John Dee: Science, Occult and Empire

On the 18th of January 2016 an exhibition on John Dee opened at the Royal College of Physicians called ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee.’ Dee is famed for this library, and through it the exhibition explores the man himself. However, as the name suggests, Dee is known for much more than his collection of books. He was an influential intellect, who hugely added to ideas surrounding navigation and empire in Elizabethan England; in fact, he claimed that he coined the expression ‘British Empire.’ Furthermore, he is renowned for his belief in the occult and conversations with angels. Some people even believe that he may have been the inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But who was John Dee? How did his beliefs on the occult inform his concepts of Empire? And was it these beliefs that meant he ended his life in poverty? This essay aims to consider all of these aspects and to further explore the man, John Dee.

Background of John Dee

A man of Welsh descent, John Dee was born to Rowland Dee and Johanna Wild in 1527. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and some believe he was an ordained priest. He became fascinated with the idea of spirits and angels; in order to speak to angels, Dee used a scryer  (someone who has spiritual visions, performs divination, and tells fortunes through the use of glass balls and crystals) called Edward Kelley to act as an intercessor. Dee aimed to construct a religious-scientific way to contact angels, and believed that they dictated a language to him –despite the fact that we have copies of it, this language has never been successfully translated. However, it is Dee’s works on the British Empire that will be focussed upon here, and particularly his work General and Rare Memorials: pertaining to the perfect arte of navigation (1576).

Frontispiece of General and Rare Memorials

General and Rare Memorials has a wonderful frontispiece which represents many of the ideas that Dee espoused in his book. Elizabeth I was fascinated Perfect Art of Navigation.pngby codes and implicit meanings and it is believed that Dee used this frontispiece (the original drawing for which he drew himself) to attract her attention. The symbols are not always obvious on first glance, and the picture is confusing. Dee did not draw attention to any specific part of the image. Navigation, as the title suggests, was a key interest of Dee’s, and can be visually seen in the drawing of the ship. Clearly he was attempting to show the positives that expansion could bring to England: there was wood that could be exploited and there existed the possibility to create towns and colonise these new lands. It is thought that the figure of Opportunity is pictured, again suggesting the promise that exploration abroad could have. Without even opening his book, it is possible to get an idea of the intelligence of the man who wrote it.

John Dee and the Definition of Empire

Many people assume that the British Empire was Protestant in nature; an British fight for freedom and a significant part of British nationalism. However the term ‘empire’ did not have a set definition in the Elizabethan period and it is therefore important to look at Dee’s own personal views on the subject of overseas settlement. His idea was partly one of recovery, as many European states justified expansion abroad by claiming that they were taking back lands that they had a right to. Dee believed in maritime authority and felt that this was the best way for the English to gain a powerful status. Whilst a key aspect to his idea was to provide a small “Pety” navy to provide security at home, the main bulk of the navy focussed on expansion. The majority of his narrative was, in fact, dedicated to justification of the developing of a British Empire.

Justification of Empire and the Patronage System

Dee had a strong belief that Britain had “discovered” America long before the Spanish due to a legend surrounding the Welsh Prince Madoc and his adventures across the seas. Dee’s imperial ideas for the defence of England and expansion westwards and to the north were all based on historical accounts and his active use of maps. Many historians believe that Dee was too forward-looking for Elizabeth I, whose thoughts on expansion and Empire in the Americas have, more recently, been perceived as backwards and conservative by Tudor historians such as David Armitage. At the time America was not perceived to be the most lucrative place to venture to, with Asia and the Mediterranean being seen as much more fertile places to make money. This meant that his plans for westwards expansion, and in fact much of his expansionist advice, had a limited influence on the politics at the time. As the historian Glyn Parry suggests, it is far better to look at Dee’s writings as foreshadowing, but not actually achieving, “an empire that would be ecumenical, apocalyptic, territorial, and absolute.”

Alongside this, Dee had to use the complex patronage system at court in order to get his work recognised. In fact, Parry argues that Dee’s entire success was due to his patrons. His use of Arthurian language and legends (the Prince Madoc story) was, in the historian Sherman’s view, standard practice at the time. Robert Dudley (one of his patrons) staged many Arthurian-style pageants which reflected an Arthurian, Protestant chivalry. This further shows Dee’s entanglement in the ideals of his patrons. Many historians have claimed that Dee’s work was used as a form of propaganda, however the circle that it was seen in was severely restricted, with only one hundred copies being printed. By 1583 Dee was in poverty and seriously lacked the patronage to provide him with funds. He was also deprived of his living in later years when Dudley did not defend his rights. In fact, Dee’s life ended in an unexpected way considering the fact that he enjoyed many privileges of court life and the favour of key Elizabethan figures. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was not ready for the empire he dreamed of.

The curator of the London exhibition has said that Dee “is one of Tudor England’s most interesting and enigmatic figures and we are exploring that without coming down with a view on whether he is a scholar, courtier or magician. He is all of those and more.” This is certainly accurate; Dee had many ideas and beliefs which all intermingle in his work, making it difficult to separate his personal beliefs from the work itself. It is clear that he was a brilliant Renaissance polymath, with unusual and fascinating beliefs, and that all of these can be seen in his drawings and writings. Not only did his thoughts fascinate the court in his own time, but John Dee continues to fascinate scholars to this day.

Written by Lauren Miller


Royal College of Physicians Website:

Corbett, Margery. The Comely Frontispiece: The Emblematic Title-page in England, 1550-1660. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1979.

Armitage, David. “The Elizabethan Idea of Empire”. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 14 (2004): 269-277.

Parry, Glyn. “John Dee and the Elizabethan British Empire in its European Context”. Historical Journal 49, no.3 (2006): 643-676.

Sherman, William H. John Dee: the Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.