John Dee

While my intention was to continue with the fate of the prince´s, I suddenly felt an inclination to take a look at John Dee. So I will.

Born in Tower Ward 1527 he went on to become a distinguished mathematician,Portrait_of_John_Dee_Wellcome_M0010334 astrologer, astronomer, alchemist, mystic and advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Already in his early 20´s, he was called to lecture on the geometry of Euclid at University of Paris.

He managed in a fascinating way to balance the occult with more worldly subjects and apart from being respected as a mathematician and astronomer he was also a leading expert in navigation and was behind the training of many of those who would lead England´s expeditions to foreign shores.

But it´s not really those things which are interesting about John Dee, but that he, who also practiced many arts that in some contexts most likely could have been considered dark arts or witchcraft came to be an advisor to the Queen.

It´s not like John Dee was living in a cave in the woods with pentagrams carved into the rock. In 1553 he became rector in Upton-upon-Severn only to the following year be offered a readership in mathematics at the University of Oxford.

His more unconventional skills got him into trouble in 1555, when he was arrested for having cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, thereby coming on the verge of the crime of predicting the death of the monarch, the charges in relation to Mary came to be expanded to treason. He appeared in the Star Chamber to exonerate himself, but by nature of his dealings John Dee was a secretive person, which most likely made matters even worse, and he would spend a lifetime fighting off rumours and slander and at this point he was subjected to a religious examination by Bishop Bonner, known to history as Bloody Bonner due to his eager assistance to Mary in the so called Marian Persecutions of suspected heretics.

Dee however managed to clear his name again, and presented Queen Mary with an elaborate plan for preservation of books, old documents and records, as well as suggested the founding of a National Library. Mary wasn´t interested, but Dee himself continued to acquire rare books throughout his life and his personal library was visited by many European scholars. At the time of his death he had one of the largest libraries in England.


john-deeThings changed for a while when Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and John Dee became her advisor. Her coronation date was chosen by him and he served for around 20 years as her advisor in relationship to the English voyages of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation. He was a strong advocate for British expansion for which he provided ideological backing. John Dee is said to have been the first to use the term “British Empire” the creation of which he supported. He even “invented” a number of events which should prove that the claim of Elizabeth to the New World was greater than that of Spain. He also advised Elizabeth about the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, and suggested some amendments, but those were rejected.

In the 1580´s, Dee was becoming less than satisfied with his progress in learning of the hidden parts of nature as well as his own lack of influence and recognition and he started turning to the supernatural for communication with the spirits in hope that they would act as intermediates in his contact with angels. For this he used a “scryer”, or crystal gazer. Under a number of years in the 80´s he lived like a nomad in Europe in the company of the Polish nobleman Albert Laski, who had persuaded Dee and his family (John Dee was married 3 times) to accompany the Laski family. They held spiritual conferences and were granted audiences at a number of courts, such as King Stefan Batory of Poland and Emperor Rudolf II at Prague Castle. While no one questioned his extensive knowledge on the subjects on which he was working, he was also regarded with some suspicion as some thought he might be acting as a spy on behalf of Elizabeth I.

When he returned to England after six years, it was only to find his home vandalized and his library either stolen or destroyed. Seeking the help of Elizabeth, he was eventually appointed Warden of Christ´s College at Manchester, where he unfortunately Sloane3188-john_deewas met with little regard. He however kept the position for the rest of his life.

John Dee died in poverty in 1608 or 1609, and had had to sell off extensive parts of his library and possessions to be able to be able to sustain himself and his daughter Katherine who cared for him.

John Dee has in modern times been portrayed as a magician, a vampire and a fantasy figure. But he was a devout Christian with a wish to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Catholicism and a vision of a world united under one religion. For possible Scandinavian readers, it can be interesting to know that he was a friend of Tycho Brahe, Danish astronomer.

Ps. It can also be worth mentioning that while John Dee in the film “Elizabeth, The Golden Age” starring Cate Blanchet, is portrayed as an elderly man, he was only six years older than the Queen.


Sources: Discourse on history, geography and law: John Dee and the limits of the British Empire – Ken Macmillan.

John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, alchemy, and the end of nature – Frank Klaasen.

Diary – John Dee

Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds – Charles MacKay.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s