The Qabalist Countess
By Anthony Roe
Originally Published at Samhain 2002
Shakespeare called England 'This royal throne of Kings.' On a cold day in the middle of the seventeenth century the people killed their king. Not since William the Conqueror in 1066 stepped on its southern shores and claimed the land for his own had there been such turmoil in the country. Folk had taken the Divine Right from their king and coveted it for themselves. They themselves sought more immediate contact with the divine. Mystical philosophies abounded, and vague cults burgeoned. The ferment of intellectual life permeated all levels of society.
In his Religion and the Decline of Magic, described as perhaps the most important contribution to our understanding of English cultural life, Professor Keith Thomas relates that the democratisation of the magical tradition came during the Civil War and Interregnum, a period which saw the fall of so many other ideals as well as that of the monarchy. There was a spate of translations into English of the major continental works, hitherto couched in the learned obscurity of Latin or a foreign language. They included the writings of Agrippa, della Porta, 'Hermes', Naude and Paracelsus; and they coincided with the publication or republication of the native compositions of Roger Bacon, John Dee, Elias Ashmole and Thomas Vaughan.
More books on alchemy were published between 1650 and 1680 than before or since. Magic may have been unfashionable with the scientists whose meetings in London and Oxford gave rise to the Royal Society (of London), the learned society founded in 1662 to promote scientific discussion, but it gained new converts among the radical sects thrown up by the Civil War, many of whose members pressed for the introduction of the occult sciences into the educational curriculum. (Was the original of Harry Potter a Roundhead?)
At the end of the Restoration the Polish émigré, Samuel Hartlib (whose papers are now held in the archives at Sheffield University) was at the centre of a flourishing hermetical movement. He believed in the efficacy of magical talismans. At the beginning of 1651 Hartlib was told by Ashmole's friend Dr Robert Child that, with the aid of these images, 'effective protection was afforded'. Hartlib not only believed this, but was anxious to obtain details of these 'remedies'. The technical terms used for such miraculous objects were 'sigil', 'telesme', and 'lamin'. Their efficacy depended not only on the celestial influences under which they were made, but also on the use of certain invocations and 'suffumigations' appropriate to their planetary correspondences. The sigils had to be cast during the hour before sunrise. Even the tyro in this apotelesmatic art will recognise here echoes of Solomonic pentacles and the practices advocated by Marsilio Ficino. Details are given in Manuscript Ashmole 421, folio 124 verso.
The very success of magic during the Interregnum may have helped to accelerate its rejection by scientists, anxious to shake off overtones of sectarian radicalism. But among seventeenth-century scientists belief in the possibilities of such as astrology, in part or in whole, was held not only by Hartlib, but shared by other notables as William Harvey. As a young man Isaac Newton bought a book on astrology at Stourbridge Fair. There is some evidence to suggest that it was an interest in astrology which led him on to astronomy. Among the papers of John Aubrey is the nativity of Walter Charleton, sometime President of the Royal College of Physicians, set by Lord Browncker, the first President of the Royal Society.
Now when Charles I was still on the throne, for eleven years (1629-1640) he called no Parliament, but governed the country by his own will. Over state affairs he placed the Earl of Strafford; and over the Church was Archbishop Laud. All who opposed the King's will were punished by the Court of Star Chamber. All who differed in religion from Laud were punished by the Court of High Commission. All this led to the turmoil of the Civil War, and the subsequent 'reign' of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector (1653-1658). Following final defeat, after a trial of seven days, King Charles was condemned to death. He was beheaded in front of Whitehall Palace, before a crowd of people, on a cold winter day, when the ground was covered with snow, 30th January 1649 CE. He wore two shirts in case any shivers from the cold should be interpreted as quivers of fear. His bleeding head was held up by the headsman, who called out, "This is the head of a traitor."
What effect might that happening have had on the perceptions of an aristocratic young woman of teenage years? Of Charles's sons, two, Charles and James, became king in turn, Charles from 1660-1685. One of his daughters, Elizabeth, died in Carisbrooke Castle of a broken heart after her father's execution; another, Mary, married the Prince of Orange, and was the mother of William the Third. Mary was born on 4 November 1631. A month later, in December, Anne Finch, daughter of Sir Heneage Finch and Elizabeth Bennett, was born, and who became a lady of undoubted virtue, perhaps largely unrecognised, but certainly a seminal figure in those turbulent times and in the history of the occult arts and spiritual sciences.
Anne, later Viscountess Conway, was born on 14 December 1631, and died in 1678 at the age of 47. She was born into a prominent family, and although educated at home, was not discouraged from intellectual pursuits, and among other things learned Latin and Greek. She was encouraged by her brother John Finch, who introduced her to his tutor at Cambridge, Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, with whom she formed a friendship. She began corresponding with him in 1650. In 1651, on 11th February, she married Edward, Viscount Conway, who had also been a pupil of More's.
Throughout her life, Anne suffered from a very debilitating form of headache, probably a version of migraine, and in consequence lived a very quiet life in the country at Ragley Hall, in Warwickshire, where she was frequently visited by More and others in his circle. It was in the pursuit of a cure for her headaches that she met Francis Mercury van Helmont, the son of the alchemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont, who was persuaded to come to Ragley to try and cure her headaches. Although he was able to work only a slight and temporary alleviation of her pain, he remained at Ragley for nine years, until her death.
Other remedies than his iatrochemical medicines were essayed to cure her headaches. In April 1656 she travelled to France to be trepanned, but the surgeons aborted this approach. Pneumatic treatments were undertaken, including the application of Hartlib's telesmatic images, and later recourse was had to spiritual healers, in particular the person of Valentine Greatrakes, the most famous occult healer of the seventeenth century. Greatrakes was an Irish gentleman who had served in Cromwell's New Model Army. Shortly after the Restoration he was informed by a mysterious impulse that he had the gift to cure the King's Evil (a scrofulous disease, tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands) by touching. Responding to this divine injunction, he found to his surprise that his stroking worked, and he embarked upon a career as a healer, later extending his operations to the ague and other diseases.
After building up a reputation in Ireland, where his patients included the astronomer Flamsteed, he was brought over in 1666 to Ragley, to try his hand at curing the chronic headaches of Anne, Viscountess Conway. This proved beyond his power, although he had been able to cure his own, but his reputation attracted hundreds of miscellaneous sufferers upon whom he performed a number of successful cures. Championed by many of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Cambridge Platonists, More, Cudworth and Whichcote, and the scientists Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, he was brought in triumph to London, where he healed many members of the crowd who besieged his lodgings.
But he failed in a demonstration before Charles II and his court, and in May 1666, only five months after his arrival, returned to Ireland to resume his life as a Justice of the Peace and a country squire. His career is elicited from a series of contemporary pamphlets.
Her continuing headaches did not prevent Anne Conway from pursuing her intellectual recreations. Initially More and van Helmont shared along with her in some intellectual interests, in particular the cabalistic writings of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. In time however, van Helmont became increasingly interested in Quakerism, and eventually persuaded her to formally join the Quakers. Not long after her conversion, she died after days of terrible pain. But this was not until she had consummated her magnum opus through exploration of the Cabala, inspired by von Rosenroth.
In his twilight years the ailing Crowley often mused over the lost glories of his life, and yearned to possess again those treasures that had adorned his colourful existence. Chief amongst these was his lost library, at its best when he had lodged at Boleskine during the period of his Abramelin experiments. Gerald Kelly, later President of the Royal Academy, was one of those privileged to see that collection. As Symonds relates in the Beast's biography: "Hard by stood the Kabbala Denudata of Knorr von Rosenroth, its vellum rusty orange with age; it was, so to speak, the advance guard of an army of weird old books on alchemy and kindred subjects .". What effect that tome must have had on those first privileged to read its pages!
Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, known as Peganius, was a German orientalist and cabalist. He was the son of a Silesian minister, and studied at Fravenstadt, Wittenberg, and Leipzig. In Amsterdam he was for a time engaged as interpreter for an Armnenian prince, through whom he became interested in Oriental tongues. In 1668 he was introduced by van Helmont to the Count-Palatine of Sulzbach, who appointed him a member of his privy council. He translated into German all the works of the elder van Helmont, and the Alphabetun Naturae of the younger. Under the pseudonym, 'Peganius' he translated Sir Thomas Browne's Vulgar Errors; and he seems to have translated More's Immortality of the Soul. His most important work, however, was the translation of the Zohar and other cabalistic works into Latin, under the title, Kabbala Denudata. The first two volumes appeared at Sulzbach in 1677; the third at Frankfort in 1684. They are the basis for the two English versions, the most well-known being that of S L MacGregor Mathers published by Routledge and Kegan Paul. Von Rosenroth's Genuine Explication of the Visions of the Book of Revelation, which More mentions in letters, appeared in 1670. Without doubt Viscountess Conway was privy to the thought and work of von Rosenroth through her intimacy with van Helmont, as is evidenced by her writings.
Anne Conway's treatise, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, has a rather checkered history. After her death, van Helmont carried away from Ragley a philosophical notebook that she had written (in black pencil), but had never revised. Hers was a visionary experience akin to that of Hildegarde of Bingen, yet captured in words. The Principles is said to have been prepared for publication and translated into Latin under the joint authorship of van Helmont and More, and was eventually published in 1690 in Holland along with some other material belonging to van Helmont. This Latin treatise was subsequently retranslated into English, and published in 1692, her original English version having been lost.
Upon leaving Anne Conway, van Helmont visited the philosopher Leibnitz to whom he conveyed his good opinion of her thought and to whom he may have showed her work. There has been speculation that Leibnitz was influenced by Lady Conway. He himself contributed to this notion, writing to Thomas Burnett that "My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway." It is likely, however, that any coincidence in their views stems from ideas abroad at the time, rather than any direct transference, as Leibnitz's opinions on relevant topics had probably been formed before be could have read Anne Conway's treatise, if indeed he ever did.
What of the ideas 'in the air' at that time? There was no absolute distinction between matter and spirit. Francis Mercury van Helmont regarded matter as the result of a 'coalition or clinging together' of spiritual monads, so he says in his Cabalistical Dialogue in Answer to a Learned Doctor in Philosophy and Theology that the World was Made of Nothing (London, 1682), p.4. A similar understanding of matter continued to recommend itself to George Cheyne, who tells us that 'a material Substance is an infinitely condensed, or incrassated, spiritual Substance,' in his Philosophical Principles of Religion Natural and Reveal'd (London, 1715), p.119.
Cheyne's views were echoed in the early twentieth century by MacGregor Mathers, leading light of the Order of the Golden Dawn. "Matter and Spirit are only opposite poles of the same universal substance." (Preface to his translation of von Rosenroth's Kabbalah Unveiled, pbk edn (London, 1991), p.viii). In the eighteenth century, Martines de Pasqually thought that matter was an illusion created by the Fall. Louis de Saint-Martin, on the other hand, suggested that matter had been created by the fallen angels, which would imply its independent reality. Elsewhere, however, Saint-Martin agreed with Martines that 'Matter is deceptive and void . spirit is everything'. Lady Conway herself thought that matter was a 'thicker and grosser' form of spirit, the distinction between the two being 'only modal and gradual, not essential or substantial'. In that view lies the key to all magical transformations.
The full title of Anne Conway's work continues Concerning God, Christ and his creatures. Her theory is, as far as nature goes, both monist and vital. American scholars, Allison Coudert and Taylor Corse, have completed a study which relates her ideas to their context in the history of philosophy. She distinguishes three distinct kinds of being, God, Christ, and creation, which are differentiable from each other chiefly with respect to changeability - God is utterly unchangeable, Christ is changeable only for the better, and hence forms a necessary mediation between God and creation, and creatures are changeable for better or for worse. With respect to creatures, this feature has the result than any creature could in principle be transformed into any other. Lady Conway goes so far as to claim that there is no difference in kind between body and spirit, that even though in each creature there is a passive principle and an active one, the difference is only in degree not in kind.
She rejects as unintelligible Descartes's claim that there is inert matter subject only to local motion, and holds that there are not, as Descartes would have it, two forms of explanation for motion, one for body and one for spirit, but only one. Therefore, for her, the only intelligible form of explanation is vitalistic, in terms proper to spirits. Thus she distinguishes her theory from Descartes, in rejecting his dualism, and from Thomas Hobbes (who published his Leviathan when she was only twenty) in rejecting his materialism.
Anne Conway embraces the fundamental tenet of the occult philosophers that God was not a vindictive Father who wanted to punish his children for their failings. God damned no one; at most, people damned themselves by turning their backs on God, whose infinite love was freely available to everyone. From the end of the seventeenth century, occultists like Lady Conway and Jane Lead, representative of early modern occultism, were extending this belief into universal salvation. God not only wanted to save everyone, eventually he would succeed in doing so. The idea that the Messiah would restore everything to its original purity, including Samael and the other demons, was in fact a long-standing Cabalist idea. Ginsberg records it as such in his classic study The Kabbalah: Its Doctrines, Development and Literature (London, 1956), p.126.
The species of cabala that informed the stance of Lady Conway came from that attributed particularly to Isaac Luria. She derived her knowledge from van Helmont. By the time he came to England in 1670, he had acquired a good knowledge of Hebrew and the Cabala through his friendship and collaboration with Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-89), the most accomplished christian cabalist of the seventeenth century. With van Helmont's help, von Rosenroth collected and edited the texts that eventually were published in the Kabbalah Denudata (1677, 1684), the largest collection of cabalistic texts published in Latin up to that time. Von Rosenroth's intention in publishing his work was to make available to Christians major portions of the Zohar, or Book of Splendour, one of the most important and influential expositions of cabalistic thought.
From the Renaissance onwards, Christians viewed the Zohar in the same light as the Hermetica, the Sibylline Prophecies, the Orphica, and the fragmentary writings known collectively as the Prisca Theologia, or first philosophy, and considered very much older than they actually were. All these sources were thought to preserve fragments of the ancient wisdom imparted orally to Moses on Mount Sinai, the esoteric and unwritten aspects of the divine revelation, and which had been passed down from generation to generation, while the Bible represented the exoteric, written part of the same revelation. Being Jewish and not pagan in origin, the Cabala was the recovery of that divine wisdom. This was von Rosenroth's justification for publishing cabalistic texts.
In their basic aim of using the Cabala to convert Jews, Moslems, and pagans to Christianity while uniting Christians, van Helmont and von Rosenroth employed traditional arguments used by Christians from the Renaissance onwards to defend their interest in the Cabala. The cabalistic ideas they applied to this end, however, were new and came from that body of cabalistic writings which originated during the sixteenth century among the disciples of Isaac Luria (1534-72). This Lurianic Cabala was predicated on the vision of a restored and perfected universe.
Luria detailed a drama of universal redemption in which all souls would eventually return home to their divine creator. Because he considered spirit and matter opposite ends of a single continuum, he believed that matter would eventually be restored to its essential spiritual state by a process of restoration, known as tikkun. Though the process was long and arduous, each material entity was allotted repeated reincarnations (gilgal), during which it would slowly move up the spiritual ladder. The process would end in universal salvation. Pain and suffering were inevitable, but as a result of human actions in the form of tikkunim (positive redemptive acts) every individual would eventually be purged of the 'husks' or 'shards' which, according to Lurianic mythology, enveloped them when they fell from heaven into earthly exile.
This philosophy echoed that of Mani, in which sparks of the divine light were trapped in matter. These sparks were souls in exile. The work of redemption, or restoration (tikkun), consisted in freeing these sparks from their exiled state and reuniting them with the divine light. Luria believed that everything created is alive and full of souls at different levels of spiritual awareness and developmrent. One of Luria's disciples, Hayyin Vital, explained Luria's ideas in a treatise included in the Kabbala Denudata: "There is nothing in the world, not even among silent things, such as dust and stones, that does not possess a certain life, spiritual nature, a particular planet, and its perfect form in the heavens." (De Revolutionibus Animarum, KD, vol.2, 2:415).
A later cabalist describes Luria's theory that souls rise up the ladder of creation, becoming progressively more spiritual until finally freed from the cycle of reincarnation. Luria concluded that even eating is a holy act, but only for a wise and pious person, who could elevate souls by incorporating them into their own flesh. These unusual ideas reappear in Lady Conway's treatise, providing the basis for her defence of God as the all-wise and loving Father, who created creatures in the full knowledge that each and every one of them would eventually be redeemed. She writes: "There are transmutations of all creatures from one species to another, as from stone to earth, from earth to grass, from grass to sheep, from sheep to human flesh, from human flesh to the lowest spirits of man, and from these to the noblest spirits." (Principles, Chap IX, s.5). From this passage (and many more throughout her treatise) it can be seen how the Lurianic concept of tikkun informed Lady Conway's theories.
God is good, just, and merciful because he has created matter with the innate capacity to reach perfection through its own efforts. Just as stones had the innate capacity to work their way up the ladder of creation until they became men, so men had the capacity to become angels. Lady Conway's cabalistic philosophy therefore led her to the optimistic belief that man possessed the ability to save himself. This idea became characteristic of late Enlightenment philosophy, but at the time Lady Conway wrote, it was a relatively novel idea as well as heretical from an orthodox Christian perspective. In an earlier age the English monk Pelagius had been condemned for claiming that man could achieve salvation without the grace of God, though Pico Mirandola, in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) delivered by him at Rome when he was only twenty-four, boldly declared that man was higher than the angels.
These were the heady visions which encouraged van Helmont and Lady Conway to believe the Cabala offered the best possible arguments against materialism and in favour of the mercy and benevolence of God. For who could deny the goodness and justice of a God who created his creatures with the full knowledge of their eventual redemption? And who could object to a God who punished only to help his creatures improve? Van Helmont could not help Lady Conway as a physician, but in introducing her to the Lurianic Cabala and convincing her that pain and suffering were the prerequisites of redemption, he provided her with some consolation for her own agony. As she herself wrote: "All pain and torment stimulates the life or spirit existing in everything which suffers. As we see from constant experience and as reason teaches us, this must necessarily happen because through pain and suffering whatever grossness or crassness is contracted by the spirit or body is diminished; and so the imprisoned spirit is set free and becomes more spiritual and, consequently, more active and effective through suffering." (Principles, Chap VII, s.1).
It is difficult to ascertain to what extent Lady Conway resorted to purely magical remedies to assuage the agonising migraines from which she suffered. Certainly it is likely that she tried other than mere praying to those spirits who existence she readily acknowledged. In chapter VIII of her great work, section 6, she writes of " . the proper Angels, or Ministering Spirits of a Man, (although there are other Angels also, as well Good as Evil, which come unto Men:) Of which Angels Christ speaketh .". These are non other than those enumerated in the Ars Paulina, revealed to Saint Paul when he was rapt unto the Third Heaven. This schema allocates the Archangel Suiaiasuel of Sagittary to Lady Conway, with the Angel Jadiel given to the day of her birth. Her ministering Spirit was Nanael, 'God who humbles the proud', and the attendant apotropaic verse is taken from Psalm 118 (the Vulgate), v.75: 'Cognovi Domini quia aequitas judicia tua et in virtute tua humiliaste me'. ('I know, O LORD, that thy judgements are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me'.)
More extreme means may have been used to try to assuage Lady Conway's afflictions. The skeleton of a dog was found upon the estate entombed within the bole of a tree. Was this the resting place of a favoured pet, or vivisepulture as an oblation to placate the demons that afflicted her? But sufficient forensic evidence is wanting. Yet we do know that among cults even more evident in society today, the dominant spirit of a person, the so-called maitre tête, needs must be placated as occasion demands.
Is it feasible that there was any cult society active amongst the coterie that surrounded Lady Conway? There was much contemporary ferment in the wake of sundry Rosicrucian declarations. Their chief apologist, John Heydon, writing in his The Holy Guide, 'leading the way to the wonder of the world', refers to the 'temples, holy houses, castles, and invisible mountains of the brethren', to say nothing of the sorores, but as regards the Rosicrucians in England, states that "their fraternity inhabits the west of the country", not Warwickshire . It may well be that he referred to temples of the spirit.
A later writer, Karl von Eckhartshausen, whose The Cloud upon the Sanctuary, inspired the Old Crow to take up his esoteric life, wrote of such ethereal abodes. He was born on 28 June 1752, at the Castle of Haimbhausen in Bavaria, and was the natural son of Count von Haimbhausen by Marie Eckhart. He writes of the Community of the Elect, and tells us that "the great and true work of building the Temple consists solely in destroying the miserable Adamic hut and in erecting a divine temple; this means, in other words, to develop in us the interior sensorium, or the organ to receive God. After this process, the metaphysical and incorruptible principle rules over the terrestrial, and man begins to live, not any longer in the principle of self-love, but in the Spirit and in the Truth, of which he is the Temple."
Anne, Viscountess Conway had suffered much during her life. On 6 February 1658 she gave birth to Heneage Edward Conway. On 14 Ocrober 1660 he died of smallpox. In 1665 she survived the Plague that struck England. It was in 1670 that Francis van Helmont became her personal physician. During 1675 van Helmont began to attend Quaker meetings on a regular basis, and other Quakers visited Lady Conway and himself. The following year Lady Conway employed Quaker women as servants. The year 1677 saw the publication of the first volume of the Kabbala Denudata, two years before she died. In her latter days it was only at the hands of her Quaker maidservants that she was able to achieve peace of mind. On 23 February 1679, after tortuous suffering, Lady Anne Conway died.
Van Helmont prepared a double coffin, the inner one of glass, the outer of rosined and pitched wood. He placed her body in the coffin, preserved with spirits of wine, so that Edward Conway could look upon his wife one last time before her burial. When More was notified, he replied: "I perceive and bless God for it, that my Lady Conway was my Lady Conway to her last breath; the greatest Example of Patience and Presence of Mind, in highest Extremities of Pain and Affliction, that we shall easily meet with: Scarce any thing to be found like her since the Primitive times of the Church."
In a codicil to her Will, Lady Conway expressed her desire that "all those Rites and ceremonies of the so-called Church of England may be wholly forborne at my buryall; and all other superfluity whatsoever." She also desired "that only Her Woman with the two maids should lay her in the Coffin," her only epitaph 'Quaker Lady', surely well-deserving that peace and great joy of those who are the worthy heirs of salvation.
The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was published in 1690 as Opuscula Philosophica, ascribed to van Helmont, who had simply transcribed it into Latin. Much of the publishing by women in seventeenth-century England was ignored by their contemporaries, others re-ascribed to male authors. Prophetic writings became more numerous after 1640, no doubt a product of the unsettled times. In the decade 1641-1650, excluding Quaker warnings and visions, no less than 56 works appeared. Much of this was the work of a few women, such as Eleanor Douglas, Anna Trapnel, Eleanor James and Jane Lead. Despite the general trend against religious enthusiasm after the Restoration, women continued to publish visions.