John Dee was born in 1523 in London and later became what some describe as one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance era. He was born into class and wealth - his father was in the court of the murderous King Henry VIII. In his early years he was educated at Oxford's Trinity College, was invited to study mathematics at Oxford. Later in Dee's academic career he lectured on geometry at the University of Paris. He was a respected scholar and already a personage of the English Court by the time of Queen Mary I of England. He advised Queen Mary on a method of preserving books an manuscripts that belonged to the palace - advice that was not taken.
There is some relevant mythology behind the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I of England - the next Queen to whom John Dee was an advisor. The constellation Virgo is named after the Greek goddess Astraea (meaning "star maiden"). When the "golden age" of Greece was over, Astraea was considered, for some reason, to be one of the last gods to live among the people. Eventually, according to the Greek legend, she ascended into the sky promising to return again to usher in a new "golden age" for the world. This is a well-known European myth that has been mentioned many times by different poets and writers including Virgil, Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare.
In 1555 Dee, being the court astrologer, drew the horoscopes of the reigning Queen Mary and her half-sister Princess Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth would later become Queen Elizabeth I) - the two daughters of King Henry VIII. Shortly after this Queen Mary had him arrested for "calculating" and "treason" - probably more specifically for speculating that Mary would not last as Queen and that her sister, Elizabeth would be a long-reining monarch. Secretly or not so secretly, he believed that Elizabeth, born under the sign of Virgo, was the reincarnation of Astraea that was predicted by Greek mythology. It's a credit to his powers of speech and reason that he was able to talk himself out of the charge and to even befriend the Catholic priest who was assigned to give him a "religious examination" after the incident. Maybe it was in a further effort to smooth things over that he, in 1558 he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica ("An Aphoristic Introduction"), in which he presented his views on natural philosophy and astrology. The following year Queen Mary died of cancer and, to the surprise of many, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Bolyn (born out of wedlock), Elizabeth, did indeed become queen. She was 26 years old and John Dee personally chose the most astrologically auspicious date for her coronation. Because of the legend of Astraea and the fact that she never married, she was often referred to as "The Virgin Queen."
Dee remained a friend of Queen Elizabeth and a court advisor for many years. One of his occupations was training British explorers in mathematical navigation before they were sent on expeditions by the crown to the new world. In 1577 he wrote General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. He provided navigational instruments and prepared cartography for many exploring expeditions, particularly to Canada. Also in the field of mathematics, he edited the first English translation of Euclid's Elements and wrote a highly-influential preface singing the praises of mathematics and geometry as a way of changing the world in every branch of thought.
As well as being a writer, John Dee was an prolific collector of books and manuscripts. He was a wealthy man at the beginning of his life and had the largest personal library in England with more than four thousand books in his collection - it was larger than any other British library, and most European libraries, outside of the universities. This was made even more remarkable by the fact that in 1559, the year of Elizabeth's coronation, the Gutenberg printing press was only 159 years old. Dee and all others who were alive at that time were witnessing incredible flowering of culture which we now refer to as the Renaissance - it was indeed "A Golden Age." The printing press was a source of wealth for many, and, after the initial predictable publication of the Bible, translation the Bible, translation and publication of other Christian documents, publishers everywhere - and particularly in the secular states of Italy who no longer under the control of the church - were looking for more and more new books to sell to their customers. Translators were hired to increase the publishers' customer base and those who owned presses were on a mission for new valuable manuscripts: the older the better. John Dee was obviously interested in a wide variety of knowledge. When he was at the service of Elizabeth I many consulted his library at Mortlake, including the Queen herself who was in some ways a student of Dee.
With the publication of the Bible in a variety European languages, the stage was set for the Protestant reformation, and there were countless other smaller idea-based revolutions that were happening because of the proliferation of print. By the 1500s publishers had already been searching through the well-kept libraries of middle-eastern countries for manuscripts where it turns out the masterpieces of European literature and other world literature were being carefully preserved. For the first time since before the culturally repressive "dark ages" of Europe, many works of Greek and Roman antiquity including Plato, Sophocles, and Cicero (as well as many other European works) were being widely translated, distributed, and studied for the first time, thanks to the care of Middle Eastern scholars and archivists. Imagine the stunning transition it must have been. To be living in an ideologically homogenized "dark age" in which all of the pertinent information about the world comes from priests who get mainly from one main book, a handful of codices, and other hand-copied manuscripts it must have been quite an awakening to be able, suddenly to personally read the words of the unknown personages of one's own ancient continent for the first time in one's own language! It must have been like discovering that your little house has a thousand treasure-filled basements! Artists and writers of the time including Shakespeare (a contemporary of Elizabeth I) were deftly reaching back into the ancient past for inspiration because there was suddenly so much to know!
There was a new vibration in the air and a deep romantic feeling pervading the Renaissance regarding the mathematics and geometry as told by the Greeks and Romans, and as conveyed by John Dee. There was a feeling that the exactness and sureness with which one could wield rule-based mathematical and algebraic truths could somehow also render the whole material world into an object of measurable control. Therefore, the idea of science began as we know it in the Western world. As well as an interest in measuring and navigational equipment, some, including John Dee gathered tools to create rudimentary scientific laboratories. Perhaps inevitably, the most lucrative of questions were the most persistent ones and "alchemy" was born.
Alchemy essentially began as an examination of the question of how to make gold out of base metals, though it would be a distorting reduction to say that's all it was. The alchemists took very seriously their job of explaining the world, both visible and invisible. One can imagine them in their laboratories with glass things and metal things over flames trying to build on what was already known of the world from every possible branch of knowledge of the material and the immaterial: folk medicine, religion, astrology, mythology, sorcery, metallurgy, culinary practices, industry, and art. From there we can imagine them boiling, distilling, identifying, and mixing discrete substances at random. At the time, nothing was ruled out for clues about how the world worked, including the god- and goddess-populated stories of ancient Greece, spells, sacred geometry, numerology. The alchemists, including Dee, were attempting to identify the various material categories of the world and how they related to each other, discover rules as they went, and hopefully get rich at the same time. Obviously they were laying the groundwork for physics, chemistry, medicine, and biology; but it was clear that they were not planning to stop at physics, chemistry, medicine, and biology.
The difference between alchemy and science is that today anything that cannot be reliably scientifically measured, such as emotional realities, religion, and belief systems and the question of the soul are more or less excluded from science. In the 1500s, however, no such boundary between what can be known by science (and what cannot) even existed. They did not know what we have decided cannot be known, so the lines between science and magic and religion were very blurry. John Dee spent much of his mature adult life navigating his way around these blurry lines. Alchemy has the trappings of science but it's both not quite a science and more than science. Alchemy went through the motions of scientific inquiry with some of the beginning instruments of science, but also, in the case of John Dee and others, employing other methods like conjuring, seances, rituals, in the attempts to perfect theories existence of an afterlife, and other such things. I once described alchemy this way to a friend of mine who immediately coined the perfect term: sorciology. The Renaissance was still a pre-rational time in Western thought. John Dee took to his laboratory as the magus, determined to master the seen and unseen world. He did experiments astonishing experiments with substances in the court of Elizabeth that appeared magical. In some ways Dee was following the precedent of the idea of a court magician in England. People of the Renaissance were very much enamoured with this idea from work from the 12th Century History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which introduced the legends of King Arthur and Merlin. Later storytellers elaborated on these mythologies in the 13th centuries. These stories were extremely popular and were told and retold (they still are!).
Also in a fanciful vein, some of the most popular texts of the Renaissance, excitedly studied by Dee and others, were actually about magic and sorcery. There are several of these, notably and most popular were the writings attributed to someone called Hermes Trismigistus (Hermes Thrice-Great). At the time of their publication in the Renaissance, the Hermetic texts were thought to be as old as Moses. These books were plainly magical in nature and discussed things like how to call a spirit into a statue so that it will walk and talk, and how to conjure a spirit of the dead. Because the Renaissance was a time of heady ideas and high-imagination "Hermeticism" and alchemy became intertwined. John Dee called himself both a hermeticist and an alchemist and no doubt engaged in hermetic rituals of this kind.
In 1564 with Elizabeth on the throne Dee published the Monas Hieroglyphica, which was his argument that all of nature could be understood through magical geometrical and numerical symbol combinations. He published a picture of a single glyph that he explained in the text laid out all one needed to know about matter. After eighteen years of scientific, mathematical, and astrological career in English court, John Dee began to delve whole-heartedly into the occult. In 1582 when Dee was 55 years old he was approached by a man from Worcester who said that he could contact angels and spirits of the dead. This man's name was Edward Kelley and he was an alchemist and hermeticist and necromancer. The two men became inseparable in their experimental endeavours for about seven years. Before they met, Kelly was a convicted criminal, having had both of his ears cropped off as a punishment for forgery and counterfeiting. It is often believed that he took advantage of the more sincere John Dee, who was seeking the company of spirits, among other things, to counsel the crown to the glorification of England. It also appears to be true, however, that John Dee was a hard taskmaster encouraging Edward Kelley to spend hours and hours in trances and scrying in his insatiable quest for answers.
About a year after meeting Dee, Kelley showed him an alchemical book and a red powder and claimed that he and a friend had been led to these objects by a "spiritual being." Kelley said that the powder was the substance that turns base metal into gold. The two of them left their families who would later join them, and travelled from England to Poland. Dee had the idea that he would be accepted into the European royal court. In 1589, Dee returned home alone, having had some reception in royal circles but not the patronage that he hoped for - especially when it became clear to Dee that they could not turn base metals into gold. His time on the continent it has been a wild adventure with Edward Kelley. "The spirits" had suggested that Dee and Kelley swap wives in one instance, and they had experimented with that.
After Dee went back to England, Edward Kelley lived a rich life in the court of Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague. He was even knighted. Then 1591 he was imprisoned for killing an officer in a duel. He was restored to the court a few years later to complete his alchemical work, but was imprisoned again when it was revealed he could not turn base metal into gold. Before he died in prison, Kelley wrote five treatises on alchemy which were first published under the name of The Alchemical Writings of Edward Kelley in 1893.
When Dee returned to England deflated, Elizabeth gave him a small post as the warden of Christ's College in Manchester, a post he remained at until his death 1608 or 1609 at the age of 81. He was consulted occasionally about spirit possessions and people still sought him out to use his library, though both his laboratory and library had been looted and vandalized while he was with Kelley on the continent.
In 1614, man named Isaac Casaubon, widely thought of as the most learned man of his time proved that the writings of Hermes Trismestigus were written in the second or third century AD, and not in Egyptian times as was previously thought. People were very disappointed by this, believing that the older something was the "truer" it was, and hermeticism fell out of fashion. As for alchemy, for the record, modern science has found a way to turn lead into gold using a particle accelerator, but so far it's expensive and not worth it financially, so we can assume that the alchemists dealt with a lot of failure in their time. Alchemy fell out of fashion also, but it successfully provided a groundwork for modern science.
John Dee was easily one of the most interesting men in history. Because he was a man of his time, it's easy to see why Dee, who sought answers so doggedly would be interested in the invisible world with so many new discoveries being made about the world all around him! The story of John Dee has been revisted in literature and media. He is thought to be the personality behind the character of Prosporo in Shakespeare's The Tempest, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe may also be a depction of Dee, his signature of two Os and a 7 are thought to be where James Bond gets his code name, and there are many other shapes and shadows of Dee in other artifacts of recent culture. Whatever capacity our 21st Century quantum-bewildered scientists have for magic, we all know that magic is a lucrative game these days if you are an author or filmmaker. The story of the magician wants to be told perpetually. In fact, imagic is still as captivating cultural subject now as it was in the Renaissance, from a certain point of view.