Aspects Of London: The Centre Of Magic

London

art_london_6It wasn’t until I started researching magic (with or without the ‘k’) in London for ‘Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour’ (2019) that I realised how central to the world of magic is London. The main problem is that real tangible evidence about magic is highly elusive and often unconvincing – but there’s no denying that its practitioners were largely associated with London, from Merlin to Judge Dee and Aleister Crowley.

One of the reasons for the annoyingly grey area around magical history is that the story of London has a great black hole in it. The so-called Dark Ages lasted from 476 to 800 CE, during which time there was no Holy Roman emperor in the West. To quote historian David Nash Ford on London in the Dark Ages, ‘the city was largely ruinous; yet at least one large Roman house, with an underground heating system and private bath-suite, was still being lived in, probably well into the late 5th century. The occupants used or at least hoarded Roman coins from previous decades and imported large amphora jars from the Eastern Mediterranean. This trade with the distant Empire may indicate a brief revival of London as a commercial centre.’…’The city appears to have been known by the late Celtic name of ‘Caer-Lundein’ and, may possibly, have been at the centre of a small kingdom also encompassing St. Albans. However, tales of King Arthur holding court at Westminster and pulling the Sword from the Stone in St. Paul’s Churchyard are merely apocryphal.’

Into this vacuum fell all sorts of mythologies, re-emerging among Victorians seeking to reboot London with a cod-medieval past it may not have possessed, and certainly not in the romantic way they imagined. (There was an obsession with neo-Tudorism which only died out after repeated fires in the wood-built buildings.) The whereabouts of the magical site of Merlin’s Cave was explored in ‘Bryant & May On The Loose’, and it’s interesting that the idea of a royal magician regularly resurfaces in our history.

PR737 Engraved print - Portrait of John Dee engraved by R Cooper, c1800 - RCP_0

The history of magic in London is complex and difficult to locate beneath its usual stars, but as Sherlock Holmes is to Victorian detection, so Doctor Dee was to the history of magic. The Renaissance alchemist was a favourite of Elizabeth I, and let it be known that he conducted conversations with angels.

As Elizabeth’s secret agent, he corresponded with the Queen using the two zeros to represent his eyes and an elongated seven as a symbol, which is apocryphally where we get Bond’s 007 call sign. Actually it came from the breaking of a World War I German diplomatic code.

xAleistir-Crowley-by-Abode-of-Chaos1.jpg.pagespeed.ic.nHlwzkughzI’d rather not discuss Aleister Crowley, who always struck me as a privileged, sleazy bohemian who used his mysticism as a cover-up for his appalling treatment of ‘acolytes’ (young women). The last time I argued with someone about him (at an Argentinian Sherlock Holmes Society meeting in Barcelona) the man with whom I was arguing tore off his shirt to reveal a gigantic tattoo of Crowley across his back, so he clearly still exerts an influence over the credulous.

And that’s the problem; there is no part of magical London that has not had its history embroidered by everyone, reputable or disreputable, who has touched it.

London is torn between the city it is and the one it wants to be. It’s filled with invisible lines dividing class and politics, real and surreal, and it has meridians, which provide longitude and project imaginary pathways across the city. I grew up next to the most famous one, the Greenwich Meridian – it was always fun to straddle the line which separates east from west in the same way that the Equator separates north from south. But George III’s Thames meridian had another purpose; to link sacred spots that would form a paradise on earth. Paths cut through the landscape can still be found. Lines are located in various spots around London, one recent addition being a water channel behind the South Bank, although I always lose the damned thing when I go looking for it.art_london_9

There are many exposed items associated with witchcraft, from magic squares made of lead to witch bottles. Exhibits from Cornwall’s Museum of Witchcraft & Magic can currently be seen at Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities, the Last Tuesday Society in Hackney.

This is the first all encompassing museum to open in London since the Horniman in 1901. The Cornish museum has the largest and most remarkable collection of witchcraft-related objects and books in the world, focusing on an important aspect of British folk culture which has often been overlooked and misunderstood.

In central London, Atlantis, Watkins and Mysteries are the most popular bookstores for the occult and magic. Societies and talks are scheduled across the city from the Swedenborg Society to the Wellcome Institute. On any given weekend you can look below the surface of ‘What’s Obviously Always On In London’ and find the unexpected walks, tours, meetings and pub gatherings on all manner of esoteric subjects. Magic may be invisible but it’s always in the air here.

 

14 comments on “Aspects Of London: The Centre Of Magic”

  1. Roger says:

    “from Merlin to Judge Dee and Aleister Crowley.” I wondered who you meant until later!
    Mind you, Judge Dee investigating a crime in London would be interesting.
    If you walk along the Thames from Kew to Richmond you’ll come across the Richmond Meridian – Greenwich’s precursor from when the Royal Observatory was handy for Kew Palace.

  2. Davem says:

    An interesting reference to witches from close to where you used to live.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17245-londons-magical-history-uncorked-from-witch-bottle/

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Roger, I wondered who had written Judge Dee into London and set him in which time frame. Someone should, perhaps.

  4. admin says:

    That was a slip of the keyboard (I write these things on various devices that get carted all over London). I’ve deleted everyone who merely commented on the slip and not the article because you know, smug bastards.

  5. Denise Treadwell says:

    Dr Dee was Queen Elizabeth ‘s astrologer and didn’t he
    fortell the Spanish Armada? I think read somewhere that he rose the dead! I wonder who witnessed that?

  6. admin says:

    That’s the problem, Denise; chasing down facts always ends with one measly source.

  7. Eliz Amber says:

    Is this a hint that we’ll see Maggie in the next book? She’s always been one of my favourite characters – a mystic with a good dose of common sense.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve just finished The Hanging Tree so the Rivers and Magic of London are rattling around in what passes for my mind. I certainly hope Maggie is front and centre in that book. Along with the rest of her coven.

  9. Jan says:

    There’s a lot of stuff about the creation/ recreation of Arcadia in West London between Richmond down toward Hampton court that is as much to do with Magical thinking as it’s us to do with restoring some Pastoral idyll. There’s lots of interesting places Strawberry Hill, Popes grotto – special blessed little places all around this part of London. Places near the river near the section where it ceases to be tidal. Down toward Hampton Court where a tributary (might be the river Mole) joins the Thames. There’s even a tumulus in Richmond Park which lies on a ley with a,”protected” view into the city + St Paul’s itself. Something a bit special about the Star + Garter, + that amazing view down to the Thames and far beyond (you know where I mean near Mick Jaggers old house)

    Phil RICKMAN has written a couple of decent Dr. Dee novels one about the Glastonbury Zodiac
    Magick is close to the surface in many London locations.

  10. Susanna Carroll says:

    A scrying crystal belonging to John Dee and a treatise on it by Culpepper (the herbs chap) were stolen from the Science Museum in 2004. It could have been a case for the PCU.

  11. Jan says:

    Would you believe scrying was an occupation in Elizabehan times…
    Honestly it was a job people did. Using a scrying crystal to locate missing items. A ‘scryer’.

    Which leads me to thinking hoarding cannot just be a modern problem. There’s just lots more stuff to hang onto nowadays

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Doctor Dee was a very clever man – but gullible. He was in the thrall of a charlatan called Edward Kelley for many years. Kelley claimed to be a conduit (I think the correct term is psychopomp, but I’m not 100% sure) to the world of Angels, and said that he spoke to them, and that they taught him their written language, which, in a ‘trance’, he got Dee to write down. Kelley called this language ‘Enochian’, as he claimed it was given to the Old Testament Prophet, Enoch. Kelley also claimed to be a Necromancer, and could raise the dead – there is a well known woodcut of him and Dee doing just that. All these miraculous works required cash, though, and Dee, who was completely taken in by simple parlour tricks, aquiesed to every request, thinking himself in the company of a genius. Kelley moved into Dee’s house, and took over part of it, and also Dee’s female servants – when Dee complained, Kelley said that he was “Instructing them”. In what, he never said, but it’s safe to say that, like the rogueish Doctor Pangloss, in Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, it was in ‘Cause and effect’… Dee and Kelley, and their wives left London, and went to Europe, ending up in Prague. Here, Kelley told Dee of his masterplan – to actually summon an Angel, but it required two things: a lot of cash… and that Dee and Kelley swap wives. For some time, Dee’s wife had complained about Kelley’s attitude to her, and was ignored by Dee, who still thought that the sun shone out of Kelley’s arse, but now, with Kelley’s new request, he could see how horrified his wife was, and refused. Kelley said that an Archangel told him, and it was beyond his control. Something made Dee see that he’d been made a fool of, and he and his wife left Kelley in Prague. On returning to England, Doctor Dee was horrified to find that an enraged mob had raided his house, and stolen his priceless library of ancient and esoteric books. Not a very ‘Mob’ sort of theft. My money is that it was perpetrated by agents of the Crown, as it was known that Queen Elizabeth was more than slightly irked that her ‘Merlin’ had been gadding about in Europe. Doctor John Dee. One of the most fascinating and enigmatic Englishmen who has ever lived. And one of the most gullible.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Bollocks. There should be a ‘C’ in ‘acquiesed’.

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