Historian Glyn Parry discusses the subject of his new biography The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee, a book which ‘rescues Dr Dee from the shadows of his own secrecy and restored him as a glittering light in the magical Elizabethan firmament’ (Sunday Telegraph). Here Parry unpacks the misinformation, hearsay and slander surrounding this mysterious and influential figure, and gives an insight into the challenges facing the biographer of a ‘magician’.
Author article by Glyn Parry
Fulham Palace stands quietly in west London, surrounded by large, leafy gardens that stretch down to the Thames. Many of its rooms look as they did in the reign of Mary Tudor, when Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, took his leisure there. The modest Hall is particularly redolent of the sixteenth century, with its dark oak linen-fold wainscoting and charming bay window. We know it is unchanged because the Hall displays illustrations from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, woodcuts from the 1560s which depict ‘Bloody’ Bonner in that bay window torturing Protestants to make them renounce their faith.
To stand on that spot has a curious effect, almost as if one had stepped into Foxe’s pages. It might surprise the modern reader to learn that this is where we can get closest to John Dee, the famous Elizabethan magus, astrologer, alchemist and converser with angels, to stand where he stood, to breath the air he breathed. For Dee was an ordained Catholic priest and one of Bonner’s chaplains, and I like to believe that he was depicted by Foxe’s illustrators amongst those witnessing Bonner’s brutality. Dee’s life turns out to be full of such surprises, and this is what attracted me to write about him in the first place.
We all of us carry around a colourful mental image of the Tudor Age, composed partly of the myths they told themselves and those added by succeeding centuries, particularly by Hollywood – the voracious Henry VIII, all swaggering shoulders and booming voice, Elizabeth with her astonishing ruffs and smooth, white face above jewel-encrusted, heavily embroidered dresses, stepping on Raleigh’s cloak, ‘not making windows into men’s souls’, and consulting Dee to forecast the future. Some of this may be true, but it is not the full story, and to tease out Dee’s life from the dense fabric of Tudor history, and present his real historical context, has required patient attention to even the tiniest details of obscure manuscripts and books, examined again and again as the years of reading changed the way I understood them.
For example, Dee’s rivalry with Vincent Murphyn runs through my book. But I did not understand why they became rivals until, late one night, I read for the umpteenth time an appallingly-written letter of November 1578 from Elizabeth’s Secretary, Thomas Wilson, to the Earl of Leicester. Wilson reported the torture of John Prestall, believed to be behind wax images discovered that August, and believed to be a magic attack on Elizabeth. Prestall had not confessed, but, Wilson said, his brother-in-law, one Marvyn, had been sent for. Suddenly that name, which my eye had skipped over many times before, leapt out at me, and everything fell into place. Marvyn or Murphyn was related to Prestall. Dee had been used against Prestall’s magic since the beginning of the reign. This explained why Murphyn had spread libels accusing Dee of being ‘the Arch-Conjuror of England’, a story which he backed up with forged letters that Foxe, inclined to believe anything about Dee given his activities at Fulham Palace, had printed. This key opened the way to one of the central arguments of my book, that Dee’s notoriety stemmed not from his magic, but from rival magicians, who sought to blacken his reputation while enhancing their own. And I had my title.
The book also tries to challenge some myths about Tudor political history, by emphasizing that Dee’s magic did not make him feared and marginalized, but on the contrary made him central to Elizabethan political struggles. Because our mythology about Elizabethan politics is founded on layers of prejudice. The first printed calendars summarizing Elizabethan political manuscripts date from the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, when educated men sniffed at the ‘superstition’ of previous ages. This tradition continued into the Victorian period, the Age of Science. Therefore for two centuries historians have been guided by calendars that omitted many references to the magical beliefs of Elizabethan politicians, including Elizabeth I. Recovering those beliefs requires working against the grain of the calendars, focusing attention on what they pass over.
It also demands persistence, which brings luck. In 1604 Dee complained to James I about an English exiled traitor who in 1592 had slandered him as the ‘Conjuror’ to Elizabeth’s Privy Council. No Dee scholar for three hundred years had been able to find this slander. On yet another late night I was reading a nineteenth-century edition of the ‘Douai Diaries’, documents concerning the former Catholic seminary in northern France. It reprinted words first published by the Jesuit Robert Parsons in 1601. Parsons quoted a letter of 1592 from the English exile Cardinal William Allen, who claimed that in late 1591 Lord Burghley had frightened Elizabeth into changing her policy of ‘not making windows into men’s souls’, and allowing a nation-wide pogrom against English Catholics, because Dee had ‘conjured’ to predict that the Spanish would conquer England in 1592.
Here was the slander, which put Dee’s magic at the centre of Elizabethan policy-making, persuasive because both Elizabeth and Burghley believed deeply in his occult philosophy. This insight led me to revise much about Dee’s biography, and in future it may cause us to revise that picture of the Elizabethan Age we all carry with us. Time will tell.
Glyn Parry is a senior lecturer in history, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He lives in New Zealand. From January 2013 he will be Professor of History at Northumbria University in Newcastle.
The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee is available now from Yale.