The magical life of John Dee

The magical life of John Dee: Queen Elizabeth I's royal astrologer
Dee is famously known as the ‘conjurer’ to Queen Elizabeth I | Portrait of John Dee aged 67 by an unknown artist

John Dee (1527 - 1608) is famously known as the ‘conjurer’ to Elizabeth I, but there is more to the 16th-century medieval philosopher than having a reputation for staring into a crystal ball and delving into the mystical worlds of whispering angels. He was also a mathematical genius and one who was uncannily accurate in what was then, during the late Tudor period, the new science of physics and the exploration of chemical compounds. Like his near-contemporaries Nostradamus and Cornelius Agrippa, also known for their interests in astrology and the world beyond the mortal, these inquisitive men trod a dangerous path at a time when predicting the future, or conversing with the dead, could mean being accused of heresy and punishment by death.

Medieval astrologers to royalty

William Parron was one of the least accurate astrologers to serve English royalty during the middle-ages when he worked for Henry VII (reign 1485 – 1509) and later for the first Tudor king’s son Henry VIII (reign 1509 – 1547). Employed by Henry VII, the Italian born author of the first almanac in the English language failed to get one important prediction right when he prophesied that the king’s wife and Queen, Elizabeth of York would live until she was 80 years-of-age. She died at 37.

Dee is famously known as the ‘conjurer’ to Queen Elizabeth I

Parron later served Henry VIII as his personal astrologer but appeared equally out of sorts with the stars. Although his forecast for Henry’s ‘happy marriage’ may be explained by the fact he was wed to Catherine of Aragon for twenty-four years, the famously gargantuan monarch failed to sire ‘many sons’ as Parron had predicted, or become a ‘devoted servant’ to the Catholic church. On the contrary, Henry VIII married six times, produced only one legitimate son and controversially broke England away from the Pope and the Catholic Church. Most likely Parron hoped to avoid punishment by forecasting favourable prophecies, particularly as Henry VI (reign 1422 – 1461) had two unfortunate astrologers executed on the grounds of treason when they forecast he would die a violent death. The ineffectual young king, whose turbulent reign saw him caught up in the bloodshed of the ‘War of the Roses’ died in the Tower of London, most likely due to murder. Parron escaped a similar fate and simply left the court in disgrace after an ignominious career as a royal ‘seer’ and inaccurate forecaster of events.

John Dee: The Queen’s Conjurer

The strong influence prophecy and astrology held over Henry VII did not diminish throughout the Tudor period and was as prominent an obsession with his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I. Enter John Dee, astrologer, astronomer, mathematician and alchemist. Dee is famously known as the ‘conjurer’ to Queen Elizabeth I, but also as a young man at Trinity College, Cambridge he gained a reputation as a ‘magician’ and who with his knowledge of physics and chemistry even produced some impressive stage effects for a production of Aristophanes' play Peace. The star of this spectacle was a giant mechanical beetle that shocked the audience so much they believed Dee must have conspired with the devil to create it. Dee’s genius also led him to construct a perpetual motion machine, although the project was abandoned. Such an undertaking represented an on-going flaw with Dee; that he often failed to see through ideas and projects.

Royal patronage

Dee’s patronage by aristocrats and royalty didn’t happen until after he graduated from Trinity College and travelled extensively around Europe lecturing on the subject of the Greek mathematician Euclid. His scholarly work brought him into contact with the most famous names of the day who included astronomers and map makers. Back in London, Dee investigated objects that were supposed to have magical properties and may have been his introduction to the mystical world.

Dee saw his star ascending when he made a favourable impression on King Henry’s legitimate son and boy King Edward VI. Around this time Dee’s lectures betrayed influences of Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535), a German polymath, theologian and occult writer who also received patronage with royalty in central Europe. After the young Protestant reformer Edward VI granted Dee an annual pension, he was to later experience a mixed and strained reception with Edward’s sister and succeeding monarch, the arch Catholic Queen Mary I. Fuelling the tension between Dee and the ultra-pious Tudor queen was the fact that his then patron, the Duke of Northumberland, was instrumental in a failed plot to replace Mary with the doomed teenager Lady Jane Grey.

Brilliant astrologers or clairvoyants?

There persists a view that medieval astrologers like Dee, who had eight children and was married three times, were simply eccentric wizard-type characters, concocting lotions and potions of a dubious nature and practising clairvoyancy through the dark arts. In reality men like John Dee, forever questioning the universe were foremost professors of maths, geometry, astronomy and early explorers into the world of physics and chemicals. Some were also interested in the works of mechanical magic and trickery, such as objects that appeared to move of their own accord. Like his older 16th-century fellow astrologer Nostradamus, Dee found fame with aristocrats and monarchs and created a reputation that went beyond England’s borders.

Nostradamus (1503 – 1566) on the other hand was a universally published astrological consultant but whose fame, even today nearly five-hundred years after his death is due to his prophesising world events. The French born astrologer, who is also alleged to be a ‘seer’ – those who have precognitions of the future - wrote his first prophecies aged 50 in ‘Les Propheties’ in 1555. Countless books listing his many predictions still sell in their millions around the world and continue to cause heated debates between ardent believers and dissenters about the true meaning of Nostradamus’ poetic ‘quatrains’, which consisted of stanzas or complete poems containing four lines.

The most famous and often criticised of the medieval author’s predictions include the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the rise of Hitler and the Apollo moon landings, to more recent events such as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Many of Nostradamus’ predictions were written in a series of Almanacs from 1550 to his death and have been the subject of much scrutiny with critics citing their vagueness as being open to interpretation to fit any event in history.

The 16th century was a dangerous time for maverick type characters who appeared to broach strict religious orthodoxy set out by religious figures and the church. Some people viewed Nostradamus as a servant of evil due to his predictions and had he been accused of using ‘magic’ he may well have been prosecuted, imprisoned and executed. John Dee however wasn’t so lucky to escape suspicion of using supernatural forces in his work.

Charges of heresy

In 1555 John Dee was arrested and charged with accusations of using witchcraft after he had cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and her younger sister Princess Elizabeth. When the charges were raised to treason against Mary herself, with unfounded accusations of plots against her life, Dee found himself interrogated in the Star Chamber, an English court that sat in the Palace of Westminster. Although eventually exonerated by the common-law judges he later faced examination by the infamous heretic-hunter Bishop Bonner. Dee wisely made the religious and fanatical Bonner - known for his cruelty - a close associate and friend which possibly saved Dee from further interrogation.

Despite such a dangerous period in history when religious fanaticism meant innocent people could be killed by the state, Dee managed to survive Mary’s reign of persecution and her enthusiastic burning of Protestants. His contacts through her brother, the late King Edward, put him in a good position when Mary died in 1558 and the crown passed on to her Protestant sister Elizabeth I. Soon afterwards Dee found favour with aristocrats including William Cecil, chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I and also worked for various noble families as an advisor.

In 1564 Dee was ‘appointed Royal Advisor in mystic secrets’, roughly translated as Court Astrologer. Appreciating royal support Dee applied himself to his studies with such diligence that he only allowed himself four hours sleep and two for his meals and recreation. Dee’s status as the court conjurer for Queen Elizabeth had begun. The virgin queen often depended on Dee for matters in science, medicine and exploration. He even presented reports on nearly every issue effecting England, including publishing the term ‘British Empire’. Queen Elizabeth and Dee were believed to have written to each other at times in code, possibly about the threat of the Spanish Armada or matters relating the New World which Dee believed were the rightful lands of England. He took to signing his letters ‘007’ to designate secret letters for the queen’s eyes only.

Conversations with Angels

In an age when religious leaders were obsessed with the notion of ‘witchcraft’ and ‘heretics’ who were sought out and punished – usually by death – even the pursuit of mathematics was seen as suspicious.

Although some of Dee’s experiments that were meticulously executed and logged appear to be more in line with basic physics than delving in the supernatural, the reputation of the alchemist was much derided. It was a dangerous time to be accused of using ‘magic’ or supernatural forces and at the peak of Dee’s powers disaster struck when his quest for knowledge took him into a new realm as he desired to speak with the angels.

At the time the acknowledgement of the existence of ‘angels’ wasn’t controversial, in fact it was seen as being foolish not to believe there were such things. The question was whether you should or could actually communicate with them. What brought suspicion on to Dee was that he was trying to set up a communication outside the accepted received orthodox channels. This was extremely dangerous territory, particularly through the actions of his ‘scryer’ or medium, Edward Kelly, who would dictate to Dee information from the unseen world.

Contacting other worldly beings to predict the future was seen as being at the edge of acceptability and brought Dee dangerously close to another sort of divination known as Necromancy, the practise of raising spirits back from the dead. Dee’s magical practice was underpinned by spiritual and philosophical theories drawn from ancient and Renaissance writers. Such activities by Dee didn’t necessarily mean that he was an advocator of sorcery, but simply that Dee had a thirst for knowledge, the kind which was to take him on a quest that would ultimately ruin him.

Psychic séances and wife swapping

Edward Kelly was an opportunist who had been accused of forging money and who clung to Dee for years encouraging the conversations with the angels. The somewhat theatrical process would involve setting up a table with a philosopher’s stone on a wax tablet while Kelly would wait for various angels in hierarchical order to communicate through him to Dee, who listening, took notes. These notes survive in Dee’s ‘Book of Mysteries’ and reveal how the angels, making up of twenty-four elders including Archangels, govern the quarters of the world. Between the two men they developed what has become known as ‘Enochian magic’, which was a system of ceremonial magic based on the commanding of spirits. Through Kelly, acting as the spirit medium, Dee claimed that the information they received revealed the Enochian language, an occult language communicated by angels but now largely believed to have been made up by Dee due to its syntactic and semantic similarity to English.

Sexual commands

Dee’s ‘Scryer’ Edward Kelly had on one occasion an intense conversation with an angel where afterwards he made a proposition to Dee. The proposition that Kelly insisted the angels implored them to do was to surrender each other’s wives to one another. This wife-swapping pact, as dictated by a celestial being, was meant to be the ‘deal’ for having received information.

In a kind of medieval swingers tryst Dee agreed, much to the horror of his wife Jane Fromond, and later after the event where Dee slept with Kelly’s wife and Jane with Kelly, Dee wrote ‘pact fulfilled’. Whether a baby boy named Theodore and born nine months after the incident was actually the offspring of Kelly is unknown. Dee’s participation in the sex pact was motivated, not by lust for another man’s wife, or through lack of care about his wife’s dignity, but simply as an illustration of Dee’s desperation and thirst for knowledge and secrets of the universe.

Downfall of a genius

Perhaps before Dee went down the dubious avenue of communicating with the dead or angels, in order to attain worldly information, he should have taken heed of his predecessor Cornelius Agrippa, who two years before his own death, denounced his earlier involvement with magic. ‘I wrote whilst I was very young three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous. I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted by this recantation’.

Could Agrippa’s reference to ‘being more advised’ have really meant that he had become acutely aware of the perilous danger he and other necromancers put themselves if their craft and experiments were seen as having used ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ forces? The punishment for such a crime could be imprisonment or death. Although not known to have been persecuted for his interest in magic or the occult arts, Agrippa, who himself argued against the persecution of witches, realised his craft was a politically dangerous one to pursue. He died in 1535 at 48 years-of-age, just two years after his very public renunciation of his life’s work.

Persecution of witches

John Dee’s final years were dogged by his illnesses, possibly brought on by conducting his experiments with toxic chemicals and substances such as silver. Despite the lack of modern equipment and technology Dee’s quest for chemical knowledge proved impressively accurate. One experiment he did as a preparation of silver chloride reveals a competent process. His accurate measurements relating to the quantities of the solutions he used showed he was a good scientist. But a series of tragedies, such as the ransacking of his library and the loss of many of his books was devastating for Dee. He spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild what was lost after this event. More tragically his wife Jane and most of their children died after an outbreak of the bubonic plague, including Theodore, in Manchester. Only two of his offspring survived.

But the main reason Dee’s once ascending star fell dramatically was due to a change of monarch after Queen Elizabeth died when she was replaced by Mary Queen of Scots’ son James VI of Scotland and James I of England in 1567. The new Stuart king was very anti-witchcraft, believing it to be a sinister theology that could cause harm and Dee was concerned that he might fall prey to the new king’s hatred of anything to do with necromancy. King James attended witch trials and implemented the Witchcraft Act in 1563 that was to see thousands of brutal executions over the forthcoming decades.

Despite his reputation as a famous and dedicated alchemist from the days of serving Queen Elizabeth I, Dee was excluded from King James’ court, powerless and left trying to survive with any job he could get and often selling his possessions. He sadly lived out his last days in poverty, still desperate to contact the angels to receive those all-important messages. He died in Mortlake, outer London in 1608. For all people’s thoughts about Dee and his association with ‘angels’, his mathematical genius, giving us today the universal symbols used in maths, as well as his understanding of astronomy, were groundbreaking, leading to the development of advanced theories like gravity. He is immortalised in literature, believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY channel. Represented by WGM Atlantic agency.