John Dee

John Dee Ashmolean

John Dee Ashmolean A 16th-century portrait by an unknown artist

Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne and with her came a personal adviser, Dr. John Dee. Dee was considered one of the most learned men in England, being educated in a vast array of areas. He was born in Tower Ward, London on July 13, 1527 to a minor courtier. At 15, Dee was sent to St. John’s College in Cambridge where he studied everything he could. The most important subjects Dee studied were mathematics, astronomy, astrology, navigation, geography, optics, and medicine, all of which he would later use to some extent to make his mark in history. He stayed at St. John’s until 1548 where he earned a master’s degree.

After earning his degree, Dee traveled throughout Europe where he studied the occult at the University of Louvain in the Netherlands, as well as lecturing in Paris on Euclid at 24. While in Paris he was offered a position of a mathematics professor at the University of Paris in 1551 but declined the position and returned to England. While in England, he became a consultant and astrologer to both Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth.

In 1555, under the reign of Queen Mary I, Dee was arrested and charged with having read the horoscopes for both women and again charged with treason against Queen Mary. He was not imprisoned for long and the charges against him were dropped.

He led a quiet life until Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne and he became her scientific, medical, and astrological adviser. Dee even consulted the stars to determine the date in which Elizabeth should be crowned. His educational background would prove him useful in various areas, including navigation where he aided in the expeditions to Canada from 1576-1578 and again in 1583 to search for the Northwest Passage, which never came to fruition. With his skill and experience in mathematical navigation, it was Dee that coined the phrase “British Empire” when he commissioned a foundation for colonizing North America.

For a period of time Dee was depressed and allegedly suicidal for his inability to conjure spirits and a lack of complete understanding of natural knowledge. In 1581 he met Edward Kelley, a convicted counterfeiter who had his ears clipped for counterfeiting coins, and the two began voyaging together. The two held séances in an attempt to speak with angels where Dee would perform the rituals and Kelley would look into a crystal ball, they attempted these séances in England, Poland and the Czech Republic. Some sources say that Dee was successful in speaking with angels but they were angry at the fallen state of humanity and commanded Dee and Kelley to present their vision of a New World Order to try and help humanity. One aspect of the New World Order was for everyone to share possessions, including their wives, which apparently actually occurred. Other sources say that Kelley conned Dee and made everything up. Then more sources state that Dee and Kelley did not contact any spirits, Angels or not.

Dee returned to England after his adventures after he and Kelley parted ways but all was not well. A plague swept through London taking his wife and five of his eight children but even worse, he was blamed for bringing the plague with him as a result of conjuring spirits. He was left lonely but found some solstice in being appointed by Elizabeth I as Dean Warden of Manchester College in 1596 until 1605 upon which time he returned to his home at Mortlake. Dee spent his final years in great poverty and extreme loneliness selling off his book collection and casting charts.

While Dee had many accomplishments in his life that overshadowed his personal life, there is some that we know from a diary that Dee kept. He was married three times, first to a woman named Katherine Constable in 1565 until her death in 1574. The second marriage was to an unknown woman from 1575 to 1576 when she died. The last marriage was the only one that provided children; Jane Fromond and Dee married in 1578 (he was 51 and she was 23) until she died of the bubonic plague in 1604. They had 8 children together, 4 sons and 4 daughters: Michael, Theodore, Arthur, Rowland, Katherine, Madinia, Frances and Margaret.

There is no exact date of John Dee’s death as his gravestone is missing, as are the Parish records during that time. It was long believed that he died in December of 1608 at Mortlake but new evidence has been brought to light that he may have died in March of 1609 in London at the home of a friend, John Pontois.