A NEW exhibition, opening on Monday at the Royal College of Physicians, London, presents an opportunity to become better acquainted with John Dee (1527-1608/09). His name is most familiar as a practitioner of the black arts, but his life and work make him a significant, if often misrepresented figure of the Elizabethan Renaissance.
The exhibition describes Dee as “magician, scholar, and courtier”, and the three designations are evident and intertwined throughout most of his life. In the 1550s, for instance, he was rewarded under King Edward VI for his scholarship, before being arrested under Queen Mary for “magic” involving her. He then became a Roman Catholic priest, and chaplain to Mary’s Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner.
He ended the decade at Queen Elizabeth’s court, commissioned to draw up a horoscope for the day of her coronation. So who was Dr Dee?
OF WELSH descent, Dee was born in London in the last days of Roman Catholic England to a minor official at King Henry VIII’s court. He was educated at Chelmsford Chantry (renamed, in 1551, King Edward VI Grammar) School, and St John’s College, Cambridge.
In 1546, he was made a founder Fellow and Under-Reader in Ancient Greek at nearby Trinity College. Clever stage effects for a college production of Aristophanes’s Peace, whereby Trygaeus,mounted on a theatrical scarab/dung beetle, was carried to the college hall roof, led to Dee’s being labelled as a magician, conjuror, or occultist; this reputation was compounded by subsequent actions.
FOR a few years, Dee travelled, studied, and lectured in Continental Europe. Among the friends he made was the pioneering mapmaker Mercator, and a Flemish scientific-instrument maker and mathematician, Gemma Frisius.
In the mid-16th century, Roman numerals were gradually replaced by the Hindu-Arabic number system. This made mathematical calculations much less cumbersome, and enabled the development of modern surveying techniques, which, in turn, were influenced by, and contributed to, deep-sea navigation and map-making.
Dee’s studies at the University of Louvain in the late 1540s included astrology, astronomical observation, geography, and mathematics.
Soon after leaving the university, he was offered (but declined) a professorship of mathematics at the University of Paris. Instead, he returned to London, bringing with him Frisius’s first astronomer’s staff in brass, and two large globes of Mercator’s.
DEE’s advocacy of contemporary scientific learning, and his mathematical writings, led him to be commended to King Edward VI by Sir William Cecil (later Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister). In 1553, the King awarded Dee an annual pension, which he exchanged for the lay rectorship of Upton-upon- Severn; this entitled him to receive its rectoral tithes.
Two years later, however, Dee was arrested, and charged with having cast horoscopes — based on their birth dates — of King Philip II, Queen Mary, and the then Princess Elizabeth.
The foreknowledge believed to be acquired by such calculation had implications for the country’s political stability; the charge relating to Queen Mary was later raised to treason, together with accusations of conjuring and witchcraft.
Dee was imprisoned briefly, and then questioned by Bonner, to whom he may have been distantly related. It was Bonner who, in 1554, had admitted Dee to the priesthood, and made him one of his chaplains.
ELIZABETH came to the throne in November 1558. Dee’s Cambridge connections, and the support of a former charge, Robert Dudley, the Queen’s favourite, enabled him to survive the transition from Roman Catholic to Anglican rule.
Furthermore, his learning was deployed to counter French use of Nostradamus’s enigmatic prophecies that forthcoming religious change would be catastrophic for Elizabeth’s reign. Dee was asked to cast a horoscope for Elizabeth’s coronation day, and was awarded a second rectory: Long Leadenham, in Lincolnshire. But thereafter little is known of Dee’s life in the opening years of the new reign.
He is known to have travelled on the continent between 1562 and 1564. During this time, he co-wrote (with Federico Commandino) a work on mathematics; and, in September 1563, attended the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II. Dee later dedicated one of his works to Maximilian, but declined to join his court.
Sometime after his return to England, Dee married and settled in Mortlake, Surrey, where he spent many years, only returning to Continental Europe in 1571, and again in the early 1580s. When visiting Prague in 1584, the university awarded him a medical doctorate — hence “Dr” Dee.
It was at Mortlake that Dee expanded his library, resumed his writing, and embarked upon a study of alchemy. Dee’s interest in, and collecting of, books and manuscripts probably dated from the 1540s. But he took this passion further when, in 1556, he presented Queen Mary with a plan (known as the Supplication) for her to establish a national library to recover, preserve, and add to the nation’s collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
Her failure to follow this up led Dee to pursue his own collecting all the more vigorously. By the early 1580s he had one of the greatest private libraries in England, exceeding those to be found in bishops’ palaces and Oxbridge colleges.
PROBABLY the most influential of all Dee’s published works is his Mathematical praeface to the first English translation of Euclid (1570). Here, he argues that mathematics is integral to the natural, the supernatural, the humanities, and the practical arts, including magic.
His interest in magic, and possibly “skrying” (that is, seeing/conversing with spirits), may date from the late 1560s; his active participation in skrying, however, only really developed at the end of the 1570s, and remained discreet. Belief in spirits was not thought to be incompatible with belief in God, but was deemed suspect, as it was thought to enable access to knowledge and skills that were formally denied to humanity.
Dee’s most significant medium was “Mr Talbot” (also known as Edward Kelley). He enabled Dee to converse with Uriel, one of the seven archangels named in the Book of Enoch (to be found in the Pseudepigrapha). It was Uriel who provided Dee with his crystal (featured in the exhibition).
Similarly, Dee had a copy of De Originibus, which derived from the Book of Enoch and recorded God’s conversations with Adam before the Fall. Talbot also claimed to have identified how to make the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, and thereby turn base metal into gold. He shared this knowledge with Dee. Both are seen as founders of Enochian magic.
AS A scholar, Dee played his part in other aspects of Elizabethan culture. He was interested in English and Welsh history, particularly the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100- c.1155), and the latter’s accounts of King Arthur.
Dee maintained that Arthur’s conquests were more extensive than Monmouth had recorded, and that, in 1170, a Welsh prince, Madoc, had sailed to America — now (in the late 16th century) itself undergoing European exploration.
For Dee, prior territorial claims alongside contemporary English overseas settlement meant that a “British Impire” now existed. He coined the term, which first appeared in English in his General and Rare Memorials. For him, the “British Empire” encompassed the seas around the island, reaching as far as the Habsburg and French coasts, Scotland, and the (as he saw it) rediscovered lands of north-east America.
Dee’s scholarship also assisted the physical expansion of the late Elizabethan world. Consulted by Gilbert and Hakluyt, in the 1570s he also acted as a navigation adviser for all three of Martin Frobisher’s voyages in search of a north-west passage to India and China.
In the 1580s, he was associated with ventures in North America, including reassuring those involved of their prior right to annex the territory now known as Massachusetts, on the grounds that Prince Madoc’s claim had preceded Pope Alexander VI’s division of the New World between Spain and Portugal in 1494.
DEE was consulted on time as well as space. The government sought his advice regarding Pope Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar, which the Pope had announced in 1582. Dee recommended acceptance, which would have involved moving the calendar forwards by ten days. Episcopal opposition, however, meant that the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in Britain until 1752.
Dee might be deemed a courtier in both personal and professional terms. He enjoyed a good relationship with the Queen throughout her reign, advising her (at her request) on, for instance, scientific matters (notably astronomy), marriage, and the threat of the Spanish Armada.
His visits to Continental Europe may also have involved spying, and reporting to her.
Dee’s acquisition of books, his championing of mathematics, and his detailed study and practice of astrology and alchemy were integral to the Elizabethan intellectual environment. His reputation, however, both in life and death, was mixed — not least as the possible inspiration of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and also of Shakespeare’s Prospero.
As a spy, he may have bequeathed a further literary legacy. Some claim that Dee’s number was (“lucky”) seven, and that, when writing to the Queen, he prefaced this with two “O”s — possibly to represent her eyes, or to denote that it was for her eyes only; she in turn signed herself “M”. Ian Fleming was reportedly reading a biography of Dee as he wrote the first Bond novel . . .
Peter Street is a historian.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee is at the Royal College of Physicians, 18 January-29 July (admission free).