A Short Biography
What follow is an extremely condensed and editored biography
of the life of Dr. John Dee for those who wish to see the
full article refer to the reference list below.
In summary Dee is an example par excellence of one who
used Ceremonial magic in an attempt to work directly with
the Celestial Angels.
Dr. Dee was a noted English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer,
geographer, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth
I. He also devoted much of his life to alchemy, divination,
and Hermetic philosophy.
He straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they
were becoming distinguishable. One of the most learned men
of his time, he had lectured at the University of Paris
when still in his early twenties. John was an ardent promoter
of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert
in navigation, having trained many of those who would conduct
England's voyages of discovery (he coined the term "British
At the same time, he immersed himself in magic and Hermetic
philosophy, devoting the last third of his life almost exclusively
to these pursuits.
Dee was born in Tower Ward, London, to a Welsh family, whose
surname derived from the Welsh du ("black"). His
father Roland was a mercer and minor courtier. Dee attended
the Chelmsford Catholic School (now King Edward VI Grammar
School (Chelmsford)), then – from 1543 to 1546 –
St. John's College, Cambridge. His great abilities were
recognized, and he was made a founding fellow of Trinity
College. In the late 1540s and early 1550s, he traveled
in Europe, studying at Leuven and Brussels and lecturing
in Paris on Euclid.
Dee was offered a readership in mathematics at Oxford in
1554, which he declined; he was occupied with writing and
perhaps hoping for a better position at court. In 1555,
Dee became a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers,
as his father had, through the company's system of patrimony.
That same year, 1555, he was arrested and charged with "calculating"
for having cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth;
the charges were expanded to treason against Mary. Dee appeared
in the Star Chamber and exonerated himself, but was turned
over to the reactionary Catholic Bishop Bonner for religious
examination. His strong and lifelong penchant for secrecy
perhaps worsening matters, this entire episode was only
the most dramatic in a series of attacks and slanders that
would dog Dee through his life. Clearing his name yet again,
he soon became a close associate of Bonner.
Dee presented Queen Mary with a visionary plan for the preservation
of old books, manuscripts and records and the founding of
a national library, in 1556, but his proposal was not taken
up. Instead, he expanded his personal library at his house
in Mortlake, tirelessly acquiring books and manuscripts
in England and on the European Continent. Dee's library,
a center of learning outside the universities, became the
greatest in England and attracted many scholars.
When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Dee became her trusted
advisor on astrological and scientific matters, choosing
Elizabeth's coronation date himself. From the 1550s through
the 1570s, he served as an advisor to England's voyages
of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation
and ideological backing in the creation of a "British
Empire", and was the first to use that term.Dee was
also Elizabeth I's spy.
In 1564, Dee wrote the Hermetic work Monas Hieroglyphica
("The Hieroglyphic Monad"), an exhaustive Cabalistic
interpretation of a glyph of his own design, meant to express
the mystical unity of all creation. This work was highly
valued by many of Dee's contemporaries, but the loss of
the secret oral tradition of Dee's milieu makes the work
difficult to interpret today.
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 angels through the use
of a "scryer" or crystal-gazer, who would act
as an intermediary between Dee and the angels.
Dee's first attempts were not satisfactory, but, in 1582,
he met Edward Kelley (then going under the name of Edward
Talbot), who impressed him greatly with his abilities. Dee
took Kelley into his service and began to devote all his
energies to his supernatural pursuits. These "spiritual
conferences" or "actions" were conducted
with an air of intense Christian piety, always after periods
of purification, prayer and fasting. Dee was convinced of
the benefits they could bring to mankind. (The character
of Kelley is harder to assess: some have concluded that
he acted with complete cynicism, but delusion or self-deception
are not out of the question. Kelley's "output"
is remarkable for its sheer mass, its intricacy and its
vividness.) Dee maintained that the angels laboriously dictated
several books to him this way, some in a special angelic
language or name by the Golden Dawn, the Enochian language.
During a spiritual conference in Bohemia, in 1587, Kelley
told Dee that the angel Uriel had ordered that the two men
should share their wives. Kelley, who by that time was becoming
a prominent alchemist and was much more sought-after than
Dee, may have wished to use this as a way to end the spiritual
conferences. The order caused Dee great anguish, but he
did not doubt its genuineness and apparently allowed it
to go forward, but broke off the conferences immediately
afterwards and did not see Kelley again. Dee returned to
England in 1589.
Dee returned to Mortlake after six years to find his library
ruined and many of his prized books and instruments stolen.
He sought support from Elizabeth, who finally made him Warden
of Christ's College, Manchester, in 1592. This former College
of Priests had been re-established as a Protestant institution
by a Royal Charter of 1578.
However, he could not exert much control over the Fellows,
who despised or cheated him. Early in his tenure, he was
consulted on the demonic possession of seven children, but
took little interest in the matter, although he did allow
those involved to consult his still extensive library.
He left Manchester in 1605 to return to London. By that
time, Elizabeth was dead, and James I, unsympathetic to
anything related to the supernatural, provided no help.
Dee spent his final years in poverty at Mortlake, forced
to sell off several of his possessions to support himself
and his daughter, Katherine, who cared for him until the
end. He died in Mortlake late in 1608 or early 1609 aged
82 (there are no extant records of the exact date as both
the parish registers and Dee's gravestone are missing).
Dee was an intensely pious Christian, but his Christianity
was deeply influenced by the Hermetic and Platonic-Pythagorean
doctrines that were pervasive in the Renaissance. He believed
that number was 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. His ultimate goal was to help
bring forth a unified world religion through the healing
of the breach of the Catholic and Protestant churches and
the recapture of the pure theology of the ancients.
The British Museum holds several items once owned by Dee
and associated with the spiritual conferences:
• Dee's Speculum or Mirror (an obsidian Aztec cult
object in the shape of a hand-mirror, brought to Europe
in the late 1520s), which was once owned by Horace Walpole.
• The small wax seals used to support the legs of
Dee's "table of practice" (the table at which
the scrying was performed).
• The large, elaborately-decorated wax "Seal
of God", used to support the "shew-stone",
the crystal ball used for scrying.
• A gold amulet engraved with a representation of
one of Kelley's visions.
• A crystal globe, six centimeters in diameter. This
item remained unnoticed for many years in the mineral collection;
possibly the one owned by Dee, but the provenance of this
object is less certain than that of the others.
In December 2004, both a shew stone (a stone used for scrying)
formerly belonging to Dee and a mid-1600s explanation of
its use written by Nicholas Culpeper were stolen from the
Science Museum in London; they were recovered shortly afterwards.
Dee is reputed to have produced some 400 books and manuscripts,
Here are just a few:
• The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue
of His Library of Manuscripts
• The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue
of His Library of ... with James Orchard
• The Calls of Enoch with Edward Kelley
• Azogue: It is a section of the e-journal Azogue
with original reproductions of Dee texts.
• John Dee reports of Dee and Kelley's conversations
o Mysteriorum Liber Primus (with Latin translations)
o Notes to Liber Primus by Clay Holden
o Mysteriorum Liber Secundus
o Mysteriorum Liber Tertius
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– 17th June 2017. Copyright (c) Archangels & Angels
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