Professor busts 450-year-old myths about popular Elizabethan John Dee

Professor Glyn Parry from the Department of Humanities argues that much of what we think we know about John Dee, an alchemist, astrologist, magician, and one-time advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, may actually be lies created by Dee himself.

Posted: 11 May 2016

image for news story Professor busts 450-year-old myths about popular Elizabethan John Dee
Portrait of John Dee from the 16th century.

According to Professor Parry, the central lies Dee told about himself were that he did not practice magic and that he was held prisoner by Bishop Bonner of London for casting a horoscope predicting that the Catholic Queen Mary's pregnancy was false. However, research carried out by Professor Parry has revealed that this version of events was in fact made up by John Dee himself for a book published almost 20 years after the events.

Professor Parry said: "The truth was that Dee had actually been a Catholic, not a Protestant, and rather than being the victim of Bonner, was actually his friend and chaplain. Most importantly, Dee managed to hide from history, for almost 450 years, the fact that, more than just casting a horoscope, he actually practiced magic, which he believed allowed him to 'conjure' angels, and receive revelations from them about the future.

"Dee’s lies weren’t without reason however. In the mid-16th century, religious differences were the cause of much persecution, and it was a matter of survival, both political and absolute, for Dee to get his past altered favourably to fit the ruling regime – by the time of the book, it was the Protestant Elizabeth I."

These are just some of the myths that surround Dee, but not all were made up by him. For example, after having fled his Mortlake home in south west London during the middle of the night to avoid the creditors he owed money to, there is a myth that a mob, furious at his 'conjuring', ransacked his library. However, in reality, Dee took many of his books with him, and his brother-in-law sold some of the remainder to pay off some of Dee's debts.

Professor Parry will be giving a talk about the truths behind the lies of popular Elizabethan John Dee at Conway Hall at a sold out event.

Study history at the University of Roehampton.

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