Dr John Dee was a strange, mysterious figure: part scientist, part magician and spy...he He played a key role in Elizabethan society…
Dee was born in 1527 in Tower Ward, London, to a Welsh family from Radnorshire. He claimed roots back to royal welsh blood. Dee was a man of many talents and pursued both scientific and supernatural means to pursue knowledge.
He saw the universe as being based on magical principles, though believed that many of its rules and laws could be approached through mathematics.
He was a brilliant scholar and at the age of 15 was one of the first undergraduates of the new St John's College, Cambridge. He was nearly expelled for sorcery after Dee created a mechanical flying beetle, for the stage production of Aristophane’s; "Pax", The beetle was so realistic some thought it the work of the devil. After graduating in 1546 In he travelled in Europe, studying at Leuven (1548) and Brussels and lecturing in Paris on Euclid. He became a close friend of the cartographer Gerardus Mercator before returning to England in 1551 and bringing with him mathematical, scientific instruments and two of Mercator’s globes of the world which were to England's great benefit. Apart from his study of mathematics and geometery, Dee had become familiar with astrology and other magical pursuits.
Links to Queen Elizabeth I
Dee was linked to Queen Elizabeth I through his cousin, Blanche Parry who was her Maid of Honour. Dee had met Elizabeth on a number of occasions whilst she had been placed under house arrest by her half sister, Queen Mary I (the catholic wife of Phillip II of Spain). On Mary's death, Dee's fortunes began to rise upon the accession of Elizabeth I, and Elizabeth asked Dee to pick a 'propitious day' for her coronation.
The Elizabethan Spy Network
The fear of Spain and her agents was widespread. Philip II of Spain had showed a ruthlessness that cast a long shadow. The feared Spanish Inquisition continued to operate in Spanish territories across Europe and his Empire which included the Netherlands. Non-catholics were persecuted mercilessly.
Royalty opposed to Philip II were not immune and Elizabeth feared assassination. An extensive spy network was set up by Sir Francis Walsingham to counter Spanish activity and home grown Catholic opponents to Elizabeth's protestant rule.
Dr Dee's Secret Codes
Dr Dee worked with Walsingham. Dr Dee had come across a book about ciphers and secret codes for magical purposes written by Abbot Trimethus of Spanhiem (1462-1516). Dr Dee adapted the abbot’s cryptography and gave it to Sir Francis Walsingham for use by his secret agents. He also passed on the political and military intelligence he had acquired during his travels across Europe. It's likely that Dee used the famous Enochian magical alphabet as a code to disguise this information.
Dr Dee's use of Magik in defence of the Queen
Dee became heavily involved in the spying operations against Spain and england's enemies. This included invoking magic to assist his Queen
Dee had acquired a scrying mirror, made of black obsidian glass which had been brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador after he had conquered the Aztec empire and secured Mexico for Spain in 1521. Dee used this for 'scrying' - contact with the supernatural. Dee believed he was communicating with angels who would grant him insight to matters he put to them.
Dee's scrying obsidian glass and his crystal ball were the talk of the Court. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth along with her entourage visited Dee’s house in Mortlake. The Queen wished to see her astrologer’s magic glass.
Dee' magic uncovers treachery - (the Babington Plot 1586)
Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham believed that there was a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with the Mary Queen of Scots who was imprisoned in England following her flight from Scotland on a murder charge. Unfortunately, he had no proof of Mary's involvement. Walsingham asked Dee to invoke the scrying stone to see if they could prove Mary's involvement.
Dr Dee’s psychic powers revealed to him that there was a plot and letters were being smuggled to Mary inside beer caskets. Walsingham acted on Dee's revelation and on discovering there were regular coded letters inside the caskets from a leading group of English Catholics led by Sir Anthony Babington and Jesuit John Ballard, both backed by Phillip II of Spain. The plot was exposed, Mary implicated and the plotters tried and found guilty of treason.
Dee's magic uncovers plot to burn Forest of Dean - 1587
The Forest of Dean was the centre of for English ship building and a vital natural resource. In 1587 Dee claimed received a spirit message from one of his angelic contacts had informed him a group of disguised Frenchmen working for the Phillip II of Spain were secretly making their way towards the Forest of Dean. The French agents planned to bribe disloyal foresters to burn it down. Dr Dee (now in Bohemia) immediately sent his supernatural intelligence to Walsingham. The saboteurs were found to be masquerading as squatters and were arrested.
Impending invasion - Dee Predicts a great storm and fire 1588
Walsingham's spy network convinced him that a Spanish armada would be launched against England in 1588. He asked Dee to use his knowledge of astrology to calculate the weather prospects for an invasion. After scrying, Dee told him there would an impending disaster in Europe caused by a devastating storm.
As the threat of the Armada became a reality, Dr Dee returned to his scrying. He saw a symbolic vision of a castle with its drawbridge drawn up (England) and the image of the elemental king of fire. Dee took this to mean England must use the element of fire in its defence. He urged the Commander of the English Navy, Sir Francis Drake to invoke the element of fire by employing fire-ships against the Armada.
In 1588 a great storm did scatter the ships of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel. Forced to anchor, the English sent in fire ships followed by attack ships.
Dr Dee's vision of an English speaking North America
Dr Dee understood the importance of stopping the Spanish and securing a presence in the great unexplored land of the North American continent. He advocated the exploration and the colonisation of North America by the English speaking people. Dee's vision was of a British Empire stretching across the North Atlantic supported by a royal navy. Dee understood too the need for England to expand and stake a claim to territories.
Dee wrote "Brytannici Imperii Limites," a claim to the lands of North america in the name of Queen Elizabeth. Dee traced and justified British rights by claiming the descendants had already colonised America many centuries ago. Dee stated that "sundry foreign regions" had been " discovered, inhabited and partly conquered by the subjects of this British Monarchy." "Sondrye foreyne Regions, discovered, inhabited, and partlie conquered by the Subjects of this Brytish Monarchie"13".
The area laid out the geographical area of those holdings, with Her Majesty's "title Royall to all the coasts, and lands beginning at or about Terra Florida, and so alongst, or neere unto Atlantis goinge Northerly: and then to all the most northern Islands great and small". The term 'Terra Florida' meant a region stretching from Florida all the way through to New Foundland.
Dee promoted the sciences of navigation and cartography. He studied closely with Gerardus Mercator, and he owned an important collection of maps, globes and astronomical instruments. He developed new instruments as well as special navigational techniques for use in polar regions. Dee served as an advisor to the English voyages of discovery, and personally selected pilots and trained them in navigation. Dee worked with Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Francis Drake to establish colonies in Newfoundland and the 'Carolinas'. Dee was also a firend and advisor to John Davis, who went on to discover the Falkland Islands. Dee worked with Sir Martin Frobisher to find the fabled North West Passage.
Dr Dee's travels in Europe
In 1582, Dee came into contact with Edward Kelly, who soon began to act as his medium, and join him in occult research, seeking contact with Divine Spirits. In 1583, Dee and Kelley visited Cracow and Prague, where Dee was made a doctor of medicine at the University. In 1584, Dee met and had talks with the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. Astrology and alchemy were mainstream science in Renaissance Prague, and Rudolf was a firm devotee of both.
In the following year was invited to the court of Stephen Báthory the King of Poland. Dee returned to England in 1589, and was made Warden of Christ's College, Manchester. He continued his occult research, but published no more. He died in 1608 or 1609.