A recent visit to Stratford upon Avon – famously the birthplace of William Shakespeare – saw my husband and I making a trip to a place that fascinated me. Tudor World is to be found right in the centre of the town housed in a sixteenth century building known as the Shrieve’s House (formerly owned by Henry VIII).
Here, in a series of beautifully constructed rooms, scenes from everyday life in Tudor England are reimagined, including their home life, education, superstitions and beliefs, and it is in these latter two areas that my interest was well and truly spiked, For here, suddenly (and not for the first time), I was brought up close and personal with that most enigmatic of Tudor characters, Dr. John Dee.
Known as ‘Conjuror to Queen Elizabeth’, he was a man of many talents and many parts. He has long captured my imagination and attention and the display at Tudor World simply reignited the flame that has been burning away at the back of my mind for years.
So who was he?
Some say scholar, academic, others alchemist, scientist, necromancer, witch…and spy. in truth, arguments could be made to support all of these claims. The latter one is well documented. Dee was ‘recruited’ to act as a spy for Elizabeth owing to his extensive contacts. He would send reports to her, signed, 007. The two zeros represented the Queen’s eyes (as in, ‘for your eyes only’) and seven was his lucky number. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Ian Fleming had heard of John Dee when he came up with his super spy, James Bond. Another person who was influenced by him was none other than the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare. Remember those witches in Macbeth? Just one example.
John Dee was born in London on July 13th 1527. From his earliest years, it became apparent to his father (a minor figure at Henry VIII’s court) that his son was possessed of a fearsome intellect. At the tender age of fifteen, the young Dee attended Cambridge University where he spent twenty out of every twenty-four hours in deep study. Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Medicine, Astronomy, Geometry were just some of his subjects – along with Cryptography, such a valuable skill for a future spy.
Still in his twenties, he moved to Paris where he lectured in Algebra and must have been a powerful and charismatic teacher because he swiftly became popular and widely respected, packing the halls whenever he spoke, at venues throughout Europe. He rose to become England’s top scientist, developing navigational systems that would help transform his country into the naval superpower it would become under Elizabeth.
It was while he was at the University of Louvain in the Netherlands that Dee studied the occult. This was not unusual in those days as the study of science and magic went hand in hand with the constant quest to understand the nature of God.
With such fame and reputation, he was bound to come to the attention of the new monarch. In fact he did so before she was even crowned. When Elizabeth I inherited the throne, Lord Dudley asked Dee to predict the most propitious day for her coronation. From then on, the Queen studied his mystical writings and took to regular consultations with her new ‘conjuror’. Many years later, she took his advice on the timing of the English attack on the Spanish Armada. Dee, it was said, cast a spell that brought huge waves crashing down on the enemy fleet as they advanced toward England’s shores. More likely, he used his knowledge of Meteorology to predict oncoming severe storms. Whatever the truth of it, he got his calculations right. Elizabeth followed his advice and the attack took place precisely following Dee’s advice.
With such a track record of success, Dee’s star could only rise, and it did. Having said that, the Queen made many promises to him that she failed to honour.
Such formidable intellect as Dee’s often treads a precarious path between genius and madness, and Dee appears to have been no exception. As he grew older, he became increasingly obsessed with communicating with angels, using various forms of necromancy including scrying (using a crystal). The results were disappointing but then he recruited a somewhat dubious character, many years his junior. Edward Kelley was twenty-six, an apothecary afflicted with alcoholism who had been punished for counterfeiting coins (he had had his ears cropped). He seems to have won over the academic with his claims for success in the fields of scrying and sorcery and because he claimed to have discovered the famed philosopher’s stone. Dee may have been convinced by him but his wife, Jane, detested him. She clearly believed him to be a charlatan who would drag her husband’s name and reputation into the gutter. Ignoring her concerns, Dee collaborated with Kelley for the next ten years, reporting success on contacting the angels who would transmit pronouncements and prophecies, but the rot was setting in.
In 1583, Dee and Kelly left England for Poland and while he was away, his house, with its incredible library (by far the largest in the country) was ransacked by a mob who believed him to be a wizard. Manuscripts and books were burned and destroyed. When he returned, his frequently fluctuating fortunes vastly depleted and following a final quarrel with Edward Kelley, plague swept England. Dee was widely blamed for it, even though it took his wife and four of their eight children.
The Queen helped him out of his parlous financial state and in 1595, he became warden of Manchester College.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, the pendulum finally swung toward penury where it would remain for John Dee. Under the anti-sorcery. witch-hating James I, he was in a precarious position. Penniless and ageing, he spent the rest of his days selling his books and casting bespoke astrological charts. He was eighty-one when he died – a grand old age for those pestilence-ridden days. He was buried in Mortlake where he had made his home for so many years. Don’t go looking for a gravestone though as it has long since disappeared. However, if you are ever in Manchester, take a trip to the oldest public library in the English-speaking world– Chetham’s Library – where a scorch mark on a desk is said to have been made by the cloven hoof of a devil, conjured up by the good doctor himself…
Now it only remains for me to wish you and yours the best of times and happiest of festive seasons. Don’t forget to curl up with a good ghost story. M.R. James perhaps. Or you can try one of mine if you like. Here’s a couple to be going on with:
See you all, safe and sound I trust, in 2022.
Author's own (photographed at Tudor World, Stratford upon Avon)
Silver Shamrock Publishing