Dee, John (1527–1608)
Renowned sixteenth-century mathematician and astrologer
most remembered for his numerous experiments with crystal
gazing. He was also a scholar, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge,
England, and the author of 49 books on scientific subjects.
His delving into the occult made him a person of strange
reputation and career.
Born in London July 13, 1527, Dee is said to have descended
from a noble Welsh family, the Dees of Nant y Groes in Radnorshire.
He claimed that one of his direct ancestors was Roderick
the Great, Prince of Wales. Dee’s father appears to have
been a gentleman server at the court of Henry VIII and therefore
affluent and able to give his son a good education. So at
age 15, John Dee went to Cambridge University and after two
years there took his bachelor of arts. Soon afterward he became
intensely interested in astronomy and decided to leave England
to study abroad. In 1547 he went to the Low Countries
(modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), where
he consorted with numerous scholars. He returned to England
with the first astronomer’s staff of brass and also with two
globes constructed by geographer Gerard Mercator (famed for
his cartographic projection).
In 1548 he traveled to France, living for some time at Louvain.
In 1550 he spent several months in Paris, lecturing on the
principles of geometry. He was offered a permanent post at the
Sorbonne, but declined, returning in 1551 to England, where
on the recommendation of Edward VI he was granted the rectory
of Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire.
Dee was now in a delightful and enviable position, having
a comfortable home and assured income, he was able to devote
himself exclusively to the studies he loved. But he had hardly
begun to enjoy these benefits when, on the accession of Queen
Mary in 1553, he was accused of trying to take the new sovereign’s
life by means of magic and was imprisoned at Hampton
Court.
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He gained his liberty soon afterward, but he felt that many
people looked on him with distrust because of his scientific predilections.
In a preface he wrote for an English translation of
Euclid, he complains bitterly of being regarded as ‘‘a companion
of the hellhounds, a caller and a conjuror of wicked and
damned spirits.’’
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I his fortune began to
improve again, and after making another long tour abroad
(going on as far as St. Helena), he returned and took a house
at Mortlake on the Thames.
While staying there he rapidly became famous for his intimate
knowledge of astronomy. In 1572—on the advent of a
new star—people flocked to hear Dee speak on the subject;
when a mysterious comet appeared five years later, the scholar
was again granted ample opportunity to display his learning.
Queen Elizabeth herself was among those who came to ask him
what this addition to the stellar bodies might portend.
First Crystal Visions
The most interesting circumstances in Dee’s life are those
dealing with his experiments in crystallomancy. Living in comparative
solitude, practicing astrology for bread, but studying
alchemy for pleasure, brooding over Talmudic mysteries and
Rosicrucian theories, immersed in constant contemplation of
wonders he longed to penetrate, and dazzled by visions of the
elixir of life and the philosophers’ stone, Dee soon reached
such a condition of mystic exaltation that his visions seemed
real, and he persuaded himself that he was the favored of the
invisible world. In his Diary he recorded that he first saw spirits
in his crystal globe on May 25, 1581.
One day in November 1582, while on his knees and fervently
praying, Dee became aware of a sudden glory that filled the
west window of his laboratory and in the midst of which shone
the bright angel Uriel. It was impossible for Dee to speak. Uriel
smiled benignly upon him, gave him a convex piece of crystal,
and told him that when he wished to communicate with the beings
of another world he had but to examine it intently, and
they would immediately appear and reveal the mysteries of the
future. Then the angel vanished.
Dee used the crystal but discovered that it was necessary to
concentrate all his faculties upon it before the spirits would
obey him. Also, he could never remember what the spirits said
in their frequent conversations with him. He resolved to find
a fellow worker, or a neophyte, who would converse with the
spirits while he recorded the interesting dialogue. He found
the assistant he sought in Edward Kelley, who unfortunately
possessed the boldness and cunning for making a dupe of the
amiable and credulous enthusiast.
Kelley was a native of Lancashire, born, according to Dee,
in 1555. Nothing is known of his early years, but after having
been convicted at Lancaster of coining, he was punished by
having his ears cropped. He concealed the loss of his ears by
a black skullcap. He later moved to Worcester and established
himself as a druggist. Carnal, ambitious, and self-indulgent, he
longed for wealth; and despairing of getting it through honest
work, he began to seek the philosophers’ stone and to employ
what secrets he picked up in taking advantage of the ignorant
and extravagant.
Before his acquaintance with Dee, he obtained some repute
as a necromancer and alchemist who could make the dead utter
the secrets of the future. One night he took a wealthy man and
some of his servants into the park of Walton le Dale, near Preston
in Lancashire, and alarmed him with the most frightening
incantations. He then exhumed a recently interred corpse from
the neighboring churchyard and pretended to make it utter
wisdom.
Dee is believed to have employed a scryer, or seer, named
Barnabas Saul before he met Kelley. He recorded in his Diary
on October 9, 1581, that Saul was strangely troubled by a ‘‘spiritual
creature’’ about midnight. On December 2 he willed his
scryer to look into the ‘‘great crystalline globe’’ for the apparition
of the holy angel Anael. Saul looked and apparently saw,
but when he confessed the following March that he neither saw
nor heard spiritual creatures any longer, Dee dismissed him.
Then came Kelley (who was also called Talbot), and the conferences
with the spirits rapidly increased in importance as well
as curiosity.
The Visions of Edward Kelley
In his work with Kelley, Dee saw nothing. The visions
seemed to exist solely in Kelley’s fertile imagination. The entities
who reportedly communicated through Kelley bore names
such as Madini, Gabriel, Uriel, Nalvage, Il, Morvorgran, and
Jubanladace. Some of them were said to be angels.
A record of the séances held in 1582–87 was published in
Meric Casaubon’s A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed between
Dr. Dee and Some Spirits; Tending, Had it Succeeded, to a General
Alteration of Most States and Kingdoms in the World (1659).
The spirits offered occult instructions—how to make the elixir
of life, how to search for the philosophers’ stone, how to involve
the spirits. They also gave information on the hierarchy of spiritual
beings and disclosed the secrets of the primeval tongue
that the angels and Adam spoke, which was corrupted into Hebrew
after the Fall. This original speech bore an organic relation
to the outer world. Each name expressed the properties of
the thing spoken of, and the utterance of that name had a compelling
power over that creature. Dee was supposed to write a
book in this tongue under spirit influence. He was later relieved
of the task, however. The prophecies that were given
through the crystal mostly failed. The physical phenomena
were few—occasional movements of objects, direct writing,
and direct voice.
In light of Kelley’s low moral character the séance records
must be considered dubious documents, but the extraordinary
detail and scope of these claimed visions (including the complex
angelic language) seems to go beyond mere fraudulent invention.
Kelley’s later activities, however, were undoubtedly
suspect.
Dee and Kelley acquired a considerable reputation for the
occult, which spread from Mortlake to continental Europe. Dee
declared that he possessed the elixir of life, which he claimed
to have found among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, so the
curious were drawn to his house by a double attraction. Gold
flowed into his coffers, but his experiments in the transmutation
of metals absorbed a great portion of his money.
At that time the court of England was visited by a Polish nobleman
named Albert Laski, Count Palatine of Siradz, who
wanted to see the famous ‘‘Gloriana.’’ Queen Elizabeth received
him with the flattering welcome she always accorded to
distinguished strangers and placed him in the charge of the
earl of Leicester. Laski visited all the England of the sixteenth
century worth showing, especially its two universities, but was
disappointed at not finding the famous Dr. Dee at Oxford. ‘‘I
would not have come hither,’’ he said to the earl, ‘‘had I wot
that Dee was not here.’’ Leicester promised to introduce him
to the learned philosopher on their return to London, and so
soothed his discontent.
A few days afterward Laski and the earl of Leicester were
waiting in the antechamber at Whitehall for an audience with
the queen when Dee arrived. Leicester embraced the opportunity
and introduced him to Laski. The interview between two
genial spirits was interesting and led to frequent visits from
Laski to Dee’s house at Mortlake. Kelley consulted the ‘‘great
crystalline globe’’ and began to reveal hints and predictions
that excited Laski’s fancy. He claimed to see in the globe magnificent
projects for the reconstruction of Europe, to be accomplished
with Laski’s help. According to Kelley’s spirit revelations,
Laski was descended from the Anglo-Norman family of
the Lacies and was destined to effect the regeneration of the
world. After that disclosure the two men could talk about nothing
but hazy politics.
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A careful perusal of Dee’s Diary suggests that he was duped
by Kelley and that he accepted all his revelations as the actual
utterances of the spirits. It seems that Kelley not only knew
something of the optical delusions then practiced by pretended
necromancers, but also may have possessed considerable ventriloquial
powers, which assisted him in deceptions.
It did not serve Kelley’s purposes to bring matters too suddenly
to an end, and hoping to show the value of his services,
he renewed his complaints about the wickedness of dealing
with spirit and his fear of the perilous enterprises they might
enjoin. He threatened to abandon his task, which greatly disturbed
Dee. Where indeed could he hope to meet with another
scryer of such infinite ability?
Once when Kelley expressed his desire to ride from
Mortlake to Islington on some business, the doctor grew afraid
that it was only an excuse to cover his escape. Following is Dee’s
only account of the events:
‘‘Whereupon, I asked him why he so hasted to ride thither,
and I said if it were to ride to Mr. Harry Lee I would go thither,
and to be acquainted with him, seeing now I had so good leisure,
being eased of the book writing. Then he said that one
told him the other day that the duke (Laski) did but flatter him,
and told him other things both against the duke and me. I answered
for the duke and myself, and also said that if the forty
pounds annuity which Mr. Lee did offer him was the chief cause
of his mind setting that way (contrary to many of his former
promises to me), that then I would assure him of fifty pounds
yearly, and would do my best, by following of my suit, to bring
it to pass as soon as I possibly could; and thereupon did make
him promise upon the Bible.
‘‘Then Edward Kelley again upon the same Bible did swear
unto me constant friendship, and never to forsake me; and
moreover said that unless this had so fallen about he would
have gone beyond the seas, taking ship at Newcastle within
eight days next.
‘‘And so we plight our faith each to the other, taking each
other by the hand, upon these points of brotherly and friendly
fidelity during life, which covenant I beseech God to turn to his
honour, glory, and service, and the comfort of our brethren
(his children) here on earth.’’
Kelley then returned to Dee’s crystal and his visions and
soon persuaded Laski that he was destined by the spirits to
achieve great victories over the Saracens and win enduring
glory. To do so he needed to return to Poland.
Adventures in Europe
Laski returned to Poland, taking with him Dee and Kelley
and their wives and families. The spirits continued to respond
to their inquiries even while at sea. They landed at the Brill on
July 30, 1583, and traversed Holland and Friesland to the
wealthy town of Lubeck. There they lived sumptuously for a few
weeks, and with new strength set out for Poland. On Christmas
Day they arrived at Stettin, where they stayed until the middle
of January 1584. They reached Lasco, Laski’s estate, early in
February.
Immediately work began for the transmutation of iron into
gold, since boundless wealth was obviously needed for so grand
an enterprise as the regeneration of Europe. Laski liberally
supplied them with means, but the alchemists always failed on
the very threshold of success.
It became apparent to the swindlers that Laski’s fortune was
nearly exhausted. At the same time, ironically, the angels
Madini, Uriel, and their comrades in the crystal began to doubt
whether Laski was, after all, the great regenerator intended to
revolutionize Europe.
The whole party lived at Cracow from March 1584 until the
end of July and made daily appeals to the spirits in reference
to the Polish prince. They grew more and more discouraging
in their replies, and Laski began to suspect that he had been
duped. He proposed to furnish the alchemists with sufficient
funds for a journey to Prague and letters of introduction to Emperor
Rudolph. At that very moment the spirits revealed that
Dee should bear a divine message to the emperor, and so
Laski’s proposal was gladly accepted.
At Prague the two alchemists were well received by the emperor.
They found him willing to believe in the existence of the
famous philosophers’ stone. He was courteous to Dee, a man
of European celebrity, but was very suspicious of Kelley. They
stayed several months at Prague, living on the funds Laski had
supplied and hoping to be drafted into the imperial service.
At last the papal nuncio complained about the tolerance afforded
to heretical magicians, and the emperor was obliged to
order them to leave within 24 hours. They complied, and so escaped
prison or the stake, to which the nuncio had received orders
from Rome to consign them in May 1586.
They traveled to the German town of Erfurt, and from there
to Cassel. Meeting with a cold reception, however, they made
their way once more to Cracow. There they earned a scanty living
by telling fortunes and casting nativities.
After a while, they found a new patron in Stephen, king of
Poland, to whom Kelley’s spirits predicted that Emperor Rudolph
would soon be assassinated and that the Germans would
elect him to the imperial throne. But Stephen, like Laski, grew
weary of the ceaseless demands for pecuniary support. Then
came a new disciple, Count Rosenberg, a wealthy nobleman of
Trebona, in Bohemia. At his castle they remained for nearly
two years, eagerly pursuing their alchemical studies but never
coming any closer to the desired result.
Dee’s enthusiasm and credulity had made him utterly dependent
on Kelley, but the trickster was nevertheless jealous of
the superior respect that Dee enjoyed as a man of remarkable
scholarship and considerable ability. Frequent quarrels broke
out between them, aggravated by the passion Kelley had developed
for the doctor’s young and beautiful wife—which he was
determined to gratify. He concocted an artful plan to get what
he wanted.
Knowing Dee’s dependence upon him as a scryer, he suddenly
announced his intention of resigning, and only consented
to remain when the doctor begged him. That day, April 18,
1587, they consulted the spirits. Kelley pretended to be
shocked at the revelation they made and refused to repeat it.
Dee’s curiosity was aroused, and he insisted on hearing it, but
was extremely upset when Kelley said that the spirits had commanded
the two philosophers to have their wives in common.
Dee rebuked the spirit Madini for such an improper proposal,
but eventually reluctantly consented to the arrangement.
Accordingly Dee, Kelley, and their wives signed an agreement
on May 3, 1587, pledging obedience to the angelic demand.
Soon afterward, Dee requested permission from Queen
Elizabeth to return to England and left the castle of Trebona
after finally separating from Kelley. The latter, who had been
knighted at Prague, proceeded to the Bohemian capital, taking
with him the elixir found at Glastonbury Abbey. He was immediately
arrested by order of the emperor and imprisoned.
Kelley was later released and wandered throughout Germany,
telling fortunes and propagating the cause of magic. He
was again arrested as a heretic and sorcerer. In a desperate attempt
to avoid imprisonment he tried to escape, but fell from
the dungeon wall and broke two ribs and both his legs. He died
of his injuries in February 1593.
Dee’s Final Years
Dee set out from Trebona with a splendid train, the expenses
of his journey defrayed by the generous Bohemian
noble Count Rosenberg. In England he was well received by the
queen and settled again at Mortlake, resuming his chemical
studies and his pursuit of the philosophers’ stone.
But nothing went well with the unfortunate enthusiast. He
employed two scryers—a rogue named Bartholomew and a
charlatan named Heckman—but neither could discover anything
satisfactory in the ‘‘great crystalline globe.’’ He grew
poorer and poorer; he sank into indigence and wearied the
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queen with his importunity. At length he obtained a small appointment
as chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which in 1595
he exchanged for the wardenship of Manchester College. He
served in this position until age and failing intellect compelled
him to resign it about 1602 or 1603.
He then retired to his old house at Mortlake, where he practiced
as a fortune-teller, gaining little in return but an unenviable
reputation as a wizard, ‘‘a conjuror, a caller, or invocator
of devils.’’ On June 5, 1604, he petitioned James I for protection
against such calumnies, declaring that none of the ‘‘very
strange and frivolous fables or histories reported and told of
him (as to have been of his doing) were true.’’
Dee was an exceptionally interesting figure, and he must
have been a man of rare intellectual activity. His calculations facilitated
the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England,
and he foresaw the formation of the Historical Manuscripts
Commission, addressing to the Crown a petition on the desirability
of preserving the old, unpublished records of England’s
past, many of which were kept in the archives of monasteries.
He was a voluminous writer on science, his works including
Monas Hieroglyphica (1564), De Trigono (1565), Testamentum Johannis
Dee Philosophi Summi ad Johannem Guryun Transmissum
(1568) and An Account of the Manner in which a Certayn Coppersmith
in the Land of Moores, and a Certayn Moore Transmuted Copper
to Gold (1576).
It is usual to dismiss Kelley as a rogue and Dee as his dupe,
but if the angelic visions were purely for money, they both
could have done better for themselves. Dee seemed to be an
honest man of unusual talents, devoting his life to science and
the pursuit of mystical knowledge. The angelic language called
Enochian, which Dee and Kelley used when invoking spirits in
the crystal, is a construction of great intricacy, far beyond the
capacity or the requirements of simple fraud. It combines
magic, mathematics, astrology, and cryptography. An intriguing
suggestion is that the angelic conversations were a system
of codes to convey secrets, and that Dee and Kelley’s visits in
Europe were for purposes of espionage. In later times, Enochian
rituals were revived by the magical Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn and became a common element in ceremonial
magic. Some Enochian rituals were adapted by Anton LaVey
and the Church of Satan, which he founded.
Dee’s reputation suffered much from the scorn of Meric Casaubon,
who published some of the angelic conversations and
represented them as delusive. The scholar Theodore Besterman,
however, in his book Crystal-Gazing (1929), adopted Dee
as a pioneer Spiritualist, and contemporary magicians have
seen him as one of their ancestors.
Dee was miserably poor in his last years and was even
obliged to sell his precious books in order to sustain himself.
He was planning a journey to Germany when he died in December
1608; he was buried in the chancel of Mortlake Church.
The seventeenth-century antiquary John Aubrey assembled an
interesting character description of Dee:
‘‘He had a very fair, clear, sanguine complexion, a long
beard as white as milke. A very handsome man. . . . He was a
great peacemaker; if any of the neighbours fell out, he would
never lett them alone till he had made them friends. He was tall
and slender. He wore a gowne like an artist’s gowne, with hanging
sleeves, and a slitt. A might good man he was.’’
One of his crystals used for scrying was supposed to have
been given to Dee by an angel. It is on display in the British
Museum, London, which also houses some of the mystical cakes
of wax consecrated by Dee for his ceremonies and some of his
manuscripts in the Cottonian collection.
Several centuries after his death, on April 18, 1873, Dee
supposedly communicated via automatic writing through the
mediumship of Stainton Moses. The communications gave
some evidential details of his life that were verified by research
at the British Museum Library, but his signature was found to
be dissimilar to the one preserved there.
Sources:
Besterman, Theodore. Crystal-Gazing. London, 1929. Reprint,
New York, 1965.
Burland, C. A. The Arts of the Alchemists. London, 1967.
Clulee, Nicholas H. John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between
Science and Religion. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Deacon, R. John Dee: Scientist, Astrologer & Secret Agent to Elizabeth.
London: Frederick Muller, 1968.
Dee, John. The Diaries of John Dee. Edited by Edward Fenton.
Oxfordshire, UK: Day Books, 1998.
———. The Hieroglyphic Monad. Translated by J. W. Hamilton
Jones. London, 1847.
———. A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many
Years Between Dr. John Dee . . . and Some Spirits. . . . London,
1659. Reprint, Askin, 1974.
French, Peter J. John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus.
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Halliwell, J. O., ed. The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the
Catalogue of His Library of Manuscripts. London: Camden Society,
1842.
Turner, Robert. Elizabethan Magic. Longmead, Dorset, U.K.:
Element Books, 1989.
Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.