Written by Tadashi

Modified & Updated: 11 Jun 2024

Sherman Smith

Reviewed by Sherman Smith

John Dee

John Dee was a paradox of a man, at once a scholarly figure with a background in classical literature, rhetoric, science, and mathematics. At the same time, he dabbled in religious apocrypha, magic, and divination. Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic with ease.

As a natural philosopher, John was a staunch supporter of mathematics, which resulted in the popularization of geometry as a field and an enhanced degree of respect for mathematics among the general public. Similarly, he was a well-known astronomer and navigation specialist, which led to his instructing and training many British sailors. Simultaneously, John immersed himself in the study of numerous occult disciplines, such as alchemy, magic, and Hermetic philosophy. His interest in such techniques, particularly communing with angels was so profound, he devoted the latter third of his life nearly entirely to them.

These activities, for Dee and many of his contemporaries, were not conflicting, but rather specific facets of a consistent and cohesive world-view they believed in. Learn more about this strange yet truly historical figure with these 50 John Dee Facts.

  1. John Dee lectured on Euclidean geometry at the University of Paris while only in his 20s.
  2. He counted St. John’s College at Cambridge as his alma mater, however.
  3. He also studied at Louvain University in the then-Burgundian Netherlands, now know as modern Belgium.
  4. In his last 30 years of life, he dabbled in the occult, in particular astrology, Hermeticism, and magic.
  5. He also spent time trying to learn what he called the language of angels.
  1. John Dee’s parents, Rowland and Johanna Dee, had him on July 13, 1527.
  2. The Dee family claimed descent from Rhodri the Great, Prince of Wales in the 9th Century.
  3. John Dee first studied at Chelmsford Chantry School, today known as King Edward VI Grammar School.
  4. On graduating from St. John’s College, Dee became a fellow of Cambridge’s Trinity College in 1546.
  5. While in Europe in the late 1540s, he worked with cartographers, Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius.
  6. On returning to England, John Dee declined an academic career in the hopes of a position at Court.
  7. He later became Queen Elizabeth I’s official astrologer and scientific advisor.
  8. In the 1580s, Dee traveled to Europe to pursue his dabbles in the occult.
  9. On his return to England, Queen Elizabeth appointed him Warden of Manchester’s Christ’s College.
  10. King James I refused to provide any support to John Dee, leaving him to die in poverty.
  1. John Dee had 3 wives, of whom only 2 have their names recorded in history.
  2. His first wife, Katherine Constable, died in 1565 before having any children.
  3. Dee’s unknown second wife also died childless in 1576.
  4. Dee had 8 children with his third wife Jane Fromond.
  5. Only 3 of Dee’s children lived past their father.
Table of Contents

John Dee’s father had royal connections.

While he lacked a noble title of his own, Rowland Dee often attended the Court of King Henry VIII as a gentleman courier. In fact, the Dee family attended the coronation of Henry VIII’s father, Henry Tudor, as King Henry VII.

Dee had an impressive work ethic as a student.

He spent only 4 hours sleeping every night, and spent 18 hours every day studying. This allowed Dee to excel at all his subjects, in particular arithmetic, astronomy, geography, Greek, and Latin.

Dee once helped produce a play.

Specifically, “Peace,” written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes in anticipation of the end of the Peloponnesian War. Dee helped produce the play during his time at Trinity College, with the play’s props having Dee’s personal touch in their design.

In particular, he designed and built the beetle which the play’s main character uses to visit the gods with. The design and function of the beetle proved so realistic, the audience thought Dee must have used magic to make it so good. Some even claimed he had made a deal with the devil to make it work as it did. This gave Dee the beginning of his reputation as a magician.

Dee also once tried to build a perpetual motion machine.

Simply put, perpetual motion machines work constantly, without any need for external input to keep them working. Dee tried to build such a machine in cooperation with Italian polymath Gerolamo Cardano, who stayed in London in 1552. Despite their best effort, they never succeeded in actually building the perpetual motion machine, and eventually abandoned the project. Unsurprising, in hindsight, with scientists today unanimously agreeing it’s simply impossible for a perpetual motion machine to exist.

The authorities arrested Dee in 1555.

They charged him with calculation after he cast horoscopes for Queen Mary and then-Princess Elizabeth. As strange as it sounds, at the time, many people actually associated mathematics with magic. This led to his imprisonment for three months in suspicion of having used magic on the English royals. They later escalated the charge to treason against the queen, but ultimately, Dee managed to clear his name.

Queen Mary
Photo by Antonis Mor from Wikipedia

Dee once tried to gain favor with Queen Mary.

This took place in 1556, when Dee submitted a proposal to the Queen for a scheme to compile and preserve England’s literary legacy. It would have included not just books, but also manuscripts and records, and laid the foundation for founding a national library. Queen Mary declined the proposal, however, which led to Dee deciding to focus on expanding his personal collection of literary material.

John Dee owned a massive library.

At the height of his career, historians estimate Dee owned at least 4000 books. At the time, that made it bigger than the libraries of either Cambridge or Oxford.

Dee and Queen Elizabeth used code to communicate with each other.

In his role as her advisor, sometimes Dee needed to pass along information meant for the queen’s eyes alone. It thus only became natural for them to exchange information in a way that none but the two of them could read. However, the most striking point of this fact involved the codename that Dee used whenever he exchanged letters in code with the queen: 007.

Dee also dabbled in alchemy at the time.

Naturally, this involved trying to create a Philosopher’s Stone, which would have the power to turn lead into gold. Also naturally, he failed to ever create a Philosopher’s Stone, for all that he tried to regain royal favor in his old age with the claim that royal support could lead him to success. And once he managed to create a Philosopher’s Stone, he could then use it to solve England’s economic problems. That said, historical research shows Dee wasn’t as devoted an alchemist compared to his other peers. He did, however, make and keep precise records of all his experiments, demonstrating a more professional perspective on the discipline than others.

Dee also tried to gain favor with Emperor Maximilian II of the Holy Roman Empire.

He did so by dedicating his book, Monas Hieroglyphica, to the Emperor, and even tried to present it as a gift during Maximilian’s ascension to the Hungarian Throne. The book essentially made up a long and Cabalistic dissertation on a glyph that Dee made up on his own. The book still exists today, but modern interpreters struggle to understand it, as we lack the secret traditions and knowledge of the occultists of Dee’s day.

Emperor Maximilian II
Photo by Sofonisba Anguissola from Wikipedia

Dee later worked with fellow occultist Edward Kelley.

This started in 1582, with the two men finding common ground in their shared interest in the supernatural. Dee especially thought their tandem could only result in the greater good, and proved especially impressed by Kelley’s supposed abilities as a spirit medium.

Historians, though, view Kelley’s character cynically, and suspect his cooperation with Dee involved more than a bit of delusion on Kelley’s part. In particular, he later told Dee that the angels commanded them to share wives. This disturbed Dee, but he went along at first, before returning to England in less than a year. Kelley himself died soon after, trying to escape from prison, where Emperor Rudolf II had placed him in for failing to produce any results from his alchemy.

About 9 months after Dee and Kelley parted ways, Dee’s wife gave birth to their son Theodore. Historians, however, suspect his father was actually Kelley.

John Dee and Kelley struggled to find a receptive audience in Poland.

They originally went to Poland at the invitation of Polish nobleman Albert Laski, who they met at Court in London. While Dee’s reputation gave him a measure of respect, his association with Queen Elizabeth made the Poles cautious. Some even suspected him a spy for the English queen.

King Stephen Bathory of Poland also proved suspicious of occultism in general, as a result of his deep and devout faith. In particular, the king made it clear that their claims had to have no contradictions with Rome’s teachings or anything that the Pope would disapprove of to gain his support.

Dee kept Christianity as his official religion.

That said, he also followed the Hermetic school of philosophy, along with the Platonic and Pythagorean schools. This led to Dee’s belief in numbers and how the relationships between them provide the basis for reality and keys to knowledge. He also believed that through mathematics, human beings could unlock the latent divine power within them.

Dee also hoped to find a way to end the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism.

This motivated his efforts to communicate with angels, as he believed they would give him the knowledge he needed to achieve his goal. Even Dee’s own dabbling in astrology and fortune-telling, in particular his use of scrying methods, had their basis in that belief.

Dee made his own alphabet and language.

He called it Enochian, after Enoch, the last of patriarchs mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament. Dee claimed Enochian is the basis for all Ancient Semitic languages, and its 21-letter alphabet, the basis for the Aramaic alphabet. That said, those claims collapse in the face of the fact that Enochian’s semantics and other structures all clearly have English origins. As such, historians have no problem dismissing Dee’s claims and instead concluding that he made up Enochian.

Dee returned to England for the last time in 1589.

He did so only to find his home robbed, with his library in particular pillaged of his prized books and instruments. His increased reputation for dabbling in the occult while traveling through Europe also made him less than welcome to many of England’s rich and powerful. Even his old patron, Queen Elizabeth, proved distant to Dee. Many historians even think her appointment of Dee as Warden of Christ’s College as not simply charity, but also a way to get him out of London and out of sight.

Queen Elizabeth I
Photo by National Portrait Gallery from Wikipedia

John Dee advocated the English colonization of the New World.

Dee first did so in 1570, putting forward the idea that the English colonization of the New World would only make England stronger. He further pushed the idea in his work Brytannicae Reipublicae Synopsis in 1570, which involved the state of Elizabethan England at the time.

He did so again in 1576, with the treatise General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. In particular, he added a solid piece of propaganda to the work, with the front page of the book showing Britannia kneeling on a beach asking Queen Elizabeth to expand the Royal Navy. To Dee, a strong Royal Navy went hand in hand with an overseas empire, in order to protect the latter and Britain itself from their enemies.

Dee made quite a fantastic claim to support England’s stake in the New World.

In this, he drew on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s compilation of the King Arthur mythos, in particular, Geoffrey including Ireland in Arthur’s Britain. Dee used this as a basis for supporting and pushing for an overseas empire under British rule.

Dee contributed to the English explorers of his day.

He was the one who taught them the math needed to properly chart their way across the world’s oceans. And with Dee’s experience working with Europe’s cartographers, he also provided the explorers the maps and tools they needed. Though history focuses more on men like Francis Drake, historians agree Dee had an important role in planning and preparing for their expeditions.

Dee could have had a claim on most of what eventually became Canada.

This comes from his friendship and personal relationship with explorer Humphrey Gilbert. As payment for Dee’s support, Gilbert agreed to give Dee all the rights to any lands Gilbert discovered in the New World. Had Gilbert not died on the way back to England in 1583, Dee would have had a claim on most of modern Canada.

Dee may have used the term British Empire for the first time in history.

He first used the term in his book “Brytannicae reipublicae synopsis,” but other historians dispute this. They argue instead that Humphrey Llwyd used it first, in his work “Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum,” published in 1568.

Dee’s reputation struggled for centuries after his death.

Puritan Christian writers who saw occultism with suspicion regarded Dee with more than skepticism. In particular, they saw his claims of speaking with angels as demons actually influencing Dee, instead. Other scholars derided Dee as a delusional madman, easily influenced by charlatans like Kelley. That occult organizations on the fringes continued to hold Dee in high regard did not help the man’s reputation. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Dee’s reputation began to recover, with scholars looking at him more objectively than before.

John Dee worked with famous astronomers of his day.

In particular, he and Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe considered each other friends, and Dee also studied astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ work. Though Dee never publicly supported the Heliocentric model of the universe, he never denounced it either.

Tycho Brahe
Photo by Jacques de Gheyn II from Wikipedia

Among Dee’s students includes Thomas Digges.

Digges was a mathematician and an astronomer from late 16th century England. He gained fame for introducing Copernicus’ work to England’s astronomic community. He also developed the dark night sky paradox, which he used as a basis to support the Heliocentric model of the solar system. In particular, he also rejected Copernicus’ idea of a fixed shell of stars surrounding the solar system. Instead, he argued that stars filled space at varying distances from the Sun.

Dee’s son Arthur went on to have a successful career of his own.

Like his father, Arthur was an alchemist, but he gained fame as a doctor, which gained official posts as a court physician. And not just to a single monarch, but to 2: Tsar Michael I of Russia, and later King Charles I of England.

Popular culture commonly associates Dee with the Voynich Manuscript.

The Voynich Manuscript is a book from the early 15th century, written in an unknown writing system. Some scholars even argue that the book’s script doesn’t actually have a meaning, and the book’s creator just scribbled down something that looks like a script. The association comes from an assumption made by the book’s discoverer, Wilfrid Voynich, who believed Dee had owned the book and sold it to Emperor Rudolf II. Studies show, however, that Dee’s own journals make no evidence he ever owned the book.

Wilfrid Voynich
Photo from Wikipedia

The British Museum holds several artifacts that once belonged to Dee.

Dee’s Speculum is probably the most famous of them all, and which the museum claims was the tool Dee used to scry the future. However, Dee’s own journals make no mention of the speculum, putting its authenticity in doubt. Other items in the museum claimed to belong to Dee include wax seals for his scrying table and the so-called Seal of God on which the speculum rests when in use. Like the speculum, though, their authenticity remains in doubt.

Several authors have referenced John Dee in their works.

William Shakespeare used Dee as the inspiration for the character of Prospero in his play The Tempest. H.P. Lovecraft outright mentioned him in his work, with Dee supposedly among the few people to ever read, and actually translate the forbidden text, The Necronomicon.

Dee has a street named after him in London.

It’s called Dee Road, located near Dee’s historic Mortlake residence in London. The Municipal Borough of Richmond made the decision, which the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames later upheld.

He also appeared in a Victorian-era painting.

British painter Henry Glindoni made it in the 19th century, called John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Queen Elizabeth I. It remains among the best portrayals of Dee, and shows him lighting a fire in a silver goblet on the floor while standing in the middle of Court before the Queen.

Even more striking is that Glindoni actually painted over certain details before he finished the work. Those details only came to light when experts x-rayed the painting in 2016, showing Dee standing in the middle of a circle of human skulls while performing his experiment.

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