John Dee (1527-1608) of Mortlake, was an astronomer, astrologer, geographer, mathematician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth 1. Dee was born near London, the son of a gentleman server in the court of Henry VIII. At the age of 15, he went to Cambridge and was made a fellow of Trinity College. He taught in France and travelled to Holland before returning to England in 1551. During the reign of Queen Mary Tudor he was accused of trying to kill her with sorcery and was imprisoned in Hampton Court for two years. This may have been because he had cast a horoscope for her rival and sister Elizabeth. He was finally pardoned in 1556 and in 1558 when Elizabeth became queen, with his deep knowledge of astrology, Dee chose the most auspicious date for Elizabeth’s coronation. In the time of Elizabeth I there were many people who believed that the British were Israelites and therefore Britain has a special spiritual destiny. Since at this time there was no Israel it was the British who were Israel the reborn.
Dee was a noted magus and hermeticist and his work, Monas Hieroglyphica (1564 ) is a great esoteric work. The Monas Hieroglyphica was a symbol Dee created which he believed was a symbol of Occult knowledge. He began trying to contact the spirit world in 1581 and used a crystal ball to do this. He found scrying tiring and so looked for an associate and chose Edward Kelly to help him. Kelly was 27 and had previously been accused of necromancy. Dee used magical formulae, ritual, séance to converse with the spirits including the Archangels Michael and Uriel. He recorded these channelled conversations through the angelic language known as Enochian. Dee claimed that they had found the elixir of life/ philosopher’s stone hidden in the ruined Abbey in Glastonbury.
John Dee, as a hermeticist, was a student of the new Christian Kabbalah developed in the late fifteenth century at the time of the Renaissance. Uriel was said to have given Dee a translucent stone which he coulFd use to summon the spirits.
At times, Dee was in danger of being convicted of witchcraft since even mathematics at the time was seen by some as a tool of the devil. But luckily he managed to avoid this fate and instead attracted ardent followers who came to Mortlake to learn from him. These included Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sydney and other high-ranking people of the age.
When James I came to the throne in 1603, Dee was in danger. James had a deep fear of the occult and had already written one book condemning the practice of communing with the spirits. Dee wrote in his defence to James but without success and he ended his life in great poverty in 1604, aged 81, although he managed to escape being imprisoned or killed by James.
There is little left of Dee’s world in Mortlake or adjoining Barnes but the John Dee society is based in Mortlake around St Mary’s Church in South West London near Barnes Bridge Station.