John Dee was the most famous scientist of the Elizabethan age. A great mathematician, he introduced Euclid to Englishmen; a brilliant cartographer, he was the guiding spirit behind the sea journeys undertaken by Chancellor, Frobisher and Hawkins; and he invented the concept of the British Empire. His library at Mortlake was the largest in England and Queen Elizabeth I called him ‘my philosopher’. Consulted by princes and emperors throughout Europe, he declined the post of philosopher at the Muscovite court, which would have paid £2,000 a year. But by the end of his life his star had fallen; he was hounded from the Continent and ended up back in Mortlake, living in poverty. He died aged eighty–one, his name besmirched, his books plundered. His crime? Dabbling in magic.
Benjamin Woolley, whose last book, The Bride of Science, was a biography of Byron’s daughter, has found another subject worthy of resuscitation. It is a classic story of hubris. Dee’s desire for knowledge, or rather, supernatural knowledge, led him to employ a ‘skryer’, or medium, called Kelley, who dabbled in