Monday, September 3, 2012

Elizabethan Fact of the Day: John Dee's Home Set on Fire

A 16th century portrait of John Dee in the Ashmoleon Museum collection, Oxford University. According to Charlotte Fell Smith, this portrait was painted when Dee was 67 years of age. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In September of 1583, a mob set fire to Master John Dee's home in opposition to his academic pursuits, which some deemed as dubious. Dee and his associate Edward Kelley left London in that same year to travel with a Polish nobleman abroad (MacKay). Upon Dee's return to London six years later, he found much of his personal property in his estate of Mortlake ruined or stolen (MacKay). Queen Elizabeth I agreed to help him financially, appointing him Warden of Christ's College, Manchester in 1595, a position he would hold until his death in 1609 (EB).

The Kitchner Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1580. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

John Dee was a complicated man of many interests and talents; he was an astrologer, prophesier, alchemist, navigator, and mathematician. He was also known to dabble in the occult. Dee collected one of the largest libraries in England so that he could study these topics with ease. Although he was mostly a hermetic scholar, preferring to spend his days in relative seclusion consulting angels and demons, Dee was married twice and had eight children. He also formed close bonds with a few fellow scholars, chief among them Edward Kelley. The associates had a falling out shortly after Kelley informed Dee that an angel had told him that they should share their wives (Roberts)

"John Dee and Edward Kelley, a Magician, in the Act of Invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person." An engraving by Ames of Bristol, from an 1806 edition of Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth I valued Dee's abilities, often consulting him on matters of astrology (which was deemed a real science in the 16th century) and prophesy. By 1577, Queen Elizabeth and her administration had proven so competent that Dee saw fit to predict the formation of an "incomparable British Empire" encompassing most of the Northern Hemisphere, and conquered and maintained by sea power. Dee's foresight of England as Empire came to pass; the foundations for England as we know it today were indeed established in the Elizabethan era.

Instruments used by John Dee in his academic studies, which sometimes crossed over into the occult. These artifacts reside in the British Museum, London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Dee was also held in high regard by Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and other prominent figures at Queen Elizabeth's court.

John Dee's "Seal of God", an intricately carved stone platform to support the "shew-stone", or crystal ball that was used for scrying. British Museum London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Mackay, Charles. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. London: Office of the National Illustrated Library. 1852. Print

"John Dee". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed. ed.). London: Cambridge University Press. 1911.

Julian Roberts, ed. (2005). "A John Dee Chronology, 1509–1609". Renaissance Man: The Reconstructed Libraries of European Scholars: 1450–1700 Series One: The Books and Manuscripts of John Dee, 1527–1608. Adam Matthew Publications. Retrieved 27 October 2006.