Angels to some, Demons to others: The Religious tensions within John Dee's magical Christian heresy

Dave Evans

This essay briefly examines John Dee, and in common with other academic edits presented here on Occult ebooks, the detailed citations have been removed to make it easier to read on-screen. If you'd like the original Word document with the full references please drop me a line.

Dee lived through extreme religious and scientific changes, juggling state, religion, and being at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of science and magic. Difficult enough, but remarkably Dee also did this in the very public arena of the Royal Court, largely without being entrapped by the law. Sorcerers, astrologers, witches and prophets were all in danger of prosecution and public persecution during this time. Dee was arguably all of these, and more; yet he survived to 80; living through five monarchs, and three changes of the state religion.

This survival may have been partially because the elite were safer than poor village witches. Dee was born into a minor family at Court, and had an excellent education; which helped protect him; although other occultists to the nobility fared less well: John Lambe, for example, was stoned to death by an angry mob.

However Dee has the distinction of raising the ire of both Protestant and Catholic authorities during his life; and it is likely that he survived, in England at least, on account of his special services to the Crown; including being a spy while overseas.

To Dee, everything was a search for knowledge, and he was largely responsible for the enlightenment in England, as scientific study seems to have been scarce outside his circle. He used magic as just one means to strive for:

" the farder understanding of all sciences, that are past, present, or yet to come",

-and his was a holistic view of all enlightenment science and magic as one. This was difficult to rationalise, and Dee has been criticised by modern historians for inconsistency, "eclectic and fluctuating thought". This would seem unavoidable in a career spanning (often simultaneously) at least seven separate disciplines and some 60 years, and a period of incalculable intellectual change.

Dee took degrees at Cambridge and Louvain, where he was a pupil of the geographer Mercator. This lifelong relationship allowed the achievements of later British discovers such as Raleigh and Frobisher. Dee also took Holy Orders in the Church of England, despite a Catholic upbringing. He travelled and studied extensively in his youth, and at 23 he was already famed in Europe as a philosopher, receiving numerous job offers from foreign monarchs. These he refused, remaining loyal to England, and returned in 1550, to advise the Government on navigation; a position which lasted over 30 years, aided by his cousin, and champion in the Admiralty, William Aubrey.

During the reign of Edward VI he was already prominent at court as a polymath. When Mary came to the throne he was asked by the curious Elizabeth to construct horoscopes for both her and her sister, Queen Mary. This was potentially treason, as applying magical means to predict events such as the death of a sovereign could be politically very dangerous; magical prediction leading perhaps to magical causation of an event. He was thus imprisoned for three months; for attempting to enchant the Queen, but was later acquitted after brilliantly conducting his own defence.

It was an uneasy theological line that Dee had to walk. He wrote to Mary in 1556, imploring that ancient writings and monuments be preserved; but had to couch his letter in such as way that he was not seen to be promoting the survival of heretical, i.e. at the time, specifically Protestant, writings.

Although raised Catholic, Dee's beliefs might today be called perhaps Christian Scientist, but with a very large side-helping of ritual magic. There may be no necessary conflict between being a devout early-modern Christian and the seeing of angels; indeed this may be precisely why angels are seen; because belief in them is so strong. However pure Christianity seems spurious when using complex and decidedly un-Christian magical paraphernalia to summon angels, in a time when there indeed was no real criteria to distinguish angels from demons.

Dee was a bibliophile and antiquarian, extending the size of his house several times to accommodate an expanding collection (and many visiting students, in science and magic) and at one point had perhaps the largest private library in England, some 4000 items. It is these that were often confiscated from suspected sorcerers. Such 'books of circles' may have been geometry texts, but see Heptarchia, (online reference at end of article) especially page 32, for more occult examples; and consider a semi-literate constable, who might concentrate on pictures when first investigating them. In any case, mathematics, astrology and sorcery were closely aligned as 'magical' topics; and science was "popish".

In a reversal of attitudes, under Queen Elizabeth, Dee was commissioned to select the most auspicious coronation date, via precisely the same astrology on a monarch for which he was previously imprisoned. Imagine his disquiet. Such a rapid polar shift in official attitude highlights the extent to which prevalent society defines criminals.

Elizabeth also employed Dee to counter witchcraft used against her, and gained special provision from Elizabeth to protect him from:

"any of her kingdome, that would, by reason of his rare studies and philosophicall exercises, unduly seek his overthrow".

This may have been necessary as, despite elevated reputations within Court, many other nobles and the general populace regarded him as a dangerous sorcerer. This parallels contemporary theatre: compare Marlowe's magician in Dr Faustus, who is promised by the Emperor that

"whatever thou dost, thou shalt be in no ways prejudiced or damaged".

The protection would also be vital in espionage; where Dee would have been often unable to explain suspicious behaviour, for fear of exposure. I sadly have no space here to discuss possible links with Marlowe, also a spy.

Dee travelled extensively; and in his absence Elizabeth was a staunch defender; as his books published on the continent often arrived in England before he did, to less than scholarly and religious acclaim by:

"such universitie-graduates of high degree, because they understood it not".

Unusually for the time, Dee wrote mainly in English, reaching more of the rising educated classes than pure Latin text would have.

Aside from a prodigious scientific output, Dee continued occult experiments, using crystal-gazing ('scrying'), but found this difficult. He employed a Lancashire psychic; Edward Kelley as a scryer. Kelley already had convictions for fraud, losing his ears for one such offence.

While scrying, Kelley communicated with numerous Angels who gave prophecies, and dictated a new language, which Dee called 'Enochian'. It has been suggested that Kelley made Enochian up, but a young, semi-literate fraudster should be unable to construct a coherent and consistent language, bearing no relation to other tongues. It is more likely the polymath Dee created it.

In 1583 rumours circulated that they were making gold by alchemy. This generated great interest among European royalty, and a Polish noble, Laski, made a lucrative invitation to work at his home. Dee and Kelley left England and made expensive alchemical and scrying experiments; which dreadfully strained Laski's budget. Despite the political prophecies of the angels, who had been (naturally) predicting great things for Laksi, he decided to pass them, and the costs, on to Emperor Rudolph II; who was fascinated with alchemy.

Rudolf was highly impressed, however, their alchemy soon led to complaints of sorcery and heresy, with the Pope demanding their arrest. Instead, Rudolf allowed them to flee. Dee and Kelley became wandering freelance astrologers, working for the Polish King and Bavarian nobility, among others, while spying on Spanish interests.

Scrying continued unabated, but the suddenly very agitated Kelley became convinced that the crystal showed not angels but devils. Kelley tried to leave, but was badgered to stay by Dee, and to explain himself. Kelly reluctantly confessed that the angels had commanded the men to share their wives sexually.

There was such a strong commitment to the angelic work, and since their financial security depended largely on angelic communications for the interest of rich patrons, this wife-swapping went ahead. This, all despite the horror of the ladies, the large age difference between the four people and the devastating immorality of the situation. This would be psychologically very difficult for devout Christians nowadays, let alone in the 16th century.

The ménage a quatre did not last long. Dee returned to England in 1589. Kelly continued as an itinerant 'occultist-for-hire' in the Low Countries. He was imprisoned for various occult and fraudulent earthly activities several times, and eventually died from injuries received while escaping from jail in 1595.

Returning home, virtually penniless after six years' away, Dee found his house ransacked, and much of his priceless library and laboratory stolen or destroyed. Absence from Court had also reduced his popularity. Having once had the ear of the Queen was less beneficial now; Elizabeth was distant; eventually granting Dee a minor teaching position away from London; an insult to a lofty academic, but financially vital. Dee held similar posts for the remainder of his life; often having to sell books to make ends meet, while continuing his occult experiments and writing. He died in relative penury in 1608.

My primary text, Heptarchia, (online reference at end of article) is a fascinating mish-mash of ceremonial magic and pantheism with trifling attempts at a Christian sheen. It was not published in Dee's lifetime, but was used as a teaching resource in manuscript copies, and as such could easily have fallen into the hands of the authorities. Throughout it is filled with references to the one God's power, praising God, etc; which read as Christian, but there are numerous passages, any one of which would be enough for Dee to be accused of witchcraft, heresy and/or treason:

" for we are gods. Creatures that have Raigned, do Raigne, and shall Raigne for eu." Heptarchia p 1.

A plurality of eternal Gods, is not the Christian singularity, and as such is grave heresy.

"These (angels) shall be Subject unto you" Heptarchia p 3.

Dee is given power over angels- a blasphemy, as only God should have this. Similarly

"…the Generall Prince, Governor or Angel that is Principall in this world" Heptarchia p 7,

is not the Christian God, and could be the Devil. If not angels, then they would be demons or familiar spirits; consort with them was a crime.

"by them, Thow shalt work Marvayles" Heptarchia p 3,
"The altering of the Corruption of Nature, into perfection" Heptarchia p 28, "dost work mervayles.." Heptarchia p 29.

These are miracles, which only God can perform, and under Protestant doctrine, these have already ceased anyway.

"There are kings fals, and unjust, whose powre, as I haue subverted and destroyed, So shallt Thow D" Heptarchia p 3.

Dee is given the power to make political changes; an immensely dangerous matter to write down. Although he is warned

"Great care is to be had with those that meddle with Princis affaires" Heptarchia p 4,

he is later told:

"Thow beginnest new Worlds, new people, New Kings, and New knowledge of a New government." Heptarchia p 30.

... political dynamite; and treason.

"...spirits ...which kepe earth with her Threasor" Heptarchia p 22.

Magic to discover buried treasure was a crime and it seems Dee divined or dowsed for treasure using several means .

"Thy power is upon the waters" Heptarchia p 30.

This deals with magical control of the sea. The sudden storm, which swept away the Armada, has hallmarks of the supernatural, and Dee had used both his spying, navigational and occult skills against the Spanish navy. This purported ability to change the weather would have been especially dangerous for Dee later in life, when James became King, since the Berwick witches of 1591 were executed for allegedly raising a storm to sink James' ship and kill him.

The main angel in Heptarchia (and Dee's other angelic manuscripts) is Uriel. In Shakespeare's The Tempest the chief angel is Ariel. The opening scene involves a magical storm to bring a ship to the magician Prospero's island, and he also has a fantastic library. There are many other parallels between Prospero and Dee; whom Shakespeare may have met, as Dee had designed several special effects for the Globe theatre. The Tempest was first performed around three years after Dee's death.

As has been seen, in Europe Dee could walk into any enlightenment school, largely un-harassed, and as an intellectual equal. In England he was regarded with fear and suspicion. However it is perhaps only with his death and consequent sympathetic portrayals on stage, in tandem with liberalisation of religion and a growing understanding of the value of his many works in mathematics, navigation, philosophy and general sciences (let alone his 'war work' against the Spanish) that English society of the time could accept him as more than an object of superstition, and his image was rehabilitated.


NB/ My title: "Angels to some, Demons to others" is a line borrowed from the occult horror fiction The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker. New York: Del Rey. 1986; which is itself the screenplay for the film Hellraiser, where that line is a central part of the dialogue.

There are at least 4 biographies of Dee currently in print. None of them terribly comprehensive.

Online references: John Dee: De Heptarchia Mystica, (Diuinis, ipsius Creationis, stabilis legibus) Collectaneorum 1582. (On-Line) Peterson. J.H. (ed) version, produced 1997, from British Library Ms. Sloane 3191.

And his Mysteriorum Libri Quinque or, Five Books of Mystical Exercises of Dr. John Dee
An Angelic Revelation of Kabbalistic Magic and other Mysteries Occult and Divine
revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly A.D. 1581 - 1583.

He's all over the web, but a useful Dee site is at :