Dr John Dee – Mathematician, Scientist, Magus, and Conjuror

In The Sword of Moses, Malchus is obsessed with the enigmatic figure of Dr John Dee (1527–1609).

Dee was born in Tudor London to a Welsh father and English mother during the reign of King Henry viii.

He stands out as one of the most extraordinary figures of his age—among the most respected mathematical and scientific minds of the late 1500s.

However, he is now chiefly remembered for having given up his prestigious position as adviser to numerous English kings and queens in order to focus on magic and communicating with the spirit world.  He is widely believed to be the model for Shakespeare’s master magician, Prospero.

John Dee aged 67 (1594)

John Dee aged 67 (1594)

Aged 15, Dee went up to St John’s College, Cambridge, and four years later was elected fellow and under-reader of Greek at the new Trinity College.

His first love was mathematics, and in his early twenties he abandoned the offer of professorships at Paris and then Oxford in order to establish himself at the royal court.  He served Edward vi, Mary i, Elizabeth i, and perhaps James i.

At court, he advised courtiers and explorers on mathematics and navigation, helping numerous expeditions to the New World, especially attempts to find the elusive north-west passage (including Frobisher’s of 1576–8).  In this context, he was the first to use the phrase ‘the British Empire’ in his book General and Rare Memorials (1577).

Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577)

Dee’s General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577)

In addition to mathematics and navigation, at Queen Mary i’s court he was also her royal astrologer.  And later, having cast the horoscope for Queen Elizabeth i’s coronation, he was also appointed her scientific and medical adviser.

In 1555, two years after Queen Mary i’s accession, Dee was arrested and imprisoned for conjuring and witchcraft.  He was acquitted, following a hearing in front of the Lord Chief Justice and an inquiry into his (now Roman Catholic) religion by the bishop of London.

Part of the reason for his reputation as a magician lay in his technical innovations.  For instance, he caused amazement with his machinery in a play staged at Trinity College, Cambridge, which lifted a character riding on a scarab beetle up to the ceiling of the college hall.

Dee travelled to Europe throughout his life to meet continental scholars, and invariably brought back alchemic and scientific instruments of a quality unknown in England.  He also imported books and manuscripts, which he housed at his home in Mortlake (London).  Although his library fell into ruins in his old age, at its peak he estimated it held over three thousand books and a thousand manuscripts—more than the individual universities or colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.

In 1564, he published the Monas Hieroglyphica in which he unveiled a mathematical-magical symbol, the Monas, which he saw as a potent incarnation of creation and the unity of the sciences.

Title page to the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564),  showing the Monas symbol in the centre

Title page to the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564),
showing the Monas symbol in the centre

The Monas Hieroglyphica was such a significant work that he was granted an audience to explain it in person to Queen Elizabeth i.

Dee was a free-thinking intellectual.  For instance, he was an early supporter of implementing Pope Gregory xiii’s 1582 calendar reform (the modern western calendar: a 365-day year with a quadrennial leap year).  

Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII

Pope Gregory XIII‘s bull, Inter Gravissimas, which implemented the modern calendar

Pope Gregory XIII‘s bull, Inter Gravissimas, which implemented the modern calendar

However, anything smelling vaguely of Rome was unpopular in Elizabethan England, and it was strongly opposed by Archbishop Edmund Grindal of Canterbury (and his successors), and was not finally implemented in England until 200 years later, in 1752.

Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury (1576)

Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury (1576)

In November 1572, there was a supernova, and it seems to have affected Dee deeply, turning his interests more strongly towards magic.

The 1572 supernova in Cassiopeia, as recorded in Tycho Brahe’s De Nova Stella (Copenhagen, 1573), in which Brahe refuted the established Aristotelian view that the planets and stars were fixed and unchanging

The 1572 supernova in Cassiopeia, as recorded in Tycho Brahe’s De Nova Stella (Copenhagen, 1573), in which Brahe refuted the established Aristotelian view that the planets and stars were fixed and unchanging

Dee collected numerous artifacts to help in his occult interests.  The British Museum still holds a number of them, and they all feature in The Sword of Moses.

In order from left to right: The Aztec sacrificial ‘Mirror of Tezcatlipoca’, a scrying crystal, two small seals, the large Seal of God (Sigillum Dei), a gold disc inscribed with the four castles of Cracow

In order from left to right: The Aztec sacrificial ‘Mirror of Tezcatlipoca’, a scrying crystal, two small seals, the large Seal of God (Sigillum Dei), a gold disc inscribed with the four castles of Cracow

By his early fifties, Dee was heavily involved in scrying (reading angelic messages in shiny surfaces).  He rapidly found he was no good at it, so employed others to act as his medium.

His most notorious collaboration was with the medium Edward Kelley, whom he met in 1581, when he was in his mid-fifties.

Edward Kelley (1555–97)

Edward Kelley (1555–97)

From 1583–7, Dee and Kelley carried out many séances, which Dee recorded meticulously.

Historians universally view Kelley as a charlatan (and it is likely he had his ears cropped at Lancaster for counterfeiting), but Dee seems to have been oblivious to the warning signs.

Spurred on by the angels, Dee and Kelley left for Poland in late 1583 with their wives, children, and servants.  When they arrived at Cracow, Kelley had the famous vision of the four castles.(1)

The image of the four castles revealed at Cracow (1584)

The image of the four castles revealed at Cracow (1584)

They travelled next to Prague, where the university awarded Dee a doctorate in medicine (hence his title ‘Dr’ Dee).

On 3 September 1584, he met Rudolf ii, Holy Roman Emperor, in his Prague palace.  It was perhaps at this meeting that Dee introduced the emperor to the Voynich manuscript, which he probably sold to him around this time.(2)

Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor (by Hans von Aachen, c. 1600)

Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor (by Hans von Aachen, c. 1600)

After being expelled from Prague by the papal nuncio, probably for witchcraft, Dee eventually returned home, leaving Kelley in Poland.  It seems likely that around this time Kelley told Dee the angels had instructed them to engage in wife-swapping.(3)

Back in England, Dee found his house and library had been ransacked, and he struggled to find a position.  Eventually, in 1596, Queen Elizabeth i made him warden of Christ’s College Manchester (the cathedral).

Dee’s signature (1597) 'Your wurship’s sincere  well willer in Christe John Dee  Warden'

Dee’s signature (1597)
Your wurship’s sincere
well willer in Christe John Dee
Warden

Dee worked to develop the church, and also locally as a surgeon.  He remained fascinated with the occult, and in 1597 aided the judge with the case of the ‘Seven in Lancashire’, a group of children thought to be demonically possessed.

Dee was a religious chameleon in an age when the wrong beliefs frequently meant disfavor or death.   He spent most of his life in protestant humanist circles, although had no difficulty passing himself off as a Roman Catholic at Queen Mary i’s court (and under examination by the bishop of London), and when in Poland.

As the witch-hunt atmosphere of the early 1600s intensified, Dee fell out of favour in Manchester.  When Queen Elizabeth i  died in 1603, he lost his patron protector, and his enemies seized the chance to get rid of him.  Stories abounded of him having summoned the devil, and he was hounded out of Manchester back to Mortlake.

 A burn in a table from Christ’s College. Manchester, said to have been made by the devil’s hoof after Dee summoned him

A burn in a table from Christ’s College. Manchester, said to have been made by the devil’s hoof after Dee summoned him

Dee fell increasingly into poverty, spending the last few years of his life back in Mortlake, where he took up his angelic sessions again.

He died in March 1609, and was buried in the church of St Mary the Virgin at Mortlake, perhaps under the chancel, although any grave marking has long since disappeared.

Likely burial place of John Dee, under the chancel of the church of St Mary the Virgin at Mortlake

Likely burial place of John Dee, under the chancel of the church of St Mary the Virgin at Mortlake

He had married Katherine Constable in 1565/6, but she died childless 10 years later.  He then married Jane Fromonds in 1578, and she bore him eight children, although only two survived.  She died of the plague along with two of the children in Manchester in 1605.

As a man, Dee was reportedly tall and slender, handsome, and both charming and persuasive.

To the modern mind, he remains an enigma—an outstanding scientist and polymath, but also someone who believed strongly in the power of the occult to reveal divine mysteries.

It was a time when magic and science were still fundamentally interconnected in the quest for knowledge.  Like Isaac Newton, born only 33 years later, Dee lived in an age when ‘rational’ science was still only just emerging from a world of alchemy, magic, astrology, and religion.

Thinkers like Dee and Newton may have paved the way for modern science, but they were very definitely its parents, not its children.

Notes

(1) The vision of the castles is mentioned in The Sword of Moses, as it is engraved on the gold disc in the British Museum.

(2) See forthcoming blog on The Voynich Manuscript.

(3) Kelley told Dee that the spirit Madimi had said their two families should share all things in common.  They asked the spirit for clarification whether it was in a carnal sense or spiritual love.  The answer came back: carnal.  Dee acquiesced, and his wife gave birth to Theodore Dee nine months later.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment

Sign up to Blog/Newsletter:

Latest Tweets

@L_Hornak reminding us, beautifully, why we love the Shipping Forecast! @BBCRadio4 tinyurl.com/o2dptnm