John Dee (1527–1608/9) was a brilliant mathematician, antiquary and astrologer, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Dee was well connected with intellectuals in Europe and believed in English imperialism. Elizabeth called him ‘my philosopher’. He was in a sense, a one-man 'think-tank' of his day and a visionary of the Elizabethan court.

A leading intellectual

In 1570, Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton, two of Elizabeth's favourite courtiers, commissioned John Dee to produce a report on the state of the nation's political, economic and social affairs. The result was Brytannicæ Republicæ Synopsis (Summary of the Commonwealth of Britain). This was a flowchart in which Dee presented the problems facing the nation and possible solutions, and was used to lobby Elizabeth for more expansionist policies.

Conceiving the ‘British Empire’

Dee was one of the main architects of an imperial vision for England and first used the term ‘British Empire’, writing about it in General & Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, published in 1577. He argued that a British Empire could become reality through maritime supremacy. Dee was also practical and, as well as being the first person to apply Euclidian geometry to navigation, he also built many of the instruments the early navigators needed on their journeys.

Astrology and magic

Dee was also heavily involved in astrology, magic and the occult. He gave advice to Elizabeth I, including making a forecast for her reign based on her coronation date. She believed in his magical powers and he was a trusted counsellor.

When James I came to power in 1603, he had no time for superstition or magic and Dee’s influence declined. He spent the end of his life in poverty, dying in either 1608 or 1609.

A published edition of the diary of Dr John Dee is in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum and is full of fascinating insights into the man himself and of Tudor times. 

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