The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee

Glyn Parry answers reader questions on his latest book

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Summary: John Dee was a Tudor polymath who dealt in mathematics, philosophy, astrology and alchemy among other things. He was an important figure in the court of Elizabeth I but faced accusations of practising unlawful magic, and made several enemies. Glyn Parry revisits Dee’s colourful life and career in this new biography.

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As part of our reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave people the chance to read The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee and put their questions to the book’s author, Glyn Parry, senior lecturer in history at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Here’s what they had to say…

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Did a suspicion of alchemy in Elizabeth I’s reign hinder Dee?

Victoria Frow, Cheshire

Glyn says: Behind its glittering façade the Elizabethan Court was the scene of intense struggles over political power, religion, and culture. Often all three were intertwined. Especially in the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth and many of her senior advisers were fascinated by the possibilities of alchemy, which should have helped Dee obtain their patronage. Unfortunately he was politically naive, and often outbid in the competition for patronage by less scrupulous alchemists like John Prestall, who made extravagant promises about transmuting base metals into gold. Dee’s career ran into greater problems from the late 1570s, when conservative churchmen like John Aylmer and John Whitgift voiced the first outspoken attacks on alchemy. By attacking alchemical beliefs these men were also making political and religious points, because they associated alchemy (and astrology) with their opponents amongst more radical Protestants.

Do you think the counter-revolution towards alchemy and magic in the 1590’s was sudden or was it a product of the underlying suspicion of magic?

Victoria Frow, Cheshire

Glyn says: Whitgift’s early attacks on magic made little headway, because his career in the Church depended on important politicians like Lord Burghley, who believed deeply in alchemy. However, Burghley encouraged the rise of Christopher Hatton as Elizabeth’s new favourite, to counter the Earl of Leicester’s influence. This was a mistake, because Hatton emerged as a major conservative figure at Court who had the Queen’s ear. He used his influence to promote Whitgift, who effectively ran the Elizabethan Church by the late 1570s, and especially from 1583, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury. He began cracking down on nonconforming Protestants, both Presbyterians and separatists. This pleased the Queen, but Hatton and Whitgift also attacked radical Protestant culture, which included magical and alchemical beliefs. They used traditional arguments, but their increasing political and religious authority meant they were able to impose such ideas more thoroughly – the cultural counter-revolution against magic.

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How could Trinity College finance Dee’s studies when it was itself impoverished?

Duncan Jones, Nottingham

Glyn says: The general story of Cambridge’s financial problems and Trinity’s poverty can be found in the official History of the University. Although we have only fragments of financial accounts from the time, Trinity still could help Dee with his overseas studies, because scholars lived very spartan lives, even by the standards of their contemporaries. Dee’s fellowship stipend of £8 a year was only 50% more than the income of a peasant labourer, and though he did not have a family to support it was by no means over-generous. Dee possibly received a grant on top of that (though no evidence survives), but he lived and traveled cheaply, except in his purchase of books, and often eked out an existence by casual teaching. Dee was fortunate in that he taught mathematics to the wealthy Sir William Pickering in the Netherlands, in return for meals, lodging and perhaps a small salary.

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Dee here is not portrayed as somebody who had a great impact in politics, science, culture. Did he fall victim to scheming, suspicion and unlucky patronage, or is his genius overrated? How did contemporaries judge him?

Luca Pirovano, Slough

Glyn says: Most people in history lived without making much impact on politics, science or culture, but their story still deserves to be told, where sufficient evidence
 survives. We should also remember that Elizabethan England was economically a vastly unequal society, like the Third World today. This encouraged the huge concentration of power at the top of the pyramid, but Dee did make an impact on politics, though not always a beneficial one. For example, the anti-Catholic pogrom of 1592 orchestrated by Burghley, who used Dee’s predicted Spanish Invasion to panic Elizabeth into going along with it, finally sealed the triumph of the Protestant political elite, by purging Catholic JPs in the counties.
 Burghley used Dee as a tool, but service was the best way to rewards in that society. Dee’s contemporaries both admired and reviled him, but that was normal in Court society – competition was fierce, reputations were made and unmade overnight.

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At a time when Dee sought greater recognition he turned to Edward Kelley’s angelic ‘scrying’ (psychic visions). Was he tricked into believing that Kelley could communicate with angels or was he an accomplice?

Anna Spender, Kent

Glyn says: Dee was not Kelley’s accomplice. He had his suspicions about some of Kelley’s revelations, and sometimes complained that Kelley was merely parroting what he had read in books in Dee’s library. Yet Kelley pointed out that that merely confirmed that the books taught true doctrine. He was a brilliant confidence trickster, who used every possible means of keeping Dee under his influence. Besides, the Bible confirmed that angels, God’s messengers, constantly communicated with men, and that belief had been widely held for well over a thousand years in Europe. In the 16th century both Catholics and Protestants agreed that angels existed. The crucial issue was how to tell whether one had invoked good or evil angels. Dee believed that the elaborate purification procedures he and Kelley went through before their ‘Christian philosophy’, the psalms they recited, their devout prayers to God to send his angels, really worked. 

Next month we’ll be looking at The Many Not The Few by Richard North.

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It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader