Earlier this year Yale published The Arch Conjuror of England, a biography of Dr John Dee, the great magus of the Elizabethan world, whose life was recently made into an opera by Damon Albarn. Today we look at Glyn Parry’s book and its mysterious and elusive subject.
You may not have heard of Dr John Dee (1527–1608), unless of course, you are a Blur fan. Last year Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn launched an opera of Dee’s life at the Manchester International Festival. Dr Dee received favourable reviews from both the rock music and broadsheet critics, and Albarn is set to release an album of songs from the opera on the 7th May (you can listen to an album stream of this ‘Afro-pastoral folk opera’ on the Guardian’s blog).
But who was Dr John Dee, and why is his life worthy of an 18-track rock odyssey? Perhaps Albarn, a composer, songwriter, record producer and general music factotum, was fascinated by the sheer variety of Dee’s career. As an English mathematician, alchemist, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator and medical consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable.
One of the most learned men of his age, Dee was lecturing on advanced algebra at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties, was a fervent promoter of mathematics and astronomy, and was also a leading expert in navigation, having trained many of those who would conduct England’s voyages of discovery.
Alongside these scientific efforts, Dee immersed himself in the worlds of magic, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. He devoted much time and effort in the last thirty years of his life to attempting to commune with angels in order to learn the universal language of creation and bring about the pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind.
Dee did not draw distinctions between his mathematical research and his investigations into Hermetic magic, angel summoning and divination. Instead he considered all of his activities to constitute different facets of the same quest: the search for a transcendent understanding of the divine forms which underlie the visible world, which Dee called “pure verities”.
In his lifetime Dee amassed one of the largest libraries in England. His scholarly status also allowed him to play a role in Elizabethan court, where he served as an occasional adviser and tutor to Elizabeth I and nurtured relationships with her ministers Francis Walsingham and William Cecil.
Dr Dee was truly one of the most colourful and controversial figures of the Tudor world, but also one of the most elusive, his life being the subject of misinformation and exaggeration.
In The Arch Conjuror of England – the first full-length biography of Dee based on primary historical sources – Glyn Parry (a senior lecturer in history and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society) explores Dee’s vast array of political, magical, and scientific writings and finds that they cast significant new light on policy struggles in the Elizabethan court, conservative attacks on magic and Europe’s religious wars.
John Dee was more than just a fringe magus, Parry shows: he was a major figure of the Reformation and Renaissance; a controversial figure certainly worthy of of an opera.
The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee is available now from Yale University Press. Look out for an extract form the book, which we will be posting soon.