About John Dee

Dr John Dee Mortlake

John Dee, oil on canvas, c.1594. © University of Oxford, Ashmolean Museum

John Aubrey in Brief Lives describes John Dee:

‘Dee had a very cleare rosie complexion…a long beard as white as milke. A very handsome man…he was tall and slender. He wore a gowne like an artist’s gowne, with hanging sleeves, and a slitt. A mighty good man he was.

Dr John Dee (1527 to 1608) lived at Mortlake from 1565 to 1595 except for the 6 years between 1583 and 1589 when he was travelling in Europe. He was a faithful friend, astrologer and alchemist to Queen Elizabeth and had been taken into her service almost immediately after her accession. His house by the river at Mortlake was often visited by her when she was travelling to and from Richmond. He was also summoned to court, at Richmond, Windsor or elsewhere whenever Elizabeth required his advice.

On 16 March 1575, Elizabeth arrived at Dee’s house and found that his first wife had died and was to be buried that day. The Queen refused to enter the house and talked to Dee by the church wall. In November 1577, Dee was summoned to Windsor where the court were worried by the sudden appearance of a comet.

Dr Bayly, the Queen’s physician consulted Dee on 16 October 1578 about “her Majestie’s grievous pangs and pains by reason of toothake and the rheume etc” from which the Queen was suffering. A month later, when she was no better, Dee was sent to Germany to consult other physicians.

Another visit was paid to Mortlake on 17 September 1580 and on 3 October, Dee went to Richmond as Elizabeth had asked him to find out what lands such as Greenland and Newfoundland she was entitled to call hers. Again, on the afternoon of 10 October, the Queen called at Mortlake to offer Dee her condolences as his mother had died that morning.

On her way from Richmond to dine with Secretary Walsingham, at Barn Elms, on 11 February 1583, Elizabeth again called on Dee. On 21 September of the same year Dee went abroad, but was called back by Elizabeth in 1589 when he had an audience with her, at Richmond, on 19th December. His house at Mortlake had been broken into and some of his books and furniture damaged.

1590 saw the Queen have 3 meetings with Dee in November/December. Dee was granted wardenship of Manchester College in April 1595 and did not return to Mortlake until 1604.

John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I

John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I