The life of John Dee (1527-1609), the Elizabethan scholar and mystic remains to this day, in spite of considerable research on the part of the historians, very much a mystery. Perhaps this is no accident. There is every reason to believe that Dee and the government of Queen Elizabeth I of England intended it to be that way. His work as tutor and later secret agent to Elizabeth has been amply demonstrated. Dee was a colleague of Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham and undertook numerous missions for him overseas, and he often signed his letters to Elizabeth and the Council with a '007' - the original James Bond, perhaps. What is not so well documented, however, is the extent to which John Dee quietly worked away behind the scenes to influence and shape the political and scientific climate of his age. A detailed exploration of this theme is too much for these few paragraphs. But a quick look at the facts alone can tell us quite a lot.
John Dee was born in July 1527, most likely in London and of Welsh descent. His father was an official at the court of Henry VIII involved with supplying fabric and textiles - and the family claimed for itself distant connections to the Tudors themselves. After Grammar School at Chelmsford, Dee went to St Johns College Cambridge where he became acquainted with Elizabeth's future Secretary of State William Cecil and also the future tutor to the young King Edward, John Cheke. Cheke was also Cecil's tutor. What all three men had in common. was the belief in humanism, of religious tolerance - the desire to live in a liberal Renaissance state in which science and the arts could proceed unhampered.
John Dee travelled widely after gaining his BA at Cambridge. He lectured at several universities in the Low Countries and France and became familiar with the politics of the Imperial Court then Kept at Brussels. On his return, he found his old friends John Cheke and Roger Ascham firmly established as tutors to the young King Edward. Dee subsequently was also employed as tutor to the King, most likely in mathematics, and received a state pension and a church living which would enable him to pursue his unique studies without too many financial worries and which by then included such widely ranging topics as navigation, optics, mathematics, astrology, philosophy and mechanics. He worked as astrologer to Edward and also became tutor within the infamous Dudley family. His favourite pupil was apparently Robert Dudley, son to the most powerful man in Edward's the Privy Council, the Duke of Northumberland. Robert Dudley was the same who was, of course, later to play such an important part in Elizabeth's life. Dee would also have had some connections to the Princess Elizabeth at this time, firstly through Dudley, who Knew Elizabeth as a young girl, but also through his distant cousin Blanche Parry who was the nursemaid and later Maid of Honour to Elizabeth.
As well as Edward, and the reformed church which sheltered under his wings, clearly the brilliant and religiously tolerant Elizabeth was likely to prove the kind of monarch men such as Cecil, Cheke and Dee were looking for. Examination of the horoscope of Edward showed an early death, moreover; and there is every reason to believe that the year of the young King's demise was also Known in advance. This would explain the alliance of Cecil and others with Elizabeth very early on in her career, at a time when it appeared she had little or no chance of ever ascending to the throne of England.
Knowledge of this Kind was, it goes without saying, extremely valuable in the hands of rivals or enemies. Consequently, mis-information - or in other words a deliberately false reading of a horoscope - became an equally valuable tool for purposes of counter-espionage. For example, later. during the reign of Mary Tudor, Dee was arrested for having drawn up horoscopes for Elizabeth and, more importantly, probably having discussed Mary's horoscope with Elizabeth: a serious offence. And although such wise counsel was probably a great comfort to the young Elizabeth during her years of virtual exile, this kind of work, without the permission of the Queen or Council, was considered tantamount to treason in those days. When news of this leaked out, Elizabeth was immediately summoned to court, and John Dee imprisoned for several months. Both Dee and his protege were in grave danger at this time.
Dee's release is a mystery worthy of the man himself. It seems he managed to persuade his gaoler, the Bishop of London, Edmond Bonner, that he was innocent and may even have concluded his enforced stay at the Bishop’s lodgings in London not only by acting as his chaplain, but also helping in the examination of other prisoners held there!
Dr. John Dee must have been quite a formidable figure - what we would today term charismatic, and in any case possessed a decidedly formidable reputation. Shortly after his arrest in 1555 one of those who informed and testified against him for 'attempting to enchant the Queen by calculating nativities,' a gentleman by the name of Ferrys, suffered the death of one of his children and the blindness of the other. An unfortunate development that would have done little to assuage the fears of his contemporaries. Perhaps the Bishop of London was well-rid of such a prisoner after all.
John Dee and the Voyages of Exploration
After having his liberty restored, John Dee writes extensively and possibly travels again as well. He was always consulted as an astrologer, but also sought out to advise the great seafarers of the time on the principles of geography and navigation. He was involved in the establishment of some of the very first trading companies - the Muscovy Company of 1555, for instance. Later he became closely connected with some of the most famous voyages of discovery undertaken by Elizabethan seamen - with Raleigh, Gilbert, Frobisher numbered among his associates, sometimes even accompanying these illustrious gentlemen on their voyages. He realized that the true north is distinct from magnetic north, and was a supporter of Copernican, heliocentric astronomy - a revolutionary concept at the time. Also an avid collector of books, Dee wanted at a very early stage in his life to establish a National Library and to this end he partitioned Queen Mary in 1556 for permission and backing for just such an enterprise. Mary refused to provide funds, however. His own collection of books and manuscripts, meanwhile, continued to grow to gigantic proportions, and his home became a Kind of public library in itself - in fact the forerunner of the British Library. It contained around 4000 volumes, a vast number in an age when printing technology was still in its infancy and when books were still both expensive and scarce - in fact, around 10 times the amount housed in the libraries of Oxford University at the time.
During the final and worst years of Queen Mary’s reign, Dee withdrew somewhat from public life. He may have travelled abroad again on at least one occasion or could have been genuinely unwell at the time. There were terrible flu epidemics and the ever-present plague sweeping the country at the time. But his work continued, and In 1558, he published his first major printed volume, the Propaedeumata Aphoristica – a work of mostly astrological aphorisms but with a strong philosophical dimension included.
The Coronation of Elizabeth
Upon the succession of Elizabeth in 1558. Dee comes into his own. He is asked to draw up what is called an electional chart - that is, a horoscope which would determine the best possible date for the beginning of the new reign: the moment for the coronation itself. It was Robert Dudley, by the way, who was sent to Dee with this request. One of the basic principles of astrology is that the beginnings, the birth of things is all important - whether this be the birth of an idea, a person or a nation.
After this, we often find John Dee abroad, using numerous pretexts for travelling to the capitals of Europe, but always listening, gathering intelligence and reporting back to either Secretary of State William Cecil or, later, Francis Walsingham (head of the Elizabethan secret service). Dee is also married by this time, and was to become, by his third wife, Jane, the father of about 11 children in all.
Perhaps one of John Dee’s most personally creative projects culminated in 1564 with the publication of his work on natural magic and alchemy called the Monas Hieroglyphica in Antwerp. It was a book so secret in its innermost meaning that it’s study had to be accompanied by personal instruction by Dee himself, who would then reveal its innermost secrets. Pupils of the Monas included Queen Elizabeth and the Emperor Maximilian, to whom it was dedicated.
In 1570 Dee wrote one of his most influential and practical works, the lengthy preface to Billingsley’s translation of Euclid. Dee most likely helped edit the book, as well. It had a major influence on the development of mathematics and geometry. It is upon this work that Dee's reputation as a mathematician of the first rank is based.
John Dee, Angels, Crystals and Magic
John Dee was intensely interested in all aspects of magic and alchemy. To this end he often worked with people termed ‘scryers’ - or those who can use their powers of mediumship to communicate with spiritual entities or intelligences. Now whether we choose to call these intelligences angels or simply aspects of the human psyche is of little importance. The unconscious was as much then a great source of knowledge and wisdom as it is today. A scryer was thought to be someone able to gain access to ideas and information which is usually restricted to the realm of dreams or hypnosis in normal individuals.
The main figure to be connected with Dee for these purposes was Edward Kelley. Little is known about Kelley's background, but it appears he was often implicated in crooked or unsavoury dealings prior to his relationship with John Dee, and may have even changed his name in order to escape detection or to render himself more acceptable to employment by a gentlemen such as Dee. He worked with a crystal glass, in which he purported to be able to see pictures and also to read alphabetical figures - occasionally also hearing voices. In 1583, suddenly, and in fact quite hurriedly, Dee and Kelley along with their wives left England - ostensibly fleeing from the authorities. This was perhaps an idea they desired to present, as it made the contacts they made within the various courts of Europe during their travels all the more plausible and easy. Dee gained fame at the Court of Rudolph II at Prague, among others, and was retained on the understanding that he and Kelley could produce gold in the true alchemist tradition from base metal. We now Know alchemy to be as much a spiritual exercise as a physical pursuit. - a Kind of Renaissance form of meditation - but the gullible and the greedy at the courts of the Empire were far from such a subtle understanding.
During these years, Dee and Kelly held numerous conversations with what we would today call extra-terrestrial intelligences, even building up an entirely new language, called Enochian that was dictated directly to Kelley during trance. Many of these conversations were sent back to England where they were received by the head of the then secret service, Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth.
John Dee's Return to England
A few months after the Armada. John Dee and his family returned in grand style to England - where he was welcomed back into official service. Kelly, however, remained in Europe, no doubt full of his strange illusions and still trying to manufacture gold.
The remaining years of Dee's life are not so spectacular in a public sense, though perhaps equally as stimulating in the sphere of personal relationships. He had earlier been closely connected to the Sidneys and the circle of artists, occultists, scientists and philosophers that grew up around that famous and versatile family. Dee was also to be found among that equally famous circle which centred around the 'Wizard Earl' Henry Percy. Here he would quite possibly have brushed shoulders with Christopher Marlowe - providing perhaps the figure for the playwright’s Faust. It is also widely believed that the great character of Prospero in the Shakespearean play 'The Tempest' is based largely on Dee who in the popular imagination was regarded as very much the archetypal wizard and magician.
A great enthusiast for the philosophies and belief systems of the East, throughout his life, Dee was closely involved in the search for the North-West passage to China via Canada and Newfoundland. Adrian and Humphrey Gilbert, seafaring explorers of these parts, were frequent visitor at Dee's home in Mortlake. Elizabeth the Queen, too, occasionally called in to survey the latest scientific instruments and discoveries, and she continued her patronage of Dee through all of her life - albeit a rather unofficial patronage, rarely providing any overt financial assistance (as was her wont).
Until his death, John Dee continued to be as important for his ideas as for his achievements. He urged a reform of the calendar, for example, years before the Gregorian calendar which we use today was introduced. But the Council at the time vetoed this suggestion, fearing it was too redolent of the Catholic reforms of the calender taking place in Europe at the time. Dee was also the inspiration behind the idea of a Royal Navy and of the British Empire - and was instrumental in encouraging accurate charting of the coastal waters of the British Isles.
In 1596, Dee was granted the post of warden at Christ's College Manchester. He then entered a period of his life which seems singularly unspectacular compared to earlier years. It is then that we begin to see the decline in Dee’s fortunes. He lost his beloved wife Jane at this time, and at least one child from an outbreak of the plague in Manchester. Then, with the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the paranoia of the age of James and the witch-hunts, John Dee's reputation began to catch up with him at last and his influence began to wane. He returned to London for the final time in 1605. There was to be no more royal patronage, no more royal favours or protection. He enjoyed still the proximity of his family, however, and his son Arthur was already a successful physician, married and with four children of his own. Dee drew up horoscopes for his grandchildren, and his daughter Katherine cared for him at this time also. One can imagine, even to the last, that he would be well looked after, among a loving family right up until his death, which was either at the end of 1608 or, more likely, early January 1609. The notion, spread about by his enemies in later times, that he died in poverty is therefore probably erroneous. He left many scholarly works, several printed in his own time and also around 50 unprinted manuscripts - though no substantial diary or records of his personal life. He died, in fact, very much as he had lived, a figure of modesty and much mystery.