The Queen's Conjurer

Dr Dee
from The Guardian, Saturday 31 March 2001.

Dr John Dee is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of historical figure - intellectual giant or shady charlatan, depending on your point of view. Born in 1527, when England was enjoying that flowering of art and learning we call the Renaissance, he trained with the scientist and technical instrument-maker Gemma Frisius at Louvain in the Low Countries, and went on to become a mathematician of distinction.

A personal adviser and official writer of technical "position papers" on navigational and maritime policy matters to Queen Elizabeth I, his opinion was sought by the Tudor government on investment in new technologies and projects to smelt metals . He was a consultant to Martin Frobisher's 1576 attempt to discover the Northwest Passage (a northerly trading route by sea to the lucrative markets in Russia and beyond), and trained Frobisher's team of adventurers in navigational techniques. Dee's preface to the first English-language edition of the Greek mathematician Euclid's Elementes of Geometrie (1570), edited by Sir Henry Billingsley, is regarded as a landmark piece of writing on the applications of pure mathematics in science and technology.

On the other hand, Dee associated with disreputable "skryvers", or spiritual mediums, such as William Backhouse and Edward Kelley, and was widely known in his lifetime as a "notorious conjuror". He cast horoscopes, dabbled in alchemy and participated in elaborate attempts to acquire knowledge by consulting spirits summoned with the aid of crystal balls, spells and incantations derived from mysterious manuscripts. Many of those he associated with in these activities were well-known con-artists and fraudsters; some were religious dissidents and informers, others out-and-out criminals.

Benjamin Woolley has woven together the often contradictory evidence from the fragmentary remains concerning the life of Dee with considerable circumspection, so that the reader can make up his or her own mind over which Dr Dee they would rather believe in. This in itself makes The Queen's Conjuror an important book. All earlier biographers of Dee have plumped for their favourite version and suppressed material that fails to support it. If their inclination is towards serious history of science and mathematics, they mould from the fragments a serious Dee, who occasionally (like Newton) lost his head and dabbled in angel-summoning and alchemy. If their own tendency is towards communing with spirits or prophesying the future with the help of astrology, pentangles and magical stones, then they faithfully transcribe the fantastic visions relayed by Kelley to Dee and recorded in the latter's diary. There have been, it has to be said, a good number of these, with the result that Dee has become a popular-culture "magician" - he makes a cameo appearance in Derek Jarman's movie Jubilee , granting Elizabeth I a vision of what London will be like in the 1970s.

Of course, in allowing the reader to judge, Woolley does have to fudge a little. Lurid visions described by skryver Kelley at a seance and recorded by Dee in his diaries are reported by Woolley as though both men actually saw the apparition. Dee writes that "Suddenly, there seemed to come out of my Oratory a Spiritual Creature, like a pretty girl of seven or nine years of age, attired on her head with her hair rolled up before, and hanging down very long behind, with a gown of Sey changeable green and red, and with a train . . . And so I considered . . . the divers reports which Edward Kelley made to me of this pretty maiden." Here Woolley lets us believe Dee too saw (or thought he saw) her skipping about the room. In fact, as always, Kelley was the medium through whom Dee addressed the supposed spirit presence and who answered through Kelley's mouth.

Nonetheless, Woolley's level-headed, meticulously researched and readable book does allow us to stand back from the jumble of evidence - rescued, as Woolley elegantly shows via his preface and epilogue, by several partisan 17th-century scholars and mystical sympathisers - to assess the historical figure afresh. What stands out is Dee's steady association with known intelligence-gatherers - spies - as he moved between England, the Low Countries, Poland and Bohemia in the 1580s and 1590s. Whatever else Dee was doing as he criss-crossed Europe, trying, with increasing desperation, to realise the material wealth to which he believed his arcane knowledge entitled him, it looks as though he was collecting and sending back to Protestant England sensitive information from Catholic territories wherever he stopped.

Wealth, in the end, eluded him. In a final irony, it was the fraudulent Kelley who, for a time, lived the life of a lord under the patronage of Rudolph II in Prague. Dee eked out a meagre living back in London, petitioning unsuccessfully again and again to clear his reputation of the slur of "conjurer" and trying to regain his position as the distinguished early scientist and mathematician he probably was.