Over the last year, I’ve mentioned so many people who occupy a rather grey area between belief in magic and the beginnings of modern science, that I cannot let today go by without telling you that it is John Dee’s birthday. Dee was born in 1527, in the Tower Ward of the City of London. Both his parents were Welsh and his surname derives from the Welsh word for black, ‘du’. John Dee is black by name and black by reputation. For hundreds of years, he has been mainly remembered as a magician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare probably modelled his character of Prospero on John Dee. While it’s true that he did spend a lot of the last thirty years of his life trying to speak with angels, this opinion is rather unfair. Dee was an incredibly clever man.
John Dee went to study at Cambridge at fifteen, passed his bachelor degree at eighteen and was made an original fellow of Trinity College when it was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Whilst he was at Cambridge, we know that he was stage manager for a production of Aristophanes’ play ‘Peace’. We know this because he built a huge mechanical flying beetle for the play, which caused quite a sensation. This was probably the beginning of his reputation as a magician.
In the late 1540s and early 1550s, Dee travelled Europe. He studied at Louvain, where he became friends with the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator and he went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid. Back in London, in 1552, he met an Italian called Gerolamo Cardano, and together they investigated the plausibility a perpetual motion machine and also a gem that was reputed to have magical properties. I couldn’t find out what conclusions they drew, but I know Cardano decided it was impossible except when it came to celestial bodies.
Dee was an extremely skilled mathematician and learned a lot about navigation whilst he was abroad. He brought back with him, several navigational instrument including a couple of globes built by Mercator. But alongside this, he also studied astrology and the occult. This was not unusual. In the sixteenth century, the mysteries of the occult were every bit as real and useful as the secrets of geometry. But one had to be careful not to be seen to be straying into the realms of Black Magic. When Mary was made Queen, after the death of her brother, Edward VI, Dee cast her horoscope. He did the same for the future Queen Elizabeth I. Mary and Elizabeth, as you might know, did not have an easy relationship. Dee was accused, by a man called George Ferrers of plotting the death of Mary and also of bewitching his children, blinding one and killing another. Dee’s lodgings were searched and sealed up and he was arrested, but he was cleared of all charges. Following his exoneration, he proposed to Queen Mary, the foundation of a national library and requested funds. He was turned down, but began to build his own personal library of rare books and manuscripts, using his own money. His library eventually comprised around three thousand books and a thousand manuscripts. When James Burbage built the first theatre in London, he turned to Dee and his library for advice about what an ancient Greek theatre might have been like.
When Elizabeth was eventually made Queen in 1558, Dee became her personal advisor on matters astrological and scientific. He chose the date of her coronation. Skilled in the art of navigation as a result of his studies with Mercator, he was advisor to many of the English voyages of discovery, including that of Martin Frobisher. He also advocated the country expanding its territories into the New World. He supported this idea with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s assertion that King Arthur had once conquered Ireland and that it was a Welshman called Madoc who had first sailed to North America in the twelfth century. England had a noble history of expansion and a prior claim to the new lands that had been discovered to the west. In 1583, he was asked to advise the Queen on the new Gregorian Calendar that had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. Dee thought it was a great idea, and also proposed that the we should adopt January 1st as New Years Day in both the civil and liturgical year. Both were sensible ideas, both were rejected on the grounds that they were a little bit too Catholic for a Protestant country. When the Spanish Armada attacked in 1588, Dee predicted a storm. It was partly down to extremely poor weather conditions that the Armada was destroyed and some credited Dee with conjuring up the storm rather than just forecasting it.
Dee often corresponded with the Queen on secret matters. He spent several years abroad during Elizabeth’s reign, between 1583 and 1589, and it is entirely possible that he was spying for her. You might like to know that he signed his letters to her ‘007’. The two zeros indicated that they were for the Queen’s eyes only and the seven was a number of magical significance. And, yes, this is where Ian Fleming got it from.
Dee’s political opinions were not as influential as he would have liked and, in the 1580s, he began to turn his attentions more towards the occult. That was when he began to try to converse with angels. This is a subject that I covered when I mentioned his rather questionable assistant Edward Kelley. But I feel I ought to mention that what Dee was seeking to learn was the original language of mankind. The language that Adam used when speaking to God. He felt that these experiments were every bit as important as his mathematical work in understanding the divine forms that he believed to underlie the visible world. He thought if he could understand that, he could heal the divisions between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and generally unify mankind. Dee knew he wasn’t able to speak directly to the angels himself. He needed a scryer. Someone who could tell him what the angels said while he wrote in all down. This was how he came to meet Kelley. So it was with Kelly that he went abroad with in 1583. If you need any encouragement to read about Edward Kelly, I’ll tell you that they parted company after the angels apparently suggested that Dee and Kelley should share their wives.
John Dee returned to England to find that his home had been vandalised and many of his scientific instruments and the books from his splendid library stolen. The rest of his life is rather sad. He had hoped, when he returned to England, to help the country’s prosperity through the use of alchemy. Instead, in 1595, he was appointed Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester. He didn’t have much control over the Fellows there. They despised and cheated him. Also, his wife died there, of plague, in 1604. In 1605, he returned to London, but Queen Elizabeth was dead and the new ruler, James I, had little time for magic. He spent the last years of his life living in obscurity with his daughter Katherine in Mortlake, which is at Richmond upon Thames. He was forced to sell off his possessions and make his living as a simple fortune teller. We don’t even know for certain when he died. Either in 1608 or 1609 at the age of 82. Even his grave is lost. It was a sorry end for a once great man.