John Dee

I have read several biographies of Dr.  John Dee, and  all of his diaries, including the transcripts of his angelic communications, which occupied a relatively small portion of his life. A biography I like is that of Charlotte Fell-Smith, published in 1909. I read it about 20 years ago; it was out of print and I obtained an original copy through an inter-library loan. It is now back in print in an inexpensive facsimile copy published by Forgotten Books, and I have taken the opportunity to read it again.

I still like it. It is an authentic, cradle-to-grave biography, and does not over-stress the exoticism of the few years Dee spent working and travelling with Edward Kelley. Fell-Smith adopts a sceptical view of Kelley and the angelic workings, something I think is warranted in view of a tendency to glamorise and become excited by relatively limited parts of what the angels said.

Several writers stress Dee’s brilliance, his education, his contacts, his polymath tendencies. Fell-Smith reveals something different. He was a man who spent his whole life struggling for recognition, a free-lance scholar outside of the church who survived on an uncertain patronage. The Queen clearly regarded him with affection, but always passed him over when awarding sinecures. He wrote and published, but little he wrote had lasting value. He knew many wealthy and powerful people, but was never wealthy or powerful. He was a geek in an age of giant adventures and pan-European religious turmoil. He was forced to defend his reputation on several occasions, publishing self-righteous testimonies throughout his life, asking to be exonerated from slanders. His final appointment at Manchester College was a poisoned chalice, and he ended his life with little to show for his efforts and diligence. His memory was ridiculed a few generations later.

This is the background to Dee’s mid-life crisis and his angelic adventures with Kelley. He needed something big, something to impress the people he needed to impress. Kelley was a mercurial and volatile individual with few scruples, but I believe the scrying was genuine. There are aspects of his character that suggest he may have been bipolar – a thought that would go some way to understanding the complexities of his behaviour.

Dee and Kelley departed for Poland with Count Alfred Laski (a pretender to the throne) on a quixotic quest for patronage and influence, and there was something desperate and pathetic about the hardships the families were forced to endure. I completely discount any idea that he was a secret agent. His house in Mortlake was ransacked, his precious library destroyed, rents unpaid, debts accrued, and influence waned almost to nothing. This is the background to the most important and mysterious parts of the angelic communications. The two men worked for hours daily in a quest for divine knowledge that would change the world. They worked in rented houses, in inns, as they travelled around the courts and castles of Europe. It was a work of desperation. It broke Dee. Kelley, through some subterfuge, convinced the world that he could make gold, but he died escaping from prison.

It is a sad tale.