Life of Dr Dee

John Dee was born in the City of London, just north of London Wall, close to the Tower ward on the 13th July 1527. His birth was unrecorded, which was not at all unusual at that time. A horoscope, drawn up in the ancient manner, showing the heavens at the precise time and place as Dee’s birth is among his papers at the Bodleian library in Oxford: he was born at two minutes past four in the afternoon, at latitude 51 degrees 32 minutes North.

His father Roland was a textile merchant of Welsh descent, and member of the London Guild of Mercers. His mother, Jane or Joanna Wild married Roland when she was fifteen. John Dee was born three years after the wedding. Roland had a position at King Henry VIII’s Court as a ‘Gentleman Sewer’, responsible for the acquisition and care of rare and valuable fabrics.

Roland probably divided his time between the bustling docks area of Tower Ward, and Greenwich Palace, and his son would have experienced both contrasting ways of life.

Proud of his Welsh ancestry and Radnorshire family connections, Dee spent time in Wales and claimed to have traced his family line back to the Welsh warrior Prince Rhodri, 809 - 878 AD. The original Welsh form of the family name was Ddu, meaning ‘black’.
Dee was granted a shield of arms on the 3rd July, 1576, which took the form of a gold lion rampant on a red ground, with the motto Hic Labor. A coat of arms of the Dee family is displayed in the Chancel of St Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake. The two genealogical rolls he compiled of his ancestry survive among the Cotton manuscripts in the British Library, xiii 38 and xiv 1.

At the age of eight Dee was sent to be educated at Chelmsford Chantry School. At fifteen he started his studies at St John’s College, Cambridge (illus.), where he studied Greek, Latin, Philosophy, Geometry, Arithmetic and Astronomy. It has been suggested that this was where Dee first became acquainted with Hermeticism and even alchemy, although neither of these would have been on the curriculum.

During his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge, great changes were happening. The adoption of new learning meant that Latin studies and Roman numerals were giving way to Greek ideas and Arabic numerals. Ancient writers such as Plato and Pythagoras were translated and studied again.
Dee was so eager to learn that he later wrote: For those years I did inviolably keep this order; only to sleep four hours every night, to allowe to meate and drink, and some refreshing after, two hours every day: and of the other eighteen all, except the tyme of going to and being at Divine Service was spent in my Studies and Learning.He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1544 and an M.A. in 1546. Trinity College Cambridge (illus) was founded in 1546 and John Dee became one of its founding Fellows. Dee’s brilliant academic career had begun. Mathematics was his passion.

On his first European journey Dee visited Louvain to consult with Continental scholars, particularly mathematicians. He records that he conferred with Gemma Frisius, Gaspar à Mirica and Antonio Gogara. He returned to Cambridge bringing mathematical instruments which he later presented to Trinity College.

It was on this trip that he first made contact with the great mapmaker Gerard Mercator, who was to become one of his correspondents. Dee brought back to England two of Mercator’s globes, and placed them eventually in his library at Mortlake. He kept them up-to-date with later discoveries, and many sea captains, travellers and explorers came to consult Dee before their journeys.

On his return to Cambridge Dee’s mechanical skills were used in a stage production of Aristophanes’ Peace, in which a character rode up to the roof on a giant scarab beetle. Dee’s mastery of mathematics enabled him to design the mechanism which allowed this effect.

However, this early use of elaborate stage machinery, besides causing amazement to the audience, also created a great deal of alarm amongst the more credulous and superstitious, leading to suspicions of magic and wizardry. This served to contribute to his enduring, and highly unwelcome, reputation as a conjuror.
In 1548 Dee entered the University of Louvain to continue his studies and learn all the latest advances in mathematics, geography, astrology and astronomy. Under the eminent scholar Gemma Frisius’s influence Louvain had become caught up in enthusiasm for scientific measurement.

Frisius pioneered the use of triangulation in land surveying. Here Dee practised his skills, using such instruments as the cross-staff and astrolabe. As well as Mercator [left] , Dee met and was influenced by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius from Antwerp, and Lisbon’s leading navigator Pedro Nunez, whom he appointed as his literary executor in the late 1550s.

He travelled to Paris in 1550, where he enjoyed great success. He lectured on Euclid’s Elements to a vast and eager audience: the hall was so crowded that people were standing on the window-sills. Such was the reception that the University of Paris offered him a professorship of mathematics at a salary of two hundred crowns.

Dee’s success in Paris caused him to be sought out by scholars and he was offered patronage by five European Monarchs. However, he refused all offers, possibly anxious about being obliged to embrace Catholicism, which would exile him from his homeland, as he had set his sights on a career in England.
Returning to England in 1551, Dee presented the young King Edward VI with two astronomical works he had written and dedicated to the King. He was rewarded with an annual pension of one hundred crowns, which later he exchanged for the income from the rectory of Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire.

Seeking patrons, Dee was to find them amongst many of the powerful Protestant families. William Cecil commended him at Court and he entered the service of the Earl of Pembroke as tutor to his sons. More importantly he became attached to the Lord protector, the Duke of Northumberland. He was tutor to the Duke’s children, one of whom was Robert Dudley, to become Queen Elizabeth’s favourite.

With the accession of Catholic Queen Mary in 1553 the Dudleys fell from power and Northumberland was executed. The Privy Council began to purge his Protestant sympathisers, and one they arrested was Roland Dee. Dee’s father had prospered at Court, benefiting from a Royal appointment to check the merchandise shipped through London and to receive a share of the fees payable for shipments. There is no record of the precise charge, and Roland was released ten days later a ruined man, he had lost everything.

This misfortune also had a devastating effect on his son. John Dee had expected to inherit and to be able to continue his life of study, instead he had to fend for himself. Roland Dee did not live to see the change of regime that could have restored his fortunes.

Dee was asked to cast the horoscopes of Queen Mary and her new husband Philip of Spain, but was unwise enough also to cast the horoscope of Princess Elizabeth. Charges of attempted enchantment of the Queen were brought against him, and he was imprisoned at Hampton Court. His house was sealed and his living from Upton-upon-Severn was confiscated.

Dee appeared in the Star Chamber charged with calculating, conjuring and witchcraft, all charges from which he exonerated himself, but he was then turned over to the Catholic Bishop Bonner for religious examination. Dee obviously defended his beliefs well, as he cleared his name and became one of Bonner’s chaplains.

At this time John Dee first appears as a protector of Britain’s historic past. He addresses a plea to Queen Mary for the recovery and preservation of valuable manuscripts that the Dissolution of the Monasteries had dispersed, and suggested setting up a Library Royall or national archive.

It was a magnificent scheme worked out in great detail, but money would need to have been spent and it came to nothing. It was another 200 years before a British National Library became a reality. Bundles of books from historic libraries could be found for sale in many shops, and in his desire to preserve and own these texts Dee travelled the country searching especially for scientific books
The coming of Protestant Queen Elizabeth to the throne meant that Dee’s influence increased. His patrons William Cecil and Robert Dudley were in power, and the Queen herself was always to show favour to him.

He was asked to calculate an astrologically propitious day for her coronation, and looking at the long and golden age of Elizabeth, this would seem to have been done. From then on he was known as the ‘Queen’s Astrologer’, and was consulted whenever there were worries about her health or situation.

Dee was invited for an audience with the Queen, and she promised him a doubling of his fortunes. He was to become a favoured member of her Court, and a player in the great Elizabethan era that was dawning.

Soon after Elizabeth’s Coronation Dee went travelling abroad and began exploring a new field of research, the Cabala. This was a potent combination of language, mathematics and mysticism, based around Hebrew. Dee had taught himself the language and he acquired his first Hebrew texts around this time. As well as enabling him to read ancient texts, Dee saw a more immediate, practical use: the creation of secret codes and ciphers.

One of Dee’s contributions to intelligence work was his considerable experience in cryptography. Based on his proven mathematical skills, his ciphering was very successful. There are three books with over 200 codes and ciphers surviving from the Elizabethan age in the National Archive.

In February 1563 Dee was in Antwerp still searching for books, when he made what he considered to be the find of his life. Trithemius’s Steganographia, a precious manuscript for which scholars from all over Europe had searched for sixty years turned up in Antwerp, and Dee had to have it. He spent every penny of his travel money on achieving the loan of the manuscript for ten days, and then worked day and night on making a copy of it.

The work deals with codes and cryptography, and was so difficult to decipher that its meaning remained hidden until the 1990s when a German linguist and an American mathematician independently succeeded in understanding its secrets.
In 1564 Dee published the Monas Hieroglyphica, one of his most intriguing books. He wrote it in thirteen days, telling us that he commenced it on 13th January 1564 when in Antwerp, and completing it on the 25th of the same month. The book was famous in its day, however its great fame throughout Europe did not make it popular with the universities.

Dee countered in the second edition that the learned men should not find fault and censure the book, because they did not understand it. In the frontispiece we read: Who does not understand should either learn or be silent.

Dee’s devoted service to Elizabeth continued throughout her reign. She trusted Dee and had always sought his advice. He was often her instructor, and she lived the intellectual life vicariously through Dee. There are many references to her interest in his scientific work, and she gave him books for his growing library. Dee presented the Queen with a copy of one of his own books, and was given £20 as a reward - the equivalent of about £6000 today.

Elizabeth was concerned when he was ill, and sent two of her physicians to attend him. Dee’s house at Mortlake was often a stop on her journey to and from Richmond Palace, and she would sometimes bring a great entourage of courtiers to meet him.

Dee collected books and manuscripts on all his travels, both at home and on the Continent. Many books from his library have the date, place of purchase, and even the cost noted. Some were unbound, and these he kept carefully wrapped in purple velvet. Books had always been his extravagance and he borrowed money, and even pawned glass and silver ware to buy them. He employed a clerk to copy out borrowed manuscripts, although all works of importance or secrecy he copied himself.

Dee continued to write prolifically and produced books and tracts on astronomical instruments, mechanics, and optics, as well as a treatise on pulleys and cogs. He developed a pulley system widely used later in the sixteenth century.

Once Dee had a settles base in the house at Mortlake he was able to expand vastly his library. He had four or five rooms filled with books, and an inner library of Bibles, prayer-books and devotional texts. His unbound books were arranged by language, and the others mostly by size. One special subject collection he kept together was navigation. These were arranged with the Mercator globes and maps, to be used by the travellers and ships’ captains who visited Dee to plot their journeys. These visitors kept Dee very well informed as to happenings abroad.

Totalling over three thousand books and over a thousand manuscripts, John Dee’s library was the largest in England, and placed him at the centre of intellectual life and influence.

Dee settled in Mortlake in about 1565, in a small house belonging to his mother. It was an ancient dwelling with outhouses, orchard and a garden, opposite Mortlake Church and overlooking the river. This placed him conveniently close to the Royal Palaces of Hampton Court, Richmond and Nonesuch, and close to Barn Elms, the home of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s great spymaster.

A further advantage was that Mortlake stood on the Thames, a major highway to and from London, available for use in bad weather when the roads became impassable. This made Dee accessible to the many visitors who sought his wise counsel.

Also in 1565 Dee married for the first time. His wife, Katherine Constable, was the widow of a grocer and they didn’t have a family. She died in 1574, and then Dee records in his diary that he asked for, and obtained, the Queen’s permission to marry a young woman, but does not mention her name.

In March 1576 the Queen paid an unexpected visit to his house in Mortlake, only to learn that he had buried his wife in Mortlake churchyard that morning.

Dee married for a third time in 1578, Jane Fromond, a 22 years old lady-in-waiting to Lady Howard. Dee was 50, but despite the age difference they made a good marriage and were blessed with eight (or by some account, ten) children. Only the eldest two, Arthur and Katherine, seem to have survived him.

When at Mortlake Dee’s navigational and scientific knowledge was to prove invaluable to the explorers and merchant venturers competing for trade and land. Few English mariners of the time had experience of ocean sailing, and had to be taught unfamiliar methods of celestial and solar navigation by Dee. They came to his house to consult his books and maps and have their voyages expertly plotted.
Dee published General and Rare Memorials pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, which was well received. He was particularly concerned with the attempts to find a north west passage, and gave his financial support to some of these ventures, but he was never lucky with money, and was not amongst those who made a fortune from overseas trade.

Dee rode to Windsor Castle and astounded the Queen and her advisors with an audacious proposal: that England should challenge Spain and Portugal’s claims to the New World. He based his proposal on areas such as Frieseland and other North Atlantic islands which had already been claimed by the English, and on the supposed expeditions of King Arthur centuries earlier. The Welsh Prince Madoc, he said, had crossed the Atlantic in 1170 and this meant that England could claim a great part of the American seacoast north from Florida, and all the islands. He proposed that these lands should be called The British Impire.

Dee suggested a shift in England’s foreign policy into a new, adventurous expansionist style, and promoted the building up of a substantial navy. To this end he compiled a series of navigational tables to aid exploration.

John Dee kept a private diary for much of his life, although not all of it has been preserved. It was written in a very small hand on the margins of old almanacs and astrological tables. It is likely that he was trying to identify links between his personal life and celestial events. These almanacs were discovered in the 1830s in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. James Halliwell edited them and they were published in 1842 by the Camden Society.

From 1577 Dee’s diary was kept more regularly, recording family events and domestic arrangements, the taking on and paying off of servants, his health, his dreams, and visits from patrons and important men. His diaries recorded both great occasions and domestic trivia:

1575, 10 March. “The Queen’s Majestie with her most honourable Privy Councell and other Lords and Nobility came purposely to have visited my library; but finding that my wife was within foure houres before buried, Her Majestie refused to come in, but willed me to fetch my Glass to show her some of the properties of it”
1582, 3 July. “Arthur fell from the top of the Watergate stayres and cut his forhed.”
1590, 31 July: “Theodor had a sad fall on his mouth at midday”
1590, 5 August: “Rowland fell into the Tems over hed and eares about noone”
1591, 27 June: “Arthur wounded on his hed by his wanton throwing of a brik-bat upright and not well avoiding the fall of it again.”

Although often accused of practicing magic Dee utterly denied it. He practiced crystal gazing or scrying to be in touch with his spiritual being and to aid him in his religious understanding. To his great regret he had no talent as a medium.

In his early experiments Dee sought a scryer among his pupils, and started employing Barnabas Saul to search for him. He turned out to be a fraud, and Dee was suspicious that Saul had been sent as a spy by his enemies.
Edward Kelley arrived at Mortlake in 1582 and took up the position of scryer where Saul had failed. He was the medium Dee had searched for. As well as free board and lodging, he was paid a salary of £50 a year, a well paid post by Elizabethan standards.

There is no doubt that Kelley had a criminal past. He came from Worcester, and had been an apothecary who was always looking to manufacture gold. He had turned to crime as a forger and coiner, and his ears had been cropped as a punishment. Subsequently he always wore a black skull-cap to cover them.

The séances were an immediate success. Page after page of Dee’s spiritual notebook are filled with questions and answers put, through Kelley, to the spirits. Dee actively sought the presence of Angels whose knowledge he desired, and every séance began with prayers.

A record of these sessions was published fifty years after Dee’s death by Meric Casaubon as A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many years between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits. In this we read that the Angels were consulted on many subjects including the existence of the north-west passage and the task of converting the heathen.

Invited to visit Poland by the ambassador Count Laski, both Dee and Kelley accepted. Preparations for the departure were hurried. Dee had his library catalogued and had to mortgage his house to his brother-in-law Nicholas Fromond to finance the journey. Travelling with wives, families and servants, plus hundreds of books, the party set out in two ships from Greenwich in late September 1583.

Dee expected to be away only a year, but it was to be six years before he returned to Mortlake and Kelley never came back. For Kelley this was his great opportunity to find a rich patron who was much more interested in the alchemical manufacture of gold than Dee, giving him the prospect of riches and power. However, it soon became clear that Laski had nothing like the wealth he had indicated, and no gold or money was forthcoming.

Travelling to Prague they arrived at the Court of Rudolph II, where Dee was granted an audience, at which he criticised the Emperor. Despite this inauspicious introduction, he succeeded in selling a manuscript in cipher, The Elixir of Life, to Rudolph for 600 Gold Ducats.

Kelley and Dee continued their Angelic conversations, but attracted criticism and malicious gossip, and were banished from Court on the insistence of the Papal Nuncio.

It appears that Kelley attempted to convince Dee that the Angels called for ‘Cross Matching’, in effect exchanging their wives. Dee recorded this in his diary, but later crossed out the reference. Soon after, Dee and Kelley parted, Kelley staying in Europe, being knighted by Rudolph, and employed as an alchemist. When the promised gold was not forthcoming Rudolph lost patience and had Kelley imprisoned. In 1595, Kelley, aged 40 died, fatally injured falling from a turret during an escape bid.
Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s great spymaster organised an intelligence network throughout England and Europe. This was a spider’s web of contacts to capture rumour or news of plots and preparations which menaced the safety of England. Walsingham had a house at Barn Elms and so was a near neighbour to Dee at Mortlake, and there are records of frequent visits between them.

With Dee’s great proficiency in codes and ciphers he was able to send back intelligence gathered on his many trips. The considerable extent of his travels and the high level of his contacts enabled Dee to be one of Walsingham’s best sources. His code name was 007.

When in Prague in 1585, Dee learned that a small party of Frenchmen, financed by the Spanish Court were being sent to England on a mission. At this time Elizabethan England was committed to a full programme of ship-building and replenishing the Navy. Philip’s Spain had realised that the only way to check this was to hit at the timber supplies. Agents were sent to burn down the Royal Forest of Dean.

It was a daring plan that could have devastated England’s naval building capability for years to come, but Dee had learned of it and warned Walsingham, and the agents were rounded up. The ships were built and three years later the English fleet claimed an historic victory, defeating the much larger Spanish Armada.

Returning to Mortlake was not to prove a happy homecoming; Dee’s house had been broken into and his library pillaged. He presented a long petition to the Queen enumerating his losses and asking for compensation. This Compendius Rehearsal is the nearest thing to an autobiography, for as well as listing his losses Dee gives a synopsis of how his life had been spent in the service of his country. Dee had an immediate audience with Elizabeth at Richmond Palace, and was favourably received by Her Majesty.

During the first three years after his arrival back in England, he received over £500 in cash, and many gifts, but he still remained in debt. Walsingham died soon after Dee’s return, and so did many of his contacts at court. He had spent so much of his own money travelling in Europe and gathering information for the state, but was most inadequately rewarded.

The five years after Dee’s return from Poland were spent in attempts to recover his losses and secure an income. He came to an agreement with Nicholas Fromond about the reoccupation of his house at Mortlake. Some financial relief came from the Queen in the form of small grants, but Dee struggled by on loans and fees from his students.

In his quest for preferment Dee’s hopes were continually dashed, until in 1595 he obtained the wardenship of the Collegiate College, Manchester, through the influence of Archbishop Whitgift. Dee encountered hostility from the Fellows in Manchester because of his reputation as a wizard.

In 1603 the Queen died; the new King James I was deeply suspicious of witchcraft and magic. There could be no more expectation of preferment.

In 1605 plague in Manchester carried away Dee’s wife Jane and two of their youngest daughters. Dee returned to his Mortlake house with his eldest daughter Katherine, and was obliged to sell books and possessions to buy food. He again turned his attention to spiritual matters and once more conducted séances. Questioning the angels as to the disposal of his library, he was told to depend on his friend John Pontoys and forget about worldly things.

Dee locked some of his books of mysteries away in a chest and buried them in the fields around Mortlake, believing that ‘one day they will be found and understood‘.

His last days were probably at Bishopsgate Street in London at the home of John Pontoys, whom he had appointed as his executor. Dee was 81 when he died on March 26th 1609, and it is noted in his diary with a skull drawn in the margin and his mark.

John Dee was buried in the original Chancel of St Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake. Unfortunately there is no register of burials for the years 1603 - 1613. Sixty years later John Aubrey visited Mortlake, and interviewed Old Goodwife Faldo, who knew Dee. She told him: “He is buried in the middest of the Chancel, a little towards the south side. He is buried between Mr Holt and Mr Miles, both servants to Queen Elizabeth. On him was a stone without any inscription and two or three brass pins”

John Dee was a true Renaissance Man, and one of sixteenth-century England’s foremost figures and greatest scholars.
He was the Magus of Mortlake.
This is the text of an exhibition which was held at St Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, in September and October 2008, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the death of John Dee.
Text copyright Judith Rimmer, © 2008.