Dee's father was Roland Dee who was of Welsh descent. Roland Dee dealt
in textiles and, in addition, was a gentleman sewer at the court of
Henry VIII. In this latter capacity he would have made clothing for
the royal household as well as buying and supplying fabrics for the
King. John Dee's mother was Jane Wild. Jane married Roland when she
was fifteen years of age and, three years later, John (who was their
first and only child) was born.
John was educated
at a school in Chelmsford in Essex from 1535, then entered St. John's
College, Cambridge in November of 1542. There he studied Greek, Latin,
philosophy, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy. Woolley writes :-
He was so eager
to learn, he later recalled, so "vehemently bent to study",
that he worked eighteen hours a day, allowing just four hours for sleep
and two for meals. Mathematics was his passion ...
During 1546, his
final year as an undergraduate, he began to make astronomical observations.
Using a quadrant and a cross-staff he made (as he later wrote in Compendious
(very many to the hour and minute) of the heavenly influences and operations
actual in this elemental portion of the world. Of which sort I made
some thousands in the years then following.
Perhaps we should
say a few words at this stage to explain this quotation. One would not
expect a modern astronomer to say "observations of the heavenly
influences" but Dee, in common with the general practice in his
time, believed in astrology. However, Dee sought a scientific explanation
for the reasons that the positions of the planets at the moment of a
person's birth would affect their future. He would argue that each body
emitted rays of force which acted on all other bodies. One could view
this as an early form of the law of universal gravitation, but this
might be somewhat overstating Dee's idea. However, Newton's concept
of force certainly derived from concepts of magic powers such as those
of Dee. We should stress, however, that Dee's approach was always through
mathematics and he sought a scientific explanation.
Dee graduated with
a B.A. in 1546 and became a Fellow of St John's College. In December
1546 he became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Henry VIII founded
Trinity College, the largest of the Cambridge colleges, in 1546 and
Dee became one of its founding Fellows.
Being unhappy with
the scientific attitude in England, Dee travelled on the Continent between
1548 to 1551. He first made a visit to Louvain near Brussels, arriving
on 24 June 1548, where he studied with Gemma Frisius and Gerardus Mercator.
Soon Mercator became a particularly close friend of Dee's and together
they discussed new models for the universe. Dee later wrote:-
It was the custom
of our mutual friendship and intimacy that, during three whole years,
neither of us lacked the other's presence for as much as three whole
During his time
in Louvain Dee wrote two texts on astronomy. In 1550 he went to Brussels
to meet the mathematicians working there. It seems that around this
time he met Nunes and they became close friends. In the same year Dee
went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid's Elements. He must have been
an impressive lecturer for it was reported that people flocked to hear
his lectures which filled the lecture rooms to overflowing. In 1551
Dee was offered an appointment as professor of mathematics in Paris
but declined. He also declined a lectureship in mathematics at Oxford
three years later.
Back in England
Dee entered the service of the Earl of Pembroke in February 1552, then
he entered the service of the Duke of Northumberland near the end of
the same year. While holding this latter post he wrote a work on tides.
After the death
of King Edward VI, there were great problems between Catholics and Protestants
as to the succession. The Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne very
much against the wishes of many Protestants who feared for their safety.
Indeed they were right to have such fears as Mary instigated a campaign
against eminent Protestants and one person to be arrested was Roland
Dee, John Dee's father, who was taken prisoner in August 1553. He was
released, but only after he had been deprived of all his financial assets.
John, who had expected to inherit considerable wealth from his father
and be in a position to carry out scientific studies free from worries
about earning an income, was put in a difficult position. He might have
solved his financial problems by accepting a mathematics post at the
University of Oxford which he was offered in 1554, but his views on
the lack of scholarship in the English universities led him to turn
the offer down.
On 28 May 1555 Dee
was arrested and charged with "calculating". At this time
mathematics in England was considered to be equivalent to the possession
of magical powers and Aubrey writes (see ) that the authorities
... burned mathematical
books for conjuring books.
Although he was
guilty of the charges brought against him, Dee was released in August
after being held for three months. Although he was released as a free
man his sources of income were removed putting him in severe financial
problems. Dee's father died in 1555 without being able to recover his
wealth. As to Dee's religious position this seems a little harder to
ascertain. He seems, with good reason, to have tried to avoid taking
sides in the Catholic-Protestant argument, but after his release from
prison he seemed completely at home in the Catholic regime which had
imprisoned him. He may have changed sides for political convenience,
but we shall see in a moment that there is a theory that he was acting
as a spy.
Dee presented plans
for a national library to Queen Mary on 15 January 1556. It was a superb
scheme to preserve learning by finding copies of all important books
and keeping them in a Royal Library which men could consult to settle:-
... such doubts
and points of learning, as might cumber and vex their heads [and] learning
[would] wonderfully be advanced.
The scheme did not
receive official backing, but nevertheless Dee, despite his financial
difficulties, set out to create his own library. See  for the library
catalogue from the library that he built up.
Queen Mary died
in 1558 and the Protestant Elizabeth became Queen. Dee quickly found
favour with Elizabeth and was even asked to use his astrological skills
to select the most appropriate day for her coronation. This he did but
one is left wondering how someone so closely associated with the previous
Catholic administration might have found favour so soon. Woolley 
suggests that Dee may have acted as a spy for Elizabeth in Mary's administration
and this would certainly be consistent with events and explain some
otherwise puzzling ones.
During the next
five years Dee spent time abroad collecting books for his library, and
studying astronomy, astrology, mathematics, coding, and magic - all
topics which were linked in his mind as he struggled to understand the
ultimate truths about the universe. Despite being close to Queen Elizabeth,
and advising her frequently, he never achieved from her the financial
security that he longed for to enable him to devote himself completely
to his studies. By 1566 he was living with his mother at Mortlake, in
London, to reduce his living costs. There he built up a remarkable collection
of scholarly works in his library as well as a collection of astronomical
instruments, globes (including one given to him by Mercator) and accurate
In 1568 he published
Propaedeumata Aphoristica and presented the work to Queen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was impressed and Dee gave her mathematics lessons to enable
her to understand it. The book contains a mixture of good physics and
mathematics, and also a lot of astrology and magic. Let us emphasise
that we should not think any the less of Dee because of his interests
in magic; most of the great scientists and mathematicians of his time,
and much later, had such interests. For example Brahe firmly believed
in alchemy and astrology as did Cavalieri and Kepler while Newton, like
Dee, was obsessed with studying alchemy. Among what we would describe
as "good science" in Propaedeumata Aphoristica is a statement
that unequal masses fall at the same speed. Dee refers to earlier scientists
who also claimed this fact. He also states that every object in the
universe exerted a force on all others.
In 1570 Dee edited
an edition of Euclid's Elements translated by Billingsley. Dee wrote
a famous preface to this edition justifying the study of mathematics:-
O comfortable allurement,
O ravishing persuasion to deal with a science whose subject is so ancient,
so pure, so excellent, so surrounding all creatures, so used of the
almighty and incomprehensible wisdom of the Creator, in distinct creation
of all creatures: in all their distinct parts, properties, natures,
and virtues, by order, and most absolute number, brought from nothing
to the formality of their being and state.
Dee observed the
"new star" which is often called "Tycho Brahe's supernova
of 1572" and in the following year he wrote Parallacticae commentationis
praxosque which gives trigonometric methods which were applied to find
the distance to the new star. He had made accurate observations with
his assistant Thomas Digges and the two probably corresponded with Brahe
about the star. Certainly Brahe greatly admired Dee's contributions.
Dee brought instruments
of navigation back from the Continent when he returned in 1551. From
1555 he was a consultant to the Muscovy Company. The Muscovy Company
was formed in 1555 by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot together
with a number of London merchants. It was granted a monopoly of Anglo-Russian
trade and had as one of its aims the search for the Northeast Passage.
Dee prepared nautical information, including charts for navigation in
the polar regions, for the company during the next 32 years. He instructed
the crews on geometry and cosmography before they left for voyages to
North America in 1576.
In 1579 Dee's mother
gave her house at Mortlake (which he had lived in for at least 13 years)
to him; she died the following year. Dee had married Jane Fromands in
February 1578 and together they had eight children. She was his third
wife - his second wife had died in March 1576 in the year following
their marriage. He had no children (at least none that survived) from
his first two marriages.
Edward Kelley entered
Dee's life in March of 1582. He was a medium who claimed to be able
to contact angels and spirits and he did so by gazing into a crystal
ball. Although this was not the first time Dee had been involved in
such practices, at first he was still highly suspicious that Kelley's
visions were real. Two things convinced him, however: Kelley was highly
skilled in his art, and secondly Dee so longed to understand the ultimate
truth about the universe which he had failed to find by other means.
The lack of reaction of others to his scientific work was also a factor,
as was the fact that he had been accused of magic so often in his life.
Dee became more and more deeply involved in conversing with angels and
spirits through Kelley and, sadly, it dominated the latter part of his
life. This took place over a period of about five years. Several of
the references give details of these conversations which Dee recorded
in a diary; see for example , , and . We note that in his
diaries Dee refers to himself as , a clever pun on the fact that is
the Greek character for the letter "dee" and also a magical
Dee made a proposal
to Queen Elizabeth for calendar reform in February 1583. He proposed
the removal of eleven days to bring the calendar into line with the
astronomical year. It was, of course, exactly the right course of action
and Dee's proposal gained support from several of Elizabeth's advisors.
However, the Archbishop of Canterbury opposed the scheme, partly because
he was engaged in a longstanding argument with Elizabeth, partly because
he considered such a scheme to be close to what the Catholic Church
had adopted in the previous year. Dee's scheme was, however, a better
one than that adopted across Europe after the proclamation by Pope Gregory
XIII. The Gregorian calendar was based on the date of the Council of
Nicaea in 325, while Dee proposed a calendar with an astronomical base
rather than a political one as he clearly pointed out. The failure of
Dee's calendar reform proposal would mean that England retained a calendar
at odds with that in the rest of Europe until 1752.
Dee and Kelley visited
Poland and Bohemia (1583-89), giving displays of magic at the courts
of princes. Kelley achieved fame and wealth and was knighted. On the
other hand Dee, still in severe financial problems, returned to Mortlake
in December 1589 to discover that much of his library had been stolen,
as were his scientific instruments. Around this time Dee must have become
friendly with Thomas Harriot. The two discussed the allegations of atheism
made against Raleigh's school and discussed which of them was being
referred to as "the conjurer that is master thereof". They
also discussed scientific and mathematical matters in the 1590s. In
1590 Harriot sent Dee a copy of one of his books in which he had written
"To my dear friend".
For a number of
years Dee tried unsuccessfully to gain compensation for the income he
had lost over the years. He tried to gain an appointment as Master of
St John's Cross which was approved by Queen Elizabeth subject to approval
by the Archbishop of Canterbury - but this approval never materialised.
In 1596 he was appointed warden of the Collegiate Chapter in Manchester,
almost certainly as a means of removing him from London. In 1605 Manchester
was hit by the plague and Dee's wife and several of his children died.
He returned to London where he died a few years later.
John Dee (1527-1608)
was a renown philosopher, mathematician, geographer and navigator during
16th century's Elizabethan Renaissance. He was educated in Cambridge
and served as court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I - even predicting
her coronation would be in 1558. Nowadays, Dee is most well known for
his conversations with angels.
Dee was very well
respected during the early parts of his career, often in contact with
higher ups in British society and the Catholic Church, and amassing
for himself one of England's finest libraries. In 1582, Dee made a failed
attempt to introduce the Gregorian Calendar to England, and this was
also the year he met Edward Kelley. During 1583-1589, Dee spend much
of his time pursuing occult sciences and touring Europe with his wife
and Kelley. At times, they even stayed with the King of Poland and the
Emperor Rudolf in Prague
In 1584, Dee started
to find himself in hot water with Giovanni Francesco Bonomi, the bishop
of Vercelli, for offering to reveal some of his angelic revelations
with Rudolf II, the Holy Roman emperor. At that time, the Church didn't
deny that Dee and his scryer, John Kelley's conversations with celestial
beings were real - but they did question whether evil spirits were involved.
Basically, the Church believed that because Dee had a wife, and therefore
was concerned with "worldly" matters, he couldn't possibly
be in contact with good angels, for only very holy, celibate hermits
received such visits.
In 1589, he and
Kelley parted and Dee and his wife returned to England. Upon Dee's return,
he found few offers for patronage, and soon fell upon difficult times
financially. In 1596, Queen Elizabeth made him Warden of Christ's College
in Manchester until King James took over and the witch-hunts began in
full swing. Dee resigned in 1905 and died shortly after in 1608.
Soon after, he was
branded as a conjurer and demonized by 17th century historians. It has
only been recently, with the works of modern scholars such as Frances
Yates, Nicholas Clulee and Deborah Harkness, that Dee's true intellectual
contributions to the Renaissance have been explored in a positive light.
Scrying was a method of divination that involved looking into a shiny
or reflective object to aid in prophecy. Angels would appear in the
reflection and the scryer would hear a voice - scryers were not mediums
and the angels did not speak through them. Dee believed wholeheartedly
that what the angels/spirits/intelligences told him through his scryer
was true and obeyed their commands religiously.
He had at least
four scryers during his lifetime including Barnabas Saul, Edward Kelley,
his son Arthur Dee, and Bartholomew Hickman. Barnabas Saul participated
in his first conversation on December 22, 1581 though later denied he
had seen anything. Dee wrote in his diary a few months later that "The
injuries wihch this Barnabas had done me diverse wayes were very great."
John Kelley, the
scryer most often associated with Dee nowadays, began working with him
on March 10, 1582. Very little is known about Kelley's life. He was
born on Aug 1, 1555 and attended Oxford as "Edward Talbot."
His relationship with Dee was unstable and sometimes violent, and the
men quarreled frequently, yet Dee continued to work with him because
he needed a scryer to communicate with the angels.
Many of the angels appeared as men in his crystal, though a few had
female form. Dee was suspicious that those that appeared as female were
actually demonic spirits, but after a few conversations he was convinced
Many had familiar
names - Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel - though the majority was
not. Gabriel, for instance, first appeared on June 22, 1583. He guarded
Eden and was the angel of annunciation, resurrection, and revelation.
Other angels considered him guardian of the moon. And at one point,
he sent divine medicine to heal Dee's wife, Jane. In Islamic traditions,
Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammad. In cabalistic traditions, Gabriel
delivered the cabala to humanity. And according to Trithemius's De spetem
secundeis, Gabriel oversaw the historical period beginning in 1525 AD,
the time Dee lived.
Dee also had frequent
communications with Michael ("strength of God"), the guardian
of Jacob and Israel, who first appeared on March 14, 1582. Michael would
weigh human souls at the Last Judgment and wielded his sword of justice.
Trithemius claimed Michael was guardian of the sun and Agrippa considered
him guardian of the metal quicksilver. Both equated him with the planet
Mercury in alchemy.
power of God") first communicated with Dee on March 15, 1582. In
the Zohar, he is associated with healing the earth and humanity, and
is also the guardian of the Tree of Life and therefore associated with
knowledge and knowledge of the future. Both Trithemius and Azalus claimed
he was one of the 7 angels of the apocalypse.
of God") was the first angel to speak with Dee after Kelley started
scrying for him. In cabalistic lore, Urial gave humanity knowledge of
the cabala and alchemy.
favored, wretched misery of God") was one of the seven angels of
creation and had power over all things, good and evil and was the guardian
Dee wrote a number of books before he began his angelic conjurations.
Some of these include the following his first esoteric book, Monas hieroglyphica,
written 1564. Dee wrote this book over a period of 13 days (Jan 13-25,
1564) in Antwerp, though he mentions it was the result of a 7 year gestation.
The text consists of the primary symbol and the accompanying text of
24 theorems with diagrams.
The Angels revealed
several books to Dee starting in 1583, during his work with Kelley.
Surviving manuscripts of these books can be found in the British Library.
These works include:
Liber Logaeth -
the Book of the Speech of God. This book was Dee's introduction to the
angelic language, a language now referred to as "Enochic"
which was to play a role in perfecting the world. The Liber Logaeth
consisted of 49 calls and 95 tables consisting of smaller squares with
letters placed in them. Dee was instructed to complete this book forth
days after March 29, 1583.
De heptarchia mystica
This reference encyclopedia contained prayers to specific angels including
the days and times these prayers were to be said on as well as the seals
for the 19 elemental angels.
48 Claves angelicae
- the Angelic Keys. This book, written in both English and angelic,
contained 48 revelations prophesized by the angels.
auxilii (delivered in central Europe sometime after 1584) - Told of
which angels governed various geographical areas.
Tabula bonorum angelorum
(delivered in central Europe sometime after 1584) - Consisted of letter
Book of Soyga. This
long lost book was first mentioned in Dee's diary on January 17, 1582.
The angel Uriel described it as a good that "God's good angels
revealed to Adam in Paradise." Michael was its interpreter. By
mid April 1583, the angels had discredited the work and it was lost
or stolen until a copy (or forgery) was rediscovered in December 1595.
The book is primarily astrological in nature.
There are a number
of books revealed to Dee that didn't survive. At one point, the angels
commanded Dee to burn a number of his books including 48 companion books
to the 48 Claves angelicae, an English translation of the 48 Claves,
and a book called the "Mystery of Mysteries and the Holy of Holies"
that Dee had not deciphered at the time. Also, a number of manuscripts
were burned after his death.
A sixteenth century
portrait of John Dee, artist unknown. According to Charlotte Fell Smith,
this portrait was painted when Dee was 67. It belonged to his grandson
Rowland Dee and later to Elias Ashmole, who left it to Oxford University.John
Dee (July 13, 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was a noted British mathematician,
astronomer, astrologer, geographer, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth
I. He also devoted much of his life to alchemy, divination, and Hermetic
Dee straddled the
worlds of science and magic. One of the most learned men of his time,
he had lectured to crowded halls at the University of Paris when still
in his early twenties. He 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. At the same
time, he immersed himself deeply in Christian angel-magic and Hermetic
philosophy, devoting the last third of his life almost exclusively to
these pursuits. For Dee, as with many of his contemporaries, these activities
were not contradictory, but particular aspects of a consistent world-view.
Dee was born in Tower Ward, London to a Welsh family, whose surname
derived from the Welsh du ("black"). His father was a merchant
and minor courtier. Dee attended the Chelmsford Chantry School, 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 travelled in
Europe, studying at Leuven and Brussels and lecturing in Paris on Euclid.
He studied with Gemma Frisius and became a close friend of the cartographer
Gerardus Mercator, returning to England with an important collection
of mathematical and astronomical instruments.
John Dee was offered
a readership in mathematics at Oxford in 1554, which he declined, citing
English universities' emphasis on rhetoric and grammar (which, together
with logic, formed the academic trivium) over philosophy and science
(the more advanced quadrivium, comprised of arithmetic, geometry, music,
and astronomy) as offensive.
In 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 Continent. Dee's library, a center of learning
outside the universities, became the greatest in England and attracted
When Elizabeth took
the throne in 1558, Dee became her trusted advisor on matters astrological
and scientific, 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. In 1577, Dee published General and Rare Memorials pertayning
to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, a work that set out his vision of
a maritime empire and asserted English territorial claims on the New
World. Dee was acquainted with Humphrey Gilbert and was close to Sir
Philip Sidney and his circle.
Dee's glyph, which
he explained in Monas HieroglyphicaIn 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.
He published a "Mathematical
Preface" to Henry Billingsley's English translation of Euclid's
Elements in 1570, arguing the central importance of mathematics and
outlining mathematics' 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.
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, 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 or Enochian language.
In 1583, Dee met
the visiting Polish nobleman Albert Laski, who invited the Englishman
to accompany him on his return to Poland. With some prompting by the
angels, Dee was persuaded to go. Dee, Kelley and their families left
for the Continent in September 1583, but Laski proved to be bankrupt
and out of favor in his own country. Dee and Kelley began a nomadic
life in Central Europe, but they continued their spiritual conferences,
which Dee recorded meticulously. He had audiences with Emperor Rudolf
II and King Stephen of Poland in which he chided them for their ungodliness
and attempted to convince them of the importance of his angelic communications.
He was not taken up by either monarch.
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.
John Dee was married three times and had eight children. His eldest
son was Arthur Dee, who was also an alchemist and hermetic author. John
Aubrey gives the following description of Dee: "He was 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."
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 in Manchester
in 1592. However, he was by now widely reviled as an evil magician and
could not exert much control over the Fellows, who despised him. He
left Manchester in 1605. 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, where he died
in late 1608 or early 1609. Unfortunately, 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.
Reputation and significance
About ten years after Dee's death, the antiquarian Robert Cotton purchased
land around Dee's house and began digging in search of papers and artifacts.
He discovered several manuscripts, mainly records of Dee's angelic communications.
Cotton's son gave these manuscripts to the scholar Méric Casaubon,
who published them in 1659, together 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 extremely popular
and sold quickly. 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 largely responsible for the image, prevalent for the following
two and a half centuries, of Dee as a dupe and deluded fanatic.
Around the same
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 during Dee's lifetime,
and no evidence that he ever belonged to any secret fraternity. Dee's
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
false and often fanciful information about Dee often obscures the facts
of his life, remarkable as they are in themselves.
of Dee's character and significance came in the 20th century, largely
as a result of the work of the historian Frances Yates, who brought
a new focus on the role of magic in the Renaissance and the development
of modern science. As a result of this re-evaluation, Dee is now viewed
as a serious scholar and appreciated as one of the most learned men
of his day.
His personal library
at Mortlake was the largest in the country, and was considered one of
the finest in Europe, perhaps second only to that of de Thou. As well
as being an astrological, scientific and geographical advisor to Elizabeth
and her court, he was an early advocate of the colonization of North
America and a visionary of a British Empire stretching across the North
Dee promoted the
sciences of navigation and cartography. He studied closely with Gerardus
Mercator, and he owned an important collection of maps, globes and astronomical
instruments. He developed new instruments as well as special navigational
techniques for use in polar regions. Dee served as an advisor to the
English voyages of discovery, and personally selected pilots and trained
them in navigation.
He believed that
mathematics (which he understood mystically) was central to the progress
of 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. It should be noted, though, that Dee's understanding
of the role of mathematics is radically different from our contemporary
Dee's most long-lasting
practical achievement may be his promotion of mathematics outside the
universities. His "Mathematical Preface" to Euclid was meant
to promote the study and application of mathematics by those without
a university education, and was very popular and influential among the
"mecanicians" the new and growing class of technical craftsmen
and artisans. Dee's preface included demonstrations of mathematical
principles that readers could perform themselves.
Dee was a friend
of Tycho Brahe and was familiar with the work of Copernicus. Many of
his astronomical calculations were based on Copernican assumptions,
but he never openly espoused the heliocentric theory. Dee applied Copernican
theory to the problem of calendar reform. His sound recommendations
were not accepted, however, for political reasons.
He has often been
associated with the Voynich Manuscript. Wilfrid M. Voynich, who bought
the manuscript in 1912, suggested that Dee may have owned the manuscript
and sold it to Rudolph II. Dee's contacts with Rudolph were far less
extensive than had previously been thought, however, and Dee's diaries
show no evidence of the sale.
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
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 centimetres 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
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