“… to reveal and discover conspiracies, and to govern the greater things of life; as to blast or succeed the enterprises of princes and people; to tell and foretell the success of such and such undertakings; and even to influence the undertakers…”

-from A Compleat System of Magick: or, The History of the Black Art by Daniel Defoe (1729)

The term “political magic” has a ring to it. Just muttering it conjures up images of cowled Illuminati convening in some manorial antechamber (in Davos no doubt). A similar trope in early modern times was the all-powerful archmage. This was the much-fabulated schoolman who could “nourish little spirits in glasses” (to use the words of German magician Heinrich Agrippa) and command them to assail his political rivals by sibilating something like “sic ’em” in Latinate gobbledygook. Fortunately, in day-to-day life, such figures were few and far between.

Frontispiece from The Black Box of Roome Opened (1641). Image via the Yale Beinecke Library.

Even so, in England, the right combination of astrology, priestcraft, and praestigium got some monarchs very hot under the collar. The Jesuits for example, were, by some assessments, nothing but a cabal of sweet-talking, sorcerous, politicians. On Englishman named Lewis Owen in his The unmasking of all popish monks, friers, and Jesuits (1628) called them a “company of cunning magicians” and “sorcerers”.

Like the globalists and Freemasons of today’s New World Order mythos, the Jesuits were thought to be the main provocateurs and financiers behind international conflicts. Relatedly, it was alleged that they had an unrivalled penchant for gathering and disseminating intelligence. One popular legend, for instance, tells of a certain French Jesuit named “Father Coton” who, with the aid of a magic looking-glass, could see the secret proceedings transacting in all the royal courts of Europe.

Frontispiece to Pyrotechnica Loyalana, Ignatian Fire-Works (1667). Image via the British Museum online collection.

Another sort of political magic can be categorised as astrological propaganda. In the times of autocratic royals, casting a horoscope of a sitting monarch was not just plain rude, it was also an affront to cosmic hierarchy. The logic went something like this: the king or queen ruled by divine authority; ergo anyone who sought to ascertain a ruler’s destiny without his or her consent was disrespecting God and humanising his anointed. Thus, when prognosticators like William Lilly and Nicholas Culpeper waxed prophetic about the doom of the Stuart monarchy, they necessarily furthered the propagandistic objectives of its republican detractors.

As persons of significance (some of Lilly’s writings sold 30,000 copies a year) Lilly and Culpeper were invaluable assets to the anti-royalist Interregnum regime. In a sense, their words were like wands. The nineteenth-century writer and Conservative MP Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton had an excellent way of articulating this kind of influence. The following excerpt is taken from Richelieu; or The Conspiracy (1839), Bulwer-Lytton’s play on Cardinal Armand Richelieu. A determined statist and political strategist, Richelieu was arguably the most puissant propagandist of the seventeenth-century:

So far we have broached only a fraction of what could be described as political magic. Much more could be said apropos of its specific applications and historiography. Happily, a new work by historian Francis Young offers a more wide-ranging look at the relationship between criminal magic and politics in the days of Old England. In the interview below, Dr Young weighs in on everything from John Dee’s counter-magic to Protestant-Catholic culture wars.

The Custodian: What instruments did early modern English monarchs avail themselves of in order to counteract assassinative sorcery? Was there a special network of shadowy “operators” or fixers to which they had recourse?

Dr Francis Young: Several English kings had occult advisers, such as Edward IV (George Ripley) and Henry VII (Lewis of Caerleon). However, the first person we know of to work counter-magic on behalf of a monarch against treasonous magic was John Dee in 1578, who performed a ritual to protect Elizabeth I from effigy magic. There may have been others who worked similar rituals before that, but monarchs also relied on their belief in divine right (which implied divine protection) as well as the widespread belief (which went back to the Malleus maleficarum) that witches, once caught and subject to judicial proceedings, were prevented by God from harming those in authority. If kings had made regular use of counter-magic it might have undermined their pretensions to divine authority, because magic was ultimately a rather dubious activity; better to defeat magicians by non-magical means.

Dr John Dee. Image via Internet Archive.

C: Elsewhere you’ve suggested that John Dee occasionally assisted officials in court cases involving sorcery. What more can you say about Dee’s role?

F: Dee performed astrological calculations for Elizabeth on a number of occasions, including astrological medicine for her health. He also advised her and William Cecil on alchemy, and was accused of being the Earl of Leicester’s “conjurer”. Most importantly, however, Dee advised Elizabeth on imperial expansion, arguing that she had the right to lands previously conquered by King Arthur (which included the Americas). Dee saw himself as Merlin to Elizabeth’s Arthur, although it is less certain that Elizabeth saw herself in the Arthurian role.

C: You’ve already pointed out that after 1534 Catholics were especially singled out to be prosecuted for committing magical treason. What events or changes in public opinion do you think gave rise to this shift?

F: Religious conservatives (Catholics, essentially) were targeted after 1534 with accusations of magic because they opposed Henry VIII’s divorce from Katharine of Aragon, his break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. Many of those targeted were friars, whom Henry perceived as being especially close to Rome and whose orders were dissolved in 1536.

The English Reformation resulted in a redefinition of what constituted “superstition”. Activities that had previously been considered perfectly acceptable (such as allowing children with whooping cough to drink consecrated wine from the chalice at mass) were condemned as superstitious and even magical. If someone continued with these practices it meant that he or she was resistant to religious change, and therefore the government was interested in people practising magic because it gave them a way to discover who was against the Reformation.

C: Similarly, why, in your opinion, were other “undesirables” in early modern England such as the Jesuits and Quakers sometimes derogated as sorcerers and conjurors?

F: One reason why Jesuits were particularly targeted, to a greater extent than other Catholics, was that they led the major campaigns of exorcism in the 1580s. However, there is little evidence after the 1530s of people being accused of magical practices *because* they were Catholics. The Quakers were targeted with accusations of witchcraft in the 1650s because the way they behaved in meetings (“quaking”) was interpreted by some as demonic possession. People also struggled to explain the Quakers’ radical rejection of traditional Christianity and interpreted it as motivated by the devil. When people joined the Quakers and adopted radical beliefs this was sometimes interpreted as the result of bewitchment.

C: Can you tell us a bit more about how English Protestants reacted to and politicised Catholic exorcism rituals?

F: The politicisation of Catholic exorcism by Protestants came quite late in the day; the authorities were initially more concerned about Protestant exorcists. Catholic exorcists were attacked in 1602 as part of a campaign against Protestant exorcism, but as Protestant exorcists disappeared, the Catholics became more prominent in offering this service and were regularly attacked as “conjurers” (indeed, “conjurer” is just another word for exorcist). However, the main Protestant polemic against exorcism labelled it as fraud rather than magic. This was the general trend in Protestant attacks against Catholics – they began by accusing the Catholics of magic, but then moved towards accusations of fraud. One reason for this was that calling Catholics sorcerers risked making Catholicism *more* rather than less attractive because magic was exactly what many people wanted…

C: Were witches ordinarily prosecuted for treasonous magic or did their actions fall under another jurisdiction?

F: There are virtually no cases in England of people accused of witchcraft also being accused of treason (I know of a single case from 1589). One reason for this was that the old Statute of Treason (1352) already covered magical treason, so the Witchcraft Acts (1563 and 1604) didn’t need to deal with these crimes. In fact, treasonous magic was the only kind of magic that was illegal before 1542. There was also no tradition in England of witches committing treason; witches only operated at a local level (in contrast to Scotland, where groups of witches regularly tried to kill the king).

The English tradition was of desperate people turning to learned ritual magic (a phenomenon distinct from witchcraft) in order to overthrow or manipulate the monarch. Generally speaking, in England a witch was thought to be an evil kind of person, whereas anyone with sufficient learning might attempt magic.

C: Which people would you say gained the most profit (financially and in terms of fame) from broadcasting propaganda about magical crimes?

F: Cases of magical treason were sometimes publicised by ministers of the crown (or, in the case of Richard III, by the monarch himself) and sometimes by magicians themselves in order to discredit fellow practitioners (this kept happening to John Dee). They sometimes also appeared in the pamphlet press as popular conspiracy theories (such as the alleged occult poisoning of James I and VI). In a lot of instances, the alleged plots were not publicised widely, perhaps out of fear that the monarch might appear weak. I suspect that the people with the most to gain were unscrupulous magical practitioners who, by making accusations against colleagues, deflected attention from themselves and eliminated rivals.

C: Where can we next hear you speak? Any upcoming events you’d like to mention?

F: I’ll be speaking to the London Fortean Society at Conway Hall on Tuesday 6 February about “Magic as Treason”. 


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