The life of John Dee, the pre-eminent magician of the Elizabethan age, remains shrouded in mystery. Can his library, on display for the first time, shed new light?
One of the paintings in the Royal College of Physicians’ new exhibition on the 16th-century scholar, alchemist and magician John Dee shows him performing an experiment at the court of his sometime patron Elizabeth I. As the queen and her entourage look on, Dee, clad in black cassock and skullcap, makes passes with his hands above a brazier in which a high silvery flame burns. It’s a decorous scientific scene in which he might be lecturing on combustion, or demonstrating an obscure material property. When X-rayed, though, the painting tells a different story. Its original design, subsequently painted over, showed the magus performing his “experiment” to the astonished court in the middle of a circle of human skulls.
Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting (reproduced above) dates from the 19th century, so is useless as a source for the life of its remote Elizabethan subject. But its double nature says something important about the character of Dee’s reputation, both in his age and after. History knows him as the pre-eminent magician of his era, a man whose fascination with alchemy and supposed “spiritual conferences” with angels inspired countless fictional portraits. Dee has been suggested as a model both for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and for Shakespeare’s magician Prospero in The Tempest, while in the modern age he has appeared in an opera by Damon Albarn, a novel by Peter Ackroyd, a song by Iron Maiden and the video game Uncharted 3.
The secretive nature of Dee’s work, conducted mainly from his house in Mortlake, meant that he was perpetually contending with rumours and scandals that sought to paint him as a “conjurer” or demonologist.
To his contemporaries, however, Dee was also a polymath engaged with the most cutting-edge science of his day. The magic and alchemy he practised, while never uncontroversial, were intimately woven together with his investigations into religion, mathematics and natural science. Born to a merchant family in London and educated at Cambridge, he rose to eminence during the rule of Elizabeth I, when he became one of the few commoners to be honoured with personal visits from the queen. He was also intimate with the major figures of her court, such as Sir Walter Raleigh and the spymasters Walsingham and Cecil.
“In those dark times,” as the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey observed, “astrologer, mathematician and conjurer were accounted the same things.” The secretive nature of Dee’s work, conducted mainly from his house in Mortlake, meant that he was perpetually contending with rumours and scandals that sought to paint him as a “conjurer” or demonologist. From four centuries’ vantage, however, his position as magus-without-portfolio to the Elizabethan court looks far more scientific than occult. Although Elizabeth was fascinated by his astrological methods, he also corresponded with her intelligencers on cryptography, advised her explorers on navigation and travelled throughout Europe to meet the greatest scholars of his era. In the process he amassed a collection of books which, at about 4,000 volumes, dwarfed the college libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and which he hoped might some day form the basis for a “Library Royal” – in essence, an English national library.
The remnants of this collection are at the centre of the exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians. Katie Birkwood, the college’s rare books and special collections librarian, calls Dee “a man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and what he could learn from it”, and the college’s holdings, the largest single collection of Dee’s books, comprise more than 100 volumes on subjects as various as mathematics, poetry, rhetoric, cryptography, religion and astronomy. The college displays them this month alongside objects associated with a later and more mystical period of Dee’s life. The British Museum lends his crystal ball and a golden disc he supposedly used to contact angels, while the Science Museum provides a “scrying mirror” for seeing visions of the future and a crystal that Dee claimed had been given to him by the angel Uriel.
As Birkwood notes with amusement, the college’s large collection “is all stolen property”, the consequence of an unfortunate episode in Dee’s life. Encouraged by the nobleman Albert Łaski to believe that great riches awaited him in Poland, Dee left England in the 1580s, entrusting his house and library to the care of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond.
“Fromond was meant to look after the house,” Birkwood explains. “But he let a lot of people in. For a long time there was a story that Dee was attacked by a mob who thought he was a black magician, and that they ransacked his house and burnt it down. That was the popular view – but we have an awful lot of the books, and they haven’t been burnt. They’ve been stolen, by people who knew what they were after.”
On his return, Dee was able to recover some of his lost volumes from the rival bibliomanes who had bought or stolen them, but almost half his collection had already been dispersed. A large chunk of it, however, ended up in the library of the Marquess of Dorchester, who bequeathed his collections to the Royal College of Physicians in 1680 to replace the books it had lost in the Great Fire.
Much of the interest of these books, which appear together on show here for the first time, lies in Dee’s marginalia, which offer clues to his early life. One note in a book about astrology records his entry to the service of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Another mentions a period of arrest in the house of Bishop Edmund Bonner, after Dee was questioned by the Star Chamber over his potentially treasonous horoscopes of Queen Mary and her consort Philip. Other marginalia are of more human interest: scribbles in the back pages of his Cicero, still only partially deciphered, suggest that Dee was compelled to set down some events in the life of his mother, “to whom I am very like”.