A re-creation of the 16th century Galliard dance:
The rich wore clothes made from a variety of expensive fabrics, including silk, velvet, taffeta and satin. These would be dyed in rich colours, with more vibrant colours denoting higher status. Many of the dyes and fabrics would have been imported at great expense. A new fashion developed for slashes in clothes. These were cuts in the outer layer of the garment, exposing the colourful linings underneath. The linings would be pulled through the cut and puffed out – these were called ‘pullings out’ or ‘drawings out.’ Poorer people wore breeches made from leather or wool.
The feeding of the five thousand was a biblical miracle in which Jesus managed to feed a large crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fish. All five thousand ate until they were full, and there was still leftover food to spare.
Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was Queen Elizabeth’s particular favourite. For a long period he was a suitor for her hand, and many thought that they would be wed. However, when his wife died after falling down stairs, rumours circulated that he had had her killed. This suggestion, and the shadow of his father – who had tried to install Lady Jane Grey on the throne after King Edward VI’s death – made him an unsuitable match for the queen.
Robert was a Privy Councillor, appointed Lord Steward of the Royal Household. He became Earl of Leicester and a very wealthy landowner through royal grants. He was involved in shaping policy at home and abroad, alongside Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth trusted Robert so much that she considered him “another ourself.” He was Elizabeth’s regular dancing partner and spent most of his time at court with her. Rumours that she had children by Dudley persisted in England and abroad for the rest of her life.
The University of Oxford is the second-oldest surviving university in the world (the oldest in the English-speaking world). There is evidence of teaching as far back as the 11th century, but the exact date that the university was founded is unknown. It has remained one of the most important and well-regarded universities, producing many famous scholars.
The Chancellor is the non-resident (figurehead) head of the university. He is not involved with the day-to-day running of the university.
Henry III was king of France from 1574 to 1589. In his youth, preliminary discussions were held for him to court Elizabeth I. However, she seems not to have seriously contemplated marriage with him, and he was openly scathing of her and their difference in age. His reign, like those that preceded it, was one of religious turmoil involving Catholics and Huguenots, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. Henry was Catholic, but he signed an edict offering many concessions to the Huguenots. This angered the powerful Duke of Guise who formed the Catholic League, forcing Henry to take a harder stance against the Protestants. Relations with the Duke of Guise were extremely strained from this point on.
When Bruno arrived in France, Henry heard talk of his special memory technique and summoned him to court to learn more. He satisfied himself that Bruno’s skills had nothing to do with witchcraft or devilry, and was apparently greatly impressed by him. Bruno published a book under Henry’s patronage, dedicated to him, called The Shadows of Ideas. In April 1583 Bruno travelled to England with letters of recommendation from Henry, to become the guest of the French ambassador Castelnau.
Henry I, Duke of Guise, was a charismatic and powerful man who was popular with the public. His hostility towards the Huguenots, the French Protestants, earned him a great deal of adulation amongst the Catholic population. People saw him as strong and committed, while King Henry III was considered weak in contrast.
In 1576 the Duke of Guise formed the Catholic League in order to keep Henry III’s Protestant heir off the throne. This would lead to the War of the Three Henries in 1584. For now, the relationship between Henry III and the Duke is strained, and the Duke of Guise stands as a significant threat to the King.
Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart) was Elizabeth I’s cousin, and Queen of Scotland after her father died. She also hoped to inherit the throne of England, and was considered by many English Catholics to be the legitimate ruler. After a Scottish uprising against her, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her son James VI, then only one year old. Mary attempted to regain the throne, but the battle was unsuccessful. She fled to England, seeking protection from Elizabeth. Elizabeth saw her as a threat and had her arrested, keeping her prisoner in various castles and houses for 19 years. Many Catholics believed that Elizabeth was illegitimate (see Setting) and therefore not the rightful heir to the throne. Mary Stuart consequently became the focus for Catholic plots against Elizabeth.
Mary Stuart was held prisoner at Sheffield Castle in Yorkshire between 1570 and 1584. The castle no longer stands.
The Privy Council advises a head of state. In Elizabethan times it would have comprised the Queen's most trusted friends and advisors.
‘Privy’ means ‘pertaining to a person’ or ‘private’, as the council is personal and private to the Sovereign.
William Fowler was a Scottish writer, poet and courtier. He came to London to retrieve money owed to his father by Mary Stuart. In London he often visited the house of the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau and here he met Bruno. He was recruited by Francis Walsingham to spy on the French Catholics.
Copernicus was a Renaissance astronomer, the first to put forward a comprehensive theory of an astronomical model in which the Earth and other planets orbit a stationary Sun. His book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published in 1543 just before his death, is seen as the beginning of modern astronomy and the start of a scientific revolution. At this point in history the general understanding of the universe placed the Earth at the centre, with all other heavenly bodies orbiting around it. When the Catholic Church ruled that heliocentral views of the universe (those which place the Sun at the centre) were to be considered against the faith, Copernicus' writings were banned.
This is a real book, published in 1583 and written by Henry Howard, entitled A Defensative against the Poyson of supposed Prophecies.
Henry Howard is discussed in the next bookmark.
The Howards are an aristocratic family in Britain. They have been part of the nobility since the 15th century and are still dukes today. The senior line holds the titles Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey and Earl of Norfolk, as well as six baronies. Both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, second and fifth wives of Henry VIII, belonged to the Howard family. In this period, they were a very powerful and influential family, and remained strongly Catholic. Two of their members became martyrs; one was even declared a saint.
The main Howard in Prophecy is Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton. Henry was an aristocrat, courtier and very learned man. He came under suspicion for his religious beliefs (he was suspected of Catholic worship), but protested his innocence. In 1569, Henry’s brother Thomas, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, was imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. He was released, but became involved in a plot to put Mary on the throne. He was executed for treason in 1572. The behaviour of his brother caused Henry Howard a great deal of trouble. Henry was arrested and questioned, and though he was found innocent the matter ruined his prospects. Later, he was arrested again for corresponding with Mary, Queen of Scots. He admitted taking part in Catholic worship but denied that he was trying to win Mary’s favour. He was set free again, and in 1582 began working on his book, a scathing attack on prophecy.
Henry’s nephew, Philip Howard, also features. He was the son of the ill-fated Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. He became the 20th Earl of Arundel when his maternal grandfather died. When Philip’s father was executed for treason, his uncle Henry Howard took over his education. Philip remained strongly Catholic throughout his life.
Richmond Palace was a royal house on the Thames, built by King Henry VII. Only traces of the palace, such as the Gatehouse, remain.
Maids of honour were young, unmarried girls who attended the Queen. They were of noble birth, and came to court as a form of finishing school. This would help them to make good marriages later.
The Yeomen of the Guard were the monarch's bodyguards. The Yeomen were created by Henry VII in 1485; they are the oldest British military corps still in existence.
The guards still wear red and gold Tudor-style uniforms today.
Bruno, a Dominican friar, found himself in trouble due to his radical thinking and taste for forbidden books. When he learned that he was to be formally accused of heresy in Naples, he fled Italy. He travelled first to Geneva, then France, and from there to England. At this point Bruno has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for heresy, and is no longer a friar.
William Cecil, the Lord Burghley, was Queen Elizabeth’s main advisor, twice Secretary of State, and Lord High Treasurer from 1572. He was a firm Protestant.
Click on the links below for images of Tudor interiors and decoration. To the right is a painting of Henry VIII and family; in the background the rich decoration of the palace can be seen.
A painting of Henry VIII's court, showing lavish decoration.
A dollhouse designed as a Tudor house, gives an impression of what Tudor rooms may have looked like.
A catalogue offering mock Tudor panelling, which gives an idea of what Tudor rooms may have looked like.
The Lady of the Bedchamber is the personal attendant of the queen. She is also in charge of the maids of honour. This was a high status position given only to women of high birth. The current Lady of the Bedchamber for Queen Elizabeth II is always a Duchess.