Saturday, 16 July 2011

John Dee - It's all done by mirrors. ( a little bit of magic).

John Dee was a noted Welsh mathematician, geographer, occultist, astronomer and astrologer. He is currentlly back in vogue due to Damon Albarn's English opera ' Doctor Dee'.
Born in London on July 13th , 1527, to a welsh father, his was an age of illusion and supernatural conviction, his surname derived from the Welsh word 'du' which means black. He went to St John's College , Cambridge at the age of 15 in 1542 where he developed a formidable reputation for his burning intelligence and as some kind of magician. He seemed possessed by a thirst for knowledge, driven by an otherworldly sense, with a taste for theatrics that were driven on by divine schemes, accompanied by alchemical secrets that coarsed through his bloodstream.
He devoted his time to scholarly pursuits and settled in a riverside house at Mortlake where his personal library became the largest in the country and was considered one of the finest in Europe. He also amassed a vast array of musical intruments from around the globe which he was more than capable of playing.
It was to the  world of the occult that  he beame engrossed and he came to believe himself in communication with angels and spirits, a  gentle, unsuspicious man, dressing and looking the part of a magus, wearing a long gown with a long beard as white as milk.
He became something of an expert on various occult disciplines, including alchemy and hermetic philosophy and engaged in the discipline of scying.
Because of what people thought he knew he was courted by royalty, first by Queen Mary, which led to difficulties because he was charged with treason and swiftly thrown into jail,thios could have been the end of his career, lucky for him however Mary passed away and her sister Elizabeth looked upon him more favourably, and he became her sort of errand boy, travelling on many occasions to the continent on her behalf, becomming in the end  a kind of personal consultant to her. He was also to have engaged on a number of spying activities on her behalf, an all seeing eye and all that.  It has been said that he invented British imperialism , because through his visionary experiences he found reasons for England's territorial claims on the New World and hence it's colonisation. He certainly perpetrated the Madoc myth, a story of a Welsh Prince who apparently discovered America in 1170 and together with other Welsh people srttled with Native Americans, it was said that their were red indians who spoke Welsh, it is a story I would love to believe.
It must be said though that most of his magic seemed benevolent and philanthropic, and he did not seem to use his skills for personal advancement or to harm anyone with his powers, devoting himself to his dreams and prophecies, and a quest to find the secret of the Philosophers Stone and the secret of divining buried treasure, spending long hours crystal gazing. looking for future's glimpse to reveal themselves to him. In his time quite powerful,  popular too, pious but devoted. Feeding the intellectual streams of Elizabethan England. An active mind ,perhaps too busy for simple serene contemplation .

In 1564 he wrote the hermetic text Monas Hieroqlytica ( the Hicroglypic Moda,) an exhaustive mystical tract bringing together a myriad of strands that he was interested in, unifying numerology, mysticism and textual Qabalah using symbolist language and revelatory insight, and within it lay foundations for the spiritual ideas of alchemy. He was apparently held in high regard, and was courted by various luminaries.
John Dee's intellectual curiosity was at all times enormos, and there is little doubt that the occult interested him more than anything else, in spite of his great learning in other directions. However he was not a witch, and he bitterly resented his own all too firmly established reputation as a magician. In the Preface which he wrote to Henry Billingsley's translation of the Euchid's Elements in 1571, he complained of the injustice he suffered from those who think of him as 'a companion of Hellhounds, and a caller and a conjurer of wicked and damned spirits'. 
He married twice and had 8 children. Details of his first marriage are not readily vailable, but it is certain that in 1578 he married the 23 year old Jane Fromond when he was 51.
On March 10th 1582, he was visited by an irishman called Edward Kelley who seemed in awe of his power and wanted to learn more, unfortunately Kelley was a forger and coiner who had a bad reputation as a confidence trickster. Somehow Dee fell for his charms and had soon moved into Dee's house and during this period all manners of strange manifestations occurred, contacting spirits, with Kelley soon beginning to see himself as the master and claiming to have the gift of second sight. Together they developed a communication system from divine sources and established a dialogue with angels through  language called 'Enocha'.   Kelley himself was a fast learner. They summoned up a spirit who appeared and announced its name as Uriel, given directions for the invocation of other spirits. Perhaps under the influence of Kelley, Uriel urged Dee to engage Kelley as his regular scryer and telling him that him and Kelley should always work together. Any money that Dee made at this time wound up in the lining of Kelley's pockets. They travelled together to Europe and had a number of mystical adventures together. Whilst at Glastonbury Kelly was lucky enough to unearth a supply of the philosophers stone but this was of very dubious authenticity, wheras their was something of the genuine about Dee, for me I feel that Kelley was something of a charlaton.
Kelley was  a skilled manipulator, that Dee trusted ,and in April 1587 in Bohemia, Kelley saw in the crystal a naked woman who directed that in future the scryer and his master should have their wives in common. Dee at first could not accept this, but Kelley  pushed and pushed, telling Dee that they had to obey the command of the spirit, and in the end Dee succumbed to Kelley's will.
Dee himself wrote : ' On Sunday the third of May, Anno 1587, I , John Dee, Edward Kelley, and our two wives ( Jane Dee and Joan Kelley), covenated with God, and subscribed the same, for insissoluble and invioable unities, charity and friendship keeping between us four; and all things between us to be common, as God by sundry means willed us to do.'
Their were probably many strange sexual encounters, but inevitably I suppose it did not work out, they quarelled constanly. In 1588 Kelley left for Prague where he ended up in prison, released after 4 years he was imprisoned again and was killed attempting to escape.  
Dee returned to England in 1589 to Mortlake and was recieved by the Queen at Richmond, and awarded him a pension of £200 a year that was her debt to him. Unfortunately his library had been ranshacked and lay in ruins and many of his beloved musical instruments were stolen. He spent his final days with his influence on the wain, but was given the wardenship of Manchester College.In 1604, he was evidently once again troubled by his own reputation for sorcery, or feared persecution, in view of the new Witchcraft Act then being debated in Parliament. He petitioned King James to have him 'tryed and cleared of that horrible and damnable, and to him the most grevious and damnageable sclaunder... that he is, or hath been a conjurer or caller or invocator of divels'. The King did not grant him his request, but did not bother him in any way.
He died peacefully, though sadly in poverty, though at the ripe old age of 82, four years later at Mortlake. Hhis life had  long flown, but  he was still writing , still chasing his dreams. 
By then  the age of magic  and sorcery was passing too, but I for one am still dazzled and grateful for his story.  Every passionate assertion calls forth some contradiction and every firmly-held creed knows at least some doubters and some sceptics.
Through time, he was not forgotten, Shakespeare's character Prospero was based on him, and he still flickers through the centuries in  many a fine book,  his business as a wise man, still incredulous to this day. Tempests still hurled, and on the window sills , oceans of treachery.
So follow your own dreams, your own paths, if you can!
Be careful who you mix with, sometimes destiny's forecast is everlasting.
Create your own way, with your own maps and scattered illusions. You only have one chance.

Further Reading:-

The Private Diary of John Dee - John Dee, Bastion Books.

The Queens Conjurer : the science and magic of Doctor Dee - Benjamin Woolley

The House of Doctor Dee - Peter Ackroyd. 

Oh incidentally first became aware of Dee, in the film Jubilee (1977) - Derek Jarman, where Queen Elizabeth is magically transported through time by Dee ( Richard O Brien)

and as for borrowing, it was the great Alan Moore, whose idea that Mr Gorillaz man inevitably pinched.

Richard O Brien as John Dee in Jubilee (1977)

ROBERT MINHINNICK - On a Portrait of John Dee

( Spy, Astrologer, Mathematician.)

This black canvas n Elizabethan night.
Only the dimmed  lantern of the face,
That hand holding  a testament
Obstruct the gloom. Appropriate

The artis'ts doubt. How to decipher
code of this man's life, the lean
Courtier, bittern-necked, in corset of stiff lace,
His slightest thread of smile itself

A wordless cryptogram? Could oils preserve
A pale astrologer, whose superstitious
Scholarship transfered the evenings bestiary
Of stars to royal horoscopes, whose harmless

Chess became a skill deployed round living kings.
Such brilliant paradox must fascinate.
This squalid agent of a vicious state
Grew older, found retirment, and poses here

Respectable and rich. Profound John Dee
Your life suggests the real, essential irony
Our flatter lives conceal. You, modernist,
A riddle to our reasoning, our medieval mind.

Poetry Wales , Winter 1977, Volume 13 No.3



  1. I sought out John Dee's scrying or magic mirror (speculum) in the British Museum a few years back. It looked like a blackened table tennis bat. Bit disappointing really as I expected it to look like a crystal ball.
    He probably scatched his sums on it; if he was around today - which he may be, in homuncular form perhaps - he'd be one of Cameron's economic advisers. And Kelley would be Murdoch (hmm, Rebecca thingy does bear similarities to old queen Bess, does she not [I wonder if she has wooden teeth?]?).
    Lunch! roy

  2. ah , yes probably a paid advisor to some corporate vampires. Rebecca thingy sure is a srange one, then she was married to Ross Kemp...... I'm sure they've done a lot of necromancing together. I'm sure it will be a reality doc on Channel 5 soon. Kelley at least seemed to make it up as he went along. I don't think he had a plan of sorts.

  3. insightful read wonderfully written :)

  4. why thank you kindly, always appreciate a bit of feedback.....regards.