In A Nutshell
John Dee was a 16th-century philosopher, scientist, and occultist who served in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was involved in numerous espionage missions for the Queen, and he would sign his reports and correspondence with the cipher “007.” This makes Dee the predecessor of Ian Fleming’s suave super-spy James Bond.
The Whole Bushel
In his time, John Dee (1527–1608) was considered a magician, a genius whose interests ranged from mathematics to cartography to calculus. He also delved into the occult arts of alchemy, astrology, and the Kabbalah. His philosophy drew from both Hermetic tradition and science. Dee’s knowledge of geography made him a valuable adviser to famed explorers Raleigh, Gilbert, and Frobisher. At a time when the Copernican theory was controversial, Dee supported the idea of a heliocentric solar system. Dee amassed a private library of thousands of volumes dedicated to philosophy, science, and esoterica. By comparison, the library of the University of Cambridge had a measly 451 books and manuscripts at the time.
It was the Earl of Leicester who introduced Dee to Princess Elizabeth shortly before her accession to the throne. Dee was rapidly promoted to court astrologer. He was the one who chose the most favorable date for Elizabeth’s coronation, January 15, 1559. The Queen was so impressed with Dee’s learning that she personally visited his great library. Dee began conducting covert assignments in her Majesty’s secret service and 007 was the insignia Dee used for his private “For Your Eyes Only” communiques. The double zeroes symbolized Dee’s eyes—he was the secret eyes of the Queen. The seven is a sacred Kabbalistic and lucky number. Dee frequently traveled to European capitals gathering intelligence and sending it back to Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the secret service.
When the Spanish Armada loomed threateningly across the Channel, it was Dee who counseled not to engage it directly. He had foreseen the fierce storms that would devastate the mighty fleet, and told the English to stay back. The tempests drove the Spaniards to their doom, just as Dee had predicted, and some speculated that it was Dee himself who raised the storm.
Sadly, John Dee’s status as a mathematician and true man of science was overshadowed by his reputation as an occultist, and in particular his relationship with a charlatan named Edward Kelly. Kelly claimed to be a “scryer” or medium, and he and Dee allegedly had numerous conversations with extraterrestrial intelligences. They even came up with a new language called Enochian that was supposedly dictated to Kelly in a trance. The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II welcomed them to his court in Prague with the understanding that, as alchemists, they could produce gold from base metals.
In his final years, John Dee moved in the circle of talented Elizabethan writers, scientists, and philosophers. He may have been acquainted with playwright Christopher Marlowe, and may have been the inspiration for Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. It is also likely that Dee was the model for the sorcerer Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Unlike his fictional successor James Bond, Dee never killed anyone. And unlike Bond who only had one short-lived marriage, Dee was married thrice and sired about 11 children. At his death, Dee left behind many scholarly works and unpublished manuscripts, testifying to a genius that was far ahead of its time in many ways.