The Arch Conjurer of England

Glyn Parry. The Arch-Conjurer of England: John Dee. Yale University Press, 2012.

Glyn Parry's new life of John Dee overturns many of the conventionally held views about this unique character. Living just across the road from the site of his house, laboratory and library in Mortlake my image of him was always as a white-bearded sage, living in a then-remote country village between the royal courts at Richmond and Whitehall; but conveniently situated beside the river for the visitors - from merchant venturers to the Queen herself - who would call on him for the benefit of his learning and his library.

It is difficult to appreciate now just how mainstream astrology and alchemy were in establishment circles at this period. When figures like Dee came under criticism and suspicion it was more often because their practices approached common superstition and 'conjuring' rather than the purer alchemical search for the Philosopher's stone - a prize which no European monarch could afford not to seek.

Dee lived in an age when the boundaries between magic and science were still unformed, and also when religion and politics were one and the same. Far from being a scholar in an ivory tower, Dee was deeply involved in the court and international politics of the time. Dee's father was an important figure in the court of Henry VIII, who made and lost a fortune through the sometimes extremely dubious operation of a City tax monopoly, possible theft of church plate, then involvement in political plots involving the royal succession - he supported plotters who planned to put the young Jane Gray on the throne - her reign lasted just nine days.

Like many other churchmen of the period John Dee’s loyalties were more than a little flexible through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, and there seems to have been as much re-writing of history and political spin over these manoeuvres than there has been over any 'dodgy dossier' of our own time. Although this may make Dee seem a cynical opportunist, Parry makes it clear that for any person in his position this was not just a policy of - literal - survival, but also a reflection of the religious ambiguity and political turmoil of the period. For example, it will be a surprise to many to discover that far from being the loyal Protestant cleric, Dee was actually consecrated as a Catholic priest, in a lightning process where he was taken though all the necessary processes in one day!

Dee's eventual position in the Elizabethan court was important and far more central than his image as the purely intellectual 'Magus of Mortlake' might make it appear, but like all courtiers he would be in and out of favour to some extent or other throughout his life, and although at times Elizabeth may have ridden past his Mortlake home without stopping for a chat at the garden gate, she was always supportive of his alchemical and navigational works, and would offer him some help at the low periods in his fortunes.

The world of the Tudor monarchs was a snake-pit of conspiracy, with invasion plotting, rumour-mongering and prediction of assassination, divine intervention and natural calamity aimed at undermining one faction or another. Dee was deeply involved in this, and perhaps one of the most surprising revelations of Parry's research is just how involved he became in these apocalyptic prophecies. He produced astrological predictions that Elizabeth would rule all Europe and become the 'Empress of the Last Days' before the end of history - Elizabeth was at one point offered the throne of Holland and Flanders after the end of Hapsburg rule. Dee is credited with the invention of the term 'British Empire', but this referred not only to the idea of an Empire rivalling the Spanish and Portuguese in America, but the recovery of an Arthurian Empire in Europe including not only the Low Countries but also France and Spain! Unfortunately, Dee's main problem was that although he was a key political figure in the Elizabethan Court he was just not very good at politics.

One of the most controversial parts of Dee's life relates to his relationship with his 'scryer' or medium, Edward Kelley, and biographers have usually portrayed this as Dee's great intellectual failing, to have been taken in by a man who is seen - from a modern perspective - as a fraud. Parry presents a far more nuanced depiction of this relationship, showing that figures such as Kelley were employed for similar purposes by most other magical practitioners of the period. Dee's belief in the genuineness of Kelley's visions would have been considered quite normal at the time, and increasingly it seems that Kelley himself believed his angelic messages. Even Kelley's role in the infamous 'wife-swapping' episode is far less clear-cut than we might think.

After Dee's return from Europe, when Kelley remained behind in Bohemia, the latter's stature with their former patrons rose to equal that of Dee, and back in England Elizabeth was as likely to seek news of Kelley from Dee as to learn of his own work. It is remarkable the extent to which Elizabeth herself was involved in practical alchemy, maintaining laboratories at Hampton Court where she would work alongside her own alchemists.

The final years of Dee's life saw his gradual removal from court life, his removal to Manchester as Warden of the Collegiate Church, another position where his poor grasp of political intrigue and posturing worked against him, although it was not quite the exile that Elizabeth and some of her courtiers though it might be - he spent as much time in Mortlake as in the northern town. The accession of James I/VI meant Dee's final eclipse as a public figure.

Parry has gone back to many of the original sources in plotting Dee's life through the hugely complex course of Elizabethan religious politics, which is his academic specialism, and there is a copious list of references to source documents. At times this can be baffling to the general reader and a fairly detailed knowledge of Elizabethan history would certainly be an advantage to get the most from this book. However this has uncovered a great deal of previously un-noticed material which overturns many accepted views of Dee. -- John Rimmer.