On This Day In History: John Dee, English Mathematician, Occultist, Astrologer, Astronomer Was Born – On July 13, 1527

Dee, one of the most learned men of his time, lived when people were in the process of learning the difference between science and magic.

From the Private Library of John Dee, Cicero, Opera, Omnia Vol 2, with ship drawing. © RCP and John Chase.

He was also interested in magic and Hermetic philosophy. He spent the last third of his life mainly studying these subjects. During his time, these subjects did not oppose science. They were thought to be part of science.

He graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge, when he was eighteen. He was a founding fellow of Trinity College.

He lectured briefly at Cambridge and later studied in continental Europe under the famous mathematician-cartographers such as Abraham Ortelius and Gerardus Mercator.

Hoping to obtain an official position with the English crown, Dee turned down a mathematical professorship at the University of Paris in 1551 and a similar position at the University of Oxford in 1554.

In 1555, Dee was arrested and charged with practicing black magic for having cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth.

The charges were expanded to treason against Mary; Dee cleared himself, was released, and became a scientific advisor to Elizabeth I, even acting as a spy for her. He built a laboratory and the most extensive private library in England, which was said to have more than 4,000 books and manuscripts.

Left: The Magical Disc. © Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum; Middle: John Dee, Ashmolean Portrait, artist unknown c1594. © Ashmolean Museum; Right: Claude Lorrain, Mirror in a shark skin case, believed at one tie to be John Dee’s scrying mirror. © Science Museum, Wellcome Images

His famous and highly valued work about Kabbala and alchemy is Monas Hieroglyphica (“The Hieroglyphic Monad”), written in 1564. He also wrote the preface to the first English translation of Euclid’s works.

In the early 1580s, he started using supernatural ways to get more knowledge, especially from the angels, so he met Edward Kelly, who became his companion. Kelly helped Dee to get visions from angels using a crystal ball.

The angels gave them a language called Enochian and dictated several books through Kelly. Dee’s crystal ball ended up in the British Museum. It went unnoticed for many years in the mineral collection. Most of its still existing papers of Dee are also in the British Museum.

In 1583, while Dee was away in Europe, his home and library at Mortlake were destroyed by a mob; most probably, many of his books were stolen by former friends and associates.

He asked Queen Elizabeth for help. She made him Warden of Christ’s College, Manchester, in 1592. He remained in this position until 1604. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, Dee was forced to retire.

He died in poverty in 1608 or 1609.