John Dee: The Wizard of Tudor England

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Let’s talk about pentagrams for a minute. The pentagram is an ancient geometric symbol whose meaning varies wildly depending on who’s looking at it. For example, to a pagan, it could be a symbol of worship. For Christians, it’s a mark of Satan. For a mathematician? It’s a cool shape with some fascinating, non-magical properties.

John Dee reminds me of the pentagram. Why? Dee, known to many as the wizard of Tudor England, was different things to different people. He was, for sure, an occult practitioner. For some, that meant Dee wanted to peel back the veil of arcane mystery, and gaze clearly upon the secret knowledge of the universe, and that was fascinating. For others, it meant he was a potential enemy of Christendom, and a man playing a dangerous game with demons and magic.

Here are the facts: Dee was a Christian, who was also an occultist wizard. But, most of all, John Dee was a real math nerd. He just lived during the 16th century, when math and the occult were inextricably linked.

Cool, Where Do You Go to School for That?

The BA program at St. John’s College, Cambridge. As any student of the humanities can tell you, even a half-decent liberal arts curriculum must include the dark arts. Indeed, my own education climaxed with the unholy union of both prose and poetry—and is there no greater affront to the Christian god than the prose poem? Maybe microfiction . . . but this article isn’t about my academic dance with the Morning Star; it’s about John Dee’s.

Not all wizards wear pointy hats.

Dee was what we would today call a polymath. A keen multidisciplinarian, Dee had mastered the sciences of the 16th century, as much as one could master science in the 1500s, and wrote over 80 scholarly works to share his knowledge.1

After his time at Cambridge, Dee crossed the channel to continental Europe. He visited twice—once in 1547, right after Cambridge, and then again for a while from 1548 to 1551. He spent his time there in the Low Countries (today’s Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg), studying under Pedro Nuñez, Gemma Frisius, Abraham Ortelius, and Gerardus Mercator—all of them mathematician-cartographers.

Those dudes must have been good people to know, because both the universities of Paris and Oxford tried to woo Dee for mathematical professorships in 1551 and 1554, respectively.

But Dee declined both. He instead had higher-profile aspirations: return to England and become head science-wizard at the Royal Court of Queen Mary I. It was, in my humble opinion, a real dumbf**k decision.2

A Bill Nye Fit for Queens

Working for royalty is tough because if you f**k up, worst-case scenario, they can torture and kill you. Still, it offers unparalleled ladder-climbing opportunities, and Dee was an ambitious guy.

He started out by offering math lessons to courtiers and navigators. This’d be the useful kind of math for people back then: figuring out directions, understanding geography, drawing maps—practical stuff. Still, I picture Dee spending his first couple weeks at court making a name for himself with a lot of “Well, actually . . .” interjections to correct the math of various haughty nobles. People love that.

Aside from being the Royal Court’s resident Jeopardy! Champion, Dee consulted directly with Queen Mary I. What kind of consulting does a 16th-century brain-man do for a queen? Well, I can’t tell you everything they talked about, but I can tell you what got him into trouble: astrology.

“And now, I shall drop three Mentos into this brazier filled with royal cola . . .”

In the 21st century, “astrology” is usually only mentioned in scientific discussions when I f**k up and say “astrology” instead of “astronomy.” But in the 16th century, it was considered a scientific-mathematical discipline. The only problem? Math was also considered to be magic. Everybody likes magic, right? Ha ha, no. Not the Church of England, and not the radically Catholic Queen Mary I, either. In 1555, she had Dee thrown in a cell for a little while, with a charge of “conjuring,” or “calculating,” depending on the source. That seems a little strange to me, given that Dee was the court’s consultant and astrologer. It’d be like firing a plumber because they were plumbing a little too much. I guess, for Mary, God liked some astrology, but not too much. Or maybe Dee just gave her a bad horoscope.

Ah, but not everybody hated ol’ John Dee. He had a friend in Bishop Edmund Bonner, who had Dee exonerated.3 4

That’s about when I would’ve called up the University of Paris, or Oxford, to take them up on that professorship after all. But, by 1558, there was a new queen: Elizabeth I. Dee figured he’d try his luck working as a royal astrologer, medical adviser, and consultant yet again. Elizabeth seems to have put more stock in Dee’s fortune-meistering; she tapped him to pick the date of her coronation. That’s a big deal, considering this was an age where people thought mathematics had magical powers. If you were coronated on the wrong date, maybe it’d throw your whole reign out of whack, leading to a coup that results in the lopping off of royal heads? I’m just spitballing here.

This was the height of Dee’s career. By the mid-1560s, he had set up shop in Mortlake (a London suburb), which included a laboratory and a private library filled with over 4,000 books—the biggest private library in England at the time. It put Dee on the scholarly map.5

Britain’s Future and the Occult

More important than divining the future, John Dee helped to shape it for Britain. He shared his considerable mathletics with captains and explorers, teaching them principles of mathematical navigation, drawing up maps, and supplying them with instruments to make expeditions—such as the expedition to Canada led by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1576—possible.

Dee was an advocate for a couple of big ideas that didn’t make it big until after his time: the English adoption of the Gregorian calendar, and the idea of creating a British empire. The Church of England wasn’t any kind of fan of following a Catholic calendar just then, but Dee had the right idea: today, the Gregorian calendar is the most widely used in the world. As for the British empire, it took a little while for that ball to get rolling, but man, did he call that one.6

Dee didn’t have the right idea about everything, though. I touched upon this earlier, but math, in the 16th century, wasn’t just math. Math was then, as it is now, the key to unlocking many of the universe’s mysteries. That meant math was encroaching on church business. Because this was in England, we’re specifically talking about the Church of England.

As Dee acknowledged in his own published defense of mathematics, lots of his contemporaries considered it a disreputable art, akin to witchcraft. Unraveling mysteries of the natural world was too much like eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. That, and math is hard and confusing, which makes you feel dumb, and that makes you feel bad (and by “you,” I mean “me”). Lots of math book bonfires in England around that time, then.

Here’s the thing, though: the book burners weren’t exactly wrong. The hardcore mathematicians really were diving into the occult. Dee got all up in the Kabbalah, practicing mystic Jewish numerology. He dug codes and cryptography, probably after banging through a couple of Dan Brown novels.

Dee’s glyph, meant to depict the moon, the sun, the elements, and fire.
Me, I think it looks like a angry, cyclopic ladies’ room symbol riding a seagull.

Actually, Dee’s study of cryptography—primarily from reading Steganographia by a German abbot / evil wizard named Trithemius—was driven by his desire to understand angelic communication. Dee’s goal: learn how to speak with angels, so he could ask them for some cheat sheets on natural knowledge, so he could fill in all the gaps in his research. This meant discovering and decrypting the Enochian language, or celestial speech. Why “Enochian”? Enoch was the last patriarch in the Bible to have known the language of the angels, that’s why.7

At first thought, you’d think the church would be all about learning the language of the angels. I mean, it’s not like Dee was trying to talk with demons. But, I suspect the church was concerned with having a monopoly over this sort of thing. If people could use math to talk to the heavens, what would they need priests and bishops for?

So, while Dee’s occult practices seem to have been relatively innocent, he had an optics problem. His detractors felt like Dee was using math to conjure magic, and he totally was. It got worse: Dee partnered up with a spirit medium named Edward Kelley. Kelley was, most likely, an assh*le. A convicted counterfeiter, he traveled England and continental Europe with Dee, conducting séances, mostly in Poland and Bohemia between 1583 and 1589.

Edward Kelley, “seer.”

Dee appeared, by all accounts, to be totally sincere about these séances and all of his efforts to communicate with angels. But Kelley? He was probably just a conman. It was during his work with the much younger Kelley that Dee “discovered” the Enochian alphabet revealed to him by angels (or, more likely, by Kelley pulling a grift).

Eventually, Dee and Kelley changed their focus. Dee moved toward alchemy, and—you won’t believe this—Kelley claimed to be a gifted alchemist, too! Here’s the thing: neither of them were alchemists. I know this in part because alchemy is not real, but also because if it had worked, Dee and Kelley would have been able to make their own money. It doesn’t look like that happened: in 1589, they parted ways. Kelley moved on to greener pastures at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, while Dee spent his remaining years in poverty.8 9

John Dee: Math Wiz

Dee finally met his angelic penpals in 1608. He died poor, as a Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester, having fallen out of favor with the royal court, after the death of Elizabeth I.

Over the years, Dee had fallen from royal mathematician to diabolical pauper-wizard, in the public eye. But that only aggrandized his image in history.

Elizabethans were less interested in Dee’s late-life failures and more interested in the narrative that he was a f**king wizard. It’s the kind of legacy grounded in accusations and superstition more than it is in fact. But it’s also not a mischaracterization: Dee wasn’t just some misunderstood mathematician, demonized by a religious society. He was totally into the occult. The disagreement in interpretation, then, is over Dee’s intent.

Personally, I’m not too concerned with his occult ethics, or whether John Dee was talking to angels or demons. The important thing is he made math fun, well before sudoku made numbers popular. He was part scientist and part occultist—but he was, entirely, a mathematician.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. St. John’s College. (Accessed August 12, 2018). A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr John Dee . . . and some spirits (London, 1659). Retrieved from https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/library/special_collections/early_books/dee.htm
  2. Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  3. Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  4. Winters, Riley. John Dee: Scholar, Astrologer, and Occult Practitioner that Captivated the Royal Court of 16th Century England. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/john-dee-scholar-astrology-and-occult-practitioner-captivated-royal-court-020412
  5. Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  6. Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  7. Ball, Philip. (2016, February 24). The maddeningly magical maths of John Dee. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2078295-the-maddeningly-magical-maths-of-john-dee
  8. Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  9. Winters, Riley. John Dee: Scholar, Astrologer, and Occult Practitioner that Captivated the Royal Court of 16th Century England. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/john-dee-scholar-astrology-and-occult-practitioner-captivated-royal-court-020412

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Abraham, Ralph. (2008, July 4). The John Dee Society. Retrieved from http://www.johndee.org/
  • Ball, Philip. (2016, February 24). The maddeningly magical maths of John Dee. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2078295-the-maddeningly-magical-maths-of-john-dee/
  • Feingold, Mordechai. (2018, July 9). John Dee: English Mathematician. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dee
  • Fessenden, Marissa. (2016, January 18). A Painting of John Dee, Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, Contains a Hidden Ring of Skulls. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/a-painting-of-john-dee-astrologer-to-queen-elizabeth-i-contains-a-hidden-ring-of-skulls-180957860/
  • Martin, Tim. (2016, January 10). John Dee: the man who spoke to angels. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/the-man-who-spoke-to-angels/
  • St. John’s College. (Accessed August 12, 2018). A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr John Dee . . . and some spirits (London, 1659). Retrieved from https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/library/special_collections/early_books/dee.htm
  • Winters, Riley. John Dee: Scholar, Astrologer, and Occult Practitioner that Captivated the Royal Court of 16th Century England. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/john-dee-scholar-astrology-and-occult-practitioner-captivated-royal-court-020412

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