Guest Post: True Stories of Wizardry in England in the Days before the International Statute of Secrecy

Tony McAleavy is the author of The Last Witch Craze: John Aubrey, the Royal Society and the Witches, which was published in the UK in June 2022. As someone who gave a talk in 2010 and published an expanded essay on ‘Why Rowling Chose 1692,’ in which I explored the idea that the Wizarding World is the surviving remnant of the Spiritual Seeker sects, which is to say ‘Christian Magi,’ I am fascinated by this subject and begged McAleavy to share in a Guest Post here the outline of his research into the subject of real world “conjuring” in the UK’s tumultuous Seventeenth Century.

He agreed — and I think you’ll find as I did that his essay below largely explodes the prevalent misconceptions about a hard line in history separating scientists from magi from Christians. It’s a whole lot more complicated and fascinating than our conventional History-Time-Line Pigeon Holes allow. Thanks to Tony McAleavy for this wonderful Guest Post, which I trust you will enjoy as much as I did.

True Stories of Wizardry in England in the Days before the International Statute of Secrecy

Tony McAleavy

I have been researching real life wizardry and witchcraft in Britain and America in the late seventeenth century for my new book, The Last Witch Craze. JK Rowling proposed that 1689-1692 was a turning point in the relationship between the magical community and Muggles. She imagined how, after the catastrophe of the Salem trials when 20 people accused of satanic magic were executed in New England, the decision was confirmed to introduce the International Statute of Secrecy and make the practice of wizardry and witchcraft invisible to the non-magical world. Of course, Rowling was writing fiction but my new book suggests that her historical insight was fundamentally correct. The early 1690s was indeed the end of an era. Before that several wizards operated discreetly but not secretly. Afterwards they kept quiet about their practice.

I focus on three prominent men who I believe were active wizards in London 1660-1690. One of these magicians was John Aubrey. He openly promoted his belief in premonitions, potions and charms in a book he wrote towards the end of his life called Miscellanies. He grew up surrounded by magical practices in rural Wiltshire. As a boy, Aubrey saw female servants at the family home examine the ashes in the hearth at the end of the evening in order to foretell the future.

The maids I remember were very fond of this kind of Magic, which is clearly a Branch of Geomancy.

Aubrey went to Trinity College, Oxford aged sixteen and started an intense lifelong friendship with another student called Anthony Ettrick who shared his interest in magic. Ettrick got into trouble for practising ritual spirit magic with his friends. Aubrey’s description of Ettrick’s experiment with magic is brief but full of significance.

In my time, Mr. Anthony Ettrick and some others frighted a poor young freshman of Magdalen Hall with conjuring.

By ‘conjuring’ Aubrey meant not sleight-of-hand tricks but the calling up of spirits. This clearly terrified another student who was present. Aubrey, like Ettrick, had no doubt that spirits could be summoned. In Miscellanies he published several pages of enthusiastic commentary on crystal ball magic. He also made explicit his endorsement of crystal magic in a pamphlet he wrote about the school curriculum. One school subject, reserved only for students who were magically gifted, was contact with the spirit world through the use of crystal or beryl balls.

Let those (or the most innocent and Angelical virtuous youths) look into Beryls, or Crystals.

I wonder if Rowling was thinking of Aubrey’s advocacy of crystal ball study at high school level when she imagined the erratic classroom practice of Professor Sybill Trelawney.

Aubrey had money troubles throughout his life. After 1660 he became a great friend with a wealthy wizard called Elias Ashmole, who used his considerable fortune to pursue his interest in magic with assistance from Aubrey. He also established the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the world’s first public museum. Ashmole was an active wizard. He made extensive use of talismans called ‘sigils’ intended to harness the protective power of benign spirits. A manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains a spell for the invocation and binding of a fairy which Ashmole, it seems, used personally. MS Ashmole 1406 was intended to be used in a ritual to summon a particular fairy spirit called Elaby Gathen. Ashmole inserted the initials of his own name into the text of the invocation. The purpose of the magic was for Ashmole, as a wizard, to obtain control over the fairy so that it would be forced to serve him

In my book I describe how Aubrey and Ashmole set out to defend the legacy of the Elizabethan wizard, John Dee, who was increasingly accused of practising the Dark Arts. Ashmole was also preoccupied with the search for the philosopher’s stone. A wizard possessing the stone could converse with angels and unlock the secrets of the future. He insisted in print that the search for the stone was not in any way associated with the Dark Arts.

This as E[lias} A[shmole] assures you, is not any ways Necromanticall, or Devilish; but easy, wondrous easy, Natural and Honest.

This cartoon of about 1700 is an attack on wizardry. Two gentleman have been engaging in spirit magic but they have summoned a Devil because their wizardry is a form of satanism. The Wellcome Collection

The third wizard I highlight was the most famous them all. This was the scientist, Robert Boyle, the discoverer of Boyle’s Law and the founder of modern chemistry. Boyle was a modern scientist but he also believed passionately in the authenticity of magic and the reality of the spirit world. In 1658 he organised the publication of a book, The Devil of Mascon, which told the story of the haunting of a house in France by a malicious ghost. He thought this case study provided convincing proof that disembodied spirits existed. In my book I call Boyle, the Christian Wizard, because he was extremely religious and keen to reconcile his views about magic with Christian belief. In my book I look at his unpublished papers which reveal his fascination with spirit magic. He was convinced that it was possible to communicate with angels but deeply worried that he might accidentally summon an evil spirit through magic. I conclude that he finally overcame these concerns and engaged in practical spirit magic. Like Ashmole, Boyle saw spirit magic, combined with the use of the philosopher’s stone, as a means of transforming our understanding of the natural world.

Robert Boyle saw himself as a Christian Wizard. John Aubrey, by contrast, had a more sinister side. He was definitely interested in the Dark Arts. My book concludes with a study of his unpublished magical notebook (Aubrey Manuscript 24) which is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is catalogued as Aubrey MS 24. The catalogue description states that it is a ‘copy by John Aubrey of an astrological treatise’. I went to look at the manuscript in Oxford and discovered that this description was incorrect. Aubrey Manuscript 24 is not about astrology. It is a black magic manual.

The first part is the transcription of a text called The Key of Solomon. The intended reader was a trainee wizard, interested in learning the techniques involved in the difficult business of summoning and controlling evil spirits. The manuscript describes the need to prepare for the engagement with demons through a process of purification. Aubrey’s transcript includes designs for the wands or ritual swords, which he had carefully copied from his original. He also copied out many designs for so-called ‘pentacles’. These were five-pointed talismans, drawn on virgin parchment in bats’ blood, and intended to be used by the wizard when summoning spirits. The pentacles had the power to force demons to obey the presiding wizard. The most sinister sections of the text provided the wizard with advice on how demon magic could be used malevolently to hurt and kill others. Some of the talismans are introduced in the text as ‘the pentacles of destruction and death’. One pentacle of Saturn is recommended for bringing about ‘ruin, destruction, and death’.

Aubrey was clearly interested in this dark magic. There is no evidence that he used ‘the pentacles of destruction and death’. He simply copied out the text without comment. The final part of the magic notebook is different. It is a collection of shorter spells mostly concerned with ‘love’ magic. The intention was to ensure, following the magic, a targeted woman would fall in love with the wizard. Aubrey frequently wrote the words ‘probatum est’ at the end of these spells, meaning ‘it is proven to work’. We cannot be sure that Aubrey used this magic in practice but my hunch is that he did. We do know that at the time he wrote out the spells his own love life was in a mess because he had been rejected by a wealthy woman called Joan Sumner who he hoped to marry.

This generation of real-life wizards passed away in the 1690s. Robert Boyle, the Christian Wizard, died on 31 December 1691. If other prominent intellectuals who came after Boyle, Ashmole and Aubrey practised magic, they kept quiet about it. Of course, the International Statute of Secrecy was enacted at this time….

Thank you, Tony McAleavy, for this essay! I’m looking forward to reading The Last Witch Craze to learn much more about these Christian Magi, the English wizards who lived above ground before the fictional International Statute of Secrecy took effect.



  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you both – this is fascinating (if alarming as well)!

    Could the mischaracterization of Aubrey Manuscript 24 be merely ignorant, or possibly protective – to deflect unhealthy or dangerous interest? Who has known how much, and was saying ‘only so much’? I think of Lewis’s observations in The Abolition of Man, “the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The srious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins”. And of Williams’s treatment of alchemy in Witchcraft. And things in the short stories of M.R. James and others associated with him, on various of whose stories I have been catching up so voraciously that it would take some searching to provide examples, though I seem to remember Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye by Ingulphus (Arthur Gray, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge) as including striking Seventeenth-century references. A curious feature of HP is the (so to put it) ‘mechanization and “de-spiritualization”‘ of magic. (If anything like the attempts to posit an impersonal ‘spiritus’ studied by D.P. Walker in Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella is in the back of her mind as a literary device, I cannot recall that she ever makes that explicit.)

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