Although best known as Elizabeth I’s court magician, John Dee was also one of England’s most learned men. Katie Birkwood explores his books and the wealth of information they can provide on his early life.

John Dee was one of Tudor England’s most extraordinary and enigmatic figures, an original Renaissance polymath with interests in almost every branch of learning. He served Elizabeth I at court, advised navigators on trade routes to the New World, travelled throughout Europe and studied ancient history, astronomy, cryptography and mathematics. 

Yet he lives on in the collective imagination largely as a result of his interest in mystical subjects: astrology, alchemy, the world of angels and magical mirrors. It is these seemingly arcane and occult activities that have left us with the image of Dee as the archetypal philosopher-cum-sorcerer, ‘The Queen’s Conjuror’, as one biographer has put it.

So how did the reputation of the man who built – and lost – one of the greatest book collections of his age and devoted much of life to rigorous academic pursuits become so fixed on the supernatural? Moreover, are there reasons other than magic to make Dee a worthy subject of interest and discussion over 400 years after his death?

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The Young John Dee

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