Dee, Dr John (July 13, 1527—March 26, 1609) - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Dee, Dr John (July 13, 1527—March 26, 1609)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Dr John Dee, renowned as Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer was also an alchemist, magician, scholar, and author of 79 books, although only a few were published in his lifetime. Dee is one of the founders of Enochian Magic and considered a brilliant occultist, although in his lifetime, as with Cornelius Agrippa, he was always just one step ahead of the witch-trials.

John Dee was born in London of Welsh ancestry, the son of a servant at the court of Henry VIII. Dee entered Cambridge University aged 15 to study science and mathematics. Despite his youth he had already developed a reputation as an occultist. This reputation eventually reached the ears of university officials and Dee was asked to leave. He transferred to the University of Louvain where he met people who had known Agrippa in whose work he was very interested.

In 1551, at age 24, he returned to England where, in 1552, he met a magician called Jerome Cardan, who inspired him to begin conjuring spirits.

According to Dr Dee, the ideal day was sixteen hours dedicated to the study of the magical arts, two hours spent eating, and any time left spent sleeping.

Dee rendered an unknown but seemingly important service to the court of Edward VI for which he was granted an annuity of £100. This “service” has been the subject of speculation ever since. It is generally believed to be of a magical nature as the reason for the annuity was never made public. (Alternatively he is believed to have served as a spy.)

Following Edward’s death, Dee then worked for Edward’s sister, Mary, who had ascended the throne, telling her fortune daily and casting her horoscope. Dee also became friendly with

Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth who allegedly asked him to astrologically calculate Mary’s death. (Now of course, as a master astrologer, he would know which sister to bet on.) Mary found out and Dee was thrown in jail on charges of witchcraft, heresy, killing children via magic, and plotting to kill the queen also via magical means. According to Dee, Mary accused him of being “ a companion of hellhounds and a caller and conjurer of wicked and damned spirits.”

His relationship with Princess Elizabeth was investigated by the authorities and Dee was imprisoned from 1553 until 1555, when he was able to persuade Archbishop Bonner that he was orthodox in religious matters and set free. He was acquitted and released but was for ever identified as a sorcerer. His acquittal was perceived by many as proof of Dee’s magic power. The Archbishop was extremely conservative, even bigoted; Dee’s ability to persuade him of his innocence was perceived by some as evidence of witchcraft.

Mary died in 1558 and Elizabeth assumed the throne. Dee became her spiritual advisor, also advising her on medical matters. Allegedly he also served as her spy and informer, reporting what others said of her. He also worked as a cartographer and geographer and was a great friend of the Flemish cartographer Mercator (as in the Mercator Scale). Dee began an extensive collection of books on magic and the occult, which eventually numbered several thousand works.

Elizabeth trusted Dr Dee to choose the date for her coronation. He chose January 14, 1559 with Jupiter in Aquarius to signal universality and Mars in Scorpio for victory and endurance. Her long, glorious reign may be considered testimony to his astrological skill. Queen Elizabeth even visited him at his home in Mortlake.

Dee longed to communicate with angels and attempted to do so via scrying. His scrying tools included an Aztec obsidian mirror and a pink crystal, a gift from an angel. According to his diary, Dee saw spirits on May 25, 1581, however he had some difficulty and so began hiring professional scryers (crystal-gazers) to work with him—the first of which there is record is Barnabas Saul. In his diary entry of October 9, 1581, Dee wrote that Saul raised a spirit around midnight. Saul scryed for him through the rest of 1581.

Dee then met Edward Talbot, aka Edward Kelley or Kelly, beginning a pivotal collaboration. Dee and Kelley worked together for seven years: Kelley contacted the spirits while Dee recorded their communication. (See page 742, Kelley.)

In 1582, Kelley began to receive messages in a new angelic language called Enochian. The angels taught him the “language of Enoch,” which had been spoken by Adam while in Paradise. The language has a 21-letter alphabet with consistent grammar and syntax. Letters are related to elements, numbers, and planetary forces.

Although Queen Elizabeth was Dee’s ally, he had powerful enemies at court as well, and he was always under the threat of charges of sorcery. Bishop Jessel, preaching before the queen, suggested that her proximity to magicians was a threat to her majesty.

Dee, Kelley, their wives and families left England in 1583 and traveled with Prince Albert Laski to his estate in Poland where he had promised to set them up in an alchemical laboratory. In his absence, a mob sacked Dee’s house at Mortlake, stealing books and objects, when rumors spread that he was a witch.

Laski however didn’t have as much money as they’d hoped and Kelley, Dee and their respective families began a life of wandering throughout Central and Eastern Europe, always in search of wealthy patrons who would sponsor their alchemical experiments.

After leaving Laski they traveled to the court of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. Rudolph, who was fascinated by the occult, reputedly maintained a staff of alchemists, diviners, and magicians but the Papal Nuncio sent him a message saying that the Pope didn’t approve of the presence of English heretics and magicians at his court. Kelley and Dee hit the road quickly, traveling to King Stephen of Poland’s court in Krakow. Once again, the reaction was not favorable.

Wandering magicians, completely broke, they continued to search for patrons through Central Europe giving demonstrations of their alchemical aptitude. Dee wanted to work with the spirits but Kelley wished to focus on alchemy. Allegedly he had had success in England and had even extracted the Philosopher’s Stone, but running an alchemical laboratory was expensive and he needed a patron.

Dee and Kelley sent Queen Elizabeth an ordinary metal warming pan from which they had cut a piece, which they transformed into gold and then stuck back in place. Was this real or legerdemain?

In 1586, Tsar Boris Godunov offered Dee £200 a year, a fabulous salary, to enter his service as an alchemist. Kelley wished to go but Dee was not enthusiastic about alchemy, perceiving that it was a dangerous trap in which they would be commanded and exploited by rulers.

In 1587, Kelley insisted on returning to his work as an alchemist. Dee attempted to replace Kelley with his son Arthur but with no success.

Two years later Dee resolved to return to England following six years abroad. Kelley stayed in Europe to continue his alchemical work. Upon his return to England Dee was immediately given an audience with Queen Elizabeth; she ordered that he be allowed to conduct alchemical and other experiments without hindrance. He complained of the pillaging of his home and was able to secure the return of some books and tools.

Within a year of his return, Dee felt obligated to publish a tract refuting allegations that he was a conjuror. In 1596, Dee was appointed warden of the Collegiate Chapter in Manchester, probably as a means of removing him from London, but he was unpopular because of his lack of Protestant orthodoxy and magical reputation. Only Elizabeth still favored him; when she died in 1603, his position became perilous. Witchcraft trials were becomingly increasingly common.

Dr Arthur Dee was an alchemist, too. In 1587, when Edward Kelley left his father’s employ, Arthur was delegated to take his place as seer, but with no success. Arthur went to Moscow where he had a successful career as a royal physician. While there, he wrote his treatise Arcana Arcanorum. He returned to England where he continued to work as a physician.

Dee petitioned Elizabeth’s successor James I to be cleared of slanderous accusations that he was an “invocator of devils.” He wanted James to publicly declare that Dee had never been a magician but rather a scholar, mathematician, and scientist. James declined but never persecuted him.

Dee retired to Mortlake in poverty and attempted to earn his living as an astrologer. He died of natural causes in 1608 and is buried at Mortlake. His book collection and some tools now belong to the British Museum.

Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is believed at least partially to be based on Dr Dee.