The Tudor Roses

The Tudor Roses

The Rose Blog

Happy Birthday John Dee! Born just 486 years ago on 13th July 1527 - A Guest Post by Robert Parry

John Dee


John Dee was one of the most influential men of the Tudor and Elizabethan age - his academic achievements being celebrated not just in England but throughout the European continent. Anybody who was anybody knew him, and his opinion was sought on just about everything that mattered - from navigation to astronomy, from genealogy to medicine, from optics to geometry, to herbalism and the occult. He was what is termed today a true Renaissance man, England’s very own Leonardo. And yet how very little we hear of him today! In this brief post written specially for my favourite modern-day Tudors in the Rose Garden, I will explain just why he might be worthy of our 21st century attentions (and perhaps also why he so rarely receives them).


The Cambridge scholar who taught the King


Dee was educated at Cambridge University and was a contemporary of fellow scholars William Cecil (soon to be confidant to the Princess Elizabeth) and Matthew Parker (Master of Corpus Christi College and former chaplain to Anne Boleyn). Even at a very early age, Dee was recognised as a brilliant mathematician. He lectured overseas and at home and later helped introduce the first translation of Euclidean geometry into England. Among his more illustrious pupils during the 1550’s were Robert Dudley and the young King Edward himself. He might well have been associated with the Princess Elizabeth, therefore, at this time. His colleague and fellow Cambridge graduate Roger Ascham certainly was responsible for much of Elizabeth’s education, and the royal court was an intimate circle.  


At the centre of the Elizabethan age, from the very start!


In 1558, Dee was asked by the future Queen Elizabeth to set a date for her coronation (early in 1559). Astrologers like Dee considered the start of things to be of paramount importance – like the germination of a seed – and so the start of the Elizabethan age was, in a sense, set in motion by Dee himself. He was the first to coin the term ‘British Empire’ and he was often consulted in matters of territorial claims and geneology. Most of the great seafaring heroes - Chancellor, Drake, Frobisher, Gilbert and Raleigh - would quiz him regularly on navigation and geography, and seek his assistance when preparing all those famous voyages of discovery for which the Elizabethan age is renowned.


The Great Library at Mortlake


Dee collected and made scientific instruments, and he compiled a great library at his home in Mortlake of upwards of 3000 volumes - this at a time when books and manuscripts were rare and expensive, and when even a major university would typically have owned less than one tenth of that amount. In fact he petitioned Queen Mary in 1556 to establish a National Library – which sadly was refused. He took matters into his own hands, therefore, and at great personal expense commenced upon his own centre of study and research, in many respects the forerunner of the British Library of today.


Elizabeth I visits John Dee at his home of Mortlake


Family man, traveller and writer


As well as being devoted to his wife Jane and their many children, Dee was a prolific traveller and author. He wrote numerous books on astronomy and astrology (the two subjects being closely entwined in those days) and was regularly consulted by courtiers on scientific phenomena - everything from the sudden appearance of a comet or a new star, to the latest developments in ciphers and espionage. The Queen is known to have visited him at his home on various occasions, as did Robert Dudley. Among Dee’s many other long-term associates and friends were Privy Councillors William Cecil and spymaster Francis Walsingham. Assisted by his numerous overseas contacts in universities and prominent families, Dee was probably instrumental in helping to establish networks of espionage throughout Europe. Curiously, he signed some of his letters with the monogram 007 – the original James Bond, perhaps.


The philosopher


Dee was widely read in the classics and was associated with the poet and courtier Philip Sydney. He was also to be found among that equally famous circle of  creative minds centred around the 'Wizard Earl' Henry Percy. Given Robert Dudley’s well-documented patronage of the stage, it is likely that Dee would have been known to the great playwrights Marlowe and Shakespeare. Being already regarded in popular imagination as the archetypal wizard and magician, he might even have been the inspiration behind Marlowe’s character of Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero.


Angels, magic and alchemy


In 1583 Dee and a gentleman by the name of Edward Kelley whom Dee was employing as a seer (gazing into the crystal) fled England in the company of their families. Apparently, Dee had fallen foul of certain factions within the government. He eventually settled at the court of the Emperor Rudolph II in Prague and later in nearby Trebon. It was here that Dee and Kelly undertook the majority of their infamous angelic conversations, in which hundreds of pages of text, much of it in an entirely new language, were delivered to them through visions in the crystal. Whether this was genuine mediumship, an elaborate hoax or  a covert system of transmitting foreign state secrets we will never know, but shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Dee returned triumphantly to England warmly received and welcomed by the Queen and her council.


Final years


Until his death in 1608/09, John Dee continued to be active in mathematics and astronomy. The Queen made him Warden of Christ's College, Manchester, in 1595; he urged a reform of the calendar many decades before the Gregorian calendar which we use today was finally introduced, and he might well have been the true inventor of the telescope many years before its first ‘official’ arrival in Holland in the 1600s.* A busy man.



So why is Dee not celebrated today?


Dee’s was fortunate in having lived in an age in which the’ unseen’ and the mystical dimension of life was every bit as important as the material. As an astrologer and alchemist, he fitted perfectly into the fabulous, larger-than-life world of Elizabethan England, but he does not sit so well today within our modern academic establishment. False and unsavoury rumours regarding his occult activities appeared as early as the 17th Century, and his reputation continued to suffer with the increasing dominance of purely rational, scientific enquiry. That said, there has been a considerable resurgence of interest in his visionary and pioneering ideas in recent times - as seen with the special academic conference held in Cambridge in 2009 which sought to examine his achievements in a more positive light. Let us hope this trend continues. Dee’s intellectual shoulders were broad enough to support the entire range of human thought, from the purely scientific to the spiritually abstract - and we need people like that, no matter what age we live in. For my part, I admire him greatly not because he believed in angels, but because he was someone who asked whether there might be angels. And there is a very important distinction between these two propositions. Happy Birthday Mr Dee!




* For my article on John Dee and the telescope see:


Robert Parry



The special webpage for the novel 'Virgin and the Crab'
The video trailer on youtube:
Robert will be discounting the Kindle version of Virgin and the Crab on Dee's birthday - reducing the price to 0.99 cents on and to 0.99 pence on  Just for one day, 13th July. Details will be posted here.

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