Reviewed by: Anna Whitelock
Author: Glyn Parry
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25
Tudor Polymath John Dee was an enigmatic figure who straddled the natural and supernatural worlds in the service of Elizabeth I. He was a mathematician, astrologer, alchemist, antiquarian, apocalyptic prophet, court philosopher, one time Catholic priest and later devoted family man.
In a meticulously researched study, Glyn Parry reassesses Dee’s reputation as a maverick figure on the margins and instead places him at the very heart of the Elizabethan court.
Having studied at Cambridge and Louvain, Dee travelled to foreign courts and far flung laboratories and libraries where he continued his alchemical and astrological studies. Back in England, in a bid to ingratiate himself with Mary I’s regime, he became a priest, while still working as a jobbing mathematician and astrologer in London.
With Elizabeth’s accession, Dee became an astrological consultant at the queen’s court. He was renowned for his ability to counter dangerous prophecies and ‘evil’ spirits, as well as his knowledge of navigation and support of new world exploration.
His royal favour won him enemies and he faced accusations that he practiced unlawful magic and conjured with devils.
In an attempt to counter court gossip Dee then made the dramatic decision to renounce his oath of celibacy and marry. He settled at Mortlake in Surrey, only a short distance from the royal residence at Richmond and there built an alchemical laboratory and extensive library which he stocked with books from his travels.
That Dee’s reputation was so fiercely challenged is, Parry demonstrates, less because he was a shunned English eccentric, but rather a man of real significance at Elizabeth’s court. The queen had a deep interest in occult philosophy and particularly alchemy and so Dee was, Parry goes some way to suggest, something of a hitherto unacknowledged royal favourite.
Yet Dee dealt in poor decisions and political misjudgments and so spent his last years in poverty and relative obscurity as James VI & I no longer had need for Dee’s occult talents. However his significance in renaissance politics had by then been firmly established.
A colourful, charismatic and controversial character, Dee is brought to life to great effect.
Anna Whitelock is the author of Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (Bloomsbury, 2009)