“In every generation there are those who believe eternal life is the one way forward for human kind.”
When I started to write this book I was struck by the fact that we now seem very close to actually discovering the secret to eternal life, through stem cell technology, cloning etc. It seemed to me that one way or another, humanity has been obsessed by this possibility throughout the ages. It manifests itself as religion, art, science, spiritualism, galvanism, necromancy etc. Then, at roughly the same time, I learned that the famous occultist Dr Dee, ‘the Queen’s Conjuror’, was appointed Warden of what is now Manchester Cathedral in 1595, and remained in that post until 1608, and my story was born!
Many myths and legends surround John Dee. He is said to be the prototype for Shakespeare’s Prospero, and Christopher Marlowe’s Faust. He is now considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance, making invaluable contributions to mapping, navigation, geometry and astronomy. Some say that his genius led him to become deranged and deluded. Others attribute his downfall to his association with Edward Kelly, a lawyer who had been convicted of forging land deals, fraud and coining.
Dee and Kelly met around 1579, at which point Kelly convinced Dee that he could turn lead into gold, and communicate with angels, using a special technique known as scrying i.e. gazing into a reflective surface such as an obsidian stone.
In 1583, Kelly and Dee produced the Book of Enoch in the special language they called Enochian, which was dictated to Kelly by angels and transcribed by Dee. This language, Kelly claimed, contained the perfect truth of God.
In 1584, Kelly became convinced that Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, was watching them, and they fled to Poland, and then to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.
In 1589, Dee and Kelly parted company. Kelly was kept at the court of Rudolph II on the promise of revealing the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone. This was the ultimate goal of alchemy. It enabled the transmutation of base metals into gold, and was also the key to eternal life. Kelly was ultimately imprisoned in Prague, for failing to produce either gold or immortality. The exact circumstances of his death are uncertain, and the year given variously as 1593, 1595 or 1597, but most sources agree that he died in an attempt to escape from prison using a rope made of twisted bed linen.
Meanwhile, Dr Dee returned to England, penniless and without prospects. He was given a licence to practice alchemy by Queen Elizabeth I, who also made him Warden of the Collegiate Church in Manchester, now the Cathedral.
This was a deeply unpopular appointment. It is hardly possible to imagine any more controversial move. Manchester at the time was a town deeply divided by religious strife, and there was a growing fear of witchcraft and the Occult. On one side of the river, there were the radical Puritans of the Salford Hundred, while despite persecution, powerful Catholic families still remained in Lancashire.
Meanwhile, the Fellows of the Collegiate Church tried to establish and maintain the rule of the Church of England, though some of them had lived through the reigns of six monarchs, each with different religious views. Dr Dee’s reputation had preceded him. He was thought to be a necromancer (someone who invoked the dead) and in league with the Devil. Eventually his magnificent library, thought to be the greatest in Europe, was destroyed by a mob, and in 1605, when a great plague struck Manchester, he disappeared, possibly in order to avoid being blamed.
So Dr Dee was isolated, at the end of his life, surrounded by ‘petty wrangling tradesmen and bigots’ as he described the Fellows. He no longer had a patron, since Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and had no prospects of another appointment. He was constantly in trouble with the Fellows for failing to attend church services or to administer and oversee repairs. His life work had apparently come to nothing.
What would happen, I wondered, if at this point, he was visited by his ex-partner (deceased) who would offer him the chance to know everything he had ever wanted to know – at a price?
Manchester in 1604
In 1604, Manchester was a small, but growing town of between 2 and 3 thousand people. It was centred around the area now dominated by Victoria Station, Urbis and the Cathedral, which at that time was known as the Collegiate Church. This meant that there was a College of Priests attached to the church, and the building still remains, though it is now fairly well hidden from view. In earlier times, the college was one of the most prominent buildings in town. The priests, their assistants, known as clerks, and choristers lived in the building, which resembles a manor house. It is the best and most complete example of its kind in the country.
The rivers Irk and Irwell meet behind the college, and were crucially important to the development of the town. Hunts Bank runs on one side of the college, and Long Millgate on the other. Long Millgate still exists, but in 1604 was full of inns. In the 19th century, Engles described the area between Long Millgate and the river, as containing ‘unqualifiedly the most horrible dwellings which I have yet beheld.’ Hanging Ditch was a long street curving behind the church; Withy Grove, Shude Hill, Toad Lane and Deansgate ran from this. On the far side of this, two streets called Smithy Door and Old Millgate ran to the Market Square, and Market Street, which was full of shops, as it is today.
And that was it. If you followed any of the streets you were soon out in open countryside; the woods of Alport Park behind Deansgate, Walker’s Croft, behind the college, where wool was stretched in the field to dry, and if you followed Long Millgate you would come to Collyhurst Common, where pigs and geese were kept, and where, when plague struck in 1605, rough wooden shelters were built for the sick, who were left to die.
The church was originally founded in 1421. The Angel Stone, discovered during the restoration of the church, predates the original building, and has Anglo-Saxon writing on it which means ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ There are fourteen angels in the Cathedral roof, each holding a different mediaeval instrument. These are thought to have been positioned at the request of the Lady Margaret Beaufort, grandmother to Henry VIII, who lived in a house off Deansgate.
Manchester is not good at preserving its early history, and little is known about this lady’s life there, except that she was a scholar who took to educating boys in her own home, and one of these, Hugh Oldham, later founded the Manchester Free Grammar School.
The Angel Stone is an imaginative, rather than a factual response to this history.