Saturday, February 13, 2016

In Search of Early Tudor Magicians

By Lizzy Drake

Rattan-monodosico: An English magic sigil or device found in the Devil's Dyke.
Photo from Tumblr (The Broom Cupboard)

Most students of Tudor history are familiar with Elizabeth I's pet magician, John Dee, but they might not be familiar with where the earlier ideals of the magician originated from. While most of his work revolved around his Angelic Manuscripts and attempts to conjure and communicate with angelic beings, there is an older, some would say much darker, form of 'magical science' that helped to bring him to the position of authority he is now known for. While Dee was obsessed with contacting angels, previous magicians are known for their attempts to summon demons to do their bidding.

I would however, like to point out here that evidence for early Tudor magic in regards to demon summoning is scarce. John Dee wanted to classify the difference between higher spirits (angels) and lesser (demons) and go on to make his Angelic Manuscripts. His work was based much on what Edward Kelly (seen as a charlatan by most historians) saw in his visions, but there are hints in his books that his research has also come from others who have claimed to summon or have a story about a demon visiting. Witchcraft was well known and understood to be a force of evil at the time, though 'cunning women' were seen as helpful forces (it wasn't until 1542 that the practice of witchcraft was deemed a capital offence punishable by hanging – unlike popular fiction, burning of witches was not practiced in England as it was in Scotland and Europe).

Just to differentiate, the magician or astrologist (some would put alchemist in this category too) was a completely different kettle of fish than the witch or cunning woman. These men (I have yet to come across a record of a woman within this category) were individuals who view themselves more as scientists and scholars than people users of magic. Henry VIII had several court astrologers, though they kept getting their predictions so wrong that he eventually lost faith in them. Despite this, they were still viewed as acceptable at court.

It is important to remember that what we as modern minds consider as 'magic' is very different than the 16th century individual. For one, religion, science and magic were intermingled. There was not yet a great understanding of why or how nature worked. Heaven and Hell were real places in the thoughts and beliefs of 16th century men and women, and the same belief went for angels and demons. If a horse went lame and no obvious source was found, it would often be blamed on witchcraft. If a plague swept through London, many would assume it was God punishing them. Though the fear of eternal damnation would keep many on the straight and narrow, there were also those with a drive to gain more power by any means necessary. And there was the same natural drive that mankind has to understand his/her world. It may be difficult to swallow, but these might be considered as some of the first 'scientific experiments' in England.

The later 16th century saw a surge in 'magical' research and publications. It was separated from witchcraft (as mentioned earlier, which had become a capital offence) and no longer in Henry VIII's or Mary's dangerous reign, students of this new form of rough 'natural science' were accepted. In Robert Turner's book, Elizabethan Magic (Turner, p. 4), he kindly lists just a few texts that he worked from. It gives us some insight into the new revolution of thought, which I would argue, held its seeds much earlier. The list is as follows:

Libri Mysteriorum, Books I-V (1581-1583)
Liber Mysteriorum Sextus et Sanctus (1583)
Libri Mysteriorum, Books VII-XVIII (1583-1587)
48 Claves Angelicae (1584)
Liber Scientiae, Auxilii et Victoriae Terrestris (1585)
A Book of Supplications and Invocations (date unknown)

Simon Forman, 1611
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a highly respected physician, astrologer and necromancer, showing once again how science had still not broken away from what we might now consider unscientific and downright superstitious. But he would not have been allowed to flourish without the change in monarchy. As Turner writes, 'Had fate allowed Mary more than five short bloody years to pursue her relentless persecution of all that she considered heretical, a very different Simon Forman may have emerged. For during his life Forman was to become notorious as a necromancer: expert in the arts of conjuring spirits; communication with the dead; and the manufacture of philtres; charms and talismans; aphrodisiacs and even poisons. In high places his trusted – and perhaps, feared – reputation was to earn him the title 'sweet Father Forman' (Turner, p. 91). Would Forman have abandoned his desires to pursue astrology and raising spirits if he were born half a century earlier? I seriously doubt it. Instead, he may have hidden his works and carried them out in secrecy. After Cambridge University awarded him a licence to practice his art in 1603, he was still imprisoned for a year with a heavy fine for breaking some rules put upon his 'illicit' ministrations as he was harassed by the Guild of Barber-Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians (Turner, p. 92). This example shows how his passion for his subject overcame any restrictions put upon him by the law. Despite his dubious practices, he was the first to have noted how rats may have been responsible for the spread of plague.

Witchcraft might not have been a capital offence until 1542, but heresy was different. Texts before this Elizabethan revolution were dangerous and if found, were probably burnt. What evidence remains, can be found within the archaeological strata; wall carvings and portable antiquity. At least, that is for the English texts pre-Elizabethan era. Anna Marie Roos lists many European scholars from the medieval era onward, which used sigil and angels to perform feats of magic, Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) and Peter of Abano (ca. 1250–1316), only two of them.

Roos states further evidence in the early use of sigils and angels that has been used and seen in medieval Spain, something that would probably have been familiar to Catherine of Aragon. Although there is little evidence for English texts supporting the uses of cabalistic magic, the fact that it was about previously throughout Europe shows distinct possibility that it would have been accessible for those pursuing it. She writes: 'Inscribing the names of angels on sigils was also thought to be efficacious, a tradition begun in the thirteenth century by the increasing influence of Jewish cabalistic texts such as the Sefer Yezirah and the Sefer Razi'el. These works were used by Jewish astrologers who served as courtiers in medieval Spain, and were later incorporated in Pico della Mirandola's cabalistic theses in 1486.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), in his Philosophia occulta siva magia (1531), also writes detailed instructions for the use of Hebrew symbols and numerology in magical sigils. At this time, nobody was awarding themselves with the title of 'magician' yet they were setting the foundations of what would become popularly known as 'Elizabethan Magic' as scholars see it today.


Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius; Philosophia occulta siva magia, 1531 (as cited by Roos)

Biggs, Robin; Witches and Neighbours, London 1996

Macfarlane, Alan; Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, London 1970

Roos, Anna Marie; ‘Magic coins’ and ‘magic squares’: the discovery of astrological sigils in the Oldenburg Letters, The Royal Society (online) 2008

Turner, Robert; Elizabethan Magic, Dorset 1989


Lizzy Drake is the author of the Tudor era Elspet Stafford Mysteries. She is currently working on book 2 of the series which involves an early Tudor 'magician' at Framlingham Castle. She has been studying Tudors for over 15 years and has a MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York. 


  1. Interesting Simon Forman connected rats to plague. Pity no one paid attention ... but if they had, what could they have done about it anyways? Any information about the medallion device found in the Devil's Dyke? Or why it got there? Did they really think the Devil lived there? What did they do with such a thing?

  2. Sally, I would love to find out more about that medallion - as for the Devil's Dyke, I think you just gave me next month's blog topic :-)


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