Updated: Jan 17, 2022
John Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an Anglo-Welsh mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, and alchemist. He was the court astronomer for, and advisor to, Elizabeth I, and spent much of his time on alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. As an antiquarian, he had one of the largest libraries in England at the time. As a political advisor, he advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a "British Empire", a term he is credited with coining.
Dee eventually left Elizabeth's service and went on a quest for additional knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural. He aligned himself with several individuals who may have been charlatans, traveled through Europe and was accused of spying for the English crown. Upon his return to England, he found his home and library vandalized. He eventually returned to service of the Queen, but was turned away when she was succeeded by James I. He died in poverty in London and his gravesite is unknown.
Science and sorcery
To 21st-century eyes, Dee's activities straddle magic and modern science, but the distinction would have meant nothing to him. He was invited to lecture on Euclidean geometry at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. He was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, who trained many who would conduct England's voyages of discovery.
Meanwhile, he immersed himself in sorcery, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Much effort in his last 30 years went into trying to commune with angels, so as to learn the universal language of creation and achieve a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind. A student of the Renaissance Neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, he drew no distinctions between his mathematical research and his investigations of Hermetic magic, angel summoning and divination: all his activities were part of his quest for a transcendent understanding of divine forms underlying the visible world: Dee's "pure verities".
Dee amassed one of England's biggest libraries. His scholarly status also took him into Elizabethan politics as an adviser and tutor to Elizabeth I and through relations with her ministers Francis Walsingham and William Cecil. He tutored and patronised Sir Philip Sidney, his uncle Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Edward Dyer, and Sir Christopher Hatton.
Dee was born in Tower Ward, London, to Rowland Dee, of Welsh descent, and Johanna, daughter of William Wild. His surname "Dee" reflects the Welsh du (black). His grandfather was Bedo Ddu of Nant-y-groes, Pilleth, Radnorshire; John retained his connection with the locality. His father Roland was a mercer and gentleman courtier to Henry VIII. John Dee claimed descent from Rhodri the Great, Prince of Wales, and constructed a pedigree accordingly. His family had arrived in London with Henry Tudor's coronation as Henry VII.
Dee attended Chelmsford Chantry School (now King Edward VI Grammar School) in 1535–1542. He entered St John's College, Cambridge in November 1542, aged 15, graduating BA in 1545 or early 1546. His abilities recognised, he became an original fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge on its foundation by Henry VIII in 1546. At Trinity, the clever stage effects he produced for a production of Aristophanes' Peace earned him lasting repute as a magician. In the late 1540s and early 1550s, he travelled in Europe, studying at Louvain (1548) and Brussels and lecturing in Paris on Euclid. He studied under Gemma Frisius and became friends with the cartographers Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. Dee also met, worked and learnt from other continental mathematicians, such as Federico Commandino in Italy. He returned to England with a major collection of mathematical and astronomical instruments. In 1552, he met Gerolamo Cardano in London, with whom he investigated a purported perpetual motion machine and a gem supposed to have magical properties.
Rector at Upton-upon-Severn from 1553, Dee was offered a readership in mathematics at Oxford University in 1554, which he declined, citing as offensive English universities' emphasis on rhetoric and grammar (which, together with logic, formed the academic trivium) over philosophy and science (the more advanced quadrivium, composed of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). He was busy with writing and perhaps hoped for a better position at court. In 1555, Dee joined the Worshipful Company of Mercers, as his father had, through its system of patrimony.
In that same year Dee was arrested and charged with the crime of "calculating", because he had cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. The charges were raised to treason against Mary. Dee appeared in the Star Chamber and exonerated himself, but was turned over to the Catholic Bishop Bonner for religious examination. His strong, lifelong penchant for secrecy may have worsened matters. The episode was the most dramatic in a series of attacks and slanders that dogged Dee throughout his life. Clearing his name yet again, he soon became a close associate of Bonner.
Dee presented Queen Mary in 1556 with a visionary plan for preserving old books, manuscripts and records and founding a national library, but it was not taken up. Instead, he expanded his personal library in Mortlake, acquiring books and manuscripts in England and on the Continent. Dee's library, a centre of learning outside the universities, became the greatest in England and attracted many scholars.
Dee's glyph, whose meaning he explained in Monas Hieroglyphica.
When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, Dee became her astrological and scientific advisor, even choosing her coronation date. From the 1550s to the 1570s, he served as an advisor to England's voyages of discovery, providing technical aid in navigation and political support to create a "British Empire", a term he was the first to use. Dee wrote in October 1574 to William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley seeking patronage. He claimed to have occult knowledge of treasure in the Welsh Marches and of valuable manuscripts kept at Wigmore Castle, knowing that the Lord Treasurer's ancestors came from the area.
In 1577, Dee published General and Rare Memorials pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, a work setting out his vision of a maritime empire and asserting English territorial claims on the New World. Dee was acquainted with Humphrey Gilbert and close to Sir Philip Sidney and his circle.
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. Having dedicated it to Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor in an effort to gain patronage, Dee attempted to present it to him at the time of his ascension to the throne of Hungary. The work was esteemed by many of Dee's contemporaries, but cannot be interpreted today in the absence of the secret oral tradition of that era.
His 1570 "Mathematical Preface" to Henry Billingsley's English translation of Euclid's Elements argued for the importance of mathematics as an influence on the other arts and sciences. Intended for an audience outside the universities, it proved to be Dee's most widely influential and frequently reprinted work.
The "Seal of God", British Museum
By the early 1580s, Dee was discontented with his progress in learning the secrets of nature and his diminishing influence and recognition in court circles. Failure of his ideas concerning a proposed calender revision, colonial establishment and ambivalent results for voyages of exploration in North America had nearly brought his hopes of political patronage to an end. As a result, he began a more energetic turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge. He sought to contact spirits through the use of a "scryer" or crystal-gazer, which would act as an intermediary between Dee and the angels.
Dee's first attempts with several scryers were unsatisfactory, but in 1582 he met Edward Kelley (then calling himself Edward Talbot to disguise his conviction for "coining" or forgery), 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 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 conclude that he acted with cynicism, but delusion or self-deception cannot be ruled out. Kelley's "output" is remarkable for its volume, intricacy and vividness. Dee claimed that angels laboriously dictated several books to him this way, through Kelley, some in a special angelic or Enochian language.
In 1583, Dee met the impoverished yet popular Polish nobleman Albert Łaski, who, after overstaying his welcome at court, invited Dee to accompany him back to Poland. With some prompting by the "angels" (again through Kelley) and by dint of his worsening status at court, Dee decided to do so. He, Kelley, and their families left in September 1583, but Łaski proved to be bankrupt and out of favour in his own country. Dee and Kelley began a nomadic life in Central Europe, meanwhile continuing their spiritual conferences, which Dee detailed in his diaries and almanacs. They had audiences with Emperor Rudolf II in Prague Castle and King Stephen Bathory of Poland, whom they attempted to convince of the importance of angelic communication. The Bathory meeting took place at the Niepołomice Castle (near Kraków, then capital of Poland) and was later analysed by Polish historians (Ryszard Zieliński, Roman Żelewski, Roman Bugaj) and writers (Waldemar Łysiak). While Dee was generally seen as a man of deep knowledge, he was mistrusted for his connection with the English monarch, Elizabeth I, for whom some thought (and still do) that Dee was a spy. The Polish king, a devout Catholic and cautious of supernatural media, began their meeting(s) by affirming that prophetic revelations must match the teachings of Christ, the mission of the Holy Catholic Church, and the approval of the Pope.
In 1587, at a spiritual conference in Bohemia, Kelley told Dee that the angel Uriel had ordered the men to share all their possessions, including their wives. By this time, Kelley had gained some renown as an alchemist and was more sought-after than Dee in this regard: it was a line of work that had prospects for serious and long-term financial gain, especially among the royal families of central Europe. Dee, however, was more interested in communicating with angels, whom he believed would help him solve the mysteries of the heavens through mathematics, optics, astrology, science and navigation. Perhaps Kelley in fact wished to end Dee's dependence on him as a diviner at their increasingly lengthy, frequent spiritual conferences. The order for wife-sharing caused Dee anguish, but he apparently did not doubt it was genuine and they apparently shared wives. However, Dee broke off the conferences immediately afterwards. He returned to England in 1589, while Kelley went on to be the alchemist to Emperor Rudolf II. Nine months later, on 28 February 1588, a son was born to Dee's wife, whom Dee baptised Theodorus Trebonianus Dee and raised as his own, though he may have been Kelley's, as Dee was 60 at the time and Kelley 32.
John Dee memorial plaque installed in 2013 inside the church of St Mary the Virgin Mortlake
Dee returned to Mortlake after six years abroad to find his home vandalised, his library ruined and many of his prized books and instruments stolen. Furthermore, he found that increasing criticism of occult practices had made England still less hospitable to his magical practices and natural philosophy. He sought support from Elizabeth, who hoped he could persuade Kelley to return and ease England's economic burdens through alchemy. She finally appointed Dee Warden of Christ's College, Manchester, in 1595.
This former College of Priests had been re-established as a Protestant institution by Royal Charter in 1578. However, he could not exert much control over its 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 case, although he allowed those involved to consult his still extensive library.
Dee left Manchester in 1605 to return to London, but remained Warden until his death. By that time, Elizabeth was dead and James I gave him no support. Dee spent his final years in poverty at Mortlake, forced to sell off various possessions to support himself and his daughter, Katherine, who cared for him until his death in Mortlake late in 1608 or early in 1609 aged 81. (Both the parish registers and Dee's gravestone are missing.) In 2013 a memorial plaque to Dee was placed on the south wall of the present church.
Dee was married three times and had eight children. His first wife, Katherine Constable in 1565, died in 1574 without issue. His second marriage (also childless) to an unknown woman lasted only a year until her death in 1576. From 1577 to 1601, Dee kept a sporadic diary (also referred to as his almanac), from which most of what we know of his life in that time has been gleaned. In 1578, when he was 51, he married the 23-year-old Jane Fromond, who had her own connection with the Elizabethan court as a lady in waiting to Elizabeth FitzGerald, Countess of Lincoln until she married Dee. When, in 1587, Kelley informed Dee of the angel's wish that they share wives, Jane Dee (née Fromond) was his wife at the time. Their son Theodore, born nine months later, could have been Kelley's, not Dee's.
Jane died in Manchester of bubonic plague and was buried in the Manchester Cathedral burial grounds in March 1604. Michael, born in Prague, died on his father's birthday in 1594. Theodore, born in Třeboň, died in Manchester in 1601. His sons Arthur Dee and Rowland survived him, as did his daughter Katherine, "his companion to the end". No records exist for his youngest daughters Madinia (sometimes Madima), Frances and Margaret after 1604, so it is widely assumed they died in the epidemic that took their mother. (Dee had by this time ceased to keep a diary.)
While Arthur was a student at the Westminster School, Dee wrote to his headmaster echoing the normal worries of boarding-school parents. Arthur was an apprentice in much of his father's alchemical and scientific work and in fact often his diviner until Kelley appeared. He went on to become an alchemist and Hermetic author, whose works were published by Elias Ashmole.
The antiquary John Aubrey describes Dee as "tall and slender. He wore a gown like an artist's gown, with hanging sleeves, and a slit.... A very fair, clear sanguine complexion... a long beard as white as milk. A very handsome man."
A chart from Johannes Trithemius's Steganographia in the hand of John Dee who copied the entire manuscript in 1591
Dee was an intense Christian, but his religiosity was influenced by Hermetic and Platonic-Pythagorean doctrines pervasive in the Renaissance. He believed that numbers were the basis of all things and key to knowledge. From Hermeticism he drew a belief that man had the potential for divine power that could be exercised through mathematics. His goal was to help bring forth a unified world religion through the healing of the breach of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and the recapture of the pure theology of the ancients.
Advocating the establishment of colonies
From 1570 Dee advocated a policy of political and economic strengthening of England and establishment of colonies in the New World. His manuscript Brytannicae reipublicae synopsis (1570) outlined the state of the Elizabethan Realm and was concerned with trade, ethics and national strength.
His 1576 General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation was the first volume in an unfinished series planned to advocate for the establishment of English colonies abroad. In a symbolic frontispiece, Dee included a figure of Britannia kneeling by the shore beseeching Elizabeth I to protect her nation by strengthening her navy. Dee used Geoffrey's inclusion of Ireland in King Arthur's conquests to argue that Arthur had established a "British empire" abroad. He argued that the establishment of new colonies would benefit England economically, with said colonies being protected by a strong navy. Dee has been credited with coining the term British Empire, but Humphrey Llwyd has also been credited with the first use in his Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, published eight years earlier in 1568.
Dee posited a formal claim to North America on the back of a map drawn in 1577–1580; he noted that "circa 1494 Mr. Robert Thorn his father, and Mr. Eliot of Bristow, discovered Newfound Land." In his Title Royal of 1580, he invented a claim that Madog ab Owain Gwynedd had discovered America, intending thereby to boost England's claim to the New World over that of Spain's. He also asserted that Brutus of Britain and King Arthur, as well as Madog, had conquered lands in the Americas, so that their heir, Elizabeth I of England, had a prior claim there.
Reputation and significance
Some ten years after Dee's death, the antiquarian Robert Cotton bought land round Dee's house and began digging for papers and artifacts. He found several manuscripts, mainly records of Dee's angelic communications. Cotton's son gave these to the scholar Méric Casaubon, who published them in 1659, with a long introduction critical of their author, as A True & Faithful Relation of What passed for many Yeers between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Eliz. and King James their Reignes) and some spirits. As the first public revelation of Dee's spiritual conferences, the book was popular. Casaubon, who believed in the reality of spirits, argued in his introduction that Dee was acting as the unwitting tool of evil spirits when he believed he was communicating with angels. This book is mainly responsible for the image, prevalent for the next two-and-a-half centuries, of Dee as a dupe and deluded fanatic. About the time the True and Faithful Relation was published, members of the Rosicrucian movement claimed Dee as one of their number. There is doubt, however, that an organized Rosicrucian movement existed in Dee's lifetime, and no evidence he ever belonged to any secret fraternity. His reputation as a magician and the vivid story of his association with Edward Kelley have made him a seemingly irresistible figure to fabulists, writers of horror stories and latter-day magicians. The accretion of fanciful information about Dee often obscures the facts of his life, remarkable as they were. It also does nothing to promote his Christian leanings: Dee looked to the angels to tell him how he might heal the deep and serious rifts between the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Church of England and the Protestant movement in England. Queen Elizabeth I used him several times as her court astronomer, not solely because he practised Hermetic arts, but as a deeply religious and learned, trustworthy man.
A revaluation of Dee's character and significance came in the 20th century, largely through the work of the historians Charlotte Fell Smith and Dame Frances Yates. Both brought into focus the parallel roles of magic, science and religion in the Elizabethan Renaissance. Fell Smith writes: "There is perhaps no learned author in history who has been so persistently misjudged, nay, even slandered, by his posterity, and not a voice in all the three centuries uplifted even to claim for him a fair hearing. Surely it is time that the cause of all this universal condemnation should be examined in the light of reason and science; and perhaps it will be found to exist mainly in the fact that he was too far advanced in speculative thought for his own age to understand." Through this and subsequent re-evaluation, Dee is now viewed as a serious scholar and book collector, a devoted Christian (albeit at a confusing time for that faith), an able scientist and one of the most learned men of his day. His Mortlake library was the largest in the country before it was vandalised, and created at enormous, sometimes ruinous personal expense; it was seen as one of the finest in Europe, perhaps second only to that of De Thou. As well as being an astrological and scientific advisor to Elizabeth and her court, he was an early advocate of colonisation of North America, envisioning a British Empire stretching across the North Atlantic.
Dee promoted the sciences of navigation and cartography. He studied closely with Gerardus Mercator and owned an important collection of maps, globes and astronomical instruments. He developed new instruments and special navigational techniques for use in polar regions. Dee served as an advisor to English voyages of discovery, and personally selected pilots and trained them in navigation. He believed that mathematics (which he understood mystically) was central to human learning. The centrality of mathematics to Dee's vision makes him to that extent more modern than Francis Bacon, though some scholars believe Bacon purposely downplayed mathematics in the anti-occult atmosphere of the reign of James I. Although Dee's understanding of the role of mathematics differs much from ours, its promotion outside the universities was an enduring achievement. For most of his writings, Dee chose English, rather than Latin, to make them accessible to the public. His "Mathematical Preface" to Euclid was meant to promote the study and application of mathematics by those without a university education, and was popular and influential among the "mechanicians": a growing class of technical craftsmen and artisans. Dee's preface includes demonstrations of mathematical principles that readers could perform themselves without special education or training.
In the 20th century, the Municipal Borough of Richmond (now the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames) honoured John Dee by naming a street near Mortlake "Dee Road".
Dee was a friend of Tycho Brahe and familiar with the work (translated into English by his ward and assistant, Thomas Digges) of Nicolaus Copernicus. Many of his astronomical calculations were based on Copernican assumptions, although he never openly espoused the heliocentric theory. Dee applied Copernican theory to the problem of calendar reform. In 1583, he was asked to advise the Queen on the new Gregorian calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII from October 1582. He advised that England accept it, albeit with seven specific amendments. The first was that the adjustment should not be the ten days that would restore the calendar to the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, but by eleven, which would restore it to the birth of Christ. Another proposal of Dee's was to align the civil and liturgical years and have them both start on 1 January. Perhaps predictably, England chose to spurn suggestions that had papist origins, despite any merit they may have had.
Dee has often been associated with the Voynich manuscript. Wilfrid Michael Voynich, who bought the manuscript in 1912, suggested that Dee may have owned it and sold it to Rudolph II. Dee's contacts with Rudolph were less extensive than had been thought, however, and Dee's diaries show no evidence of a sale. However, he was known to have owned a copy of the Book of Soyga, another enciphered book.
Monas Hieroglyphica, 1564
Preface to Billingsley's Euclid (Billingsley's translation of Euclid's Elements), 1570
General and Rare Memorials, Pertayning to the Perfect Art of Navigation: Annexed to the Paradoxal Cumpas in Playze. 1577.
On the Mystical Rule of the Seven Planets, 1582–1583
Dee, John; Kelly, Edward; Casaubon, Meric (1659). A True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. T Garthwait. ISBN 978-5-88514-094-2.
Quinti Libri Mysteriorum. British Library, MS Sloane Collection 3188. Also available in a fair copy by Elias Ashmole, MS Sloane 3677.
Joseph H. Peterson, ed. (2003). John Dee's Five Books of Mystery: Original Sourcebook of Enochian Magic. Boston: Weiser Books. ISBN 978-1-57863-178-0. from the collected works known as Mysteriorum libri quinque
John Dee, The Mathematicall Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara (1570). New York: Science History Publications (1975) ISBN 0-88202-020-X
John Dee, John Dee on Astronomy: Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558 & 1568) edited by Wayne Shumaker, Berkeley: University of California Press ISBN 0-520-03376-0
John Dee, Autobiographical tracts of John Dee, Warden of the College of Manchester, ed. James Crossley. Chetham Society Publications, Vol XXIV. Manchester, 1851
John Dee, Diary for the years 1595–1601, ed. John E. Bailey. Privately printed, 1880
J.O. Halliwell, ed. (1842). The Private Diary of Dr John Dee. Camden Society.
Objects used by Dee in his magic, now in the British Museum
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 subsequently owned by Horace Walpole. This was first attributed to Dee by Walpole. Lord Frederick Campbell had brought "a round piece of shining black marble in a leathern case" to Walpole in an attempt to ascertain its provenance. Walpole said he responded saying, "Oh, Lord, I am the only man in England that can tell you! It is Dr. Dee's black stone". There is no explicit reference to the mirror in any of Dee's surviving writings. The provenance of the Museum's obsidian speculum and of the crystal ball is dubious.
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, 6 cm in diameter. This item remained unnoticed for many years in the mineral collection; it is possibly the one owned by Dee, but the provenance is less certain than for the others.
In December 2004, both a shew stone (used for divining) formerly belonging to Dee and a mid-17th century explanation of its use written by Nicholas Culpeper were stolen from the Science Museum in London, but recovered shortly after.
Literary and cultural references
Dee was a popular figure in literary works by his contemporaries and he has continued to feature in popular culture, particularly in fiction or fantasy set during his lifetime or dealing with magic or the occult.
16th and 17th centuries
Edmund Spenser may be referring to Dee in The Faerie Queene (1596).
William Shakespeare may have modelled the character of Prospero in The Tempest (1610–1611) on Dee.
William Harrison Ainsworth includes Dee as a character in his 1840 novel Guy Fawkes.
Dee is the subject of Henry Gillard Glindoni's painting John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.
John Dee, and his fictional modern descendant Baron Mueller, are the main characters in Gustav Meyrink's 1927 novel The Angel of the West Window (Der Engel vom westlichen Fenster).
The early 20th-century horror author H. P. Lovecraft mentions Dee as a translator of the fictional book Al Azif (commonly known as the Necronomicon) in his short fictional essay, History of the Necronomicon: "An English translation made by Dr. Dee was never printed, and exists only in fragments recovered from the original manuscript."
John Dee is one of the main characters in Peter Ackroyd's 1993 novel The House of Doctor Dee.
In series 1 of the British TV series "Sir Francis Drake" Dee is portrayed as a conjuror, astrologer and advisor of Queen Elizabeth in the episode "Doctor Dee". He is portrayed by Raymond Huntley.
John Dee appears as the plot's main antagonist "the Walker" in Charlie Fletcher's book Stoneheart (2006)
Dr John Dee is as a main character in The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott (2007–2012), as an English magician and necromancer.
Phil Rickman casts John Dee as the main detective, investigating the disappearance of the bones of King Arthur during the reign of Elizabeth I in the historical mystery The Bones of Avalon (2010).
The play Burn Your Bookes (2010) by Richard Byrne examines the relations between John Dee, Edward Kelley and Edward Dyer.
The opera Dr Dee: An English Opera by Damon Albarn, explores Dee's life and work. It was premiered at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on 1 July 2011 and opened at the London Coliseum during the London 2012 Festival for the Cultural Olympiad in June 2012.