Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The lost library of John Dee

By Anna McKerrow

Pages from Dee's copy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometric.
Pages from Dee's copy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometric

John Dee is one of the most fascinating characters provided by centuries of English history and the recent exhibition of the remnants of his library at the Royal College of Physicians provided fresh insight into the mind of one of the great Elizabethan magician scientists.

In his lifetime, John Dee assembled one of the greatest private libraries of 16th century England. He claimed to have owned over 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts which he kept at his house in Mortlake, Surrey. However, when Dee embarked on his travels in the 1580s, he left his library and laboratories in the care of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond. While Dee was away, Fromond “unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away”. Libraries are, of course, nowadays also prone to extinction for financial ends. We must hope that, as Jorge Luis Borges says, “the library will endure: it is the universe”. Luckily, some of Dee’s library remains.

Dee was devastated at the loss of his library, and many of his books were lost forever. However, some of his books came into the possession of a student of his, Nicholas Saunder.  Saunder’s collection later passed to Henry Pierrepont, marquis of Dorchester and book collector. After his death in 1680, Pierrepont’s family bequeathed his entire library to the Society of Physicians. And in the vaults those 100-or-so books remained, the largest existing collection of books belonging to John Dee in the world, until they were examined by the Society’s curators for the current exhibition.

And what a collection it is. Not only are they a selection of books spanning the many scientific, philosophical and magical disciplines by which Dee was fascinated; they are also beautiful artefacts in their own right. Better even than their beauty, though, are Dee’s frequent annotations throughout the texts. He makes notes in Latin, makes note of questions and highlights passages both by underlining and drawing “manicules”, wonderfully cartoonish hands that highlight points of interest. And sometimes, even the legendary genius even doodles – the main image for the exhibition is a beautiful ship in full sail, drawn at the bottom corner of a page in Cicero’s Opera (1539-40). At other times, Dee’s sheer inventiveness refused to be constrained by the flat page of the book and he constructs three-dimensional shapes that stand up from the page.

Dee's copy of Ptolemy - Quadriparti, 1519
Dee’s copy of Ptolemy – Quadriparti, 1519

Even in this collection of books, we can see what an original thinker Dee is. Intensely conversant with a huge range of the wisdom of his age, but always seeking to add to, to develop and deconstruct those ideas into shapes. For Dee, theses shapes do not belong solely in easily-defined categories such as mathematics, history or astronomy, but somewhere else: in another space which might not yet technically exist – at least, not in the accepted academic and societal discourse of Tudor times.

Perhaps appropriately for the owner of a large library, Dee has also exerted a considerable, if indirect, influence on writers and artists across the centuries. It seemed wholly fitting that the author Jeanette Winterson delivered a speech at the opening of the exhibition. I also spotted recent Costa Award Winner Frances Hardinge, the wonderful author of fantastical children’s literature, peering at Dee’s crystals alongside me.

Hardinge told me of her fascination with alchemy, hoping that the exhibition could provide research for a new book. She would be in excellent company, alongside Shakespeare, who purportedly based the character of Prospero in The Tempest on Dee; Dee also appears in works by authors as diverse as Peter Ackroyd (The House of Doctor Dee, 1994), Damon Albarn (Dr Dee, An English Opera, premiered at the Palace Theatre in Manchester on 1 July 2011 and opened at the London Coliseum as part of the London 2012 Festival for the Cultural Olympiad in June 2012) and the makers of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception for PlayStation in which players follow clues left for them by Dee, who appears as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster.

Dee clearly retains an enduring fascination for writers in all genres, partly, perhaps, because of his glamorous association with the occult, as well as the controversy he attracted in his lifetime, married with his presence in Queen Elizabeth’s court. However, I also think that Dee retains a potent legacy as a liminal figure, one who sought to forge links between the marginal and the mainstream. This has created an image of him in our minds today as a firebrand, a trailblazer, someone who sought to create union between apparently-opposed disciplines. It’s this process of bridge building, his navigation between apparently disparate spheres, that still intrigues the creative mind. As Steve Jobs, (a highly creative innovator I feel Dee would have admired), said:

‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things.’

Dee did not draw distinctions between his mathematical research and his investigations into Hermetic magic, angel summoning and divination. Instead, he considered that all of his activities constitutes 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”. His was the search for wholeness, of a holistic philosophy that could include occult and “normal” sciences together.  In practice, he didn’t succeed in uniting the two sides in his lifetime, but he continues to inspire those creatives, occultists, mystics and thinkers that seek synthesis now.

The exhibition provokes us, therefore, to consider themes of marginality, the hidden, secret and occult, and the quest for wholeness. Dee was at once a respected member of the establishment of his time and also a stranger on the margins, looking in. The same insecurity surrounds his work now; on the night of the exhibition opening there were still smiles of soft ridicule at mentions of Dee’s angelic occult work from the many academics present, as if to say but we all know that was fantasy; that he may have been a talented polymath, but his role as magician was now something they could now look at with objectivity and know that he went a bit strange. That magic is not real. Dee continues to be plagued by the same division of status between respected scholar and fantastical charlatan. To the opinion makers of the day, Dee’s work channelling the language and names of angels with medium Edward Kelley had no place in their discourse. Neither does it today, of course.

The Times’ article on this exhibition described Dee’s angelic work as a “dead end”, a disappointment after his previous adeptness with the traditional sciences.To further demonstrate the point: the exhibition includes an oil painting by 19th century artist, Henry Gillard Glindoni, which depicts Dee conducting a ceremony at Elizabeth’s court. The exhibition curators discovered, when x-raying the painting, that Glindoni had in fact painted over his original depiction of a circle of skulls on the floor surrounding Dee. In a deeply wonderful and typically occult fashion, the skulls are becoming slowly visible again as the chemicals in the paint degrade over time.

The painting reflects the duality of marginality versus establishment which is ever present with Dr Dee. Glindoni’s painting reflects the public preoccupation with him as a glamorous and fascinating figure (especially in the Victorian era with the resurgence of interest in the occult) but also the lack of willingness to consider that Dee’s work in the occult was at all credible. The painted-over skulls may have been disliked by whoever commissioned the painting; perhaps Glindoni regretted painting them himself.

But what seems obvious is that Dee will not lie quiet, and remains too intriguing to all of us. His books are lost then found; he is punished then exonerated; the skulls are painted in, painted over and then, slowly, reveal themselves once more; he is a magician and then a charlatan and a magician again.

However, to a modern occultist, Dee is a visionary. Enochian Magic provided inspiration for Crowley and Mathers in their formation of the Golden Dawn, and that hermetic influence in turn helped form many of the other paths we know today, particularly Wicca. So for many on a pagan or occult path, Dee is not a mysterious, controversial failure; attending this exhibition is to walk among the possessions of a trailblazer. For those of us that still aspire to have Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel, or even just those of us that accept that speaking with Angels is possible (Dee would presumably be delighted – or horrified – at the plethora of “little books of angel wisdom” now on the market), the work of those latter years are very much the reverse of a dead end – rather, a highway to the stars, signposted with manicules.


Professor Ronald Hutton on Dee: “One of the greatest magicians of all time.”

John Dee Ashmolean Portrait, Artist Unknown c1594 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
John Dee Ashmolean Portrait, Artist Unknown c1594 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

“The popular reputation of Dee is cluttered by myths invented by unscrupulous potboiler-manufacturers: that he was a secret agent codenamed 007; that he found a temple of the stars at Glastonbury; that his famous library was destroyed by a mob, and so on.

“Academic authors have developed a different kind of myth: that he was a brilliant scientist who ruined his career by getting side-tracked into magic.

“It now seems certain that he was not a very good scientist, as he depended most on taking ideas from others and extending and promoting them as his own, into very ambitious and impractical schemes. That is why he increasingly turned to ceremonial magic, where there were apparently rich pickings to be made – as long as it worked.

“Many European governments were, at least clandestinely, prepared to fund magicians, and especially astrologers and alchemists, if they made plausible applications. The ministers concerned were uneasily aware that what promised in return was probably absurd, but could not run the risk that one of these characters was actually on to something, and might deliver a skill like turning base metal into gold, or a doomsday weapon, to a rival regime.

“Dee, however, eventually failed here too, because he was less adroit in manipulating powerful courtiers and politicians than his competitors. That is why he ended up going for bust: wandering Europe seeking a rich patron while attempting contact with angels who would hand him all the secrets of the universe. His model here was that of the Biblical prophets, who could directly access divine wisdom.

“You could call him a failure in this too. Dee ended up with none of the results that he sought and was kept alive into a very old age by the kindness of friends and family. In the process, however, he and his medium Edward Kelly (alias Talbot, alias…) developed one of the most impressive systems of ritual magic – the Enochian – the world has ever known. And practitioners have used it to good effect ever since the Victorian magical revival. Aspects have trickled into other traditions: anyone who calls the ‘Lords of the Watchtowers’ in a circle, for example, is ultimately quoting Dee.

Our current Doctor Dee looks like a hugely overambitious serial loser, who nonetheless still counts as one of the greatest magicians of all time.”








Images courtesy of Royal College of Physicians