John Dee provided Queen Elizabeth I with a new vision for England, spurring the rise of the British Empire.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, England was a small European nation on the periphery of world power. In an effort to turn the tide of the nation’s global standing, Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton commissioned John Dee, a well-known scholar, to produce a report on England's political, economic and social affairs, on behalf of the Queen.
Well-connected with intellectuals in Europe, John Dee was also a brilliant mathematician, an advocate of imperialism and a promoter of maritime affairs. He had advised many explorers in the art of navigation and lobbied for a larger navy. The result of the commission was Dee’s Brytannicæ Republicæ Synopsis (Summary of the Commonwealth of Britain). The document presented the problems facing England, alongside Dee’s suggested solutions and the potential outcomes of different actions. The synopsis was used to lobby Queen Elizabeth for more expansionist policies.
In 1577, Dee published a new vision for England, General & Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, and proposed the rise of the British Empire using historical precedents, including prior claims to the New World.
Dee argued that this vision could become reality through maritime supremacy, and that England should reap the rewards offered by colonising new lands and exploiting new resources. The text was dedicated to Christopher Hatton, indicating his influence at court during this time, plus his ability to get the Queen's ear.
A subtle approach
While this was a captivating and exciting proposal, Elizabeth, as head of state, had to tread carefully. Dee's grand plan presented a direct challenge to the Spanish/Portuguese economic and religious monopoly. The Queen could not afford to give overt support to such ventures, either financially or politically. The boldness of the vision and the delicate nature of foreign diplomacy required a more subtle approach.
As a result, Elizabeth did not initiate the recommended maritime adventures or commit state funds to them. She was, however, informed about them and occasionally invested in them personally. In these circumstances she was more of an enabler, offering passive approval to England’s entrepreneurs who were 'thinking big'. Through her actions the queen helped to create a confident 'can-do' culture.
Exploration and Empire
During the 1570s and 1580s there were numerous expeditions to search for a North-East and a North-West Passage to open up new markets in the East. There were also expeditions to establish permanent colonies in eastern America, potentially as trading posts en route to the East. These were encouraged by members of the Privy Council and received tacit state approval - but no state finance.
Elizabeth backed a number of exploratory ventures to the New World, such as those of Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh. She also supported trading initiatives in other parts of the world by investing in enterprises such as the Turkey Company, founded in 1580, and the East India Company, established in 1600. England's entrance into world trade was thereby assured, and the nation's shift from the periphery of world power towards the centre was under way.
The terrestrial globe: an artefact of the ‘Golden Age’
The spread of Dee's imperial vision are demonstrated by the terrestrial globe, made in 1592 by Emery Molyneux of Lambeth, who had travelled with Drake on one of his voyages. The globe, the first made in England, features the tracks of several important English voyages, and shows the royal coat of arms stamped across America. Molyneux presented the manuscript for the globe to Elizabeth at Greenwich in 1591.
Petruccio Ubaldini, the Italian ambassador, was a witness to this gift and noted that 'he gave her the globe to let her see at a glance how much of the world she could control by means of her naval forces'. The English challenge to Spain's global holdings was no longer a secret, but out in the open for all to see.
Using our collections for research
The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time.