The Galileo Project
site map

Dee, John

1. Dates
Born: London, 13 July 1527
Died: Mortlake, Surrey, Dec. 1608
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 81
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant, Government Official
Roland Dee was a mercer (i.e., merchant) in London. Biographia britannica says he was a vintner. Apparently he also held some petty appointment at the court.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English, Polish, German, Czechoslovakian
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A.; Louvain
Chantry School at Chelmsford in Essex, 1537-42.
St. John's College, College, Cambridge, 1542-6; B.A., 1545; Fellow of Trinity upon its foundation in 1546; M.A., 1548.
Studied at Louvain University, 1548-51, with Gemma Frisius and Mercator.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Dee was always viewed, frequently with dread, as a conjurer. During the reign of Mary he was under suspicion of heresy. His angel-magic was not all that different from the position of Bruno. In the 80s in Prague he was not far from condemnation by the Catholic Church. Nevertheless I am not aware that questions were ever raised in England about his orthodoxy after the accession of Elizabeth (and thus I will not list heterodoxy),
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Occult Philosophy, Astrology
Subordinate sciences: Alc, Asn, Gog.
He editted the Billingsley translation of Euclid in 1570 and added to it a famous preface in justification of mathematics.
Dee's interests always tended toward the occult (and his mathematics was not unconnected with this). His favor in court circles was related to his expertise in astrology. About 1582 he became associated with Edward Kelly in occult and alchemical projects. Ultimately his interest in alchemy led Dee virtually to abandon his other work.
Monas hieroglyphia, 1564. As this early publication indicates, Dee became involved in hermeticism, cabala, and alchemy early, already in his student years. As early as 1550 in Paris he was expounding the mathematical-magical theory revived by Ficino.
Propaedeumata aphoristica, 1558, a book of astrology.
Parallacticae commentationis praxosque, 1573-- trigonometric theorems for determining parallax of the new star of 1572. Dee was an early admirer of Copernicus, whose work he studied, whether or not he himself became a Copernican.
He was an important figure in Tudor geography. For an extended period, from about 1551 to 1583, Dee was the advisor to English voyages of discovery, to the Northeast and to the Northwest. He may have been an advisor to Drake's voyage. His Perfect Arte of Navigation (more geography and propaganda for English empire than the science of navigation) was originally intended as part of a larger work, a general history of discoveries.
Clearly Dee could be listed also under navigation and music, which was associated with his mathematics.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage
Secondary: Academia, Astrology, Schoolmastering
Fellow of St. John's College, 1545.
Fellow of Trinity College upon its foundation, 1546 - c.1550.
Dee was offered a professorship at the University of Paris in 1551, and in 1554 a position as lecturer on mathematics at Oxford. He declined both positions. Dee's support through most of his life came from patronage, and it is my distinct impression (which is not based on any document) that he rejected these academic position precisely with the intention of living, and living better, on patronage. From the court he never received the plums he clearly expected. Nevertheless there appears to be no way to account for his library and collection except through gifts from patrons.
At Louvain, 1548-50, Dee began to tutor influential people in such subjects as mathematics and geography. At some point near then he tutored the Earl of Warwick. Apparently Sir Philip Sidney studied with him, perhaps later.
Patronage of the Duchess of Northumberland and her husband, 1551-5.
He was granted a yearly pension of one hundred crowns by King Edward, 1552. He exchanged the pension for the Rectorship of Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire in 1553. He succeeded in holding the claim to this living all his life though the income apparently escaped him sometime around 1580. Note that he never filled the duties of this or another church living; I consider the income as patronage.
Queen Elizabeth promised him security against any attacks on his studies and sent him gifts of money. Dee had cast horoscopes for Elizabeth already during the reign of Mary, and he received the title of Royal Astrologer. He selected the day for the coronation. The court consulted him when occasion demanded, and he was sent on missions abroad. Nevertheless Elizabeth also held Dee somewhat at arm's length as though she did not wish to be too closely associated, and Dee never received the patronage he expected.
Rectorship of Long Leadenham in Lincolnshire, 1566-to end of life, though that income also escaped him about 1580.
Wardenship of Christ's College, Manchester, 1592-1605. He owed this position to Queen Elizabeth. Apparently he did fill this post, disastrously.
Free-lance advisor to the crown, often in connection with astrological events, but also on calendar reform, getting meager payments from the State, 1558-1602.
Dee added to his income by drawing horoscopes and giving advice to all kinds of people.
Dee also earned money from students who came to him to learn dialing, alchemy, and the like.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat, Gentry, Government Official, Merchant
Financial support of Duchess of Northumberland and her husband during 1551-5 for his research. Dee was tutor to the Northumberland children, including Robert Dudley, the future Earl of Leicester. Leicester was to be a major patron in England. Dee was close to him; Biographia britannica calls Leicester his chief patron. Leicester made use of his scientific knowledge.
King Edward granted him a yearly pension of one hundred crowns in 1552 after Dee presented him with two treatises he had composed.
During the reign of Edward (I think), Dee entered the service of the Earl of Pembroke. In 1568 Dee got the Earl to present the second edition of his Propaedeumata aphoristica to Queen Elizabeth. It is reported that she received it graciously, whatever that may mean. The Earl himself gave Dee £20 for the copy Dee presented to him.
Elizabeth promised Dee that she would protect him from the slanders and damages of the public, so that he could pursue his "Rare studies and philosophical exercises." She sent gifts of money, though never much. It is interesting that when Dee was seriously ill in 1571, the Queen sent two physicians to treat him. However, she did not grant him the lucrative positions he was angling for, such as provotship of Eton, and several others that she did promise at one time or another. In 1589, after Dee returned to England destitute, Elizabeth promised him a gift of £100; eventually he got £50. Ultimately she granted him the Wardenship of Christ's College, Manchester (1595-1605).
I am convinced that one should read Dee's famous justifications of English empire in terms of his efforts to win patronage from Elizabeth. Thus in 1580, in response to Elizabeth's request, he prepared a document listing the territories in the world legally subject to her rule.
He dedicated his pamphlet, Rare studies and philosophical exercises (the later key words in the title are Perfect Arte of Navigation), propaganda for a British empire, to Sir Christopher Hatton. On the whole, Dee did not use dedications much. Dee was also a close friend of Francis Walsingham.
He was a consultant on navigation to the Muscovy Company from about 1551 to 1583.
Dee was always close to the circle of Sir Philip Sydney. French (p. 128) describes one member of this circle, Sir Edward Dyer, as one of Dee's disciples and his constant patron.
In 1564 Dee travelled to Presburg in order to present a copy of Monas heiroglyphia to Maximillian II, to whom he had dedicated the work.
On this trip to the continent, he was so serviceable to the Marchioness of Northampton (the sources do not say how) that she remained Dee's permanent patron.
On 3 Oct. 1574, Dee wrote to Burghley complaining that he had not received the rewards to which his years of study entitled him. I think this letter should be very revealing; it is published in Ellis, Letters of Eminent Literary Men. See also in this respect Dee's autobiographical "Compendious Rehearsal" of 1592, which is also published. See also "A necessary Advertisement," a preface to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, 1577, in which Dee defended himself against the charge that he had not used his learning for the benefit of England. And for a statement of the value of learning and the reputation its patron can earn see his petition to Queen Mary, 1556, to preserve the contents of the monastic libraries (Biographia britannica, 5, 33).
Dee was always dissatisfied with the level of his support by Queen Elizabeth. Finally, when a Polish prince, Lasky, arrived at Mortlake in 1583, promising him everything that he did not get from Elizabeth, Dee reluctantly accepted and left England, going first to Laski's estate in Poland. When he went to Prague in 1584, Dee alienated Rudolph, and failed to get the patronage he desired from him. He was for a time banished from the Empire. Count Rosenberg of Bohemia took Dee under his protection and succeeded in having the order mitigated. Dee was Rosenberg's guest for two years, 1586-8. For a number of years, until late in 1589, he was a sort of itinerant alchemist and magician around the continent.
When Dee returned to England in penury, he appealed to his old friends who raised about £500 for him. The Countess of Warwick used her influence with the Queen on Dee's behalf. In November 1592 he petitioned the Queen (the "Compendious Rehearsal"). Elizabeth did give him a gift (see above) and bestowed a pension of £200 on him until a suitable preferment should appear. In fact he never received the pension. Finally she granted him the Warenship of Manchester College in 1595. In fact, Dee died destitute.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Navigation, Instruments, Cartography
Almost by definition his astrological activities had practical ends in view, but I am not listing astrology as a technology.
Advice on navigation and expedition projects, especially for the Muscovy Company for more than thirty years, from about 1551 to 1583. He prepared, or helped to prepare, a considerable list of considerable pilots, including Richard Chancellor, Stephen and William Borough, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, John Davis, and Walter Raleigh. He wrote the Perfect Arte of Navigation (which is, I gather, more about the geography of exploration than about the science of navigation), 1577.
He is said to have made optical instruments, though I hardly know what this could mean. He did bring astronomical and navigational instruments into England when he returned from the continent in 1550. About 1553 he developed what he called the paradoxal compass and/or paradoxal chart. One source calls it a circumpolar chart for navigation in polar regions. Taylor (whom I trust) calls it a device for laying out a series of rhumbs that would lie along a great circle route. There was also a compass of variation. He designed a large radius astronomicus for Thomas Digges to observe the new star of 1572. Dee continued to work at the development of scientific instruments.
While consultant to the Muscovy Company Dee assembled geographic and nautical information and prepared charts for navigation in the polar regions. De Smet calls him the central figure in the development of scientific cartography in England, and he suggests that Dee's influence was transmitted to the Netherlands where it helped form Dutch cartography in its so-called golden age.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Informal Connections: Friendship with Gerard Mercator, Gemma Frisius, Abraham Ortelius, and Peter Ramus. He was in touch with Pedro Nuñez and Oronce Finé.
Correspondence with scholars in the universities of Cologne, Ferrara, Bologna, Heidelberg, Orleans, Rome, Verona and Urbino.
He consulted with Robert Recorde and the two Digges on navigation and cartography.
Close connection with the Sidney circle.
Association with Edward Kelley.
  1. Richard Deacon, John Dee, (London, 1968). Q143 .D55D27 Peter J. French, John Dee: the World of an Elizabethan Magus, (London, 1972). Q143 .D55F8 Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-1950), 5, 721-9. E.G.R. Taylor, Tudor Georgraphy, (London, 1930), pp. 75-139, 191-2.
  2. _____, Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England, (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 34-8, 170-1.
  3. Antoine de Smet, "John Dee et sa place dans l'histoire de la cartographie," in Helen Wallis and Sarah Tyacke, eds. My Head is a Map: Essays & Memoirs in Honour of R.V. Tooley, (London, 1973), pp. 107-13. I have drawn upon a seminar paper by Qiong Zhang.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee (1527-1608), (London, 1909).
  2. Walter I. Trattner, "God and Expansion in Elizabethan England: John Dee, 1527-1583," Journal of the History of Ideas, 25 (1964), 17-34.
  3. Nicholas Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion, (New York, 1988).
  4. Francis Yates, Theatre of the World, (Chicago, 1969).
  5. E.G.R. Taylor, "John Dee and the Map of Northeast Asia," Imago mundi, 12 (1955), 103-6.
  6. _____, "Master John Dee: a Cambridge Geographer,: Reports of the Proceedings of the International Geographical Congress, (Cambridge, 1928), pp. 439-43.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
Home | Galileo | Biography | Chronology | Family | Portraits |
Science | Christianity | Library | About | Site Map | Search

Please note: We will not answer copyright requests.
See the copyright page for more information.