I spoke today on BBC Radio Suffolk (on James Hazell’s ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment) about England’s earliest recorded poltergeist story, which supposedly took place at Dagworth Hall near Stowmarket, the home of Sir Osberne de Bradwell in the reign of Richard I. An invisible, mischievous spirit lifted up and banged household items as well as playing with and communicating with Sir Osberne’s children, eventually revealing its identity as ‘Malekin’, a child taken by the fairies. The ‘Malekin’ story has a certain resemblance to modern poltergeist narratives, although it also differs significantly from the dominant features of modern descriptions of poltergeist phenomena.
I have just signed a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish my book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, which will be a complete history of the intersection of politics and magic in English, Welsh and Scottish history from the earliest times to the present day. Magic in Merlin’s Realm aims to be a major historical re-evaluation of the importance of belief in magic to major political events. The book argues that, like understanding religion, understanding belief in magic is often essential to grasping the thought-world and motivations of major actors in British history – and that the occult dimension of British politics has hitherto been underestimated, or not taken seriously by historians.
Magic in Merlin’s Realm follows on from my 2017 book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England, which focussed on one specific way in which magic and politics interacted in England: the use of magic for treasonous and seditious purposes. The new book goes well beyond that narrow concentration to look at the interaction of politics and a whole range of occult traditions, both benign and malign, from alchemy and astrology to ritual magic and the deployment of magic in warfare. The new book also takes in Scotland, Wales and English Ireland, and goes beyond the early modern era to examine how links between politics and magical thinking may still remain important today.
In addition to examining the relationships between British monarchs and magic, a thread that runs through Magic in Merlin’s Realm is the importance of Britain’s ‘Merlins’, those self-styled magicians and practitioners of the occult arts who have attempted to act as political advisers to successive rulers. While John Dee remains the most famous of England’s ‘Merlins’ he was by no means the only figure who tried to use magic to help the monarch, or sought to reimagine the monarch’s authority in magical terms. The monarchs of England and Scotland enjoyed an ambiguous relationship with magic, at once condemning it and making use of it when needed, and Magic in Merlin’s Realm examines how a succession of royal magical advisers consciously assumed the mythical mantle of Merlin to add occult wisdom to the wisdom of governance.