The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr Dee by Benjamin Woolley - review by Sebastian Shakespeare

Sebastian Shakespeare

Merlin of Mortlake

The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr Dee


HarperCollins 394pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

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

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