In the 16th century the English were at war with the Spanish. Queen Elizabeth I needed information about her enemies for the empire she was starting to build. And she needed a spy to get it. Dr John Dee, a philosopher, alchemist and mathematician was introduced to her, and became her most trusted and brilliant advisor. He was the man who inspired Shakespeare to create the character of Prospero from The Tempest, and the inspiration for Ian Flemings James Bond...
Queen Elizabeth I was an ambitious monarch who wished to see her country grow in influence. Spain, however, was the most powerful country in the world. The Spanish already had colonies in America and ruled the seas. And the country that ruled the seas ruled the world. For England to prosper, Elizabeth first of all had to get rid of the Spanish.
But she needed information about her enemies. She wanted to know what their plans were and what strategies they would use. A network of espionage emerged. English informers in Europe and in the New World would be her spies. Dr John Dee was to lead this new secret service.
He was born in 1557 by the River Thames in the village of Mortlake, now in West London. Dee was a brilliant scholar, indeed a genius. After studying philosophy and maths at Cambridge University, he went on to develop sea navigation on mathematic principles. He created maps of the most important routes to the new colonies. He was a man with many interests. His library at Mortlake was the greatest of its day, containing 4,000 books (the library at Cambridge University contained only 450!).
John Dee was also an alchemist. Alchemy was regarded as a science in those days. Alchemists believed that by studying the material world, the real truths of the spiritual world would be revealed. Dee, like all alchemists, believed that base metals like lead could be turned into gold. His experiments in this subject became famous among the rich and fashionable of the day. He was a friend of Englands most famous sailor, Sir Francis Drake, and the man that brought tobacco and potatoes to Europe, Sir Walter Raleigh.
But Dee was famous outside England, too. When visiting Queen Elizabeth in 1580, Count Adalbert Laski of Poland was so impressed by Dee that he invited him back to his home in Cracow. From there he travelled to Prague. The Czech capital was believed to be the centre of Catholic plots and intrigue against the Protestants. Was John Dee there to send back information to Elizabeth concerning the intentions of the Catholic powers, such as Spain?
Spain was at the height of its power in the late 16th century. Its only rival was England. If the Spanish could destroy the Elizabethan navy, then the seas would be safe for their ships. King Philip II of Spain thought that the Protestant English were heretics, and he personally hated Elizabeth. The final showdown between the two countries occurred in May 1588 when King Philip sent 125 of his best ships to attack his enemies in the English Channel.
When the Spanish ships approached the coast of southern England, Dee suggested waiting before attacking. He had correctly predicted that terrible storms would destroy the mighty Spanish fleet, therefore it would be best to keep the English ships at bay. Afterwards, most of the Spanish ships were lost or damaged, and the rest were attacked. The English ships easily disposed of their enemy. What little remained of the Spanish Armada, as historians call it, tried to escape by sailing through the Channel into the North Sea and thence around the British Isles over Scotland and by Ireland. But they sailed into more storms, and violent seas crashed into them. Many Spanish sailors were shipwrecked in Scotland and along the west coast of Ireland.
Some believed that it was the alchemist Dr John Dee who put a spell on the Spanish and sent the huge waves crashing down on their ships. It is more likely, however, that because he knew about meteorology, he had anticipated the storm scientifically. By skill, luck or magic the world was now safer for the British to build their Empire. Dr John Dee, scientist, or maybe magician, was crucial to the victory. It was Dees finest patriotic moment!
It is this episode in Dees life in particular that is said to have inspired William Shakespeare to write The Tempest (Burza) and base the character of Prospero on the Elizabethan genius.
Dee travelled constantly. On a visit to the University of Louvain in Belgium, he smuggled back new astrological instruments and two globes of the known world, the latest in navigation technology. When on a mission for Her Majesty, the communiqués to his sovereign were signed with a secret code. It told her that the letter was from him and no one else: For your eyes only...
The two circles symbolise John Dees own eyes as the eyes of Queen Elizabeth. The 7 is the alchemists lucky number. It was when the author of the Bond novels, Ian Fleming, was reading a biography of Dee that he came upon the 007 figures. This was perfect for his character. This is what signified that Bond was licensed to kill.
Sir John Dee killed nobody, though. But like James Bond, Dee seems to have been popular with the ladies. Unlike Bond, however, he married twice, in fact. His first wife died only a year after their marriage in 1557. Strangely, no mention of this woman, or the marriage to her, was ever made in Dees diaries. And even more strangely, on the day of her death Dee was seen entertaining Queen Elizabeth at his home in Mortlake, as if nothing had happened. Suspicious? He later married one of Queen Elizabeths top servants, Jane Frommond. No children came from either marriage.
Today Dee is remembered as an important man in English history. He was partly responsible for the growth of the British Empire and contributed much to scientific study. But towards the end of his life he was forgotten by most of his friends. In Elizabethan England, science and magic were seen as the same thing. But the occult was taboo, and throughout his life Dee had suffered accusations of sorcery and witchcraft from time to time. Still, there is no doubt about John Dees ubiquitous influence during the Elizabethan age.
After Elizabeth died and James I came to the throne, however, Dees ideas on magic were no longer appreciated. King Jamess attitude towards the occult was the opposite of Elizabeths, and Dees influence faded. He died in 1608, impoverished and alone.
Nevertheless, thanks to Ian Fleming, the popularity of James Bond has ensured that a new audience will become acquainted with Dr John Dee, one of Englands first ever spies and Britains original 007.
by Peter Gentle