Dee, John

John Dee

John Dee (1527–1608) was an Alchemist, mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer, sometimes called the last royal magician because of his astrological services to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was a scholarly man—some say he was the most learned man in Europe of his time—who was fascinated by the occult and Magic. He was an adept in Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and kabbalistic philosophy. He devoted most of his life to trying to communicate with spirits, for which he had to rely on mediums due to his own lack of psychic ability.

Dee was born in London on July 13, 1527. His father, a Welshman, was a minor official in the court of Henry VIII. As a child Dee exhibited a quick mind. He entered St. John’s College in Cambridge at age 15, vowing that he would spend the rest of his life studying for 18 hours a day, eating for two hours, and sleeping for four. It is not known how well he adhered to this rigorous schedule throughout his 81 years, but he did pursue a lifelong quest for mystical knowledge. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1545, he was given a fellowship at the college. In 1546, Trinity College opened, and Dee transferred there as one of the original fellows, teaching Greek. His intellect and imagination earned him the nickname of sorcerer.

Magic and alchemy intrigued him; at that time, those fields were closely related to science. Dee found Cambridge boring, and from 1547 to 1551, he travelled in France and northern Europe, lecturing and teaching. He caused a sensation in Paris, delivering a series of brilliant lectures on the works of Euclid. Thousands came to hear him speak.

Dee was heavily influenced by the occult writings of Henry Cornelius Agrippa and also by his meeting of Jerome Cardan, a self-professed wizard who apparently possessed genuine clairvoyant ability and could experience astral projection.

Dee was plagued with money problems and decided that alchemy could provide the solution. He was determined to contact spirit forces who would help him find the philosopher’s stone or discover buried treasure. He paid great attention to his dreams and tried scrying. Except for a few instances during his life, Dee was unable to see or hear spirits. Dee considered himself a resolute Christian; the spirits he sought were angels, not Demons. He believed that the magic he pursued was pure and good and not Demonic or evil. His intense desire to communicate with the spirit realm led him into gullible relationships with unscrupulous people.

In 1551, after the death of Henry VIII, Dee returned to England and was granted a pension by Henry’s 10-year-old successor, Edward VI. Edward died at 16 and with him Dee’s hopes for a financially secure future. His prospects brightened when Queen Mary gained the throne and asked him to cast her horoscope. He also visited Mary’s younger sister, Elizabeth, whom Mary had imprisoned, and cast a horoscope for her to determine when Mary would die. For this, Dee was accused of attempting to murder Mary by black magic, and he was imprisoned. He was also accused of murdering children by Sorcery (for which he was acquitted) and for being “a companion of hellhounds and a caller and conjurer of wicked and damned spirits.” He was found not guilty of treason and was released in 1555.

Dee’s friendship with Elizabeth proved beneficial to him. Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth ascended the throne. Much more superstitious and interested in Astrology than her sister, she consulted Dee for an auspicious day for her coronation in 1558. His horoscope casting gained favour in court, and he also gave Elizabeth lessons in mystical interpretations of his writings. But Elizabeth never granted him the generous pension he sought, and his income from horoscope casting was meager. He was able to buy a riverside home at Mortlake; once Elizabeth and her courtiers paid a visit to him there to see his famous scrying smoky quartz crystal.

Dee performed various tasks. He interpreted the appearance of a comet. But when called upon to exorcize some possessed children, he could do no more than to refer the family to preachers for help. On another occasion, he counteracted a death spell against the queen, which was discovered when a man found a poppet of her stuck with pins in a field. Elizabeth afforded him protection against his detractors, who would have had him accused of witchcraft . According to lore, he spied for Elizabeth on his travels around the Continent.

Catherine de Médicis, the queen of France, was among Dee’s regular and most important clientele. Catherine was a big believer in magic and the occult arts and made no personal or public decisions without consulting a host of diviners and magicians. Dee divined the future of her sons. It is likely that Dee shaped his predictions to suit her interests and did the same with other clients as well, especially royalty and nobility.

Dee’s modest income still enabled him to collect thousands of occult and esoteric books. His library of 4,000 volumes became famous and may have been one of the largest such collections of the time. Most of the books were salvaged from monasteries and churches ransacked under the dissolution orders of Henry VIII. Other books came from his travels. In Antwerp in 1563, he found a rare copy of Stenographia, written about 100 years earlier by the German Benedictine abbot, Johann Trithemius, on magic, numbers, cyphers, and symbols. This inspired Dee to write his own book on the subject, Monas Hieroglyphia. Dee wrote 79 manuscripts in all, but few were published by the time of his death.

Dee was married three times. His first marriage, to Katherine Constable, took place in 1565. Little is known about her, but evidently, she died by 1575 when Dee married for the second time. His unknown second wife died in 1576 of the plague, and in 1578, he married Jane Fromond, much younger than he. She bore him eight children.

By 1580, Dee was thoroughly immersed in magic and alchemy and believed that he was in communication with angels and spirits. He dressed like an exotic wizard. He scried with both the smoky quartz and a disk of polished cannel coal.

In 1581, Dee had an experience that set his life on a new track. Late one autumn evening he knelt in prayer when, by his own account, “there suddenly glowed a dazzling light, in the midst of which, in all his glory, stood the great angel, Uriel.” The angel gave him a crystal “most bright, most clear and glorious, of the bigness of an egg.” Uriel told Dee that he could communicate with spirits by gazing into the crystal.

Dee was ecstatic at this prospect, but his scrying efforts were not fruitful. In his diary, he recorded his dreams, alleged spirit rappings, and the few times he thought he saw spirits. Frustrated, Dee hired others to help him. The assistant would scry while Dee took down notes. His first partnership was with a young man named Barnabas Saul, who got into trouble with the law after a few months.

Then in 1582 Dee met Edward Kelly, a rogue and opportunist who had lost his ears as punishment for forgery. Kelly said he could communicate with spirits. For seven years, the two had an uneasy partnership; Dee never saw through Kelly’s charlatan ways. Kelly was hot-tempered, impetuous, and opportunistic, and he wanted only to make a quick fortune in alchemy. Dee was low key, serious, and scholarly and an easy target for manipulation.

Kelly impressed Dee by gazing into Dee’s crystal and claiming to see angels. According to Dee, Kelly said that “in the middle of the stone seemeth to stand a little round thing like a spark of fire, and it increaseth, and it seemeth to be as a globe of twenty inches in diameter, or there about.” The glowing globe contained a host of angels who spoke in Enochian, their language and the language of Paradise. (See Enochian magic.)

Kelly soon moved into the Dee house in Mortlake. Dee’s wife took an instinctive and immediate dislike to Kelly, who was rumoured to practice Necromancy and be inhabited by an evil spirit. But Kelly held the upper hand in his strange relationship with the studious Dee. Kelly would gaze into a crystal and summon spirits with incantations, or “calls” in Enochian. He said he could see and hear the spirits, and he acted as intermediary for Dee, who would pose questions to them. Prominent among the spirits were Uriel, the angel of light in the kabbalah, and a childlike being named Madimi; Dee named one of his daughters after her.

Shortly after Kelly arrived on the scene, Dee was rewarded with one of his few psychic experiences in which he saw Uriel floating outside his window, holding a pale pink crystal about the size of an orange. Then the Archangel Michael appeared and told Dee to use it. This crystal, Dee’s “magic mirror”—a black obsidian mirror from Mexico—and other of his magical instruments are on display in the British Museum.

Dee and Kelly provided their mediumistic services to a variety of nobles, including Count Albert Laski of Poland, who urged them to come to Poland. Laski had lost his fortune and was in hopes of recovering it quickly through alchemy. In 1584, Dee, Kelly, and their wives and families set off on a four-year journey around the Continent, performing for royalty and nobility but without much success. They stayed first at Laski’s castle in Cracow, but when Dee and Kelly failed to produce gold, Laski sent them to Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. Rudolf was unimpressed. The pair managed to get an introduction to King Stephen of Poland. They staged a Séance for him, but the king suspected them of fraud and sent them back to Prague. They were thrown out of the city because the pope accused Dee of necromancy. They went to Erfurt but were turned away by authorities. They had a short stay at Hesse-Cassel and then finally were invited by Count Rosenberg to his castle Tribau in Bohemia.

Dee and Kelly had numerous quarrels, and Kelly would quit scrying for periods of time. The breaking point came in 1587 when Kelly informed Dee that a female spirit had ordered them to share wives, which Dee reluctantly agreed to do. Jane was hysterical but acquiesced, and the Dees signed a written contract with Kelly. It is not recorded whether or not Kelly actually slept with her, but shortly after that, the strange partnership between Dee and Kelly broke up, and in 1588 the Dees returned to England. Kelly remained in Europe and went to Prague. In 1595 he died from severe injuries suffered when he tried to escape from prison.

Back in England, Dee found his Mortlake house ransacked by his enemies and a good number of his books and scientific instruments destroyed. Elizabeth reimbursed him for some of the 2,000 pounds in damages he claimed, and he was able to salvage some 3,000 books, most of which are in British museums.

Elizabeth made him warden of Christ’s College in Manchester in 1595, but Dee did not find the job fulfilling. Jane died of the plague. Elizabeth died in 1603, and her successor, James I, was a firm opponent of magic and witchcraft. Dee retired to Mortlake where he lived in poverty. He subsisted on a meager income from fortune-telling and was forced to sell some of his remaining precious books to eat.

He found a new scrying partner, Bartholomew Hickman, who said he could communicate with the angel Raphael. The spirit offered Dee vague murmurings of discovering the secrets of God and the universe that he had pursued for so many years, but none were realized. Another scryer also proved to be dishonest.

Dee died in obscurity in 1608 and was buried at Mortlake church. His biographer, John Aubrey, described him in his last years as a beaten old man who had a “long beard as white as milke, tall and slender, who wore a gowne with hanging sleeves.”

Dee’s son, Arthur, became an alchemist and served as physician to the Czar of Russia and to Charles I. Only a small proportion of Dee’s angel diaries survive; most were destroyed either by him or by a maid who used the pages as pie plate liners. In the mid-19th century, one of his private diaries was discovered, written in a small, nearly illegible script on the margins of old almanacks. The notes recount Dee’s European adventures with Kelley and Dee’s belief that Kelley had indeed unlocked the secret of the philosopher’s stone. In addition, five of his diaries from 1582–83 were discovered in an old chest and were published in 2003.

Dee’s work influenced the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, although Aleister Crowley described Dee as a humorless old man and expressed reverence for Kelly.

See Also:

Further Reading:

  • Dee, John. True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 1999.
  • Halliwell, James Orchard. Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the Catalog of His Library of Alchemical Manuscripts. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 1997.
  • Harkness, Deborah E. John Dee’s Conversations with Angels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
  • Peterson, Joseph. John Dee’s Five Books of Mystery: Original Sourcebook of Enochian Magic. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2003.
  • Suster, Gerald. John Dee: Essential Readings. London: Crucible, 1986.


The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy  Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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