By Angela Lord
Mathematician, magician, astronomer and alchemist, John Dee was one of Tudor England’s most fascinating figures, who advised Queen Elizabeth I and her court, was a learned scholar of a wide range of subjects, and travelled widely throughout Europe.
Rare and valuable books from Dee’s personal library, including mathematical and astronomical texts, often dotted with hand-written notes and doodles, are currently on display at the Royal College of Physicians of London. The free exhibition Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee provides extraordinary insights into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.
Dee is thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s magician Prospero in The Tempest and possibly for Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in return for magical powers. It is true that Dee possessed the sorcerer’s paraphernalia of a crystal ball and a scrying mirror, for seeing visions of the future, but though he was sometimes suspected of dabbling in the dark arts, he maintained that he used these tools of the trade for the higher purpose of communicating with angels.
During his lifetime, Dee collected around 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, building one of the greatest private libraries of 16th century England at his home in Mortlake, just outside London, on the River Thames. They cover topics as diverse as mathematics, natural history, music, astronomy, military history, cryptography, ancient history and alchemy.
When Dee travelled to Europe in the 1580’s, he entrusted the care of his library to his brother-in-law Nicholas Fromond. Unfortunately, Fromond ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’, according to Dee, who later managed to recover a limited number of the lost items.
A large number of Dee’s books came into the possession of Nicholas Saunder, whose collections later passed to Henry Pierrepont, the Marquis of Dorchester, an avid book collector. After Dorchester’s death in 1680, his family presented his entire library to the Royal College of Physicians.
Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee runs until 29 July at the Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4LE.
Open Monday-Friday only, from 9am-5pm (last entry 4.30pm)
Hear more about John Dee and his library in this short talk by RCP rare books librarian Katie Birkwood