Tudor Minute July 13: Happy Birthday John Dee

Hey, this is Heather from the Renaissance English History Podcast, and this is your Tudor Minute for July 13.

Today in 1527 John Dee was born.  John Dee was at once a mathematician, expert navigator, dabbler in occult philosophy, practicing alchemist, and conjurer of angels.  A powerful man who was the official philosopher to Elizabeth I, he had England’s largest library with over 4000 books, and he also had a conjuring table.  

These things don’t sit well with most modern minds, living as we do in a time when science and the occult are clearly delineated, but until the Enlightenment, science didn’t distinguish between “real” science and “occult” science.  John Dee is perhaps the best example of a man who straddled both worlds, just as they were both beginning to divide and separate.

In an age where court astrologers would make predictions on the sex of an unborn child, and witchcraft was seen as a very real force, the lines between science and the occult were blurred.  What is now chemistry would have included alchemy and the search to find the Philosopher’s Stone (not just the Harry Potter version) or to discover a way to turn rocks into gold.  Anyone with an interest in science would have wound up doing experiments that we would laugh at now.  There was still a debate about how many angels could fit on the edge of a pin. Some in the church believed that mathematics were a black magic.

In the mid 1500’s Princess Elizabeth asked John Dee to cast the horoscopes for both her, and her sister Mary.  The horoscope showed that Elizabeth would come to the throne and have a long and happy reign. But he was discovered having done this, and was thrown into the Tower where he shared space with some of the Protestant Marian martyrs.  Once Elizabeth inherited the throne, she restored him to favor, appointing him her Royal Astrologer (calling him her “noble intelligencia”) and he even chose the date for her coronation.

Within two generations, the type of “science” that John Dee did would have been relegated to the world of black magic and done in secret in basements. John Dee, born today, July 13, 1527.

That’s your Tudor Minute for today. Remember you can dive deeper into life in 16th century England through the Renaissance English History Podcast at englandcast.com

Links:
John Dee: Brilliant Scientist and Occult Philosopher

Episode 084: Looking up at the sky in Tudor England