Dr. Dee was a noted English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. He also devoted much of his life to alchemy, divination, and Hermetic philosophy.
He straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable. One of the most learned men of his time, he had lectured at the University of Paris when still in his early twenties. John was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, having trained many of those who would conduct England’s voyages of discovery (he coined the term “British Empire”).
At the same time, he immersed himself in magic and Hermetic philosophy, devoting the last third of his life almost exclusively to these pursuits.
Dee was born in Tower Ward, London, to a Welsh family, whose surname derived from the Welsh du (“black”). His father Roland was a mercer and minor courtier. Dee attended the Chelmsford Catholic School (now King Edward VI Grammar School (Chelmsford)), then – from 1543 to 1546 – St. John’s College, Cambridge. His great abilities were recognized, and he was made a founding fellow of Trinity College. In the late 1540s and early 1550s, he traveled in Europe, studying at Leuven and Brussels and lecturing in Paris on Euclid.
Dee was offered a readership in mathematics at Oxford in 1554, which he declined; he was occupied with writing and perhaps hoping for a better position at court.
In 1555, Dee became a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, as his father had, through the company’s system of patrimony.
That same year, 1555, he was arrested and charged with “calculating” for having cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth; the charges were expanded to treason against Mary. Dee appeared in the Star Chamber and exonerated himself, but was turned over to the reactionary Catholic Bishop Bonner for religious examination. His strong and lifelong penchant for secrecy perhaps worsening matters, this entire episode was only the most dramatic in a series of attacks and slanders that would dog Dee through his life. Clearing his name yet again, he soon became a close associate of Bonner.
Dee presented Queen Mary with a visionary plan for the preservation of old books, manuscripts and records and the founding of a national library, in 1556, but his proposal was not taken up. Instead, he expanded his personal library at his house in Mortlake, tirelessly acquiring books and manuscripts in England and on the European Continent. Dee’s library, a center of learning outside the universities, became the greatest in England and attracted many scholars.
When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Dee became her trusted advisor on astrological and scientific matters, choosing Elizabeth’s coronation date himself. From the 1550s through the 1570s, he served as an advisor to England’s voyages of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation and ideological backing in the creation of a “British Empire”, and was the first to use that term.Dee was also Elizabeth I’s spy.
In 1564, Dee wrote the Hermetic work Monas Hieroglyphica (“The Hieroglyphic Monad”), an exhaustive Cabalistic interpretation of a glyph of his own design, meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. This work was highly valued by many of Dee’s contemporaries, but the loss of the secret oral tradition of Dee’s milieu makes the work difficult to interpret today.
By the early 1580s, Dee was growing dissatisfied with his progress in learning the secrets of nature and with his own lack of influence and recognition. He began to turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge. Specifically, he sought to contact angels through the use of a “scryer” or crystal-gazer, who would act as an intermediary between Dee and the angels.
Dee’s first attempts were not satisfactory, but, in 1582, he met Edward Kelley (then going under the name of Edward Talbot), who impressed him greatly with his abilities. Dee took Kelley into his service and began to devote all his energies to his supernatural pursuits. These “spiritual conferences” or “actions” were conducted with an air of intense Christian piety, always after periods of purification, prayer and fasting. Dee was convinced of the benefits they could bring to mankind. (The character of Kelley is harder to assess: some have concluded that he acted with complete cynicism, but delusion or self-deception are not out of the question. Kelley’s “output” is remarkable for its sheer mass, its intricacy and its vividness.) Dee maintained that the angels laboriously dictated several books to him this way, some in a special angelic language or name by the Golden Dawn, the Enochian language.
During a spiritual conference in Bohemia, in 1587, Kelley told Dee that the angel Uriel had ordered that the two men should share their wives. Kelley, who by that time was becoming a prominent alchemist and was much more sought-after than Dee, may have wished to use this as a way to end the spiritual conferences. The order caused Dee great anguish, but he did not doubt its genuineness and apparently allowed it to go forward, but broke off the conferences immediately afterwards and did not see Kelley again. Dee returned to England in 1589.
Dee returned to Mortlake after six years to find his library ruined and many of his prized books and instruments stolen. He sought support from Elizabeth, who finally made him Warden of Christ’s College, Manchester, in 1592. This former College of Priests had been re-established as a Protestant institution by a Royal Charter of 1578.
However, he could not exert much control over the Fellows, who despised or cheated him. Early in his tenure, he was consulted on the demonic possession of seven children, but took little interest in the matter, although he did allow those involved to consult his still extensive library.
He left Manchester in 1605 to return to London. By that time, Elizabeth was dead, and James I, unsympathetic to anything related to the supernatural, provided no help. Dee spent his final years in poverty at Mortlake, forced to sell off several of his possessions to support himself and his daughter, Katherine, who cared for him until the end. He died in Mortlake late in 1608 or early 1609 aged 82 (there are no extant records of the exact date as both the parish registers and Dee’s gravestone are missing).
Dee was an intensely pious Christian, but his Christianity was deeply influenced by the Hermetic and Platonic-Pythagorean doctrines that were pervasive in the Renaissance. He believed that number was the basis of all things and the key to knowledge, that God’s creation was an act of numbering. From Hermeticism, he drew the belief that man had the potential for divine power, and he believed this divine power could be exercised through mathematics. His cabalistic angel magic (which was heavily numerological) and his work on practical mathematics (navigation, for example) were simply the exalted and mundane ends of the same spectrum, not the antithetical activities many would see them as today. His ultimate goal was to help bring forth a unified world religion through the healing of the breach of the Catholic and Protestant churches and the recapture of the pure theology of the ancients.
The British Museum holds several items once owned by Dee and associated with the spiritual conferences:
- Dee’s Speculum or Mirror (an obsidian Aztec cult object in the shape of a hand-mirror, brought to Europe in the late 1520s), which was once owned by Horace Walpole.
- The small wax seals used to support the legs of Dee’s “table of practice” (the table at which the scrying was performed).
- The large, elaborately-decorated wax “Seal of God”, used to support the “shew-stone”, the crystal ball used for scrying.
- A gold amulet engraved with a representation of one of Kelley’s visions.
- A crystal globe, six centimeters in diameter. This item remained unnoticed for many years in the mineral collection; possibly the one owned by Dee, but the provenance of this object is less certain than that of the others.
- In December 2004, both a shew stone (a stone used for scrying) formerly belonging to Dee and a mid-1600s explanation of its use written by Nicholas Culpeper were stolen from the Science Museum in London; they were recovered shortly afterwards.
Dee is reputed to have produced some 400 books and manuscripts, Here are just a few:
- The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of His Library of Manuscripts
- The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of His Library of … with James Orchard
- The Calls of Enoch with Edward Kelley
- Azogue: It is a section of the e-journal Azogue with original reproductions of Dee texts.
- John Dee reports of Dee and Kelley’s conversations with Angels:
o Mysteriorum Liber Primus (with Latin translations)
o Notes to Liber Primus by Clay Holden
o Mysteriorum Liber Secundus
o Mysteriorum Liber Tertius