Dee, John (1527-1608)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dee, John (1527-1608)

Renowned sixteenth-century mathematician and astrologer most remembered for his numerous experiments with crystal gazing. He was also a scholar, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, and the author of 49 books on scientific subjects. His delving into the occult made him a person of strange reputation and career.

Born in London July 13, 1527, Dee is said to have descended from a noble Welsh family, the Dees of Nant y Groes in Radnorshire. He claimed that one of his direct ancestors was Roderick the Great, Prince of Wales. Dee's father appears to have been a gentleman server at the court of Henry VIII and therefore affluent and able to give his son a good education. So at age 15, John Dee went to Cambridge University and after two years there took his bachelor of arts. Soon afterward he became intensely interested in astronomy and decided to leave England to study abroad. In 1547 he went to the Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), where he consorted with numerous scholars. He returned to England with the first astronomer's staff of brass and also with two globes constructed by geographer Gerard Mercator (famed for his cartographic projection).

In 1548 he traveled to France, living for some time at Lou-vain. In 1550 he spent several months in Paris, lecturing on the principles of geometry. He was offered a permanent post at the Sorbonne, but declined, returning in 1551 to England, where on the recommendation of Edward VI he was granted the rectory of Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire.

Dee was now in a delightful and enviable position, having a comfortable home and assured income, he was able to devote himself exclusively to the studies he loved. But he had hardly begun to enjoy these benefits when, on the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, he was accused of trying to take the new sovereign's life by means of magic and was imprisoned at Hampton Court.

He gained his liberty soon afterward, but he felt that many people looked on him with distrust because of his scientific predilections. In a preface he wrote for an English translation of Euclid, he complains bitterly of being regarded as "a companion of the hellhounds, a caller and a conjuror of wicked and damned spirits."

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I his fortune began to improve again, and after making another long tour abroad (going on as far as St. Helena), he returned and took a house at Mortlake on the Thames.

While staying there he rapidly became famous for his intimate knowledge of astronomy. In 1572on the advent of a new starpeople flocked to hear Dee speak on the subject; when a mysterious comet appeared five years later, the scholar was again granted ample opportunity to display his learning. Queen Elizabeth herself was among those who came to ask him what this addition to the stellar bodies might portend.

First Crystal Visions

The most interesting circumstances in Dee's life are those dealing with his experiments in crystallomancy. Living in comparative solitude, practicing astrology for bread, but studying alchemy for pleasure, brooding over Talmudic mysteries and Rosicrucian theories, immersed in constant contemplation of wonders he longed to penetrate, and dazzled by visions of the elixir of life and the philosophers' stone, Dee soon reached such a condition of mystic exaltation that his visions seemed real, and he persuaded himself that he was the favored of the invisible world. In his Diary he recorded that he first saw spirits in his crystal globe on May 25, 1581.

One day in November 1582, while on his knees and fervently praying, Dee became aware of a sudden glory that filled the west window of his laboratory and in the midst of which shone the bright angel Uriel. It was impossible for Dee to speak. Uriel smiled benignly upon him, gave him a convex piece of crystal, and told him that when he wished to communicate with the beings of another world he had but to examine it intently, and they would immediately appear and reveal the mysteries of the future. Then the angel vanished.

Dee used the crystal but discovered that it was necessary to concentrate all his faculties upon it before the spirits would obey him. Also, he could never remember what the spirits said in their frequent conversations with him. He resolved to find a fellow worker, or a neophyte, who would converse with the spirits while he recorded the interesting dialogue. He found the assistant he sought in Edward Kelley, who unfortunately possessed the boldness and cunning for making a dupe of the amiable and credulous enthusiast.

Kelley was a native of Lancashire, born, according to Dee, in 1555. Nothing is known of his early years, but after having been convicted at Lancaster of coining, he was punished by having his ears cropped. He concealed the loss of his ears by a black skullcap. He later moved to Worcester and established himself as a druggist. Carnal, ambitious, and self-indulgent, he longed for wealth; and despairing of getting it through honest work, he began to seek the philosophers' stone and to employ what secrets he picked up in taking advantage of the ignorant and extravagant.

Before his acquaintance with Dee, he obtained some repute as a necromancer and alchemist who could make the dead utter the secrets of the future. One night he took a wealthy man and some of his servants into the park of Walton le Dale, near Preston in Lancashire, and alarmed him with the most frightening incantations. He then exhumed a recently interred corpse from the neighboring churchyard and pretended to make it utter wisdom.

Dee is believed to have employed a scryer, or seer, named Barnabas Saul before he met Kelley. He recorded in his Diary on October 9, 1581, that Saul was strangely troubled by a "spiritual creature" about midnight. On December 2 he willed his scryer to look into the "great crystalline globe" for the apparition of the holy angel Anael. Saul looked and apparently saw, but when he confessed the following March that he neither saw nor heard spiritual creatures any longer, Dee dismissed him. Then came Kelley (who was also called Talbot), and the conferences with the spirits rapidly increased in importance as well as curiosity.

The Visions of Edward Kelley

In his work with Kelley, Dee saw nothing. The visions seemed to exist solely in Kelley's fertile imagination. The entities who reportedly communicated through Kelley bore names such as Madini, Gabriel, Uriel, Nalvage, Il, Morvorgran, and Jubanladace. Some of them were said to be angels.

A record of the séances held in 1582-87 was published in Meric Casaubon's A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed between Dr. Dee and Some Spirits; Tending, Had it Succeeded, to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdoms in the World (1659). The spirits offered occult instructionshow to make the elixir of life, how to search for the philosophers' stone, how to involve the spirits. They also gave information on the hierarchy of spiritual beings and disclosed the secrets of the primeval tongue that the angels and Adam spoke, which was corrupted into Hebrew after the Fall. This original speech bore an organic relation to the outer world. Each name expressed the properties of the thing spoken of, and the utterance of that name had a compelling power over that creature. Dee was supposed to write a book in this tongue under spirit influence. He was later relieved of the task, however. The prophecies that were given through the crystal mostly failed. The physical phenomena were fewoccasional movements of objects, direct writing, and direct voice.

In light of Kelley's low moral character the séance records must be considered dubious documents, but the extraordinary detail and scope of these claimed visions (including the complex angelic language) seems to go beyond mere fraudulent invention. Kelley's later activities, however, were undoubtedly suspect.

Dee and Kelley acquired a considerable reputation for the occult, which spread from Mortlake to continental Europe. Dee declared that he possessed the elixir of life, which he claimed to have found among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, so the curious were drawn to his house by a double attraction. Gold flowed into his coffers, but his experiments in the transmutation of metals absorbed a great portion of his money.

At that time the court of England was visited by a Polish nobleman named Albert Laski, Count Palatine of Siradz, who wanted to see the famous "Gloriana." Queen Elizabeth received him with the flattering welcome she always accorded to distinguished strangers and placed him in the charge of the earl of Leicester. Laski visited all the England of the sixteenth century worth showing, especially its two universities, but was disappointed at not finding the famous Dr. Dee at Oxford. "I would not have come hither," he said to the earl, "had I wot that Dee was not here." Leicester promised to introduce him to the learned philosopher on their return to London, and so soothed his discontent.

A few days afterward Laski and the earl of Leicester were waiting in the antechamber at Whitehall for an audience with the queen when Dee arrived. Leicester embraced the opportunity and introduced him to Laski. The interview between two genial spirits was interesting and led to frequent visits from Laski to Dee's house at Mortlake. Kelley consulted the "great crystalline globe" and began to reveal hints and predictions that excited Laski's fancy. He claimed to see in the globe magnificent projects for the reconstruction of Europe, to be accomplished with Laski's help. According to Kelley's spirit revelations, Laski was descended from the Anglo-Norman family of the Lacies and was destined to effect the regeneration of the world. After that disclosure the two men could talk about nothing but hazy politics.

A careful perusal of Dee's Diary suggests that he was duped by Kelley and that he accepted all his revelations as the actual utterances of the spirits. It seems that Kelley not only knew something of the optical delusions then practiced by pretended necromancers, but also may have possessed considerable ventriloquial powers, which assisted him in deceptions.

It did not serve Kelley's purposes to bring matters too suddenly to an end, and hoping to show the value of his services, he renewed his complaints about the wickedness of dealing with spirit and his fear of the perilous enterprises they might enjoin. He threatened to abandon his task, which greatly disturbed Dee. Where indeed could he hope to meet with another scryer of such infinite ability?

Once when Kelley expressed his desire to ride from Mortlake to Islington on some business, the doctor grew afraid that it was only an excuse to cover his escape. Following is Dee's only account of the events:

"Whereupon, I asked him why he so hasted to ride thither, and I said if it were to ride to Mr. Harry Lee I would go thither, and to be acquainted with him, seeing now I had so good leisure, being eased of the book writing. Then he said that one told him the other day that the duke (Laski) did but flatter him, and told him other things both against the duke and me. I answered for the duke and myself, and also said that if the forty pounds annuity which Mr. Lee did offer him was the chief cause of his mind setting that way (contrary to many of his former promises to me), that then I would assure him of fifty pounds yearly, and would do my best, by following of my suit, to bring it to pass as soon as I possibly could; and thereupon did make him promise upon the Bible.

"Then Edward Kelley again upon the same Bible did swear unto me constant friendship, and never to forsake me; and moreover said that unless this had so fallen about he would have gone beyond the seas, taking ship at Newcastle within eight days next.

"And so we plight our faith each to the other, taking each other by the hand, upon these points of brotherly and friendly fidelity during life, which covenant I beseech God to turn to his honour, glory, and service, and the comfort of our brethren (his children) here on earth."

Kelley then returned to Dee's crystal and his visions and soon persuaded Laski that he was destined by the spirits to achieve great victories over the Saracens and win enduring glory. To do so he needed to return to Poland.

Adventures in Europe

Laski returned to Poland, taking with him Dee and Kelley and their wives and families. The spirits continued to respond to their inquiries even while at sea. They landed at the Brill on July 30, 1583, and traversed Holland and Friesland to the wealthy town of Lubeck. There they lived sumptuously for a few weeks, and with new strength set out for Poland. On Christmas Day they arrived at Stettin, where they stayed until the middle of January 1584. They reached Lasco, Laski's estate, early in February.

Immediately work began for the transmutation of iron into gold, since boundless wealth was obviously needed for so grand an enterprise as the regeneration of Europe. Laski liberally supplied them with means, but the alchemists always failed on the very threshold of success.

It became apparent to the swindlers that Laski's fortune was nearly exhausted. At the same time, ironically, the angels Madini, Uriel, and their comrades in the crystal began to doubt whether Laski was, after all, the great regenerator intended to revolutionize Europe.

The whole party lived at Cracow from March 1584 until the end of July and made daily appeals to the spirits in reference to the Polish prince. They grew more and more discouraging in their replies, and Laski began to suspect that he had been duped. He proposed to furnish the alchemists with sufficient funds for a journey to Prague and letters of introduction to Emperor Rudolph. At that very moment the spirits revealed that Dee should bear a divine message to the emperor, and so Laski's proposal was gladly accepted.

At Prague the two alchemists were well received by the emperor. They found him willing to believe in the existence of the famous philosophers' stone. He was courteous to Dee, a man of European celebrity, but was very suspicious of Kelley. They stayed several months at Prague, living on the funds Laski had supplied and hoping to be drafted into the imperial service.

At last the papal nuncio complained about the tolerance afforded to heretical magicians, and the emperor was obliged to order them to leave within 24 hours. They complied, and so escaped prison or the stake, to which the nuncio had received orders from Rome to consign them in May 1586.

They traveled to the German town of Erfurt, and from there to Cassel. Meeting with a cold reception, however, they made their way once more to Cracow. There they earned a scanty living by telling fortunes and casting nativities.

After a while, they found a new patron in Stephen, king of Poland, to whom Kelley's spirits predicted that Emperor Rudolph would soon be assassinated and that the Germans would elect him to the imperial throne. But Stephen, like Laski, grew weary of the ceaseless demands for pecuniary support. Then came a new disciple, Count Rosenberg, a wealthy nobleman of Trebona, in Bohemia. At his castle they remained for nearly two years, eagerly pursuing their alchemical studies but never coming any closer to the desired result.

Dee's enthusiasm and credulity had made him utterly dependent on Kelley, but the trickster was nevertheless jealous of the superior respect that Dee enjoyed as a man of remarkable scholarship and considerable ability. Frequent quarrels broke out between them, aggravated by the passion Kelley had developed for the doctor's young and beautiful wifewhich he was determined to gratify. He concocted an artful plan to get what he wanted.

Knowing Dee's dependence upon him as a scryer, he suddenly announced his intention of resigning, and only consented to remain when the doctor begged him. That day, April 18, 1587, they consulted the spirits. Kelley pretended to be shocked at the revelation they made and refused to repeat it. Dee's curiosity was aroused, and he insisted on hearing it, but was extremely upset when Kelley said that the spirits had commanded the two philosophers to have their wives in common.

Dee rebuked the spirit Madini for such an improper proposal, but eventually reluctantly consented to the arrangement. Accordingly Dee, Kelley, and their wives signed an agreement on May 3, 1587, pledging obedience to the angelic demand.

Soon afterward, Dee requested permission from Queen Elizabeth to return to England and left the castle of Trebona after finally separating from Kelley. The latter, who had been knighted at Prague, proceeded to the Bohemian capital, taking with him the elixir found at Glastonbury Abbey. He was immediately arrested by order of the emperor and imprisoned.

Kelley was later released and wandered throughout Germany, telling fortunes and propagating the cause of magic. He was again arrested as a heretic and sorcerer. In a desperate attempt to avoid imprisonment he tried to escape, but fell from the dungeon wall and broke two ribs and both his legs. He died of his injuries in February 1593.

Dee's Final Years

Dee set out from Trebona with a splendid train, the expenses of his journey defrayed by the generous Bohemian noble Count Rosenberg. In England he was well received by the queen and settled again at Mortlake, resuming his chemical studies and his pursuit of the philosophers' stone.

But nothing went well with the unfortunate enthusiast. He employed two scryersa rogue named Bartholomew and a charlatan named Heckmanbut neither could discover anything satisfactory in the "great crystalline globe." He grew poorer and poorer; he sank into indigence and wearied the queen with his importunity. At length he obtained a small appointment as chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral, which in 1595 he exchanged for the wardenship of Manchester College. He served in this position until age and failing intellect compelled him to resign it about 1602 or 1603.

He then retired to his old house at Mortlake, where he practiced as a fortune-teller, gaining little in return but an unenviable reputation as a wizard, "a conjuror, a caller, or invocator of devils." On June 5, 1604, he petitioned James I for protection against such calumnies, declaring that none of the "very strange and frivolous fables or histories reported and told of him (as to have been of his doing) were true."

Dee was an exceptionally interesting figure, and he must have been a man of rare intellectual activity. His calculations facilitated the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England, and he foresaw the formation of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, addressing to the Crown a petition on the desirability of preserving the old, unpublished records of England's past, many of which were kept in the archives of monasteries. He was a voluminous writer on science, his works including Monas Hieroglyphica (1564), De Trigono (1565), Testamentum Johannis Dee Philosophi Summi ad Johannem Guryun Transmissum (1568) and An Account of the Manner in which a Certayn Copper-smith in the Land of Moores, and a Certayn Moore Transmuted Copper to Gold (1576).

It is usual to dismiss Kelley as a rogue and Dee as his dupe, but if the angelic visions were purely for money, they both could have done better for themselves. Dee seemed to be an honest man of unusual talents, devoting his life to science and the pursuit of mystical knowledge. The angelic language called Enochian, which Dee and Kelley used when invoking spirits in the crystal, is a construction of great intricacy, far beyond the capacity or the requirements of simple fraud. It combines magic, mathematics, astrology, and cryptography. An intriguing suggestion is that the angelic conversations were a system of codes to convey secrets, and that Dee and Kelley's visits in Europe were for purposes of espionage. In later times, Enochian rituals were revived by the magical Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and became a common element in ceremonial magic. Some Enochian rituals were adapted by Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, which he founded.

Dee's reputation suffered much from the scorn of Meric Casaubon, who published some of the angelic conversations and represented them as delusive. The scholar Theodore Besterman, however, in his book Crystal-Gazing (1929), adopted Dee as a pioneer Spiritualist, and contemporary magicians have seen him as one of their ancestors.

Dee was miserably poor in his last years and was even obliged to sell his precious books in order to sustain himself. He was planning a journey to Germany when he died in December 1608; he was buried in the chancel of Mortlake Church. The seventeenth-century antiquary John Aubrey assembled an interesting character description of Dee:

"He had a very fair, clear, sanguine complexion, a long beard as white as milke. A very handsome man. He was a great peacemaker; if any of the neighbours fell out, he would never lett them alone till he had made them friends. He was tall and slender. He wore a gowne like an artist's gowne, with hanging sleeves, and a slitt. A might good man he was."

One of his crystals used for scrying was supposed to have been given to Dee by an angel. It is on display in the British Museum, London, which also houses some of the mystical cakes of wax consecrated by Dee for his ceremonies and some of his manuscripts in the Cottonian collection.

Several centuries after his death, on April 18, 1873, Dee supposedly communicated via automatic writing through the mediumship of Stainton Moses. The communications gave some evidential details of his life that were verified by research at the British Museum Library, but his signature was found to be dissimilar to the one preserved there.


Besterman, Theodore. Crystal-Gazing. London, 1929. Re-print, New York, 1965.

Burland, C. A. The Arts of the Alchemists. London, 1967.

Clulee, Nicholas H. John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Deacon, R. John Dee: Scientist, Astrologer & Secret Agent to Elizabeth. London: Frederick Muller, 1968.

Dee, John. The Diaries of John Dee. Edited by Edward Fenton. Oxfordshire, UK: Day Books, 1998.

. The Hieroglyphic Monad. Translated by J. W. Hamilton Jones. London, 1847.

. A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. London, 1659. Reprint, Askin, 1974.

French, Peter J. John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Halliwell, J. O., ed. The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of His Library of Manuscripts. London: Camden Society, 1842.

Turner, Robert. Elizabethan Magic. Longmead, Dorset, U.K.: Element Books, 1989.

Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Dee, John

views updated May 17 2018

John Dee

BORN: July 13, 1527 • London, England

DIED: March 26, 1609 • London, England

English mathematician; astrologer

John Dee was a mathematician and astrologer who was eager to learn as much as possible about the universe. (An astrologer is someone who studies the position of stars and planets in the belief that they influence human affairs and events on Earth.) He studied geometry and arithmetic as well as less scientific subjects such as magic and crystals. He traveled throughout Europe to study with some of the best scientists of the time, and he helped to introduce their new theories in England. He gained considerable fame as a scholar and teacher, and he was appointed to serve as the astrological advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry). But he was also suspected of practicing black magic because some of his experiments dealt with the supernatural. Though some of Dee's ideas were not scientifically correct, his workhelped to advance exciting new ways of thinking in many scientific fields.

"There is (gentle reader) nothing (the works of God only set apart) which so much beautifies and adorns the soul and mind of man as does knowledge of the good arts and sciences…."

An eager student

The only child of Roland Dee and Jane Wild, John Dee was born in London in 1527. His father was in the textile (cloth) business and had been appointed to sew materials for the court of King Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry). Records show that the family had probably originally come from Wales. The Dees were relatively wealthy, and they could afford to give their son a good education. As a boy Dee attended Chelmsford school in Essex. He was sent to St. John's College at Cambridge University at the age of fifteen.

Dee excelled in school, where he took courses in several difficult subjects, including Greek, Latin, philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. (Astronomy is the scientific study of the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies.) He loved to study. In fact, he was so excited about learning that he studied for eighteen hours a day. He slept only four hours each night so that he could have more time to devote to his schoolwork.

Dee completed his bachelor's degree in only two years and then became a lecturer at the university. In 1546 he became a founding fellow of Trinity College, a new school at Cambridge University established by Henry VIII. Dee was particularly interested in mathematics. Government authorities were often suspicious of mathematics at this time, because they associated it with magic. For example, universities taught the theories of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (569–475 bce), who had developed a way to determine the measurements of right triangles. But Pythagoras also believed that numbers had special powers, and some scholars in Elizabethan times tried to use his numerical theories to explain various mysteries of the universe, such as the number of planets in the solar system. This way of thinking made mathematics seem closely related to magic.

Numbers and stars

Fascinated by such numerical theories, Dee devised a way to demonstrate the special power of number combinations. As Benjamin Woolley explained in his book The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, while he was at Trinity College Dee put on a play by the Greek writer Aristophanes. In this play, Peace, a character rides up to the heavens on a giant dung beetle to ask the god Zeus to help mortals achieve peace on earth. Dee wanted to make it look like the dung beetle was really flying, but the theater had no way to produce such special effects. So Dee decided to use numerical relationships to achieve this. No one knew exactly how he did it, but he made the dung beetle appear to fly on stage. According to Woolley, Dee may have used pneumatics (compressed air), mirrors, springs, and pulleys to execute this feat.

This production gained Dee much attention. But he soon realized that he could not hope to deepen his studies of mathematics and related subjects if he remained in England. The best scholars in these fields taught in Europe, and that is where the best students went to complete their education. In 1547 Dee arrived in Louvain (also spelled Leuven), Belgium, to study at its acclaimed university. There he met many of the finest mathematicians and scientists in Europe. Among his close friends was Gerhard Mercator (1512–1594), the famous mapmaker who devised a mathematical method to project geographical information about the spherical earth onto a flat map. Mercator's Projection, as this was called, created a map that was far more accurate than earlier ones and was especially helpful to ocean navigators. Dee also admired the work of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), who in 1543 published a book that argued that the sun was the center of the solar system. This was a revolutionary theory because it challenged the previously held belief that the center of the universe was the planet Earth.

Dee became so well respected in Louvain that Charles V (1500–1558), the Holy Roman Emperor, offered him a job in his court. (The Holy Roman Emperor was the head of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of states and territories, including the German states and most of central Europe, that existed from 962 to 1806 and was considered the supreme political body of the Christian people.) But Dee turned down this offer. In 1551 he went to Paris, where he presented a series of public lectures on Euclid (325–265 bce), the Greek mathematician whose studies in geometry influenced many scholars. These were the first such lectures ever given in a Christian country. They were an immense success. According to an account quoted in Woolley's book, so many students wanted to attend that latecomers had to lean in through the windows to catch Dee's words. Dee was offered a teaching position at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris), but he chose instead to return to England later that year. He brought with him a brass astronomer's staff and two globes made by Mercator.

In England Dee was given a job in charge of the parish of Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire. Soon afterward he began receiving financial support from the Earl of Pembroke and from the Duke of Northumberland. He tutored the Northumberland children, including Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry). As a favorite advisor of Queen Elizabeth, Dudley was later able to promote Dee's career in Elizabeth's court.

Faced religious change

In 1553 Henry VIII's son, King Edward VI (1537–1553), died and Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) became queen. Mary soon took steps to restore Roman Catholicism in England. Her father, Henry, had rejected the authority of the pope in the 1530s and declared himself the head of the church in England. He had done this in order to declare his marriage to Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), invalid—an action that the pope had refused to allow. This break with the church caused great turmoil in England. Many people wished to remain loyal to the Catholic religion, but Henry began to outlaw Catholic practices and to punish Catholics by taking away their property or putting them in prison. Many Catholics lived in fear. When Mary took the throne, she began to persecute the Protestants, those who had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. Many who refused to go back to the Catholic church were burned to death as heretics, people who express an opinion that opposes established church doctrines.

It was a dangerous time to be a Protestant. Dee's father was put in prison briefly and lost all his property. Dee himself was arrested in 1555 and accused of practicing black magic in order to destroy the queen. This was a serious charge, and Dee was lucky to escape a guilty verdict. After three months in prison, he was released. Though Dee did not agree to become a Catholic, records show that he later helped Mary's government interrogate Protestants who were in prison and who were eventually put to death.

Not much is known about Dee's religion. Historians believe that he was ordained in the Anglican church, the official Protestant church of England, but there is no record of when or where. He felt comfortable among both Catholics and Protestants, and he never made any public statement condemning either religion.

The Queen's royal astrologer

When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, Dee attracted her interest. She admired his learning, and she even asked him to draw up a horoscope—a chart of the stars and planets that, people believed, could forecast the future—to determine the most favorable day for her coronation. Elizabeth made Dee her scientific advisor, sometimes sending him on missions overseas. In fact, some historians believe he may have worked for her as a spy.

Dee continued his extensive studies of mathematics, astrology, and other subjects that attempted to explain the mysteries of the universe. During his travels he collected as many scholarly books as he could, building up one of the most impressive personal libraries of the time. He also published his own works, including Propaedeumata Aphoristica in 1568. He presented this book, a blend of physics, mathematics, astrology, and magic, to Queen Elizabeth. In 1570 he edited an edition of the works of Euclid. When a new star appeared in the sky in 1572, experts asked Dee for information about it. He used the principles of trigonometry, a branch of mathematics based on triangles, to calculate the distance of this star and published his findings in the book Parallacticae commentationis praxosque. The queen continued to admire his work and support his research. According to The Galileo Project, Elizabeth was so interested in Dee that, when he developed a serious illness in 1571, she sent two doctors to treat him.

Dee married for the third time in 1578. Though there was a big difference in age between Dee, who was fifty at the time of the wedding, and his bride, Jane Fromands, who was twenty-two, the marriage was a relatively happy one. The couple had eight children.

In 1582 Dee proposed that England join the rest of Europe in adopting the Gregorian calendar, which the pope had commanded the Catholic world to use. This new calendar would replace the ancient one introduced by Roman emperor Julius Caesar (100–44 bce), which had been based on incorrect astronomical measurements. The Gregorian calendar would remove ten days from that year's calendar in order to reset the new one to the correct measurements. Though Dee agreed that the new calendar should be used, he calculated that eleven days needed to be removed instead of ten. Though many of the queen's advisors approved of Dee's proposal, the Archbishop of Canterbury prevented it from being adopted. As a result England continued to use the outdated and inaccurate calendar until 1752.

In addition to his work as an astronomer and mathematician, Dee supported advances in geography. In 1555 he became a consultant to the Muscovy Company, an association formed by explorer Sebastian Cabot (1474–1557) and several London businessmen. This company, which obtained the exclusive right to trade with Russia, was interested in finding shorter routes to Russia through Arctic waters. Dee created nautical charts for the company, and he also tutored sailors in geometry so that they could navigate routes more accurately.

Dee's interest in exploration extended to foreign policy as well. In 1577 he met with the queen to outline his belief that England should challenge an order that the pope had made in 1494. This order divided the territories of North and South America between Spain and Portugal, leaving England out. Dee argued that, because English explorers had already reached many of the regions claimed by Spain and Portugal, England had the right to play a much more active role in exploring and colonizing the Western Hemisphere. He explained this belief in a huge four-volume book, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. The first volume detailed a plan to build and pay for an English navy. The second volume, a collection of navigational tables and charts created with a compass that Dee had invented, was never published because it was too large and complicated to print. In manuscript form, it was bigger than the English Bible. The third volume, according to Dee's letters, contained information that was so secret that it should be burned. Historians do not know whether it was ever published; no copy of it has survived. The fourth volume, which was published, described several famous and successful voyages.

Spirits, crystals, and magic

As he continued his scholarly work, Dee was drawn deeper and deeper into subjects that were more like magic than science. For example, he studied alchemy, a science of medieval times that attempted to transform base metals into gold and find a potion for eternal life. He also experimented with something he called "crystallomancy." This was his name for a method of communication with supernatural beings through the use of crystals. The idea came to him, he said, in a vision in which the angel Uriel appeared. Uriel gave Dee a crystal and told him that if he stared into it, angels would appear and foretell the future. Dee was eager to try this, but because he wanted to be able to write down what the angels said, he needed someone to look into the crystal for him while he wrote. In 1582 he found a helper, Edward Kelley.

Kelley was not a very trustworthy character. He had been convicted of forgery, and as punishment for this crime his ears had been clipped. He dabbled in alchemy, and he was reported to be able to communicate with the dead. He agreed to look into Dee's crystals and report what he saw. Kelley claimed that the angel Uriel as well as several other mystical beings appeared. They spoke to him in an angelic language, Enochic, and told him how to make various alchemical formulas such as the elixir of life, a substance that would make humans live forever. The angels also predicted the future. Dee, however, saw nothing at all. Nevertheless, he wrote down everything that Kelley reported. His account was published in A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed between Dr. Dee and Some Spirits; Tending, Had it Succeeded, to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdoms in the World by Meric Casaubon in 1659.

Dee had been fooled. The visions Kelley described were nothing but lies. But Dee was so fascinated by the mysteries of these crystals that he kept conducting his experiments. Soon he announced that he had discovered the elixir of life. Curious people flocked to see him, and he became famous. From 1583 to 1589 he traveled throughout Europe with his wife and Kelley, giving demonstrations of mystical knowledge and magic at royal courts in Poland and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). By 1589, however, Dee and Kelley had quarreled, and Dee returned with his wife to his home in the village of Mortlake, near London.

To his horror, he discovered that several books from his valuable library had been stolen. Many of his scientific instruments had been taken as well. Facing financial problems, he tried to earn money as a fortuneteller, a decision that damaged his reputation as a serious scholar. Dee spent his remaining years struggling to support himself and his family. He tried many times without success to persuade the queen to appoint him to a government position. In 1591 Dee asked to be made master of St. John's Cross, an institution for the poor in Winchester. He wanted to create a school for science there that would allow leading scholars to pursue their research under the protection of the queen. Elizabeth approved this plan, but the Archbishop of Canterbury objected to it and Dee never got the appointment. He did, however, find a modest job as chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 1596 Dee finally obtained a relatively secure job as warden of the Collegiate Chapter in Manchester. He moved there with his family. But plague struck the city in 1605, killing Dee's wife and several of his children. He moved back to London and died in 1609 at the age of seventy-nine. He was buried in Mortlake.

Though Dee's interest in magic tarnished his reputation in his own time, he is remembered today for his exceptional intellect and his keen desire to understand the mysteries of the universe. At a time when the study of science received little serious support in England, Dee made important contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and physics.

For More Information


Clulee, Nicholas H. John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

Harkness, Deborah E. John Dee's Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Woolley, Benjamin. The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.


"A Bond for All the Ages: Sir Francis Bacon and John Dee; The Original 007." Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"About Dr. John Dee." The John Dee Society. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Heisler, Ron. "John Dee and the Secret Societies." The Alchemy Web Site. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"John Dee." Tudor Place. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

The John Dee Publication Project. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

O'Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson. "John Dee."∼history/Mathematicians/Dee.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Westfall, Richard S. "John Dee." The Galileo Project. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Writings of John Dee." Esoteric Archives. (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Dee, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

John Dee

English mathematician, astronomer, and author John Dee (1527–1608) was a renowned intellectual of Renaissance–era England. An author of 49 books, his interests included science and mathematics, as well as alchemy, astrology, divination, and Rosicrucianism. In addition, he served as a consultant to Queen Elizabeth, and he advised English explorers on their voyages to North America. Today, his occult activities tend to overshadow his many substantial accomplishments, but the remarkable scholar was a true example of a "Renaissance Man."

Dee was born on July 13, 1527, in London, England, the only child of Roland Dee and Jane Wild. Accounts indicate that he descended from a noble Welsh house, the Dees of Nant y Groes in Radnorshire. Dee himself claimed that Roderick the Great, Prince of Wales, was a direct ancestor. His father, Roland Dee, was said to have been a gentleman server at the court of Henry VIII. He also dealt in textiles.

With his privileged background, Dee benefited from a good education. He attended Chelmsford in Essex and then, in November of 1542, he entered St. John's College at Cambridge University. He was only 15 years old. He studied Greek, Latin, philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy and earned a bachelor's of arts degree after only two years. Following graduation, he lectured at Cambridge and then, in 1546, he became a founding Fellow at Trinity College in Cambridge, which was founded by Henry VIII.

Studied in Europe

At this point, Dee was dissatisfied with the attitude toward science demonstrated in England, so starting in 1547, he traveled throughout Europe, first going to the Low Countries—what are now Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—where he studied with eminent scholars. In 1548, he moved to France and settled in Louvain, where he studied with the famed mapmaker Gerardus Mercator.

While in Louvain, Dee wrote two books on astronomy. Two years later, he spent several months in Paris, where he lectured on Euclid's principles of geometry. He turned down an offer of a permanent teaching post at the Sorbonne and returned to England in 1551, where he was granted the rectory of Upton–upon–Severn in Worcestershire (upon the recommendation of King Edward VI). His European academic success was indicated by the items he brought back to England: a brass astronomer's staff and two globes designed by Mercator. A year later, he entered the service of the Earl of Pembroke. Toward the end of that year, he entered the service of the Duke of Northumberland.

Father and Son Imprisoned

In 1553, after the death of King Edward VI, civil problems arose between English Catholics and Protestants regarding succession to the throne. Queen Mary, who was a Catholic, gained the throne, much to the dismay of Protestants, who feared for their safety and security. The fears were well founded, as the new queen started a campaign against prominent Protestants. The turmoil directly affected Dee's family. His father, a Protestant, was arrested. Though he was not imprisoned long, he lost all of his financial assets.

Two years later, in May, Dee himself was arrested, accused of black magic. He faced a Star Chamber prosecution, but he was only jailed for three months at Hampton Court. Still, after his release, he felt that people looked on him with suspicion because of his scientific and occult interests. However, when Queen Mary died in 1558, and the Protestant Elizabeth took the throne, Dee found favor with the new ruler. At Elizabeth's request, he even used his astrological skills to select the most appropriate day for her coronation. Dee became her scientific advisor, and some scholars believe he was actually working in service to her as a spy.

At this point in his life, Dee easily commingled with the upper levels of English society, including many Elizabethan explorers who were embarking on entrepreneurial adventures in North America. Dee served as a consultant to the Muscovy Company, which was formed in 1555 by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot and some London merchants. For more than 30 years, Dee prepared nautical information for the company, and he educated sailors on geometry and cosmography prior to their transatlantic voyages.

Pursued a Range of Interests

During this time, Dee devoted himself to his chosen studies, which included crystallomancy, astrology, alchemy, Talmudic mysteries, and Rosicrucian theories. A deeply philosophical seeker, he endeavored to penetrate the mysteries of the elixir of life and the Philosopher's Stone. Living in solitude, and totally immersed in his mystical pursuits, Dee experienced visions that he believed revealed to him higher realities.

A bibliophile, he assembled one of the finest private libraries in England. He also wrote his own works. In 1564, he published Monas Hieroglyphica, a complex work on alchemy that was influenced by the Kabbala. In 1570, he wrote the preface to the first English translation of Euclid. In it, he complained about being viewed as "a companion of the hellhounds, a caller and a conjuror of wicked and damned spirits." Despite being highly regarded by Queen Elizabeth, he was never financially secure during her reign. In 1566, he was living with his mother at Mortlake on the Thames, in London, to save money.

In 1568 he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica, a book that contained mathematics and physics as well as astrology and magic. Dee was not necessarily odd in this regard. It was common for notable scientists of the time to share such interests. For instance, both astronomer Johannes Kepler and mathematician/scientist Sir Isaac Newtown studied alchemy. After he published his work, Dee taught mathematics to Queen Elizabeth, so that she could better understand his work. Meanwhile, his fame as an astronomer grew. Considered an expert, people sought out his views on a new star that appeared in 1572 as well as a comet that appeared in the sky five years later. A year after the appearance of the new star, Dee published Parallacticae commentationis praxosque which applied trigonometric principals to determine the distance of the star.

In February 1578, Dee married Jane Fromands, his third wife. They would have eight children. His second wife died in March 1576, only a year after they were married. They had no children. Dee's own mother died in 1580. The year before, she gave her house to Dee. In 1582, Dee tried to introduce the Gregorian Calendar to England, without success. His proposal to Queen Elizabeth involved removing eleven days to bring the calendar in line with the astronomical year. Dee's proposal is now viewed as a correct one and, at the time, he even gained the support of the queen's advisors. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury opposed Dee's plans, mostly because of personal and political matters. Because Dee's proposal was turned down, England continued using a calendar different from that of the rest of Europe until 1752.

Crystal Visions

More so than Dee's astronomical and mathematical knowledge, contemporary readers are more interested in his more esoteric pursuits, which make for sensationalistic, if not slightly preposterous, subject matter—his experiments in crystallomancy, for example. In his diaries, Dee recorded that he saw spirits inside his crystal globe when he focused upon the object. He first mentions the spirits in an entry dated May 25, 1581. In a November 1582 entry, Dee records that while he was on his knees in passionate prayer, he suddenly sensed a splendor that filled a window. Looking over, he saw the angel Uriel shining brightly. Dee was rendered speechless. The angel smiled, handed Dee a piece of convex crystal and told him that whenever he wanted to communicate with supernatural beings, he should gaze intently into the crystal. These beings, the angel claimed, would appear and reveal the future. The angel then vanished.

The crystal gazing proved no easy task for Dee. He reported that he needed to completely focus all of his mental faculties into the object before the spirits would communicate. Further, despite frequent communications with the spirits, Dee could never remember the content of the conversations. As a solution, Dee needed to find someone who would gaze into the crystal and talk to the spirits while Dee recorded the conversation. Dee found a suitable intermediary: one Edward Kelley. Kelley was a bit of a mysterious figure with a disreputable background. He was a convicted forger. He was also cunning and cocksure, where Dee was affable and a bit naive. For Dee, Kelley would serve as a scryer, or seer.

Dee first became involved with Kelley in March of 1582, and their activities would dominate most of Dee's later life. According to Dee, Kelley was born in Lancashire in 1555. As a consequence of his crime, his ears were cropped and he wore a black skullcap to hide the mutilation. For a while, he worked as a druggist, but he was more concerned with making a great deal of money with the least amount of effort. At first, he sought wealth through mystical means. When that failed, he essentially became a charlatan and used his esoteric knowledge to dupe the gullible. In one of the more lurid accounts of his background, Kelley was a necromancer and alchemist who could make the dead foretell the future. Supposedly, he tried to swindle a wealthy man by digging up a recently buried corpse and pretending to make it talk. During his sessions with Dee and the crystal, Kelley claimed he communicated with Uriel as well as beings named Madini, Gabriel, Nalvage, Il, Morvorgran, and Jubanladace. But Dee saw nothing. Apparently, Kelley was making it all up.

However, a record of the spiritual sessions, held between 1582 and 1587, was published in 1659 in Meric Casaubon's A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed between Dr. Dee and Some Spirits; Tending, Had it Succeeded, to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdoms in the World. According to the records, the spirits provided occult instructions on how to make the elixir of life or search for the philosopher's stone. They also described the spiritual hierarchy of supernatural beings, and revealed the secrets of the primeval tongue that the angels and Adam spoke. Purportedly, in this original language, each word had an organic relation to its matching real–world object (be it an inanimate object or living creature) and would exercise a power over that object. The sessions also proposed prophecies, which were mostly incorrect. Some physical phenomena was reported (the movement of objects, for instance) but these were rare.

It is generally agreed that because of Kelley's involvement, the records of these sessions are comprised of falsehoods. Scholars who examine Dee's diary believe that he was completely fooled by Kelley's trickery which included optical illusions and ventriloquism. However, scholars marvel at the depth and intricacies of the visions—especially the creation of the angelic language. In other words, it was truly inspired lunacy.

The angelic language was called Enochic, and it was a linguistic construction of great complexity that combined magic, mathematics, astrology, and cryptography. According to Dee, the angels revealed several books to him starting in 1583. The surviving manuscripts are still studied by legitimate scholars as well as modern occultists. The books can be found in the British Library. The first book, Liber Logaeth, or the "Book of the Speech of God," which served as an introduction to the angelic language, underscores the complexities of Enochic.

Toured Europe with Kelley

Eventually, Dee's reputation as an occultist reached significant proportions and extended beyond England and across Europe. Among his claims, Dee said he obtained the elixir of life, which he said he found among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Dee's home attracted curiosity seekers, and his fame brought him a great deal of money. However, he was never truly wealthy, as he invested most of his money into his alchemical experiments.

From 1583 to 1589, Dee traveled throughout Europe accompanied by both his wife and Kelley, gaining more occult knowledge. During this tour, they were hosted by the likes of the King of Poland and the Emperor Rudolf in Prague. They gave demonstrations of magic at various courts. Kelley gained a great deal of fame and was even knighted. However, the pair found themselves in trouble in Poland, due apparently to Kelley's avaricious deceptions. In 1589, Dee and Kelley parted ways, and Dee returned with his wife to England.

Sank into Poverty

Dee's fortunes immediately turned bad. When he returned to his home at Mortlake, intending to resume his scientific and occult studies, Dee found that a large part of his cherished library and many of his scientific instruments had been stolen. He soon experienced difficult financial times. To earn money, he practiced as a fortune teller, a decision that discolored his reputation. Kelley faired even worse. After splitting with Dee, he wandered through Germany, telling fortunes and practicing magic. Eventually, he was arrested for heresy. When he tried to escape from prison, he fell from a wall and broke two ribs and both of his legs. He died from his injuries in February 1593.

In the meantime, Dee employed two seedy scryers who were essentially useless and drained Dee of his money. When Dee sank to the level of poverty, he asked the queen for help. But it was only after persistent requests that he finally received any assistance, in the form of a modest appointment as chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral. In 1596 he was appointed warden of the Collegiate Chapter in Manchester, but this is now viewed as a means to get him away from London. He served in this position until 1603, when his failing health forced him to resign.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Dee was forced to move back to his Mortlake home where he lived a poverty–stricken existence. In 1605, parts of England were affected by the plague. Dee's wife and several of his children died. In his last years, Dee was forced to sell books from his library in order to live. When King James I took over after Queen Elizabeth, an era of witch hunts had begun. Dee's reputation once again darkened, and he even petitioned the king for protection. Dee was planning to leave England for Germany in 1608 when he died. After his passing, seventeenth–century historians branded Dee as a demonic sorcerer.

Reputation Restored

In recent years, serious scholars have pointed out Dee's solid and substantive intellectual contributions to Renaissance–era England. Though his important work still tends to be overshadowed by the more sensational elements of his career, Dee wrote numerous scientific manuscripts including De Trigono (1565) and Testamentum Johannis Dee Philosophi Summi ad Johannem Guryun Transmissum (1568). A man of relentless intellectual curiosity, Dee wrote up accounts for the "New World" and advanced the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, and physics with accurate knowledge.


Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group, 2001.


"Biography of John Dee," Deliriums Realm,–dee.asp (December 31, 2004).

"Dr. John Dee Biography," Golden Dawn Resource Center, (December 31, 2004).

"Enochian," Mandrake Press,–article/enochian.html (December 31, 2004).

"John Dee," Altreligion, (December 31, 2004).

Dee, John (1527–1609)

views updated May 29 2018

DEE, JOHN (15271609)

DEE, JOHN (15271609), polymath English mathematician, natural philosopher, and consultant to the court of Queen Elizabeth. Dee was born in London, of Welsh descent. His father, Rowland, who had a minor position in Henry VIII's court, fostered Dee's education and laid the foundation for his later position in the Tudor court. Dee studied at St. John's College Cambridge for the B.A. (1546) and the M.A. (1548) degrees. Dee also studied at Paris and most importantly at Louvain with Gemma Frisius and others of Gemma's circle including Gerardus Mercator, Antonius Gogava and Gaspar à Mirica. Subsequently, he maintained contact and collaboration with scholars throughout Europe, including assisting with Federico Commandino's publication of De Superficierum Divisionibus Liber (On the division of surfaces).

Dee forged diverse roles as a scholar and public intellectual. At his house at Mortlake, outside London, he taught, consulted, and studied in one of the earliest experimental households. Here he built a personal library, reputed to be the largest of his day, rich in mathematics, sciences of all sorts, and philosophy, reflected both in the ancient texts prized in the Renaissance but also in unusually large numbers of medieval texts. He vigorously promoted the practical application of mathematics and the sciences through his service as consultant on navigation to the Muscovy Company and other voyages of navigation and through his contribution of the "Mathematicall Praeface" and extensive additions and annotations to the first English edition of Euclid's Elements of geometry (1570). In his private consultations he was one of the earliest to introduce Paracelsus in England. Dee enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth and other Tudor courtiers and played an active role at court, advising on the reform of the calendar and other scientific issues and bolstering with his expertise the advocacy of British political and imperial expansion. In all these capacities Dee applied his scholarly skills to making available to Elizabeth and her counselors, navigators, explorers, and other writers and thinkers the information and wisdom of his personal library for the formation of policy and the solution of practical problems. Dee also pursued patronage at the courts of Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel and Rudolf II at Prague, where he promoted his angelical, cabalistic, and alchemical vision of nature, religious reform, and political conciliation.

Like others in the Renaissance, he sought new insights into the natural world as a reflection of divinity and to achieve personal spiritual insight. His inspiration was primarily Roger Bacon (c. 1214/20c. 1292), enhanced by ancient, medieval, and Renaissance magical texts. In the Propaedeumata Aphoristica (Introductory aphorisms, 1558 and 1568) Dee developed a mathematically based optical theory of astrological causation and astral magic founded on Bacon's concept of the multiplication of species. His Monas Hieroglyphica (Hieroglyphic monad, 1564) presents an unusual blend of alchemy, astrology, Cabala, and magic that is as much an allegory of spiritual ascent as a study of nature. Later, he became increasingly absorbed in "spiritual exercises" in a quest for direct spiritual insight from angels contacted through a crystal gazer.

See also Alchemy ; Astrology ; Cabala ; Calendar ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Exploration ; Mathematics ; Paracelsus ; Shipbuilding and Navigation .


Clulee, Nicholas H. John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion. London, 1988.

Harkness, Deborah E. John Dee's Conversations with Angels. Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Sherman, William H. John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. Amherst, Mass., 1995.

Nicholas H. Clulee

Dee, John

views updated Jun 27 2018

Dee, John

John Dee was an English geographer, mathematician, scientist, antiquarian scholar, and political advisor. Of Welsh ancestry, he was born in London in 1527 and was educated at St. John's College of Cambridge University, and at the University of Louvain in what is today Belgium. One of the leading scientists of his time, Dee was also a promoter of English colonial expansion and might be considered the intellectual father of the British Empire. A true Renaissance man, he was active in many fields of scholarship, including geography, mathematics, philosophy, alchemy, and astrology.

Dee had a long association with Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) of England, even casting the horoscope to determine the most auspicious date for her coronation in 1558. He was also a friend and associate of most of the leading figures of Elizabethan England, including such explorers as Sir Martin Frobisher (ca. 1535–1594), John Davis (1543–1605), Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554–1618), Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1543–1596), and Sir Humphrey Gilbert (ca. 1539–1583), who agreed to grant Dee most of Canada if his voyage were successful, which it was not. Dee advised each of these men on their expeditions, often providing navigational information. He also advised on expeditions to find a Northeast Passage to China and was instrumental in the formation of the Muscovy Company, which opened up trade with Russia.

Dee traveled extensively on the continent of Europe and was a friend and colleague of the leading geographers and cartographers of the time, including Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), Orontius Finaeus (1494–1555), and Pedro Nuñez (1492–1577). His contacts with these scholars allowed him to assemble the largest library in England, larger even than those at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Dee was also able to invent and introduce many technical innovations, such as particular globes, compasses, and navigational charts, to English explorers, although he was unsuccessful in his attempt to introduce the Gregorian calendar into England. Later in his life, Dee also served as an advisor, mainly on alchemical topics, to the king of Poland and to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Much of Dee's geographical writing was concerned with English imperial expansion. In 1570 he presented a map with accompanying text to Queen Elizabeth, outlining arguments for her title to lands in the North Atlantic and in America. He also drew up plans for the colonizing of North America. His most important geographical work, titled General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, was published in 1577. This book suggested the immediate establishment of a "Petty Navy Royal," or coast guard, to protect England's shores, as well as expansion of the "Grand Navy Royal." Dee urged England to become a maritime power and establish a "British Empire" (Dee's own phrase) that would rival Spain's and would give England commercial advantages, such as markets for its woolens.

Dee unfortunately fell out of favor after the death of Elizabeth in 1603, and he died in obscurity in 1608. Today he is often remembered for his alchemical and astrological work, though appreciation of him as a leading geographer is increasing.

see also Empire, British; European Explorations in North America.


Clulee, Nicholas H. John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

French, Peter J. John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

Suster, Gerald, ed. John Dee: Essential Readings. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2003.

Taylor, E. G. R. Tudor Geography, 1485–1583. London: Methuen, 1930.

Dee, John

views updated May 29 2018

Dee, John

(b London, England, 13 July 1527; d. Mortlake, Surrey, England, December 1608)


Dee was the son of Roland Dee, a London mercer, and his wife, Johanna Wilde. He was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, receiving the B.A. in 1545 and the M.A. in 1548. He was a fellow of St. John’s and a foundation fellow of Trinity College (1546). He traveled to Louvain briefly in 1547 and to Louvain and Paris in 1548–1551, studying with Gemma Frisius and Gerhardus Mercator. Throughout his life Dee made extended trips to the Continent and maintained cordial relations with scholars there.

For more than twenty-five years Dee acted as adviser to various English voyages of discovery. His treatises on navigation and navigational instruments were deliberately kept in manuscript; most have not survived, and are known only from his later autobiographical writings. His “fruitfull Praeface” to the Billingsley translation of Euclid (1570), on the relations and applications of mathematics, established his fame among the mathematical practitioners. Although translated by Billingsley, the Euclid is unmistakably edited by Dee, for the body of the work, especially the later books, contains many annotations and additional theorems by him.

Although Dee was a man of undoubted scientific talents, his interests always tended toward the occult. His favor in court circles was due largely to his practice of judicial astrology. His interest in alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone led to the gradual abandonment of other work. His last scientific treatise was a reasoned defense of calendar reform (1583). From that time on, he retreated almost wholly into mysticism and psychic research. Dee was certainly duped by his medium, Edward Kelley, but he himself was sincere. He felt that he had been ill I rewarded for his many years of serious study and looked for a shortcut to the secrets of the universe through the assistance of angelic spirits.


I. Original Works. A more extensive list is in Thompson Cooper’s article in Dictionary of National Biography, V, 721–729. Monas hieroglyphica (Antwerp, 1564) is presented in annotated translation by C. H. Josten in Ambix, 12 , nos. 2 and 3 (1964). “A very fruitfull Praeface... specifying the chief mathematical sciences,” in H. Billingsley, trans., Euclid (London, 1570). was reprinted in Euclid’s Elements, T. Rudd, ed. (London, 1651) and, with additional material by Dee, in Euclid’s Elements, J. Leeke and G. Serle, eds. (London, 1661). Parallaticae commentationis praxosque (London, 1573) contains trigonometric theorems for determining stellar parallax, occasioned by the nova of 1572. “A plain discourse... concerning the needful reformation of the Kalendar” (1583) is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole, 1789, i. “The Compendious Rehearsal of John Dee” (1592), BM Cotton Vitellius C vii, 1, is available in “Autobiographical Tracts of Dr. John Dee,” James Crossley, ed., Chetham Miscellanies, I (Manchester, 1851); it is the main source of biographical information but must be read with caution, since it was written as a request for compensation for injury to Dee’s library and reputation. The Private Diary of John Dee, 1577–1601 was edited by J. O. Halliwell as vol. XIX of Camden Society Publications (London, 1842); a corrected version of the Manchester portions, 1595–1601. was edited by John E. Bailey as Diary, for the Years 1595–1601(London, 1880).

II. Secondary Literature There is still no adequate biography of Dee. Both Charlotte Fell-Smith, John Dee (London, 1909), and Richard Deacon, John Dee (London, 1968), stress Dee’s nonscientinc activities. The latter has revived the theory, originating with Robert Hooke, that Dee’s conversations with the angels were intelligence reports in code. Frances A. Yates, Theatre of the World (Chicago, 1969), considers Dee as a Renaissance philosopher in the Hermetic tradition. The book contains interesting discussions of Dee’s library and of the mathematical preface to Euclid. It is argued that a revival of interest in Vitruvius was spread among the middle classes of London by Dee’s Vitruvian references in the preface.

The best assessment of Dee’s scientific work may be found in the books of E. G. R. Taylor, especially Tudor Geography (London, 1930) and Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge, 1954).

Dee had a remarkable library, and many MSS owned by him are extant. M. R. James, “Lists of MSS Formerly Owned by John Dee,” a supplement to Transactions of the Bibliographical Society (1921), is the basic work, but many others have been located. See, for example, A. G. Watson, The Library of Sir Simonds D’Ewes (London, 1966).

Joy B. Easton

Dee, John

views updated May 14 2018

Dee, John (1527–1608). Mathematician and astrologer. Dee was born in London, attended St John's College, Cambridge, and, taking holy orders, was a founding fellow of the new Trinity College. He spent much time on the continent, collecting rare books, studying mathematics, astronomy, and cartography, and lectured at Paris on Euclid. He returned to England in 1551, but was under a cloud in Mary's reign, imprisoned on charges of treason and heresy. Elizabeth was more receptive to Dee's appeals, but though she promised patronage, his reputation as a magician seems to have handicapped him. Dee moved into alchemy and then into an attempt to communicate with angels. Not until 1596 did he get much recognition, when he was made warden of Christ's College, Manchester, a post which proved acrimonious, and from which he retired in 1605. He appealed in vain to James I to allow him to clear himself of the imputation of sorcery, and died in poverty. His curious diaries were published, edited by Edward Fenton, in 1998. John Aubrey, a distant relative, wrote that Dee was ‘a very handsome man, with a long beard as white as milke … he wore a gowne like an artist's gowne, with hanging sleeves … the children dreaded him because he was accounted a conjurer’. See also magic; alchemy.

J. A. Cannon

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