Who Was John Dee?

John Dee (1527-1608) was a notable court advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Public opinion of him remained divided throughout his life, he being alternately described as a magician and occultist by detractors, and a scholar and alchemist by those more favourably disposed. Having gone up to Cambridge University at the age of 15, his genius saw early expression in the design and construction of a wooden mechanical beetle he devised for a production of the Astritophane’s play, Peace, only for it to be denounced as a work of black magic. This would be the first time, but certainly not the last, that Dee successfully defended himself against dangerous (and almost certainly jealous) slander, going on to become a fellow of Trinity College by 19 years of age.

Self-styled as ‘Londinensis’ (Proud Londoner), Dee also embraced his Welsh heritage from his father, Roland, a gentleman sewer in the court of Henry VIII. Thus Dee was already well-situated for his own courtly intrigues by the time he returned to England, fresh from a resoundingly successful series of lectures in France on Euclid’s Geometry. At Elizabeth’s request, Dee divined the most appropriate date of coronation, going on to serve her in an advisory capacity throughout her reign. Dee’s court duties ranged far: astrologer, cartographer, navigator, spymaster, cryptographer, mathematician, doctor, philosopher… More than a court magician, Dee was one of the finest examples of a polymath that England had produced. His cryptographic endeavours featured in his work supervising British colonies in the New World (it was even Dee who came up with the very notion of a ‘British Empire’), concealing the crown’s plans from prying Spanish eyes. Later, his encryptions would be employed in his magnum opus, the Monas Heiroglyphica, an alchemical work and early formulation of a unified scientific notation.

"John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I | Glindoni

In 1582, Dee began collaborating with an Irish medium called Edward Kelley, the two engaging in scrying and ‘necromancy’ (specifically, the summoning and questioning of spirits). Their transcripts report contact with a variety of angels, with whom they claimed to have uncovered a lost Adamic language known as ‘Enochian’. Such practices, dubious in the eyes of a Christian public, did little for Dee’s reputation, and by the time the two returned from their Continental wanderings, having failed to impress the King of Bohemia with an alchemical demonstration, both men were penniless and parted company soon after. Kelley went on to some limited success as an alchemist, whilst Dee returned to his home in Mortlake to find his grand library of over 2000 occult works ransacked.

In his final years, Dee’s neighbours described him as a fastidious, robed scholar who was only too willing to lend a diplomatic hand in petty disagreements. The same neighbours whispered behind closed doors of a man who still dabbled in black magic, rumours no doubt fuelled by the strange sounds and odours that issued from Dee’s home laboratory. Ever possessed of an inquiring mind, Dee had paid a heavy price to his reputation for his far-ranging intellectual excursions, and was firmly ensconced in the public imagination as a black magician. So besmirched was his name that Meric Casuabon would draw comparison to him in his attacks on the alchemist Robert Fludd, half a century later.