There are few figures in history that are at once as mysterious, nefarious and intriguing as Dr John Dee, mathematician and astrologer to two Tudor Queens of England. Educated at the University of Cambridge, Dee travelled the continent before becoming astrologer to the queen, ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor. Shortly thereafter, however, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for being a sorcerer. This lifelong reputation as a magician was procured partly by the stage effects that he introduced into a performance of the Peace of Aristophanes while he was at Cambridge and partly by his erudition and practice of both crystallomancy and astrology. Although he was a profoundly learned scholar and hermeticist, as a sorcerer he is mainly today thought to have been a sham. In his time, however, among the many who consulted him on matters metaphysical included Sir Philip Sidney and various princes of Poland and Bohemia. He enjoyed the favour of Elizabeth I, gave instructions and advice to pilots and navigators who were exploring the New World and gave lessons to the Virgin Queen in the mystical interpretation of his writings. Most interestingly, he devoted much time and effort in the last thirty years or so of his life to attempting to commune with angels in order to learn the universal language of creation and bring about the pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind. About ten years after his death, several manuscripts, mainly records of Dee’s angelic communications, were discovered in the house and gardens where he had lived. Could it be that Dr Dee was no mere sham after all?
Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable. One of the most learned men of his age, Dee immersed himself in the worlds of magic, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Dee did not draw distinctions between his mathematical research and his investigations into Hermetic magic, angel summoning and divination. Instead he considered all of his activities to constitute different facets of the same quest: the search for a transcendent understanding of the divine forms which underlie the visible world, which Dee called “pure verities”. By the early 1580s, Dee was growing dissatisfied with his progress in learning the secrets of nature and with his own lack of influence and recognition. He began to turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge. Specifically, he sought to contact spirits through the use of a “scryer” or crystal-gazer, which would act as an intermediary between Dee and the angels. It was this quest that took him to the continent, where many of his wanderings remain shrouded in mystery. Dee returned to England after six years to find his library ruined and many of his prized books and instruments stolen. By this time, Queen Elizabeth was dead, and the new king, James I, unsympathetic to anything related to the supernatural, provided no help to him. Dee spent his final years in poverty and it is speculated that he died late in 1608 or early 1609 aged 82 (there are, however, no extant records of the exact date as both the relevant parish registers and Dee’s gravestone are missing).
A re-evaluation of Dee’s character and significance came in the 20th century, largely as a result of the work of the historian Frances Yates, who brought a new focus on the role of magic in the Renaissance and the development of modern science. As a result of this re-evaluation, Dee is now viewed as a serious scholar and appreciated as one of the most learned men of his day. In particular, Dee’s promotion of mathematics outside the universities was perhaps his most enduring practical achievement. He believed that numbers were the basis of all things and the key to knowledge, that God’s creation was an act of numbering. From Hermeticism, he drew the belief that man had the potential for divine power, and he believed this divine power could be exercised through mathematics. His cabalistic angel magic (which was heavily numerological) and his work on practical mathematics (navigation, for example) were simply the exalted and mundane ends of the same spectrum, not the antithetical activities many would see them as today. Perhaps inevitably, however, conspiracy theories surround the man. He has often been associated with the The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World – the Voynich manuscript. Members of the Rosicrucian movement have claimed Dee as one of their number, although there is no evidence that he ever belonged to any secret fraternity. Dee’s reputation as a magician has made him a seemingly irresistible figure to fabulists, writers of horror stories and latter-day magicians. The accretion of false and often fanciful information about Dee often obscures the facts of his life, remarkable as they are in themselves. Anyone interested in learning the truth of the matter may be interested in visiting the British Museum in London, which holds several items once owned by Dee and associated with the spiritual conferences, including his Speculum (an obsidian Aztec cult object in the shape of a hand-mirror, brought to Europe in the late 1520s, which could be used for spiritual communion and was subsequently owned by Horace Walpole).