John Dee of Mortlake

Nicholas Dakin. John Dee of Mortlake. Barnes and Mortlake Local History Society, 2011.

Searching for ‘John Dee’ on Amazon brings up over 600 books by or about him. Many of these are detailed historical monographs, or attempts to understand and explain the details of his mystical and philosophical thought. And there are, indeed, some very interesting and readable biographies.

Nicholas Dakin’s book is not specifically a biography of John Dee (1527 - 1609), although it does give a broad outline of the life of this incredibly complex character. Nor is it an exposition of Dee’s occult beliefs, his mathematical work or his philosophical system. Rather it is a straightforward explanation of why John Dee is important and why Mortlake should honour the memory of its greatest resident

This book is called John Dee of Mortlake, and the ‘of Mortlake’ is the important bit. The author shows that John Dee’s house, with its library and its laboratory, was the centre of a great intellectual network that stretched across Europe, and in a way, across the Atlantic as well.

He reconstructs Dee’s house and garden in Mortlake High Street from the barest hints of description in Dee’s diaries, and accounts by people who knew him. He describes the Bibliotheca Mortlacensis, the great library Dee created at Mortlake, probably one of the largest collections of books in the world at that time.

Next to the river, and convenient for travelling to and from London and to the Queen’s palace at Richmond, the Mortlake house received many visitors: Queen Elizabeth herself, explorers like Martin Frobisher, as well as some of the great Tudor noblemen and foreign statesmen. He taught Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Lord Walsingham the art of code-breaking, others came to consult Dee for advice on navigation, for instruction in the use of mathematical instruments and maps, and in some cases to have horoscopes cast for them. Astrology was seen as a scientific practice, in the days before science and magic parted company.
But besides these affairs of state and Dee’s great project of promoting a ‘British Empire’ - a phrase he used first - we are also shown the domestic life of Dee and his family and his life in Mortlake. Although local children were sometimes frightened by his appearance, and reputation - entirely unjustified - as a sorcerer, he was also seen as a peacemaker in disputes between local families.

We learn of Jane Dee, a dutiful wife who bore him eight children, and sometimes despaired of the domestic chaos she witnessed around her, but who was very much her own person, juggling her domestic duties, but also helping organise the transport of her entire household across Europe when her husband travelled to the Court of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.

The author challenges some of the stereotypes that have developed over the centuries, of Dee as a black magician, necromancer, or someone who raised the spirits of the dead, and shows him as a devout Christian whose so-called ‘occult’ work was an attempt to gain for himself a greater understanding of the word of God. He also gives a very clear explanation of the nature of Dee’s relationship with the medium Edward Kelley, carefully weighing up whether he was a charlatan, a chancer, or he genuinely believed he had talents which would be useful to Dee.

Dee was an astrologer, alchemist, mathematician, navigator, philosopher, spy, clergyman, traveller, and magician. Many of the 600 books on Amazon will tell you all about those parts of his life, but it would be difficult to find one which will give you a clearer, more entertaining and straightforward account of the man who made the little village of Mortlake into the centre of the world of scholarship and learning. -- John Rimmer