In 1599, a letter detailing ‘most untrue, foolish and wicked reports’ pertaining to supposed supernatural acts in an attempt of ‘the search and learning of the true Philosophie” was petitioned by known occultist, scientist and polymath, John Dee. The letter, originally written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, defended the Christian nature of his studies and argued that they consequentially remained within the arms of the law. Dee, however, despite his reputation, was not a dark magic occultist that threatened social order. In fact, he played not only a key role in early modern intellectual life, but also in Tudor court, often being called Elizabeth’s Merlin.
Born in 1527, he began his studies at the tender age of fifteen at Cambridge, partaking in every subject from law to theology and astrology, before leaving England for the Netherlands in his early twenties. Here, he studied at Louvain and was able to specialise in occultism, as well as its methods and understandings. By the time of his return to England in 1551, he brought with him the reputation of a man who walked the boundaries between the physical and the supernatural world. By the succession of Mary I and Phillip II, he was known for his predictions and horoscope readings, performing such feats for the new monarchs, as well as the Princess Elizabeth in 1553.
Despite this connection, Dee was eventually brought to court and, in June of 1554, he and three others – said to be the servants of Elizabeth – were arrested for their ‘calculations’ against the Crown and imprisoned for three months. After his release, he appealed once again to the Queen to support his supernatural soliciting by setting up a library to be used by scholars like himself, but he was rejected. He did eventually set up his library in 1556 in his mother’s London home and curated a large collection, amassing around 4,000 works on all aspects of magic including continental witchcraft; a gathering that rivalled the collections of both Oxford and Cambridge combined.
In 1558, upon the death of Mary, Dee once again began his venture into court life when he was asked to predict a date for the coronation of the new Queen Elizabeth. The date he gave, 15 January 1559, proved correct and ‘with great solemnity [she] was crowned’ at Westminster Abbey, solidifying Dee’s place in the Elizabethan Court.
Dee is credited by historians such as Roger Jones as being one of the first to conceive of a ‘British Empire’. Dee drew upon the work of a twelfth century monk, using Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Kings of Britain, and its account of Arthurian myth, to argue that Elizabeth’s accession would usher in a new era of Christian conquest, with Elizabeth as Arthur and Dee as Merlin at her side. The emergence of a new star, observed by Tycho Brahe in November 1572, was claimed by Dee to support his prediction.
Over the following 20 years, Dee worked with key figures of the American expansions to create his idea of English colonisation in the New World. Historian John Neale has even gone so far as to argue that Dee’s influence may have accounted for Robert Dudley’s love of navigation, after Dee worked as a tutor to the eldest Dudley son, John and, in the seventeenth century, antiquary Anthony Wood proclaimed that nobody knew Robert as well as Dee. Explorers relied on Dee’s extensive knowledge of astronomy and collection of European navigational equipment to prepare for their journeys to the new colonies in the infancy of the British Empire.
Dee’s aspirations, however, expanded beyond colonisation and he once again began his studies into the supernatural. Working with ancient tools such as scrying mirrors and crystal balls, he tried to communicate with spirits to reveal secrets and visions of the future, with varying success. He soon came to believe that only a few ‘gifted’ people were born with the ability to communicate with the other world; a power which he himself did not have, prompting his search for a partner in his studies.
In 1582, a man named Edward Kelly, a documented alcoholic and conman who had a previous conviction from the Crown, which had resulted in the removal of his ears by ‘crobbing’, claimed to be adept in the fields of necromancy, alchemy and, most importantly to Dee, the ability to communicate with angels.
The two men consequently became very involved in the fields of Thaumaturgy (the concept of the working wonders of miracles), Enochian magic (ceremonial practices, involving the use of signs, symbols and number codes to communicate and summon angelic spirits) and Hermeticism (a set of theological and philosophical ideas about the microcosms and macrocosms of the human body in relation to the universe). Dee claimed that the practices would allow him to understand the universe by learning the language of God, so he and Kelly began their work by creating a celestial alphabet, which they stated had been revealed to them in a vision and was based on the tales in the Book of Enoch. The pair claimed to have come into contact with figures such as Gabriel, Michael and Raphael in a series of sessions that used Kelly as a medium. Dee described these communes in several works such as his ‘handbook’ De heptarchia mystica (1582).
On the advice of a Polish scientist, Dee and Kelly took their practice to Europe, performing in front of those who were wealthy enough, such as King Stephen of Poland and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Throughout their travels, their reputation skyrocketed, but in a time when the supernatural and occult still stiffened people with fear and anxiety, they were eventually exiled and forced to return to England.
Upon their return, the relationship between Dee and Kelly had soured, particularly after Dee’s wife became pregnant – likely with Kelly’s child. Even worse for Dee, after arriving at his mother’s house in London, he found that his personal library had been sold under the care of his brother. It eventually came under the care of Henry Pierrepoint, Marquis of Dorchester to form part of the Dorchester Library of the Royal College of Physicians. The loss of the library was a huge hit for Dee, who prided himself on his extensive studies and pursuit of knowledge, spending much of the rest of his life searching for the remainder of his works but to little avail.
Furthermore, throughout the late 1590s and early 1600s, Dee’s professional reputation also began to decline after he became involved with known exorcist, John Darrell, who had faced severe scrutiny over the famed ‘Boy of Burton’ case of 1597, which attracted the attention of both the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft. The case eventually led to Darrell’s imprisonment and a great deal of scepticism about the supernatural in the public eye.
Dee eventually died at the age of 82; forced to sell off the remaining pieces of his collection, he retreated into obscurity and poverty.
The life and work of John Dee was one of inspiration, magic and the endless pursuit of knowledge and understanding. As a figure, he is integral to the field of historical magic and folklore and has often been defined by historians as an early modern ‘wizard’. This interpretation influences the way he is now perceived by contemporary audiences through longstanding productions, with Dee influencing not only Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, but also Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest as well as Johnson’s Alchemist. He has also been credited with providing the inspiration for James Bond’s famous insignia, arising from rumours that Dee worked as a spy for Elizabeth during the Anglo-Spanish War, marking his encoded letters with 007, although there are no certified references of this. However, what is most compelling about the story of Dee and his influence in early modern society was that despite moderate public concerns about the supernatural occult, at a time when events such as the North Berwick Witch Trials were taking place, a man such as Dee and later Kelly, were able to gain great influences in European courts, informing political decisions that would last centuries. It also strikes an ode to the prevalence of such beliefs of spirits, angels and the supernatural at court, suggesting that even to the most educated and powerful, the existences of witchcraft and magic were an absolute truth and accepted phenomena. John Dee stands at the heart of these transactions between the political and the supernatural, offering his guidance and insight as Elizabeth’s Merlin, into a world believed but not seen.
Written by Melissa Kane
D.K, History Of Magic, Witchcraft, And The Occult (D.K. Publishing, 2020).
J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (Penguin Books, 1934), 53.
Nicola Tallis, Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester (Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 2017), 47-8, 59.
Jeffery B. Russell, Brooks Alexander, A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans (Thames and Hudson, 2018), 92-3.
Aaron Manke, “Episode 75: Black and Wild” Lore Podcast (2015) https://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/75. Accessed January 16, 2021.
Parry, Glyn. The Arch Conjuror of England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
Jones, Roger. “Exhibition: Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee: Master of Divine Secrets.” British Journal of General Practice 66, no. 647 (2016): 317.
Birkwood, Katherine. “Was John Dee ‘The Original 007’?” Notes and Queries 64, no. 2 (2017): 248-49.
Dee, John. A Letter, Containing a Most Briefe Discourse Apologeticall with a Plaine Demonstration, and Feruent Protestation, for the Lawfull, Sincere, Very Faithfull and Christian Course, of the Philosophicall Studies and Exercises, of a Certaine Studious Gentleman: An Ancient Seruant to Her Most Excellent Maiesty Royall. 1599. At London: Printed by Peter Short, Dwelling on Bred-streete Hill at the Signe of the Starre, 1599.
School, English. “John Dee and Edward Kelly Summoning the Dead, from a ‘History of Magic’, Published Late nineteenth Century (litho).”