The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee Glynn Parry

Yale, pp.336, 25

Like the dyslexic Faustus who sold his soul to Santa, the life of John Dee was a black comedy of errors. His vain and vulgar efforts to harness the occult for material ends often rendered him ridiculous. But there is a darker tale in Dee’s work for the Tudor state: a story of dodgy dossiers, fear-mongering and greed.

During the Tudor period no clear distinction was made between science and magic. John Dee’s study at Cambridge of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy enabled him to become a navigational consultant, who worked with England’s greatest explorers. But it also helped him measure the rays of celestial virtue that emanated from the stars and influenced human affairs. Mathematics helped him predict the future — and that was a much sought-after skill.

In the absence of news media, economists and pollsters, the powerful were desperate for expert guidance on what the future might hold. And if their belief in the value of astrological readings is that of another age, their understanding of the propaganda value of political forecasts was as sophisticated as our own. In 1558 Catherine de Medici’s conjuror Nostradamus, predicted a stream of calamities for the English enemy under their new queen, Elizabeth I. To calm national nerves Dee was hired, not to pick an auspicious date for Elizabeth’s coronation, as has long been claimed, but (Parry reveals) in the assumption that he would cast a more positive horoscope.

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For over 20 years Dee continued to prove occasionally useful to his political masters: hard-headed men such as Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, and her Secretary of State, William Cecil. His prophecies supported Dudley’s pursuit of war in the Netherlands and Cecil’s desire to ever raise the threat alert against Catholics. But the occult was a dangerous business to be in. Accusations of black magic could lead you to the rope, and having the right political protection was all-important. Invariably those in league with Satan were found amongst the ideological opponents of those in power.

The problem for a jobbing magician seeking patronage was that religious affiliations could change overnight. Dee had cast horoscopes and crystal gazed for Elizabeth during her Catholic sister Mary’s reign, at a time when Elizabeth was suspected of treason. He had saved his neck by ‘coming out’ as a Catholic priest and taking up a post with the Protestant-burning bishop of London, Edmund Bonner. This was not forgotten or forgiven by all Protestant Elizabethans. Despite Dee’s marriages and ‘discoveries’ of Catholic threats, he was smeared as a ‘conjuror’ of evil spirits.

Dee’s poor judgment got him into further trouble in 1583. The arrival of the exotic looking Polish nobleman Albrecht Laski caused a sensation at court. He wore a red costume and had a magnificent white beard tucked into his belt. The Queen seemed to like him. Dee had employed a new whiz of a ‘scryer’ who could talk to angels, and they were saying Laski would be King of Poland. Only too late did Dee discover that Cecil disliked any encouragement of the Catholic Laski’s ambitions. The angels’ prophecies did for Dee at court. He went broke and had to flee England with Laski and the scryer.  

In Europe the comedy of errors continued as the scryer — a drunken fraudster called Kelly — developed a reputation as an alchemist. Kelly persuaded Dee that the angels had told him that he could only keep his powers of transmutation if they swapped wives for sex. Dee, and the wives, dutifully (if unhappily) agreed. And to be fair, the wife-swapping seemed to work. When Dee returned to England in 1589 it was only because Elizabeth hoped he might be able to bring the great alchemist, Kelly, with him.

The place of the occult in Tudor politics is a fascinating and largely untold story.  Unfortunately Glyn Parry’s life of Dee suffers the weakness as well as the strengths of the scholarly biography. The narrative sinks beneath the weight of detail. The long passages on Dee’s occult writings and practices are particularly dull — like having some one relay to you their dreams. We get to know Dee, but the ‘old imposturing juggler’, turns out to have been a bit of a bore.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, History, Magic, Non-fiction, Science