In a letter to Edmund Spenser, the playwright and poet, Gabriel Harvey wrote:
“Would to God in heaven I had awhile…the mysticall and super-metaphysical philosophy of Doctor Dee.”
Along with Dr. John Dee, Walter Raleigh proposed the institution of a “British Empire” in the Americas, partly because he hated the Spanish who seemed to have profited greatly from their colonising expeditions and because as a well-travelled man and a patriot he could see how it might profit the commercial fortunes of England to establish profitable colonies in the New World. A learned and scholarly individual for his age Dr. John Dee was born in London on the 31st July 1527 and educated at Chelmsford Grammar School and later at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Apparently, Dee’s family origins are largely unknown or obscure, although he claimed he was Welsh and indirectly descended from the Arthurian family clan. His Welsh father was serving as a gentleman usher to Henry VIIIth when he was born. In recognition of his prodigious talents as a child he became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge when it was founded in 1546 at the age of fifteen and received an MA in 1548. He then went on to spend some time at Louvain University where he was able to pursue his scientific researches and then lectured in mathematics in Paris. There he wrote twenty four books entitled “Mercurius Coelestis”, which were never published and are among his lost apocrypha. He visited the court of Charles Vth in Brussels and his fame grew further in Paris with a series of lectures on magical philosophy. He returned to England during the reign of Edward VIth at the tender age of twenty three in 1551 to take up service in the Earl of Pembroke’s household and later he tutored the Lord Protector, Duke of Northumberland’s children, including the future Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. It was at this point that Dee configured the institution of the English Renaissance in literary, mathematical, scientific and navigational pursuits. However, when “Bloody Mary” acceded to the throne on Edward’s premature death, John Dee was arrested and imprisoned in 1555. Apparently Mary had discovered that Dee had drawn up the natal astrological charts of Elizabeth and herself to determine their suitability to rule. Dee had obviously come to the conclusion that Elizabeth was better suited to the English throne than was her step-sister Mary. He therefore enjoyed lifelong patronage from the Sidney-Herbert circle and, although he was persona non grata during Queen Mary’s reign, his popularity at court increased with the accession of Queen Elizabeth Ist. Using horary astrology Dee was able to ascertain the best possible date for the Queen’s coronation date which established a reign of some forty four years. Dr. John Dee was then commissioned by her Highness to reform the Julian Calendar and to conjure a psychic field of protection for the newly appointed Queen of England. Financed by Queen Elizabeth, he purchased Mortlake as a family home where he collected and maintained the largest occult and literary library in England. He was especially interested in the navigational sciences, cartography, astrology, Renaissance and Rosicrucian magic, alchemy, and philosophy. He was consulted by Queen Elizabeth, her courtiers and navigators especially Gilbert, Frobisher, and John Davis. He infused the various noble and aristocratic circles in England with his belief in “Musico-Magic” (Harmony of the Spheres) developed by the Italian Renaissance magus, Marsilio Ficino. His influence in securing the Tudor dynasty and establishing a British Commonwealth of Nations is often overlooked or underestimated by biographers and historians. He was also an expert intelligencer and cryptographer, working secretly as a spy while travelling abroad and it is known that he had the notorious codename 007, which the author Ian Fleming had attributed to James Bond in his popular spy novels.
However, he met the Irishman Edward Kelly who claimed to be a clairvoyant or medium and began a series of magical conjurations with him. At a time when the Spanish were looting vast quantities of gold in the Americas the dubious art of Alchemy was patronised by members of the European royalty. It was said that Dr. Dee and Kelly had discovered the remains of some red powder (mercury oxide?) in Glastonbury that could turn lead into gold. Therefore, invited by King Rudolf II, in 1583 John Dee and his assistant Kelly visited Bohemia where they continued their alchemical experiments in converting base lead into gold. Unfortunately, they failed to convince the King of their powers and in the midst of a bizarre sexual scandal he returned to England disappointed and impoverished. Kelly had informed Dee that the prevailing spirit they had contacted had said that he would be unable to give Dee the spiritual licence to proceed with his clairvoyant experiments until they had exchanged marriage partners for a night. This they duly did, although Dee’s wife was not entirely convinced of its moral and religious implications. Eventually Dee discovered that Kelly was in some respects a fraud and that his library and alchemical laboratory had been ransacked by rivals during his absence. While in Antwerp in 1564 Dee wrote his first magical treatise on the Monad, (“The Monad, Hieroglyphically, Mathematically, Magically, Cabballistically & Anagogically Explained”).
Despite the misfortune and subsequent personal embarrassment, Dee was then appointed warden of Manchester College, an annexe of St. Mary’s Cathedral and introduced the musical organ there. After some disagreements with the fellows who thought Dee was a sorcerer, he resigned in 1604. It seems that Dee’s knowledge of mechanics enabled him to construct and demonstrate to the pupils there a mechanical flying bat that terrified them so much by its realism that they thought Dee to be a sorcerer of evil intent. During James Ist’s reign he tried to clear his name but was not granted the opportunity. The remaining years of his life were spent in poverty even though he sold what remained of his extensive library. He wrote some eighty odd books on a variety of subjects, but the main core of his alchemical magic was based on the Enochian System of Magic, an apparently angelic language that enabled him to communicate with supernatural spirits and known to some adherents of The Secret Order of the Rosy Cross. It seems that Dr. John Dee was also instrumental in the foundation of this secret society while under the patronage of the Austrian ruler. He was especially fond of scrying as a form of divination and was said to have owned some black obsidian mirrors stolen from an Aztec temple in Mexico and can still be seen at the British Museum. It has been recorded that he decrypted an inscription on a scroll found by Kelly which referred him to a “Lost Treasure” which turned out to be a red-coloured earth. From these details alone it is possible that Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” may have been based on his character, although it could so easily have been either Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton or the poet, astrologer, John Florio. Much of his work on Cryptography was transferred to Bletchley Park. Moreover, it is known that Dr. John Dee was the private tutor to the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere who, in my opinion was the secret author of Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio of plays which were largely influenced by the symbolic alchemy that Dee advocated artists, poets and playwrights should employ in their creations. However, he was not the only home-spun alchemical magus to influence the Elizabethan Golden Age, there were others which Dr. John Dee had met and influenced such as Giordano Bruno, Robert Fludd, John Florio, John Ford and Simon Forman. Having lost his wife and five children to the plague and being rejected by James Ist as an aging lunatic, Dee finally returned to London in 1608 and died of old age at the age of eighty one. While many of his books were lost we still have his magical diaries published by Meric Casaubon in the 1660’s and many of his belongings and artefacts can still be found in the British Museum, the British Library (St. Pancras), the Bodleian Library, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Much of Dee’s magical legacy was transferred into the possession of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn although it should be noted that Paul Foster Case’s attributions and correspondences are not the most reliable source. It would appear that Dee employed The Key of Solomon, and developed his own seven-fold “Seal of God” from a book on sigils entitled “Sigillum Dei Aemeth”. He also used the “Liber Juratus” (The Sacred Book), and no doubt had in his possession works by Giovanni Battista della Porta, Trithemius, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa.
Among the books available today on the life and work of Dr. John Dee are:
The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life And Magic of Dr. John Dee by Benjamin Wooley (Flamingo Press).
John Dee’s Five Books of Mystery: Original Sourcebook of Enochian Magic (Joseph Peterson-Weiser Books).
John Dee, The World of an Elizabethan Magus: Peter J. Finch (Routledge & Kegan Paul).
Practical Angel Magic of Dr. John Dee’s Enochian Tables: Steven Skinner & David Rankine (Golden Hoard Press).
A true, unadulterated description of the Enochian WatchTower system of magic can be found in Professor Allen Hulse’s book “The Key Of It All-Book Two” (Llewellyn Press).
The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows: