Who was John Dee? His contemporaries, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and William Shakespeare – who is said to have based the magician Prospero in The Tempest on Dee – are securely bookmarked in our catalogue of British history. Dr Dee, astrologer and confidant to Queen Elizabeth I, has no such acknowledgment.
He has been painted as a deluded man who looked to the stars for guidance, dabbled in alchemy and communed with angels. But an alternative view is that he was one of the most brilliant men of the Renaissance, whose contribution has been muddied by centuries of slander. He was a polymath, engaged with the most cutting-edge science of his day, which at the time was intertwined with magic and the occult.
John Dee was born on 13 July 1527 in London. His father was a minor courtier who sent his son to Cambridge at 15. His appetite for knowledge meant he slept only four hours a night, spending his waking hours studying Greek, Latin, geometry, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, scripture, law, medicine and cryptography – the art of writing codes.
While still in his 20s, Dee was invited to lecture on algebra at the university in Paris. He swiftly became the most successful lecturer on the continent, packing halls and introducing the public to the addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (x) and division (÷) signs for the first time.
He was England’s foremost scientist, respectful of, if not an advocate for, the controversial theory of heliocentrism (the astronomical model in which the planets all revolve around the Sun). Dee lifted astronomy from obscurity, taught mathematics and developed navigation systems that later would help to establish England’s naval superiority.
While at the University of Louvain in the Netherlands, Dee studied the occult. This was not uncommon for the era’s intelligentsia, for whom science and magic were part of the quest to understand God.
A storm on the Spanish
When Elizabeth I took the English throne, she consulted Dee on a regular basis. He even chose her coronation date. It was said he cast a spell on the Spanish Armada in 1588, which sent huge waves crashing down on their ships – although a more likely explanation is that because he knew about meteorology, he was able to anticipate the storm.
When the Spanish ships approached England, Dee suggested waiting, correctly predicting that the Spanish fleet would be severely hit by the storms so it would be best to keep the English ships at bay. Most of the Spanish ships were lost or damaged and, when the storms subsided, the English ships disposed of the rest. It was Dee’s greatest moment.
- Read more about why the failure of the Spanish Armada was a lucky escape for Tudor England
Elizabeth knew that Dee could do more for her and the nation. The queen needed a spy who could gather information about her enemies, and the well-travelled and loyal Dee was her man. He used his position as a scientific and astrological adviser to accumulate the largest library in England at his house in Mortlake – boasting some 2,670 manuscripts, as opposed to Cambridge’s 451 and Oxford’s 379 – and to build a network of scientists, intellectuals and courtiers throughout Europe, which he likely used for intelligence gathering.
Dee signed his letters to Elizabeth ‘007’. The two circles symbolised the eyes of Queen Elizabeth (‘for your eyes only’) and seven was the alchemist’s lucky number. Dee played an essential role in what one day became the British intelligence service, both the real and fictional version – centuries later, his sign off would be picked up by James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
- Read more about Ian Fleming’s real-life inspirations for James Bond
Angels and demons
In his later years, Dee spent his time trying to communicate with angels. He attempted to apply his knowledge of optics to scrying, or conjuring spirits into a crystal. His experiments were unimpressive until 1582, when a bizarre character entered his life. A 26-year old alcoholic with cropped ears (a punishment for counterfeiting coins), Edward Kelley was a scryer with a reputation for sorcery. Dee’s wife Jane loathed him, but Dee, believing Kelley had the knack, signed him up.
Over the next ten years, the pair devoted themselves to contacting angels. When the spirits appeared, they would allegedly transmit prophecies and give pronouncements on the spiritual nature of mankind.
Unfortunately, all that survives from these sessions are ‘spirit diaries’, which were dug up in a field a decade after Dee’s death. These contain a completely new language, with its own grammar and syntax. Was it celestial lingo or, as 17th-century scientist Robert Hooke suggested, a code that Dee used to send top-secret political information back to England?
In the 1580s, Dee left England for Poland, entrusting his house and library to the care of his brother-in-law. While away, his home was ransacked and his manuscripts burnt or stolen. Then shortly after Dee returned to England, plague swept the country, for which he was blamed. The plague took his wife and four of their eight children.
When Elizabeth died in 1603, Dee lost his ability to defend himself from his many enemies – including the queen’s successor James VI and I, who liked to personally oversee the torture of women accused of witchcraft.
Dee spent his final days alone in poverty, selling his books and casting astrological charts. He died at the considerable age of 82, and was buried in Mortlake. His gravestone, however, has since disappeared so there is no monument to mark the life of this most learned and unusual scholar.
- Read next: why James VI and I hunted witches