See biographies by R. Deacon (1968) and P. J. French (1972).
John Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) 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.
Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable. One of the most learned men of his age, he had been invited to lecture on advanced algebra at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. Dee 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. In one of several tracts which Dee wrote in the 1580s encouraging British exploratory expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage, he appears to have coined the term "British Empire".
Simultaneously with these efforts, Dee immersed himself in the worlds of magic, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Indeed, he devoted the last third of his life almost exclusively to attempting to commune with angels in order to learn the universal language of creation. A student of the Renaissance Neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, Dee did not draw distinctions between his mathematical research and his investigations into Hermetic magic and divination, instead considering both ventures to constitute different facets of the same quest: the search for a transcendent understanding of the divine forms which underlie the visible world.
Dee's status as a respected scholar also allowed him to play a role in Elizabethan politics. He served as an occasional adviser and tutor to Elizabeth I and nurtured relationships with her two leading ministers, Francis Walsingham and William Cecil.
According to scholars Frances Yates and Peter French, in his lifetime Dee amassed the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe.
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 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. In 1552, he met Gerolamo Cardano in London: during their acquaintance they investigated a perpetual motion machine as well as a gem purported to have magical properties.
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 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. He used as his signature on correspondences to Elizabeth the number "007" which would later be used by Ian Fleming in his James Bond novels. 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.
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.
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.
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 or Enochian language.
In 1583, Dee met the visiting Polish nobleman Albert Łaski, who invited Dee 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 Łaski proved to be bankrupt and out of favour 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.
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 various 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).
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.
A re-evaluation 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 Atlantic. The term "British Empire" is in fact Dee's own invention.
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 view.
Dee's promotion of mathematics outside the universities was an enduring practical achievement. 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. Dee was, however, known to have possessed a copy of the Book of Soyga, another enciphered book.
At Elizabeth's request Dee embraced the old Welsh 'Prince Madog' myth to lay claim to North America. The well known story was of a young Welsh prince who discovered America in 1170, over three hundred years before Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. The fact was that Elizabeth had little interest in the New World and Dee's hopes were premature.
The British Museum holds several items once owned by Dee and associated with the spiritual conferences:
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.
The Irish Gothic novelist Charles Maturin refers to Dee and Kelley in his novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Dee and Kelley appear together in Manchester in Harrison Ainsworth's novel Guy Fawkes (1841), in which they exhume the body of Elizabeth Ortyn, and show Fawkes a vision of his coming tribulations.
H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Dunwich Horror" (1929) credits Dee with translating the Necronomicon into English; and John Crowley's sequence of novels Ægypt includes Dee, Edward Kelley, and Giordano Bruno as characters.
In Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum, Dee is presented as a central character in the "Plan" (the overall conspiracy that the book is concerned with) and in one of the main character (Belbo)'s fictions concerning it.
A series of books by Armin Shimerman fictionalizes Dee's life by providing a basis in science fiction for his supposed magic, and he is a major character in Diana Redmond's time-travel children's book Joshua Cross & the Queen's Conjuror (2004).
Dee is a major character in various fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England, such as Robin Jarvis's novel Deathscent. Lisa Goldstein's novel The Alchemist's Door features Dee as the main character, who works with Rabbi Judah Loew, a mystic who creates a golem to defend Prague's Jewish Quarter by preventing the door to the spirit world from opening and unleashing demons. Dee's assistant Edward Kelley appears in the novel as a villain. Dee's legacy plays a prominent role in Elizabeth Redfern's 'Auriel Rising'
Dee also figures in Michael Moorcock's novel Gloriana set in the Elizabethan equivalent period of an alternate Earth's history.
Dee is a central figure in John Crowley's (fictional?) Aegypt series, set opposite Giordano Bruno in the imbedded novel of medieval alchemy.
He appears as a character in various film, television, video game, and radio productions, such as Derek Jarman's Jubilee; in The Golden Age alongside Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth; as the father of the character Ella in the Sky One TV series, Hex; and in the Doctor Who audio drama A Storm of Angels. Dee also makes a small appearance as a hidden boss in the game "Wild Arms 3."
Dr. John Dee is one of the main antagonists of Michael Scott's newest fantasy series The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Dr Dee is also the main protagonist in the novel "The House of Doctor Dee" (1993) by Peter Ackroyd. The novel focuses on the link between a young historian who has inhereted Dee's London house, and forms a psychic connection with Dee working through the house. as with most of Ackroyd's work, the plot is deliberately ambiguous.
Dee is also mentioned quite frequently in Philippa Gregory's novel, The Queen's Fool, which is the sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl.