In 1555, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Dee was imprisoned briefly under suspicion of using enchantments against the Queen. It seems that Elizabeth I held him in high regard, although Dee himself appeared to have little or no psychic ability. He claimed to be able to communicate with angelic beings, and to be skilled in scrying, but actually employed seers to transcribe alleged angelic communications for him.
Dee was born at Mortlake, at that time a village on the Thames outside London. Young Dee had a retentive memory and early proved an apt pupil. At the age of 15 he went to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he recorded in his diary that he used to spend 18 hours a day studying. His reward came in 1546 when he was appointed Under-Reader of Greek at the newly founded Trinity College, shortly after which he was made a Fellow of Trinity and graduated as a BA at his own college.
It was while he was still at Cambridge that the first charge of sorcery was leveled against him as a result of an over-realistic stage effect a mechanical flying beetle which he created for a production of Aristophanes's Pax. All his life he had a passion for mechanical toys. These early years were spent in travel and study.
John Dee went to the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1547, where he made friends with the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator and brought back to Cambridge two of Mercator's globes, together with newly devised astronomical instruments. In one sense Lee can be said to have been the first Englishman to indulge in industrial espionage, for he realized quite early that the English must increase their knowledge of navigational techniques if they were to expand their empire. Consequently he passed back to England all the information he learned from Mercator and others.
About this time Dee first took an interest in natural magic, a subject which was then occupying the minds of many Renaissance scholars. A distinction was made both by the scholastic laity and the Church between natural or 'white' magic, and black magic. The view was that the former was a natural and therefore a good force, that it seemed magical because its workings were spiritual and invisible and therefore not normally given to mortals to understand. Black Magic, on the other hand, was a force for evil conjured up by men either for evil purposes or through ignorance and superstition. It was the dividing line between science and the occult which Lee found so fascinating.
Dee learned much from the orientalist Antonius Gogava, and from Cornelius Agrippa, who had framed the doctrine that the practice of magic was one of the lawful ways by which man could attain to a knowledge of God and Nature. Thus, while teaching logic and mathematics on the continent, Lee was also pioneering in the perilous fields of natural magic, especially in telepathy. The experiments with crystal-gazing were preceded by Dee's preoccupation with his dreams. He made frequent mention of strange dreams in his diaries; similarly he noted the dreams of his wife, for he had married for the second time. His new wife was Jane Fromond, a lady-in-waiting at court.
Dee's interest in crystallomancy was undoubtedly stimulated by his meetings with Renaissance Cabalists and by his genuine and scientific desire to explore the possibilities of spiritualism and telepathy. Dee did not delude himself that he possessed mediumistic talents; he said many times, no doubt with regret, You know I cannot see, nor scry' and he depended entirely on scryers (crystal-gazers). He used a variety of glasses', crystals and special stones for his experiments; two which are alleged to have belonged to him may be seen in the British Museum. But in his choice of scryers Dee was unfortunate. The first, Barnabas Saul, was a rogue who may well have been 'planted' on Dee by his enemies to trap him into indiscretions. The second, Edward Talbott, who on entering Dee's employment changed his name to Kelley, was if anything a bigger rogue, though possibly a more competent, if erratic, scryer. Kelley started life as an apothecary who cherished the idea of finding a formula to manufacture gold, turned to crime and black magic, but on joining Dee was sternly admonished to concentrate on 'conversations' with the angels and not the devils.
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