Biography of John Dee

Alchemist, Occultist, and Advisor to a Queen

John Dee (July 13 ,1527–1608 or 1609) was a sixteenth-century astronomer and mathematician who served as an occasional advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and spent a good portion of his life studying alchemy, the occult, and metaphysics.

Personal Life

John Dee
John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni. By Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Dee was the only child born in London to a Welsh mercer, or textile importer, named Roland Dee, and Jane (or Johanna) Wild Dee. Roland, sometimes spelled Rowland, was a tailor and fabric sewer in the court of King Henry VIII. He made clothing for the royal family members, and later received the responsibility of selecting and buying fabrics for Henry and his household. John claimed that Roland was a descendent of the Welsh king Rhodri Mawr, or Rhodri the Great.

Throughout his lifetime, John Dee was married three times, although his first two wives bore him no children. The third, Jane Fromond, was less than half his age when they wed in 1558; she was merely 23 years old, while Dee was 51. Prior to their marriage, Jane had been a lady in waiting to the Countess of Lincoln, and it is possible that Jane’s connections at court helped her new husband secure patronage in his later years. Together, John and Jane had eight children–four boys and four girls. Jane died in 1605, along with at least two of their daughters, when the bubonic plague swept through Manchester.

Early Years

John Dee, English Alchemist, Geographer and Mathematician, c1590 (18th century).
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

John Dee entered Cambridge’s St. John’s College at age 15. He went on to become one of the first fellows at the newly-formed Trinity College, where his skills in stage effects earned him notoriety as a theatrical conjurer. In particular, his work on a Greek drama, a production of Aristophanes’ Peace, left audience members marveling at his abilities when they saw the giant beetle he had created. The beetle descended from an upper level down to the stage, seemingly lowering itself from the sky.

After leaving Trinity, Dee traveled around Europe, studying with renowned mathematicians and cartographers, and by the time he returned to England, he had amassed an impressive personal collection of astronomy tools, mapmaking devices, and mathematical instruments. He also began studying metaphysics, astrology, and alchemy.

In 1553, he was arrested and charged with casting the horoscope of Queen Mary Tudor, which was considered treason. According to I. Topham of Mysterious Britain,

“Dee was arrested and accused of attempting to kill [Mary] with sorcery. He was imprisoned in Hampton Court in 1553. The reason behind his imprisonment may have been a horoscope that he cast for Elizabeth, Mary's sister and heiress to the throne. The horoscope was to ascertain when Mary would die. He was finally released in 1555 after being set free and re-arrested on charges of heresy. In 1556 Queen Mary gave him a full pardon.”

When Elizabeth ascended to the throne three years later, Dee was responsible for selecting the most auspicious time and date for her coronation, and became a trusted advisor to the new queen.

The Elizabethan Court

Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, c.1588 (oil on panel)
George Gower / Getty Images

During the years that he advised Queen Elizabeth, John Dee served in a number of roles. He spent many years studying alchemy, the practice of turning base metals into gold. In particular, he was intrigued by the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone, the “magic bullet” of the golden age of alchemy, and a secret component that could convert lead or mercury into gold. Once discovered, it was believed, it could be used to bring about long life and perhaps even immortality. Men like Dee, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and Nicolas Flamel spent years searching in vain for the Philosopher’s Stone.

Jennifer Rampling writes in John Dee and the Alchemists: Practising and Promoting English Alchemy in the Holy Roman Empire that much of what we know about Dee’s practice of alchemy can be gleaned from the types of books he read. His vast library included the works of many classical alchemists from the Medieval Latin world, including Geber and Arnald of Villanova, as well as writings of his contemporaries. In addition to books, however, Dee had a large collection of instruments and various other implements of alchemical practice.

Rampling says,

“Dee’s interest was not confined to the written word—his collections at Mortlake included chemical materials and apparatus, and appended to the house were several outbuildings where he and his assistants practised alchemy. Traces of this activity now survive only in textual form: in manuscript notes of alchemical procedures, practically-oriented marginalia, and a few contemporary recollections.6 Like the issue of Dee’s alchemical influence, the question of how Dee’s books related to his practice is one that can only be partially answered, through sifting diffuse and fragmentary sources.”

Although he is well known for his work with alchemy and astrology, it was Dee’s skill as a cartographer and geographer that really helped him shine in the Elizabethan court. His writings and journals flourished during one of the greatest periods of British imperial expansion, and multiple explorers, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, used his maps and instructions in their quest to discover new trade routes.

Historian Ken McMillan writes in The Canadian Journal of History:

“Especially noteworthy are the maturation, complexity, and longevity of Dee's ideas. As plans for the expansion of the British Empire became more elaborate, shifting quickly from exploratory trading voyages into the unknown in 1576 to settlement of territory by 1578, and as Dee's ideas became increasingly sought and respected at court, his arguments became more focused and better grounded in evidence. Dee buttressed his claims by building up an impressive scholarly edifice of classical and contemporary historical, geographical, and legal evidence, at a time when each of these disciplines was increasing in use and importance.”

Later Years

Alchemical diagram depicting Universe Sol and Luna, 16th century, Germany
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

By the 1580s, John Dee was disillusioned with life at court. He had never really attained the success that he’d hoped for, and a lack of interest in his proposed calendar revisions, as well as his ideas about imperial expansion, left him feeling like a failure. As a result, he turned away from politics and began to focus more heavily on the metaphysical. He delved into the realm of the supernatural, devoting much of his efforts to spirit communication. Dee hoped that the intervention of a scryer would put him in touch with the angels, who could then help him gain previously unfound knowledge to benefit mankind.

After going through a series of professional scryers, Dee encountered Edward Kelley, a well-known occultist and medium. Kelley was in England under an assumed name, because he was wanted for forgery, but that didn’t dissuade Dee, who was impressed by Kelley’s abilities. The two men worked together, holding “spiritual conferences,” which included a lot of prayer, ritual fasting, and eventual communication with the angels. The partnership ended shortly after Kelley informed Dee that the angel Uriel had instructed them to share everything, including wives. Of note, Kelley was some three decades younger than Dee, and was much closer in age to Jane Fromond than her own husband was. Nine months after the two men parted ways, Jane gave birth to a son.

Dee returned to Queen Elizabeth, petitioning her for a role in her court. While he had hoped that she would allow him to attempt to use alchemy to increase England’s coffers and decrease the national debt, instead she appointed him as the warden of Christ’s College in Manchester. Unfortunately, Dee was not terribly popular at the university; it was a Protestant institution, and Dee’s dabblings into alchemy and the occult had not endeared him to the faculty there. They viewed him as unstable at best, and hellbound at worst.

During his tenure at Christ’s College, several priests consulted Dee in the matter of demonic possession of children. Stephen Bowd of the University of Edinburgh writes in John Dee And The Seven In Lancashire: Possession, Exorcism, And Apocalypse In Elizabethan England:

“Dee certainly had direct personal experience of possession or hysteria before the Lancashire case. In 1590, Ann Frank alias Leke, a nurse in the Dee household by the Thames at Mortlake, was ‘long tempted by a wicked spirit’, and Dee privately noted that she was finally ‘possessed of him’… Dee’s interest in possession should be understood in relation to his broader occult interests and spiritual concerns. Dee spent a lifetime searching for the keys with which he might unlock the secrets of the universe in the past, the present and the future.”

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, Dee retired to his home at Mortlake on the River Thames, where he spent his final years in poverty. He died in 1608, at the age of 82, in the care of his daughter Katherine. There is no headstone to mark his grave.

Legacy

Dr. John Dee (1527-1608) scientist philosopher, mathematician
Apic/RETIRED / Getty Images

Seventeenth-century historian Sir Robert Cotton purchased Dee’s house a decade or so after his death, and began inventorying the contents of Mortlake. Among the many things he unearthed were numerous manuscripts, notebooks, and transcripts of the “spiritual conferences” that Dee and Edward Kelley had held with angels.

Magic and metaphysics tied in neatly with science during the Elizabethan era, despite the anti-occult sentiment of the time. As a result, Dee’s work as a whole can be seen as a chronicle of not just his life and study, but also of Tudor England. Although he may not have been taken seriously as a scholar during his lifetime, Dee’s massive collection of books in the library at Mortlake indicate a man who was dedicated to learning and knowledge.

In addition to curating his metaphysical collection, Dee had spent decades collecting maps, globes, and cartographic instruments. He helped, with his extensive knowledge of geography, to expand the British Empire through exploration, and used his skill as a mathematician and astronomer to devise new navigation routes that might otherwise have remained undiscovered.

Many of John Dee’s writings are available in a digital format, and can be viewed online by modern readers. Although he never solved the riddle of alchemy, his legacy lives on for students of the occult.

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Wigington, Patti. "Biography of John Dee." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2018, thoughtco.com/john-dee-biography-4158012. Wigington, Patti. (2018, January 26). Biography of John Dee. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/john-dee-biography-4158012 Wigington, Patti. "Biography of John Dee." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/john-dee-biography-4158012 (accessed February 18, 2018).