John Dee was once an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, but he saw his fortunes decline in Prague
The scholarly John Dee will likely always be remembered for getting caught up with Edward Kelley, a somewhat shady character who came to an ill end in the north Bohemian city of Most. How much Dee himself was an unwitting dupe and how much he was a willing accomplice in Kelley’s schemes is still a matter of debate.
Dee, though, was at one time a respected adviser to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I. He is said to have coined the phrase and indeed championed the idea of a “British Empire”, and he had an unrivaled collection of maps and charts. His knowledge of astronomical navigation and optics helped make it happen. He also became the backbone of Queen Elizabeth’s secret service and signed his letters with the code 007. Dee is even credited with introducing the public to basic mathematical symbols.
He studied everything, including animatronics — making a clockwork flying insect for a stage production that was so realistic it was considered the work of the devil.
He didn’t reject the criticism, indeed he was as interested in the occult arts as he was with other sciences. If he had stuck to the mundane, he would now be remembered as an architect of the modern era. Instead, he is scorned as a brilliant man who wandered too far down the wrong path.
Once he consumed all of the knowledge there was to know, sleeping only four hours a day and studying the rest of the time, he became increasingly obsessed with the unknown and wanted to talk to angels so he could come into touch with divine wisdom. This led to him being written out of mainstream history and remembered mainly by occult afficionados for his work with crystal balls and magic mirrors of volcanic glass.
This is also what led him into contact with the convicted coin forger Edward Kelley, and eventually brought him to Prague to the court of Rudolf II.
Dee met Kelley in England in 1582, when Dee was unsuccessfully trying to contact spirits with a crystal ball. Kelley claimed he could contact spirits, and the lives of the two became tied together after that. A year later, Kelley claimed to have found a rare manuscript, The Book of Dunstan, and some red powder and white powder or liquid for making base metal into gold.
Their séances, where Kelley heard angels speak in their natural “Enochian” language and Dee translated, eventually led the pair to Poland and then Bohemia. At that time, Rudolf II was emperor and Prague was the must-be place for anyone dabbling in the occult arts. Dee, however, was a bit of a second fiddle as Kelley was clearly calling the shots. Dee’s close connections with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth also made him suspect.
Rudolf II and King Stefan Batory of Poland both were reportedly wary that Dee was using his alleged communication with angels as a way of tricking the monarchs into accepting British or Protestant influence. Stefan Batory in particular was concerned that everything be in line with the teachings of Rome. Britain, of course, had become Protestant very recently, and was growing in world influence. This put other rulers a bit on edge when it came to accepting advice from British advisers.
Dee even told Rudolf he only spoke to good spirits, and was learning from them what no book could tell anyone. He said that if he was listened to, he could create divine visions and apparitions in every church, and return religion to its glory days of miracles and wonder. Among other things, Dee advocated fasting and breathing exercises, combined with reciting ritual formulas during sex to create an ecstatic state.
Rudolf, who was more inclined to feasting than fasting, was not convinced that any of this was a good idea. The ritual ideas Dee put forward were similar to those being used in some secret esoteric sects of the time, but they were clearly not welcome in Rudolf’s more mainstream approach to alchemy.
Dee tried his luck in Saxony for a while, seeing that he was not entirely welcome in Prague. He also sought work and favor in Bohemia from Vilém of Rožmberk (Wilhelm von Rosenberg) when he saw that Rudolf II was not overly receptive. The Rožmberk family was also heavily interested in the occult arts.
Dee was known throughout his life for being secretive, and he kept notes in code. He also sent coded messages back to England, and none of this inspired confidence from potential sponsors.
In 1586, Dee and Kelley used the latter’s red powder in Prague to turn mercury into gold in front of Rudolf II, or convincingly told the Emperor that they had done so. This cemented Kelley’s role in the Bohemian court, but since Dee claimed not to know the secret he became a third wheel in the Kelley–Rudolf relationship.
Dee’s life hit its all-time low in Bohemia when Kelley claimed that an angel named Madimi had told him that the two should share everything, even their wives. Dee was obviously reluctant but gave into pressure on May 22, 1587. The event took place in Třeboň, which was one of the seats of the Rožmberk family.
Jane Dee was not too keen on the idea. Dee’s diary records that she “fell a weeping and trembling for a quarter of an hour” before agreeing to what Dee saw as God’s will expressed through the angels.
Nine months after the angelically suggested wife swapping, Jane Dee gave birth to a boy named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee, which Dee raised as his own.
Relations between Kelley and Dee were a bit strained after this, and the communication with angels reportedly stopped. Kelley received a startling final message relating to a great purge and the Book of Revelations, and then broke off talking with angels. Likely, this was an excuse because Kelley no longer needed Dee for anything.
Dee and his family left Bohemia in 1589, never to return.
John Dee was born July 12, 1527, in Tower Ward, London, to Rowland Dee, who was of Welsh descent, and Johanna Wild. The name Dee relates to the Welsh word du meaning black. Rowland Dee was a hanger-on in the court of Henry VIII. Dee claimed to be descended from Rhodri the Great, a ninth century king based in what is now Wales.
Dee studied at Cambridge, and was one of the original fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied at several schools on the Continent and lectured in Paris, counting mapmaker Gerardus Mercator among his acquaintances. He joined his father’s guild, the Worshipful Company of Mercers, in 1555.
His legal troubles also began that same year. Dee was accused of casting horoscopes concerning Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. He also faced treason charges that were dropped. He appeared before the Star Chamber and also at a religious inquiry. He cleared his name, and turned his attentions to trying to establish a National Library. When that idea made no progress he turned his focus to his own library at Mortlake.
His fortunes changed when Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 and he became her adviser. He even used astrology to choose her coronation date. He grew increasingly involved in the occult, and in 1564, he wrote the Hermetic work Monas Hieroglyphica, which he dedicated to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, the father of Rudolf II. The book introduced a new glyph that Dee used to explain the mystical unity of all creation. Dee hoped to present the book in person to Maximilian, but was not successful.
He married Jane Fromond in 1578. She had been a lady in waiting in the entourage of Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln, at the court of Queen Elizabeth. She was 23 and Dee was 51, and her court connections reportedly helped Dee advance his flagging career. Jane also assisted him in some of his research.
A series of setbacks — his failure to gain patronage in foreign courts, his failure in Britain to get calendar reforms, lack of support for his plans to explore and colonize North America, in particular Canada — all pushed Dee further into the occult and his new pastime, screeing, or crystal gazing.
This led him to Edward Kelley and his Polish and Bohemian adventures.
Jane Dee was suspicious of Kelley from the start, and sympathized with Kelley’s wife, Joanna, whom Jane thought was mistreated.
After leaving Bohemia, John Dee saw his fortunes fall. He found his home vandalized, his library with many of his books and instruments destroyed or stolen. Support for magic and the occult had waned. Queen Elizabeth wanted Dee to urge Kelley to return so the two of them could use heavenly advice to boost the economy, but it was not to be, and Kelley would die in Bohemia under house arrest.
In 1595, Dee was appointed by the queen to be warden of Christ’s College in Manchester, to give him some official standing and income. He was not happy at the post and felt his staff disrespected and cheated him.
When James I took over the throne in 1603, he did not share his predecessor’s love of the occult and gave Dee no support.
In 1605, Jane died of the bubonic plague in Manchester and was buried at Manchester Cathedral. The same year, John Dee left Manchester for London, and later his home in Mortlake. Dee spent his final years in poverty at Mortlake, selling his possessions to support himself and his daughter, Katherine. He died in Mortlake in late 1608 or early 1609 at the age of 82. A memorial plaque to Dee was placed on the south wall of the present church, St Mary the Virgin Mortlake, in 2013.
John Dee and his library, as well as his promotion of seafaring, made him the inspiration for Prospero in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which was written in 1610–11, some two to three years after Dee’s death. There has been some speculation that Dee had a relationship with Shakespeare as an adviser and patron, but there is very little in the way of solid evidence to support the idea.