John Dee Biography

John Dee could very well be considered the 16th Century Gandalf.

John Dee was born an Englishman on July 13, 1527 and died in 1608 or 1609. If anybody in history seems to have been the perfect inspiration for Gandalf, the magical wizard in J. R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit”, and “Lord of the Rings” series of books, that would be John Dee.

In addition to his Gandalf-like physical features, which included a long flowing beard on a gaunt, wizened face, John Dee also dabbled in mystical occultism. His other claims to fame included mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, Hermetic philosopher, astrologist and adviser on divination. Holding a highly esteemed position for his era, he was a trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I.

Teacher, Trainer, Communicator with Angels

Dee was considered one of the most educated individuals of his time. Still in his early twenties, he was invited to lecture at the University of Paris. Being a respected proponent of the growing field of mathematics, he spoke on Euclid's geometry to an enthusiastic group of awed, contemporary intellectuals.

Another of John Dee's academic interests was navigation, in which he was a leading expert. He trained many of England's naval explorers, sailors who subsequently went on to conduct many of the kingdom's voyages of discovery around the globe.

While teaching, instructing and training the best of England's students in mathematics and navigation, Dee also plunged into the worlds of astrology, magic and Hermetic philosophy. The last thirty years or so of his mortal life he was obsessed with trying to communicate with demons and angels. He felt that if he could connect with them, he could uncover the secrets of life and death, hoping to bring about the unity of mankind before the impending apocalypse.

As an avid student and scholar of all subject matters scientific and beyond, John Dee compiled one the largest known libraries in England. He adamantly believed that there were little differences or distinctions between his research into mathematics and his explorations into divination, summoning angels and demons, and the study of Hermetic magic.

He reasoned that all those activities were merely different facets of his lifelong quest: the search for what he called “pure verities,” which led to the total knowledge of those divine forms that lie just below or adjacent to the visible world.

An Intellectual and a Magician is Born

Dee was born to Rowland Dee and Johanna Wild in Tower Ward, London. His father was of Welsh descent, which was the source of the Dee surname, a derivative of the Welsh name, “du.” Rowland was a gentleman courier to Henry VIII and a mercer, or cloth merchant, by trade. Dee claimed lineage to Rhodri the Great, Prince of Wales. He even constructed a pedigree, illustrating his direct descent from Rhodri.

From the age of eight to the age of fifteen, John Dee was a student at the Chelmsford Chantry School. He then attended St John's College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA at the age of eighteen. Recognition of his abilities came quickly and he immediately became one of the original fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge when it was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. One day, he created some unique special effects for a stage production, which resulted in his reputation as a magician, a label he enjoyed for the rest of his life.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

In the 1540s and 1550s, Dee traveled extensively throughout Europe. He studied at Louvain and Brussels, and lectured on Euclid's geometry in Paris. There, he studied with noted cartographer, physician, mathematician and instrument maker, Gemma Frisius. He also formed a close friendship with Gerardus Mercator, the acclaimed cartographer. Subsequently, Dee returned to his homeland with a treasure trove of astronomical and mathematical instruments.

Back in London, in 1552, Dee met Gerolamo Cardano with whom Dee explored a perpetual motion machine. They also investigated a gem that was said to have magical properties.

He declined a readership at Oxford; his writing had become too important, he felt, to stray from it then. However, he did accept a membership into the Worshipful Company of Mercers, just as his father had.

Arrested and Slandered

Later that year, in 1555, Dee was arrested. He was accused of “calculating,” a charge stemming from his having cast horoscopes of Princess Elizabeth as well as Queen Mary. The charges were soon extended to treason against the Queen. He did exonerate himself, but was remanded to Bishop Bonner for the purpose of examining Dee's religious convictions. While he eventually cleared his name again and developed close ties with Bonner, Dee experienced subsequent slanderous comments and attacks throughout his life.

John Dee Called it the British Empire

In 1556, Dee conferred upon Queen Mary a wide-ranging plan for the establishment of a national library. She declined. So, Dee tirelessly amassed manuscripts and books in England and on the entire European continent, building up his own personal library. His collection soon became the largest in England, attracting many appreciative scholars.

Dee became Queen Elizabeth's trusted, personal adviser for astronomical concerns and all matters scientific. He even selected her 1558 coronation date. From the 1550s to the 1570s, Dee served as an adviser to the Queen, offering advise on England's ongoing voyages of discovery. He also provided technical navigation assistance and ideological support for the creation of something he proposed and termed the “British Empire.”

In 1577, he published “General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation,” a manuscript outlining his vision of his proposed maritime empire. In it, he contended that England had territorial claims on the New World.

In 1570, Dee published a “Mathematical Preface” to an English translation of Euclid's Elements by Henry Billingsley. He argued that mathematics was the underlying foundation of all other sciences and arts. It remains his most widely influential and frequently reprinted book.

Communicating with the Angels

By the 1580s, the student-turned-teacher wearied of his attempts at serious recognition and his inconsequential influence in court circles. His recommendations and suggestion were frequently responded to with ambivalence. So, he re-energized his attentions to the supernatural as a means to acquire yet more knowledge. He started to employ a crystal gazer, or “scryer,” to contact spirits and angels of the underworld.

After experiencing failure with his first attempts with a few scryers, he took up with a convicted forger, Edward Kelley. Kelley had adopted the alias, Edward Talbot, to avoid recognition. Together, they explored the supernatural with “actions” and “spiritual conferences,” albeit always conducted with due Christian reverence, including fasting, prayer and purification. Whether Kelley was sincere or a cynic remains unclear. Dee, however, was sure that the benefits to mankind were inevitable.

Thoroughly, Dee felt strongly that angels had indeed cooperated, providing Dee, through Kelley, several diligently dictated books, a number of them in a unique angelic, or Enochian, way.

Nomads in Poland

In 1583, encouraged by angels through Kelley, Dee accompanied a well-known Polish Nobleman, Albert Lanski, to Poland. Dee and Kelley, with their families in tow, departed in September. Unfortunately, Lanski proved to be broke and not favorably looked upon in his own country. Consequently, Dee and Kelley embarked on a nomadic life. In their travels, they still continued, and duly recorded, their actions and spiritual conferences in Dee's almanacs and diaries.

They successfully met with King Stefan Batory of Poland and Emperor Rudolf II in Prague Castle. They tried to convince the monarchs that communication with angels was imperative. However, while Dee's knowledge garnered much respect, the Polish leaders feared that Dee was a spy for Queen Elizabeth I. This belief actually still persists in some Polish circles.

Regardless, King Batory, who was devoutly Catholic, put aside his wariness of the supernatural and agreed to continue to meet with Dee and Kelley. However, he stipulated that any prophetic revelations must adhere to the Holy Catholic Church's goals, the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and not without the approval of the Pope.

A Questionable Birth

In 1587, in the midst of a spiritual conference in Bohemia, Kelley told Dee that he had received instructions from the angel, Uriel. Uriel determined that Dee and Kelley should share all that they owned, including their wives. Dee was distressed, but relented; he believed the angel's order to be genuine. However, immediately after that, Dee discontinued the conferences.

On February 28, 1588, nine months later, Dee's third wife, 32 year old Jane Fromond, bore him a son, Theodorus Trebonianus Dee. Dee raised him as their own. At the time, Dee was 60; Kelley was 32. The true identity of Theodorus' father is speculative.

Destruction, Despair and Poverty

In 1589, Kelley was taken in as the official alchemist for Emperor Rudolf II; Dee returned to Mortlake. Upon his return, Dee discovered that his home had been vandalized; his library destroyed, and many of his treasured instruments and books missing. Now, England was yet more critical of occultism and natural philosophy. Sympathetic, Elizabeth appointed Dee as Warden of Christ's College, which had been converted by Royal Charter to a Protestant institution. However, the Fellows of that institution despised or cheated Dee.

Early on in his appointment, Dee's advise was sought on the demonic possession of several children. He took very little interest in their requests.

Dee lived his final years in poverty, having sold possessions to support his daughter, Katherine, and himself. He died in 1608 or 1609 at the age of 82. As the parish registers and his gravestone are missing, a memorial plaque was placed on the church wall in Mortlake in 2013.