|John Dee, astronomer, pictured here with his "shew stone". Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester
This week’s Cathedral Library blog is about an Elizabethan scientific mastermind who coined the term “Brittania” and in later life took up crystal ball gazing! He also visited Worcester Cathedral Library and got to keep one of our precious manuscripts!
John Dee (1527-c. 1609) was an influential astronomer and mathematician of the Elizabethan era. Described by John Bale in his Index of British and Other Writers as an “astronomus pertissimus” (an expert astronomer), Dee was originally known for the accuracy and quality of his astrological birth charts, and went on to draw up birth charts for Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney. The work for which he is most renowned is The Mathematicall Praeface; an introduction to Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid that argues mathematics should be used as a basis for the study of the universe, and other scientific disciplines.
In his early life Dee was educated as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and later became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Straddling a period of educational reform at Cambridge, Dee’s studies focused on Greek philosophy and Arabic arithmetic, and incorporated the learning of geometry, arithmetic, harmonics, and astronomy.
Dee travelled from the middle of the 1540s to the 1550s through the Low Countries, where he encountered some of Europe’s leading minds (Gemma Frissius, Gerard Mercator, Pedro Nuñez). Dee’s reputation had grown by the time he returned home from the continent c. 1551 and, aided by his former Cambridge tutor (Robert Ascham), he was introduced to the court of Edward VI. He presented to the boy-King two astronomical books he had written whilst in Louvain. By 1551, Dee was in service as a tutor to the Earl of Pembroke’s sons and the following year was requested to join the Duke of Northumberland’s household. So renowned was Dee that by the time he came to visit Worcester Cathedral in February 1565 the then Dean (John Pedder) willingly gave him a rare Anglo-Saxon manuscript- the ‘Cosmographia’ of Ethicus. Dee was a keen collector of antiquated scientific texts and, at the peak of his financial success, is thought to have owned around three thousand printed texts and a sizeable number of manuscripts.
In 1555, during the reign of Queen Mary, Dee was accused and arrested for attempting to endanger the lives of the Queen and her sister through conjuring. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Dee recovered his reputation for a time. Appointed as a scientific advisor and natural philosopher within the Elizabethan court, Dee had the honour of selecting the date of Elizabeth’s coronation. Throughout the 1570s Dee served as a scientific and technical advisor on England’s voyages of discovery. By applying Euclidean geometry to navigation, he greatly influenced cartography. It was during this period that he coined the term "Brittania".
Edward Kelly, medium to Dee in later life. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).
Whilst Dee was highly regarded as a mathematician and astrologer, his reputation was increasingly dogged in later life by his association with the occult. Worcester Cathedral Library contains a copy of A True & Faithful relation of what passed for many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, a book which reflects Dee’s growing preoccupation with the spirit world. In the 1580s, Dee befriended and employed a mystic, Edward Kelly, in a bid to commune with spirits so that he could be further enlightened, and better understand the forces at play in the universe. A True & Faithful relation of what passed for many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits charts the period from 1583 to 1607 (two years before Dee’s death) in which the pair took to crystal-gazing or ‘skrying’ in a bid to commune with spirits and angels. There are numerous references throughout the text to a “shew-stone” (pictured with Dee above), to which Kelly and Dee gazed into and, from which they claimed, spirits appeared out of. Written in the form of a dialogue between Dee, Kelly and the various spirits, each encounter is given a date. Dee records detailed descriptions, moreover, of the forms that these spirits took: “Suddenly here seemed to come out of my Oratory a Spirituall creature, like a pretty girle of 7 or 9 years of age, attired on her head with her hair rowled up”.
The third volume of The Biographia Britannia, available also to study in Worcester Cathedral Library, demonstrates the extent to which these otherworldly visions would, for centuries to come, tarnish Dee’s reputation as one of the most influential and forward-thinking Elizabethan mathematicians. The Biographia Britannia describes him as “famous for his extensive learning […] but withal extremely credulous, extravagantly vain and a most deluded enthusiast. […] He suffered himself to be deluded into a firm opinion that, by certain invocations, an intercourse or communication with the spirits might be obtained”. So discredited and reclusive was Dee in later life that he had to sell off his once vast library so as to avoid imminent poverty. He died in Mortlake c. 1609, though no gravestone marks his resting place.