I’ve just recently uploaded a new episode of my Renaissance English History Podcast, which focused on trade and exploration in Elizabethan England. While researching it, I came upon several interesting men who had major roles in the creation of the Age of Discovery. One was Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot who was possibly England’s earliest explorer to sail across the Atlantic Ocean when he was commissioned by Henry VII. Sebastian spent most of his career in Spain, coming back to England to work towards expanding English voyages of discovery, and played a key role in the trip that discovered a sea route to Russia. Another was Richard Hakluyt, England’s first travel writer. But without a doubt, the most interesting man I’ve stumbled upon so far is John Dee, who was at once a mathematician, expert navigator, dabbler in occult philosophy, practicing alchemist, and conjurer of angels. A powerful man who was the official philosopher to Elizabeth I, he had England’s largest library with over 4000 books, and he also had a conjuring table. These things don’t sit well with most modern minds, living as we do in a time when science and the occult are clearly delineated, but until the Enlightenment, science didn’t distinguish between “real” science and “occult” science. John Dee is perhaps the best example of a man who straddled both worlds, just as they were both beginning to divide and separate.
He was born in 1527, in London, and early on showed a curious mind, and chased knowledge. In an age where court astrologers would make predictions on the sex of an unborn child, and witchcraft was seen as a very real force, the lines between science and the occult were blurred. What is now chemistry would have included alchemy and the search to find the Philosopher’s Stone (not just the Harry Potter version) or to discover a way to turn rocks into gold. Anyone with an interest in science would have wound up doing experiments that we would laugh at now. There was still a debate about how many angels could fit on the edge of a pin. Some in the church believed that mathematics were a black magic.
In the mid 1500’s Princess Elizabeth asked John Dee to cast the horoscopes for both her, and her sister Mary. The horoscope showed that Elizabeth would come to the throne and have a long and happy reign. But he was discovered having done this, and was thrown into the Tower where he shared space with some of the Protestant Marian martyrs. Once Elizabeth inherited the throne, she restored him to favor, appointing him her Royal Astrologer (calling him her “noble intelligencia”) and he even chose the date for her coronation.
He was incredibly respected in court circles. In 1570 he was commissioned to write a report commissioned by Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton in 1570 called the Brytannicae Republicae Synopsis – Summary on the Commonwealth of Britain. In the report he summarized issues facing the country, and the possible outcomes of various actions, as well as his suggested solutions. Later in 1577 he proposed the rise of a British Empire using historical precedents which asserted England’s prior claims to the New World. He believed that England should invest in a navy and prove maritime supremacy, which would make his vision a reality, and then England could become wealthier through using resources found in the America’s and other newly discovered places. He would put these words into practice, serving as a consultant for The Muscovy Company in 1575, training the crew how to read charts and maps, and how to use some of the new instruments they had available.
His life would become complicated later when he came into contact with a medium named Edward Kelly, with whom he worked to conjure angels. These sessions were always done with an air of pious Christianity – after periods of fasting, for example – but they still smelled of the occult to many authorities. Queen Elizabeth had to step in more than once to make sure that Dee wasn’t persecuted. He visited Poland and Czechoslovakia with Kelly, and there Kelly told him that one of the angels had spoken and insisted that the men were to share all their possessions, including their wives. Dee complied, and the whole thing gets a bit sensational and tawdry for a bit. Suffice it to say that Dee got a bit fed up with the situation, and moved back to England where he was made Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester (thanks to Elizabeth) and continued his research until he died in either 1608 or 1609.
Within two generations, the type of “science” that John Dee did would have been relegated to the world of black magic and done in secret in basements. But he also played a part in creating that Enlightenment movement with his work on geometry and mathematics in general. He’s a fascinating personality, worthy of study not just because of the influence he had on Elizabethan England, but also because of the type of man he represented – the brilliant doctor of medicine who also conjured angels – which would soon be extinct.