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John Dee: Biography

Portrait of John Dee in possession of Oxford University

Born 13 July 1527, John Dee is one of the constellation of Englishmen from the Elizabethan period who still grip the imagination to this day. In 1542 he entered St. John's College in Cambridge where he studied a variety of subjects including, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, Greek, Latin, and astronomy. He graduated in 1546.

1547 saw him travelling Europe where he lectured and studied. He was interested in astronomy especially the manner in which it overlapped with astrology. In 1548 he studied with the great Gerardus Mercator, where he learned much about navigation. He would pass on this information to the great English Admirals of the age, Raleigh and Drake.

007 sign made by John Dee

John Dee returned to England in 1552 where he was much petted by the nobility and received patronage of Edward VI. He later became astrologer to Mary Tudor. In 1555 he spent a short spell in prison for heresy. He was accused of being a mage for using calculations as a form of magic. Evidently this had to do with his discussing Queen Mary's horoscope with the young princess Elizabeth. It was about this time that Dee also became a consultant to the Muscovy Company which traded with Russia. He may have had something to do with the famous letter from Edward VI to the unknown rulers the company was sent to trade with. During this time he might also have begun to engage in espionage for the crown. It is a fact that he signed many of his notes to Elizabeth's secret service with a peculiar monogram that reads, "007". It is thought by some that in this capacity he had found out about certain events surrounding the attack by the Spanish Armada on England in 1588 and informed the government of Elizabeth in time for steps to be taken.

Settling in Mortlake in Richmond-upon-Thames, John Dee began to put together the personal library that would eventually hold over 4000 volumes and be the greatest in England during his day. By 1559 Dee's reputation was such that he was assigned to choose the most auspicious coronation day for the new queen Elizabeth.

In 1562 Dee left England for Antwerp. In 1568 he put forth the notion that every object asserts a force on every other object. He also published the Propaedeumata Aphoristica, a book about mathematics, astrology, and magic. He dedicated it to Queen Elizabeth. Over the age of 50 in 1578 John Dee married his third wife, Jane Fromond. They had eight children together.

It was in the 1580s that John Dee's work decidedly crossed the line from the scientific to the mystical. He partnered with Edward Kelley. Kelley claimed to be able to contact angels with a crystal ball. Together they began a study of "angelic magic". Ostensibly because of his dabbling in the occult, John Dee's home was attacked. He left England to move to Krakow for two years (1584-1586) and then to Prague. It is thought by some that he was author of the Voynich Manuscript, a book written in code that has defied deciphering to this day.

John Dee returned to England in 1589 where he became warden of Christ's College in Manchester. He died February 21 1608, three years after his wife and several of his children died of the plague.


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