THE QUEEN'S CONJUROR: The Life and Magic of John Dee
By Benjamin Woolley, published by Flamingo (HarperCollins) at £7.99. xxxpp. ISBN: 0-00-655202-1 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
Many of you will have heard or read about John Dee before as he is something of a legend in the world of magic and the occult. He is variously regarded as England's Faust (with some justification), an excellent astrologer, a spy, a necromancer and a wizard. In fact all of these are true to varying degrees and much else besides, and in this book the amazing life of ‘Dr Dee' as he was often known is brilliantly told.
John Dee was born in 1527 and died in 1608-9. During his life he was a high profile scholar of the world and our place in it. His range of interests was not limited by any academic or religious paradigms (although he did believe in an ultimate God) and he was thorough in his research into the writings of past philosophers and free-thinkers. He was an avid bibliophile, collecting rare and important works from throughout Europe and placing them in his world-class library at Mortlake. He was married three times, fathered several children and travelled extensively in Europe seeking out knowledge whether in books or in the minds of the 16th century's greatest scientists and alchemists. In addition to all of this, he used ‘skryers', or mediums, to communicate with angels in order to find the true language of God and bring about a new world order. All of this while apparently being engaged on intelligence missions for the Court of Elizabeth!
The bits that most people focus on are the ‘skrying' periods of his life although this wasn't the only important thing he was involved in. He was passionately committed to furthering England's interests in the world and actively promoted ideas related to creating an Empire, one of the first to do so in print. He was probably the most learned cartographer, geographer and astronomer in England throughout most of the 16th century and contributed enormously to the work of our famous seafaring explorers. He also had a good knowledge of mechanics and during the performance of a play he wrote literally caused a giant beetle to fly, to the astonishment of the audience – no-one is sure how he managed this incredible stage stunt. He was also a famed astrologer to the monarchy, providing them with important dates for ceremonial occasions and personal consultations where permitted. Simply put, this man had an enormous thirst for knowledge about the world, the stars, religion and spirituality that was equalled by his ability to digest everything he came across. He was widely regarded as a giant in intellectual circles. Yet through all of this he sought only a modest living, desiring only enough so that he could live comfortably whilst maintaining his studies and researches and such was his fate that he usually got slightly less than he needed financially speaking.
Now to the skrying bit. Dee appears to have become fascinated by language, meanings within language, and ciphers. During his researches into the Hebrew language and it's multiple levels of interpretation whereby each word has a meaning, each letter has a meaning, a number, a composite value and numerous other resonances he also learned about the fabled language of Adam. The first true language – the lost language of God. In order to find it he set about attempting to communicate with angels using ‘skryers' or mediums. The one he had most success with was Edward Kelly. Kelly was an unstable character who appears to have somehow won the complete confidence of Dee. They would sit together and Dee would ask questions of the angels who would then answer and recommend courses of action which would ultimately (it was hoped) lead to the rediscovery of the earliest language. At times these angels would dictate squares filled with numbers which they were told were the raw material for finding this true language. At other times these angels would relate information about what was happening far away or they might make predictions about the future. Many of these turned out to be correct, affirming to Dee that, despite Kelly's shortcomings as a person, these visions of angels were accurate and worth pursuing. The dictation of the numerical tables and advice about what course of action to take led Dee, Kelly and their families on a long tour through eastern Europe to impart advice to various monarchs and leaders which would hopefully pave the way for the new age which had been foretold. The tables comprising the ‘raw material' of the language have not yet been satisfactorily decoded, although Dee hinted that he had begun to understand them in his own lifetime. What an amazing story this is! – and I'm not going to spoil it by telling you everything here!
This book by Benjamin Woolley is a gripping read in many ways. It provides great detail about the lives of many of the famous and not-so-famous people involved and the nature of 16th century Europe without losing sight of the main thrust of the story – Dee's fascinating biography. This must be one of the best books I have ever read about the early modern period and I couldn't put it down. Lately there seems to have been a few highly readable yet historically accurate books dealing with witchcraft and magic in the early modern period but I think I would put this one at the top of the pile. This book is very good value for money as a £7.99 paperback. Buy it now.