Cover image for The queen's conjurer : the science and magic of Dr. John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I
The queen's conjurer : the science and magic of Dr. John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I
Woolley, Benjamin.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt, [2001]

Physical Description:
xii, 355 pages : 1 map ; 25 cm
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BF1598.D5 W66 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A fascinating portrait of one of the most brilliant, complex, and colorful figures of the Renaissance.

Although his accomplishments were substantial - he became a trusted confidante to Queen Elizabeth I, inspired the formation of the British Empire, and plotted voyages to the New World-John Dee's story has been largely lost to history. Beyond the political sphere his intellectual pursuits ranged from the scientific to the occult. His mathematics anticipated Isaac Newton by nearly a century, while his mapmaking and navigation were critical to exploration. He was also obsessed with alchemy, astrology, and mysticism. His library was one of the finest in Europe, a vast compendium of thousands of volumes. Yet, despite his powerful position and prodigious intellect, Dee died in poverty and obscurity, reviled and pitied as a madman.

Benjamin Woolley tells the engrossing story of the rise and fall of this remarkable man, who wielded great influence during the pivotal era when the age of superstition collided with the new world of science and reason. Written with flair and vigor, based on numerous surviving diaries of the period, The Queen's Conjurer is a highly readable account of an extraordinary life.

Author Notes

Benjamin Woolley, writer & broadcaster, covers both the arts & the sciences. His writing includes "Virtual Worlds," a book on virtual reality, "Bride of Science," a biography of Byron's brilliant daughter, & contributions to various British periodicals. He lives in London.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Dee (1527^-1608), despite all his accomplishments, is largely forgotten in the history books of England, but now comes Woolley's lively biography of this confidant of Queen Elizabeth I. In his time, Dee advanced the study of mathematics, mapmaking, and navigation, and his interests included alchemy, mysticism, and astrology. Dee's personal library was one of the largest in Europe and contained, for example, 15 sets of books showing planetary positions. Dee's obsessions also included the pursuit of angels and spirits; he claimed to summon the divine secrets of the universe from angels and archangels. Thomas Smith, author of the first biography of Dee (1701), concluded that he was insane. Dee's beliefs proved his undoing, and he subsequently died in obscurity, but Woolley's account of Dee's extraordinary life may be a start in restoring his rightful place in history. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Galileo, Kepler and Newton are generally credited with having accomplished the profound intellectual revolution that created modern science. Though they have done their work so well that it is perhaps impossible for us now to take seriously someone like John Dee, we nonetheless should do so, according to this new biography. Dee, who figured in the court of Elizabeth I, now has a reputation as a necromancer and a charlatan, but he was far more than this caricature, having been influential in many fields of Elizabethan science. Dee practiced what he called "natural magic," an attempt to influence the spiritual forces by which God operated the universe by using mathematical logic. This did not hinder the development of science, Woolley persuasively argues, but actually made it possible. Even though Dee could not escape the Aristotelian worldview, which held that the universe was teeming with Intelligences that made it go, he nonetheless approached these forces with enough rigor to prepare the intellectual ground for a worldview that saw the universe as a great machine. The first part of the book is particularly good at placing Dee in this context, as is the epilogue; the second half of the book is devoted to a narrative of Dee's work under the auspices of the queen, particularly as a key figure in her international intelligence operation. One troubling point that Woolley (author of the new biography of Byron's daughter, The Bride of Science; see Forecasts, Nov. 20, 2000), unfortunately does not fully explore is the role and relationship between Dee and the medium Edward Kelley, secretly a Catholic sympathizer. Notwithstanding this flaw, Woolley's book presents a valuable perspective on the development of science in Elizabethan England and delivers a delightful read. Given the recent popularity of Queen Elizabeth and her court, this book could find a broad audience, incuding among those interested in the history of science or New Age spirituality. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

British broadcaster and writer Woolley's (The Bride of Science) biography of John Dee is an enchanting look into the world of science, magic, politics, and religion of 16th-century England. Dee plotted navigational charts for exploration of the New World and even presented a master plan to Queen Elizabeth on how to build an empire based on naval power. In the scientific world, Dee is probably best known for his mathematics and his amazing library, which contained nearly every significant book of the time and many titles whose significance would not be discovered for years to come. Dee, and particularly his deep involvement in magic and mystery, has been studied on and off over the years. The most notable study is Frances Yates's Theatre of the World (1969. o.p.), in which Dee is presented as a the embodiment of the Renaissance. More recent works include Peter French's John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (1984. o.p.) and Deborah Harkness's John Dee's Conversations with Angels (Cambridge Univ., 1999). Woolley's book is not a scholarly text but a much-needed compilation and consolidation of current and past research, easily accessible to the average reader. Highly recommended. Eric D. Albright, Duke Univ. Medical Ctr. Lib., Durham, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One There is no record of the moment John Dee entered the world. He is not to be found in any parish register or private correspondence. There is no birth certificate or diary entry. There is only a series of numbers, a cosmic coordinate: 1527 July 13 4 h .2'. P.M. Lat. 51°.32'.     The data are to be found on a mysterious document now among his papers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is a sheet of parchment upon which is drawn a square containing a series of numbers and astrological symbols. It is a horoscope, drawn up in the ancient manner, showing the state of the heavens at the precise time and place of Dee's birth.     Some biographical information can be gleaned from the chart. He was born at 4:02 P.M. on 13 July 1527. His birthplace was 51 degrees and 32 seconds north of the equator, which is roughly the latitude of London. Latitudes, which specify how far north or south a location is on the earth's surface, were not drawn on maps of early or mid-sixteenth-century England (there were barely any maps anyway; the earliest surviving map of London is dated 1558). However, the information was to be found in tables of astrological data. There is one compiled by Dee himself still to be found among his papers, which identifies the location of cities and landmarks across the world, from Paris (49°10', 150 miles from London) to the "Lake of Sodome" (31º10', 2,404 miles from London). In that table, Dee gives London's latitude as close to that shown on his birth chart, 51°20', which according to modern measurement falls just outside the wall or "ditch" marking the city's northern limit.     Following the practice of the time, Dee did not record the longitude (the east/west position) of his birthplace. There was no standard meridian at the time, and the methods of measuring longitude were extremely unreliable. In his table of astrological data, Dee gives London's longitude as 19°54', which would place the meridian somewhere along a line passing near Krakow, which perhaps indicates that he drew up the table while living there in the 1580s. However, from the date and the position of the Sun plotted on the birth chart, it is evident that Dee's birthplace was within a few degrees of the modern Greenwich meridian.     The most likely location is the City itself. Dee's father, Roland, was a member of London's powerful guild of "mercers" or textile merchants. His mother was Jane, daughter of one William Wild, who Roland had married three years earlier when she was just fifteen years old. John was apparently their first and only surviving child.     Roland was later recorded in official papers as being a resident of Tower Ward, the area immediately west of the great Norman Tower of London, and within sight of Tower Hill, where, as the Tudor surveyor John Stow put it, there "is always readily prepared at the charges of the city a large scaffold and gallows of timber, for the execution of such traitors and transgressors as are delivered out of the Tower."     Roland would in coming years find himself a "transgressor" in the Tower. But in the 1520s, he was on the threshold of a promising mercantile career, which drew him in the opposite direction, toward the teeming square mile of the City squeezed in by walls on three sides and spilling into the Thames on the fourth.     Many of the merchants in Tower Ward lived along Thames Street, close to Billingsgate Docks, where the quays bustled with barks and barges bringing herring, wine, wool, and timber into the capital. Next to Watergate, a lane leading up from the river, stood "Wool Wharf," which since the reign of Richard II had been used for the "tronage"--public weighing--of wool imports. Roland Dee would perform a similar job in coming years, so he and his little boy were likely to have visited, if not actually occupied, the rickety riverside house, as bulbous packets of wool were heaved into its weighing room and dropped on the official scales or "tron."     Up from Thames Street lay the imposing parish church of St. Dunstan's in the East. Its fabric was lavishly maintained by rich local merchants, whose generous bequests were rewarded with opulent sepulchres in its nave and cemetery. Dunstan was then one of the most revered and popular saints in England (there was another church named after him in the west of the city). His name was associated with Glastonbury and early British nationalism and would feature prominently in the life of the little boy who was being brought up within its precincts.     Beyond St. Dunstan's were the bustling inns and narrow streets whose very names spelled commerce: Lombard Street, just north of the church, so called since the merchants of northern Italy settled there in the twelfth century; the sign of the Three Cranes, named after a timber crane used to unload lighters carrying casks of wine from Bordeaux, and the venue for French tradesmen brokering deals with English vintners; Threadneedle, Milk, and Friday Streets, where tailors, dairymen, and fishmongers plied their trades; Cheapside, the thoroughfare for London's main market or "cheap," lined with grocers and apothecaries; Ironmongers Lane, where among the clanking wares hanging from shop fronts Roland would go to meet his fellow mercers at their handsomely refurbished hall.     This was the world of John's formative years: a place filled with the babble of foreign tongues and complex numbers, of ready "reckonyngs" and tricky deals.     However, the City was not the only focus of Roland's career, and it is just possible that John was born just a few miles up the Thames, on the Greenwich meridian itself. This would certainly have been a perfect setting for the astronomer-to-be to make his entry into the world.     Greenwich Palace stood on the bank of the Thames, with Greenwich Hill rising up behind, like a tree-covered Tudor ruff. It was King Henry VIII's birthplace and his main residence. Roland had a position in Henry's court as a "gentleman sewer." The role, like so many court positions at the time, hovered between the ceremonial and the functional. It is unlikely Roland would have been expected to stitch the king's clothing, but he may have been involved with buying and maintaining the innumerable fabrics that furnished the king's palaces and person.     John's birth coincided with what proved to be some of the most momentous events in English, indeed European, history, all of which were taking place within the confines of Henry's privy chambers at Greenwich, and which embroiled members of the royal household such as Roland.     Just three weeks before John was born, the king, anxious for a male heir and to consummate his infatuation for Anne Boleyn, had accosted his wife Catherine "in her closet" and, reviving arguments about their union violating biblical law, announced that their marriage was invalid.     In the drama that followed, a key role was played by a colleague of Roland's, a gentleman sewer in Catherine's retinue named Felipez. Catherine was desperate to get news of her situation back to her nephew and Catholic guardian, Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful monarch in Europe. She told Felipez to go to the king and protest that his mistress had cruelly refused him passage to Spain, where the sewer's mother was dangerously ill. Catherine knew Henry would contradict her and dispatch the apparently disgruntled servant back to his home, where he could make contact with Charles.     Henry was prepared for such dissimulation and "did also dissimulate." He granted Felipez a license to leave the country while arranging for agents to waylay the sewer en route. But Felipez managed to give the king's men the slip and reach the emperor at Valladolid, where he broke the news of Henry's plan to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. The sewer's revelations precipitated a crisis that would culminate in Henry's break with Rome and the turmoil of the Reformation, seismic events that would shape English politics for generations to come and bring danger and conflict into the life of the infant son denied to Henry and Catherine, but so recently born to Roland and Jane. * * * WHEN ALL AROUND is in a state of turmoil, the only direction in which a bewildered young boy may look for a sense of certainty and stability is up.     Standing in the pastures and playing fields that still surrounded the City's walls, gazing at a vivid canopy of stars yet to be diminished by light or atmospheric pollution, John Dee beheld a universe that had apparently remained unchanged since the Creation.     As everyone then knew, the earth was at the center of the cosmos; the Sun, the Moon, and the planets revolved around it, fixed to the perimeters of a series of concentric spheres. The outermost sphere carried the stars. Beyond lay heaven. Historians of science talk of the modern view of the universe being mechanistic, but this one was mechanistic too. The system was in a state of constant movement, but regulated by immutable laws. Change was possible only within the space between the earth's surface and the orbit of the Moon. This was the sphere of fire and air, the domain of such ephemeral astronomical phenomena as comets and meteors.     Where the modern universe is infinite, the size and age of this ancient one, this nest of glistening orbs, was more modest. Genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible showed it to be fewer than six millennia old. As for its size, the fifteenth-century printing pioneer and encyclopedist William Caxton wrote: "If the first man that God formed ever, which was Adam, had gone from the first day that he was made and created twenty-five miles every day, yet should he not have comen thither, but should yet have the space of seven hundred and thirteen year to go at the time when this volume was performed by the very author. Or if there were a great stone which should fall from thence unto the earth it should be an hundred year ere it came to the ground."     This, then, was the cosmos that Dee beheld as a child: stable, fixed, finite. There were disputes over details, but the overall view had not changed significantly since the time of the Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who in the second century had established the mathematical laws by which the universe operated. Ptolemy had invented a series of hypothetical entities such as "epicycles," "deferents," and "equants" that made it possible to work out with a high degree of accuracy not just the motions of the planets in the past, but their positions into the distant future, accounting even for such astronomical gymnastics as retrograde motion, when a planet appears to stop, backtrack, and then continue on its way.     Many tables of planetary positions were compiled using Ptolemy's formulas. These showed how each planet moved in relation to the stars, in particular, the constellations of the astrological zodiac. Such almanacs or "ephemerides" were among the most popular books to be produced in these still early days of printing, and Dee would accumulate more than fifteen different sets in his library over the years. It was one of these that he used to work out his birth chart.     Thanks to the mathematical nature of the heavenly motions, he could plot the positions of the planets at the moment of his birth with far more certainty and precision than the flapping scholars his father passed in the corridors of Greenwich Palace could determine the legitimacy of Henry VIII's matrimonial maneuvers.     Where birth charts are now circular, Dee's was drawn up as a square, a form that went back to the ancient Egyptians. The information it contains is basically the same as that contained in a modern chart, except that the positions of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are missing, as these planets had yet to be discovered. The chart is highly accurate. Dee managed to map the position of each heavenly body in the sky to within a few minutes of arc (a minute being one sixtieth of a degree), with the exception of Mercury, which is nearly two degrees adrift. The ascendant, which marks the position of the sign of the zodiac rising on the eastern horizon, is out by just under one degree.     The twelve triangles in the chart represent the most synthetic elements of any birth chart, the position of the "houses." The houses are purely astrological (as opposed to astronomical) entities, determining how the planets influence the subject's appearance, temperament, property, relationships, and so on. As the signs of the zodiac are tied to the rotation of the celestial sphere, the houses are tied to the rotation of the earth, the two becoming enmeshed by the moment of birth.     Dee left no record of his own interpretation of the chart, though he certainly knew what it meant. His counsel was frequently sought by friends and patrons, who, at a turning point in their lives, would come to him for advice. He usually performed such services for free, but when money was short, which it often was, he would sometimes accept a token of appreciation. One grateful client, for example, provided him with a pair of gilt bowls.     However, he rarely committed his findings to writing. Such works could be dangerous, particularly when the subjects were of aristocratic or royal status, which many were. The only interpretation of any length that survives concerns Dee's pupil, the glamorous poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney, for whom Dee drew up a sixty-two-page nativity that made a number of tentative predictions. He foretold that Sidney would enjoy a wonderful career between the ages of fifteen and thirty-one. Thereafter, he faced mortal danger from a sword or gunshot injury, which if survived would inaugurate even greater glories and a long life. Sidney was killed fighting in the Low Countries on 17 October 1586, aged thirty-one.     Dee's own chart depicts similar contrasts. The two most powerful influences, the Sun and the Moon, the two "luminaries," are in opposition--a common enough configuration, but one that suggested a conflict of personality. More notable for Dee was the position of Jupiter, which basked with the Sun in the "serene and warm" sign of Cancer, where it was exalted. In his copy of Ptolemy, he marked the observation that Jupiter's distance from the ascendant (the sign rising on the eastern horizon) indicated that he would be skilled in science. "If he should be lord alone," Ptolemy wrote, Jupiter would also promote "honour, happiness, content and peace."     Unfortunately, Jupiter was not "lord alone." He was threatened by Mars, so his benign influence was seriously compromised. The same passage in Ptolemy that promised scientific proficiency also warned of isolation and condemnation.     There were other disturbing signs, such as the presence of the star Antares together with the planet Mars. Antares has been described as the "Scorpion's heart," as it appears in the middle of the constellation of Scorpio. Mars is a troublesome presence in any chart, causing "mischief and destruction," as Ptolemy put it. Antares was by tradition taken to have an influence similar to Mars, so the presence of the two apparently acting in unison, and within the sign ruled by Mars, must have struck Dee as a threatening combination.     Dee's chart thus revealed the cosmic setting of the life he was about to lead, showing him a universe and a life of schisms and oppositions, of sunshine and moonshadow, jovial humanity and Martian malevolence, a world that promised understanding, but threatened isolation. Copyright © 2001 Benjamin Woolley. All rights reserved.