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The execution of Charles I in 1649 risked emptying the British monarchy of its magical power, yet the republic that succeeded that event witnessed a flowering of popular interest in magic as government press censorship broke down in the 1650s. Magical ideas inspired several radical religious and political figures of the Interregnum, including many who advocated the return of the Jews to England. This would result in the informal re-establishment of a Jewish community in London in 1656, a hugely significant event that marked the beginnings of tolerance of non-Christian faiths in Britain. Restored to the throne in 1660, Charles II was perhaps more eager than any previous monarch to revive the magic of monarchy, and turned the ancient ceremony of touching for the king’s evil into a major effort to project royal power as magical, as well as reviving royal patronage of astrologers and alchemists. The crises associated with the Catholic James II’s accession to the throne and his overthrow in 1688 produced numerous rumours of the political use of magic. However, it was William and Mary who became the last British monarchs to receive counsel from a practising magician, the Whig politician Goodwin Wharton, who attempted unsuccessfully to reclaim the role of John Dee in the late seventeenth century. However, the excessive use of political accusations of magic during the Civil War ensured that discourse of this kind had become associated with instability and chaos, prompting many to see the decline of witchcraft (whether real or manufactured by an adjustment of judicial policy) as a sign of God’s approval for the restored Stuart monarchy and, later, the Revolution settlement. The political drift towards disparaging rather than embracing allegations of harmful magic prepared the way for the eventual decriminalisation of magic in the eighteenth century.
Magic was not new to medieval Britain, but traditions of learned magic that reached Britain from the Islamic world in the twelfth century transformed perceptions of the political importance of magic. The figure of Merlin, confabulated by Geoffrey of Monmouth, represented an ideal royal counsellor with mastery of the occult arts. This chapter explores Britain’s reputation for magic from the Roman era onwards and introduces the various occult traditions introduced to Britain the Middle Ages, including the harnessing of occult properties through natural magic, the use of ritual magic to summon spirits, Kabbalism, alchemy, astrology, occult prophecy, and witchcraft. All of these occult traditions had the potential to play a role in politics, whether as threats to be feared by governments or as ‘supernatural technologies’ that were potentially attractive to rulers.
The unstable and unpredictable political environment of the twenty-first century has so far presented opportunities for a surprising ‘re-enchantment of politics’, where ‘magical thinking’ and supernatural responses to and interpretations of political events are increasingly common. It is therefore crucial to understand the role of occult beliefs in the politics of the past. The conclusion identifies eight strands or themes in the history of the entanglement of politics and the occult in Britain: the royal occult adviser, the ruler as benevolent magus, the ruler as witch or bewitched, sorcery as treason, the development of occult weapons of war, occult and political secrecy, occult prophecy and ‘magical saviours’, and ‘magical quietism’ (a reliance on magic and magical thinking that paralyses effective government).
The historic role of beliefs in magic and other occult traditions in politics has often been ignored, neglected or sidelined by historians, but the presence of such beliefs is nevertheless a troubling reality that the historian must confront. The introduction explores the methodological and historiographical problems thrown up by studying occult beliefs and politics together, and examines the ancient relationship between politics and occult traditions as well as the distinctive association of political magic with the island of Great Britain through the appealing mythological feature of Merlin, the magician and royal counsellor. Finally, the introduction outlines the scope and content of the book.
Medieval monarchs feared political sorcery as a form of treason, but monarchs themselves were also accused of using magic, and several kings became intensely interested in the political and financial potential of occult traditions. Beginning in the twelfth century, rulers began to show interest in the political potential of astrological prognostications, although it was not until the fourteenth century that accusations of political sorcery first burst onto the scene in England. A succession of occult royal advisers, including Roger Bacon and George Ripley, attempted to assume the mantle of Merlin and counsel England’s kings, while Richard II went beyond other monarchs in defining himself as a royal magus. Medieval kings attempted to draw on occult knowledge for both warfare and financial aid in the Hundred Years’ War. Alchemists strove in vain to cure Henry VI of mental illness, while accusations of magic against the wife of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester destabilised the nation. During the Wars of the Roses, politically motivated accusations of sorcery played a key role in the rise of Richard III. The chapter highlights the ambiguity of magic and occult traditions in medieval politics, and their uses both positive and negative in the arts of politics.
The connection between politics and magic largely faded from view in eighteenth-century Britain, as it became socially unacceptable in elite circles to show interest in the supernatural. However, the apparent support of some mystical prophets for the French Revolution re-engaged the government’s interest, and a tradition of ‘mystical nationalism’ was born at this time (influenced by William Blake) that would go on to influence British politics to the present day. Elite interest in ritual magic returned at the end of the nineteenth century, sometimes connected with traditionalist and ultra-conservative political views. In the Second World War notorious magician Aleister Crowley attempted to offer magical advice to Winston Churchill, and magicians claimed to have performed rites against the enemy, while the politically motivated conviction of the Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan resurrected the 1736 Witchcraft Act. By the 1980s extreme politics in Britain had a magical fringe. The British far right, in particular, drew on earlier traditions of ‘mystical nationalism’. British royalty’s fascination with magic likewise continued in the twentieth century. Belief in magic remains an undercurrent in British political life to the present day, far less prominent than it was four centuries ago but nevertheless present, and sometimes influential in unexpected ways.
The Tudors’ Welsh ancestry and doubtful claim to the English throne rendered them conscious successors of King Arthur, and the mythology surrounding Arthur and Merlin became central to the construction of Tudor power from 1485 onwards. Accusations and rumours of magic were rife at the court of Henry VIII and played a key role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn as queen, but allegations of magic also swirled around Cardinal Wolsey in Henry’s early reign. However, it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that a Tudor monarch embraced her ‘Arthurian’ identity to the extent of seeking the advice of a latter-day Merlin, a role eagerly fulfilled by John Dee. At the high point of Dee’s influence a magically inspired idea of a British empire briefly influenced official policy under a queen so fascinated by the occult arts that she personally practised alchemy. At the same time, the Italian religious exile (and possible spy) Giordano Bruno saw himself as an ‘occult missionary’, bringing his particular brand of Hermetic magic to England.
The Stewarts ruled Scotland from 1371 and England from 1603 and experienced magical threats to their rule from the fifteenth century onwards. King James VI and I’s historical reputation as a demonologist obsessed with witchcraft conceals what was a subtle approach to magic and witchcraft, to which James responded with an equal mixture of fascination and scepticism. Attacked by witches in his homeland, James’s accession to the English crown in 1603 saw James became conspicuously more circumspect in his dealings with supernatural claims south of the border. Whatever his personal views, magical scandals at James’s court and at the court of his successor Charles I inflicted immense reputational damage on the Stuart monarchy between 1613 and 1628. Beginning with the Overbury Plot, these scandals culminated in the accusations levelled against the duke of Buckingham and his ‘wizard’, John Lambe and ultimately undermined the credibility of the monarchy as a guardian of godliness in the nation. The outbreak of Civil War in England in 1642 unleashed pent-up anxieties about the political use of magic in the form of lurid allegations from both sides that their enemies were making use of sorcery and witchcraft to influence the outcome of the conflict.
Belief in magic was, until relatively recent times, widespread in Britain; yet the impact of such belief on determinative political events has frequently been overlooked. In his wide-ranging new book, Francis Young explores the role of occult traditions in the history of the island of Great Britain: Merlin's realm. He argues that while the great magus and artificer invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth was a powerful model for a succession of actual royal magical advisers (including Roger Bacon and John Dee), monarchs nevertheless often lived in fear of hostile sorcery while at other times they even attempted magic themselves. Successive governments were simultaneously fascinated by astrology and alchemy, yet also deeply wary of the possibility of treasonous spellcraft. Whether deployed in warfare, rebellion or propaganda, occult traditions were of central importance to British history and, as the author reveals, these dark arts of magic and politics remain entangled to this day.
Witchcraft is rarely mentioned in official documents of the contemporary Roman Catholic church, but ideas about the dangers of witchcraft and other forms of occultism underpin the recent revival of interest in exorcism in the church. This Element examines hierarchical and clerical understandings of witchcraft within the contemporary Roman Catholic church. The Element considers the difficulties faced by clergy in parts of the developing world, where belief in witchcraft is so dominant it has the potential to undermine the church's doctrine and authority. The Element also considers the revival of interest in witchcraft and cursing among Catholic demonologists and exorcists in the developed world. The Element explores whether it is possible for a global church to adopt any kind of coherent approach to a phenomenon appraised so differently across different cultures that the church's responses to witchcraft in one context are likely to seem irrelevant in another.