Mortlake and After

Today’s delve into the secrets of the Royal Occultist is the first part of an oft-requested series – the full and true origins of the office of the Royal Occultist, and its many occupiers, from its humble beginnings to its rather abrupt end. The first entry covers the fraught early years of the office.


The office of the Royal Occultist has its origins in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The first to bear the title was the infamous Sage of Mortlake, Dr. John Dee. Dee, alongside his assistant, Edward Kelley, earned Elizabeth’s patronage after his investigation into a case of witchcraft involving a poppet made in the queen’s likeness. The pair went on to confront various supernatural threats to the crown before an unspecified occurrence in Bohemia brought a sudden end to their partnership.

Returning to Mortlake after the Bohemian incident, Dee found his home vandalised and his occult library ransacked by a person or persons unknown. Some whispered that the culprit was Edward Kelley himself, while others blamed Dee’s rivals at court or secret societies such as the nascent Order of the Cosmic Ram. Dee himself ventured no opinions on the matter – at least not publicly – and resumed his duties with a new assistant, one William Sly – an aspiring thespian and former spy.

Dee continued to act as Royal Occultist until his death of natural causes in 1608 or 1609. Despite William Sly having preceded Dee in death, the office did not remain vacant for long. In 1610, King James I, concerned by the possibility of supernatural threats to his rule, invested a man named Subtle with the responsibilities of the office. Subtle, who claimed to have learned at the feet of ‘Aegyptian masters’, was more proactive than his predecessor. Armed with a royal charter by the king, and aided by the mystic, John Lamb, he faced down numerous eldritch menaces in the years following his assumption of the post, including a persistent coven of Scottish witches known as the Peathraichean Raidan, loosely translated as the Sisterhood of Rats.

Regrettably, Subtle fell out of favour with the king in the waning years of James’ reign, and was dismissed from the post in 1620, to be replaced by a succession of influential noblemen, none of whom were remotely familiar with the occult sciences. The names of these interim holders were not recorded for posterity, the longest tenure being a scant six months. It is said, however, that Subtle continued to act on behalf of the country, if not the Crown, until his death by spontaneous conflagration in 1627.

Charles I, James successor, did not share his predecessor’s interest in the supernatural, and continued the practice of bestowing the office of Royal Occultist onto whomever had his favour at a given moment, whether they were up to the task or not. Of the dozen men who held the post between 1625 and 1642, only one name stands out – Edward Holywell. Alchemist, marksman and member of the secretive Order of the Cosmic Ram, Holywell was the most effective of Charles’ early appointees, taking up the duties in 1630. Together with his assistant, Whitehead, Holywell served as Royal Occultist until 1640, when he was killed by the hexed bullet of a Peathraichean Raidan assassin.

The office was to remain vacant for nearly two years, until the king’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, arrived in England…


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