John Dee Biography

John Dee
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Quick Facts

Birthday: July 13, 1527

Died At Age: 81

Sun Sign: Cancer

Born Country: England

Born in: Tower Ward, London

Famous as: Mathematician, Philosopher

Philosophers Mathematicians


Spouse/Ex-: Jane Dee (m. 1578–1604), Katherine Constable (m. 1565–1574)

father: Rowland Dee

mother: Johanna Wild

children: Arthur Dee, Margaret Dee

Died on: February 28, 1609

place of death: Mortlake, Surrey, England

City: London, England

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education: Catholic University of Leuven, University of Cambridge, St John's College; Cambridge, KU Leuven, Trinity College; Cambridge

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Who was John Dee?

John Dee was a renowned 16th century mathematician, writer, astronomer, astrologer and occult philosopher in England. He was well-known for being an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. A major part of his life was dedicated to the study of alchemy, occultism and divination. Born into an affluent household, he studied at prestigious institutions across Europe and gained knowledge under the apprenticeship of several mathematicians and cartographers. After acquiring the patronage of the English monarch, he is said to have coined the phrase ‘British Empire’ when he advised the queen to claim foreign lands for Britain via maritime supremacy. He then focused his attention on communicating with angels and reading the future, with the aid of the medium, Edward Kelley. He studied many subjects during his lifetime and made significant advances in each field. He also authored several books on mathematics, scientific and occult subjects. Towards the end of his life, he was shunned by the monarchy and died in abject poverty. He was a family man, but sadly outlived most of his children. Several books, plays and characters have been inspired by him.
Childhood & Early Life
John Dee was born on July 13, 1527, in London, to Rowland Dee and Johanna Wild. His father was a textile merchant.
From 1535 to 1542, he went to ‘Chelmsford Chantry School’. A child genius, he attended ‘University of Cambridge’ at age 15.
By 1546, he had graduated with a BA degree and enrolled as one of the first few students at the newly-founded Trinity College, Cambridge, where he quickly achieved popularity as a stage effects magician.
By the early 1550s, John Dee had studied at various European institutes and worked under mathematicians and cartographers. He brought back to England a collection of navigation, mathematical and astronomy instruments.
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From 1553, John Dee was a rector at Upton-upon-Severn, England. In 1554, he was offered a mathematics readership position at ‘Oxford University’, but he turned it down since he was more interested in a position in the royal court.
In 1555, while he was a member of ‘Worshipful Company of Mercers’, he was arrested and charged for treason for calculating and casting horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, but managed to get exonerated.
In 1556, John Dee proposed the foundation of a national library to preserve historical records and manuscripts to Queen Mary, but she rejected it.
In 1558, after Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, John Dee managed to gain her confidence as an advisor on important matters, including the privilege of choosing her coronation date.
From the late 1550s to 1570s, he was the queen’s advisor on expansion of the British Empire through maritime voyages and provided technical and navigational guidance for it.
Between 1564 and 1577, he wrote several books on mathematics, astrology and occult subjects.
By the early 1580s, John Dee’s influence in royal circles started to wane and he turned his attention towards the supernatural, trying to establish contact with spirits and angels by means of a scryer, a crystal gazer.
In 1582, John Dee met a medium, Edward Kelley, who claimed to be able to talk to angels and began to pursue the field in full zest.
In 1583, the queen asked for his advice on the revision of the Gregorian calendar, but his suggestions were rejected. He went to Poland that year with Kelley and began his nomadic life traveling through Europe, seeking audiences with monarchs, but they all spurned him on suspicions of espionage.
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In 1589, John Dee returned to England to find that the country was no longer an acceptable place to propagate occult or magical practices.
In 1595, he became a Warden of ‘Christ’s College, Manchester’ with the support of the queen, but his tenure there was largely unsuccessful.
In 1605, he left Manchester and returned to London, but was unable to get any support from James I, the successor of Queen Elizabeth.
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Major Works
In 1564, John Dee wrote ‘Monas Hieroglyphica’, which explains a glyph of his own design, and other mystical and astrological topics.
In 1570, he wrote a mathematical preface for the English translation of Euclid’s ‘Elements’ by Henry Billingsley, that became his most popular work. He also wrote a manuscript ‘Brytannicae republicae synopsis’ that detailed the state of affairs of the Elizabethan era.
In 1577, he published ‘General and Rare Memorial pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation’ justifying England’s claim on the New World.
Between 1582 and 1583, he wrote ‘On the Mystical Rule of the Seven Planets’ as a guidebook for summoning angels.
Family & Personal Life
In 1565, John Dee married Katherine Constable who died without bearing any children.
In 1575, he married an unknown woman, but she died after one year.
In 1578, John Dee married 23-year-old Jane Fromond, a lady-in-waiting to a noblewoman.
In 1587, when Edward Kelley told him of an angelic order to share wives, John Dee reluctantly agreed.
In 1588, his son Theodore, rumored to have been fathered by Kelley, was born.
John Dee had seven other children: Michael, Arthur, Rowland, Katherine, Madinia, Frances and Margaret; but only three survived him.
John Dee spent his last years at his house in Mortlake, England, in abject poverty, and was looked after by his daughter, Katherine, until his death in 1609.
John Dee is said to have had the largest library in England, with a vast collection of books and manuscripts, that was frequented by many scholars from across Europe.
Instead of Latin, he wrote all his works in English so that they could be easily understood by the common man too.
His son, Arthur, was a noted physician to monarchs and an author of many books and manuscripts on alchemy.

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