John Dee is a figure whose life has become the stuff of legend, with unfounded claims about him being a sorcerer and a spy. Dee, born on July 13, 1527 in London, England, was a revered polymath, with particular expertise in mathematics and astronomy. But he was interested in the occult, too: He served as Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer and conducted séances in an attempt to speak to angels. Read on to learn the facts about Dee—the scholar, scientist, and seeker of the esoteric.

Dee was arrested for “conjuring or witchcrafte” in 1555 after casting a horoscope of Queen Mary I—but he was exonerated a few months later. Fortunately for him, during the Renaissance, astrology was often thought of as a science (albeit a suspicious one), rather than a supernatural dark art.

In 1556, Dee tried to convince Mary I to set up a library for the “whole realm” to use that would preserve the “excellent works of our forefathers from rot and worms.” When his request was refused, he set up a library at his home in Mortlake, which—although not technically public—was open to other scholars. It was one of the largest personal libraries in England, housing around 4000 texts (3000 books and 1000 manuscripts). Many of the tomes were stolen when Dee left the library under the care of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, while he traveled around Europe for a number of years in the 1580s.

John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I

John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I. / Buyenlarge/GettyImages

Dee found royal favor when Elizabeth I, who was interested in astrology, took the throne. She asked him to choose an auspicious date for her coronation, which, according to his calculations, was January 15, 1559. Dee became Elizabeth’s court astrologer, and while she relied on him to interpret the stars for her, he was also a trusted authority on matters of mathematics, chemistry (including alchemy), astronomy, geography, and navigation.

In The General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577), Dee recommended to Elizabeth that she use the force of the navy to expand Britain’s overseas territory—which he termed the “Brytish Impire.” This is the first recorded use of the phrase, but it’s possible that he was simply the first person to write it down.

The Julian calendar that had been established by the Roman Empire was still in use across much of Europe, but it was far from perfect, having overestimated the length of a solar year. To remedy this, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which axed 10 days from the year and changed the way that leap years worked thereafter. Dee, with his vast knowledge of astronomy and history, was asked to give his opinion on whether or not England should adopt this new calendar.

Dee concluded that England would be wise to make the change, but that 11 days should be cut and that it should be done more gradually to reduce disruption. However, the new calendar was rejected by the Anglican Church, likely because it originated from the Pope and England was a Protestant country at the time. England and its colonies did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752.

John Dee (From: The order of the Inspirati), 1659. Artist: Anonymous

John Dee. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

During the Renaissance, mathematics was not a popular subject; the school curriculum focused on the learning of rhetoric and moral philosophy through Latin and Greek texts. However, Dee was a proponent of math—despite its occasional association with witchcraft. He even helped to introduce English readers to the now-common mathematical symbols +, -, x , and ÷ by writing the preface to Sir Henry Billingsley’s 1570 English translation of Euclid’s The Elements of Geometrie. He used this introduction to defend the practicality of math and attempted to break its links to dark magic.

Although Dee was adamant that mathematics was not demonic, he did employ it for his own investigation into the occult. Dee practiced numerology and divination, using tools such as a crystal ball and a spirit mirror made of obsidian, in his attempts to speak to angels. The polymath thought the divine beings could share their esoteric knowledge with him, like how to make the fabled philosopher’s stone, an alchemical substance that could provide immortality and turn base metals into gold.

However, he found that he was unable to scry, which is the ability to perceive supernatural messages, and sought the aid of a medium—at one point even using his own son, Arthur Dee. Arthur also encrypted the apparently divinely received recipe for the philosopher’s stone, which, according to legend, was an “elixir of life” that could make a person immortal and also turn common metals into precious ones like gold and silver. The message Arthur recorded was cracked in 2021 by scholars Megan Piorko, Sarah Lang, and Richard Bean.

Edward Kelley, astrologer and alchemist, (1575) c1700.

Edward Kelley. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Dee first met Edward Kelley (who these days is largely regarded as a charlatan) in 1582, and became convinced that he could communicate with angels. The pair held many séances together, with Dee keeping detailed records of the allegedly divine conversations. The angels supposedly talked to Kelley in an unknown language, which had to be deciphered by Dee. The pair referred to this language as Angelic or Adamic, but it is now commonly known as Enochian.

Dee and Kelley embarked on a tour of Europe in 1583 with their families in tow, seeking patronage for their research into alchemy and the occult. They met with mystically inclined royals, such as King Stephen of Poland and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. It’s thought Dee may have been the person who sold the still undeciphered Voynich Manuscript to Rudolf, the earliest known owner of the mysterious text.

During one séance in Bohemia in 1587, Kelley claimed the angel Madimi insisted the two men share everything they had—including their wives. According to Dee’s dairy, when his wife Jane was told of the “cross-matching” arrangement “she fell a weeping and trembling for a quarter of an hour.” However, both Jane and Kelley’s wife, Joanna, reluctantly submitted. Nine months later Jane gave birth to Theodore Dee, who may have been sired by Kelley, and whose name, which means “gift of god,” is possibly a reference to the circumstances of his conception.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 and was succeeded by James VI and I, who detested all things related to witchcraft, Dee received a cold reception. James refused to clear Dee’s name when he was accused of being a “Conjurer, or Caller, or Invocator of Divels, or damned Spirites.” Dee died in poverty in either December 1608 or March 1609.

Some scholars believe that Prospero from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610/11) was modeled after Dee: Both were wizardly figures who believed in the supernatural, both had large libraries, and both suffered misfortune. Dee was certainly well-known by the time Shakespeare was penning his magician character, but there is no direct evidence that Prospero was based on Dee. It has also been suggested that Dee and Kelley inspired the conmen Subtle and Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610).

A less likely character that may have been partly based on Dee is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. In John Dee: Scientist, Geographer, Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I (1968), Richard Deacon describes Dee as “a roving James Bond of Tudor times.” While Elizabeth certainly had spies, there is no proof that Dee occupied such a role. It is often reported that Fleming took Bond’s code name—007—from Dee’s secret signature. But despite extensive research, Katie Birkwood, a rare books librarian at the Royal College of Physicians, London, has never found any letters from Dee signed 007. Fleming never commented on his inspiration for the iconic moniker, allowing rumors to flourish.

Lorna Wallace

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