My Review of The Magus of Mortlake or The Arch-Conjuror of England John Dee by Glyn Parry

• Hardcover: 384 pages
• Publisher: Yale University Press (3 Jan 2012)
• Language English
• ISBN-10: 0300117191
• ISBN-13: 978-0300117196

Product Description
Outlandish alchemist and magician, political intelligencer, apocalyptic prophet, and converser with angels, John Dee (1527-1609) was one of the most colourful and controversial figures of the Tudor world. In this fascinating book - the first full-length biography of Dee based on primary historical sources - Glyn Parry explores Dee's vast array of political, magical, and scientific writings and finds that they cast significant new light on policy struggles in the Elizabethan court, conservative attacks on magic, and Europe's religious wars. John Dee was more than just a fringe magus, Parry shows: he was a major figure of the Reformation and Renaissance.

About the Author
Glyn Parry is a senior lecturer in history, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a PhD in History.

‘I have from my youth up, desired and prayed unto thee for pure and sound wisdom and understanding of some of thy truths natural and artificial, hidden in the frame of the world’ ~ John Dee

John Dee lived during a time when boundaries between magic and science were still completely unformed; when religion and politics were sometimes viewed as being one and the same. Dee was deeply involved in the court and international politics of his time. Roland Dee, John Dee’s father, was an important figure in Henry VIII’s court. He made and lost a fortune through the operation of a City tax and involvement in political plots concerning the royal succession. He supported plotters who planned to put Jane Gray on the throne.

John Dee’s loyalties were more than flexible during the reign of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Parry makes it clear that although John Dee could be viewed as an opportunist, he used not only a policy of survival but of religious ambiguity during a period of great turmoil. For instance, many will discover that Dee was actually a consecrated Catholic priest and not a loyal Protestant cleric. He was taken through all the necessary processes in just one day.

John Dee’s inevitable position in the Elizabethan court was more important than his image as the purely intellectual ‘Magus of Mortlake’. Like all courtiers he would be in and out of favor to varying extent throughout his life. Elizabeth I was always supportive of his alchemical and navigational works and would offer him help during the lowest periods of his life.

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Dee’s life was his relationship with his ‘scryer’ or medium, Edward Kelley who was employed by most magical practitioners of the period. Dee’s belief in Kelley’s visions would have been considered controversial and it seems that Kelley himself believed his angelic messages. Parry even mentions Kelley’s role in the infamous ‘wife swapping’ episode. Something I could have done without knowing!

After Dee’s return from Europe, when Kelley stayed behind in Bohemia, his notoriety matched that of Dee. Back in England, Elizabeth sought news of Kelley from Dee about his own work; to the extent that Elizabeth was involved in practical alchemy, maintaining laboratories at Hampton Court where she would work alongside her own alchemists.

During John Dee’s final years he gradually removed himself from court life heading to Manchester as Warden of the Collegiate Church. This was another position where his grasp of political intrigue worked against him. He spent as much time at his home in Mortlake as he would in Manchester. The accession of James I/VI meant Dee’s final act as a public figure.

‘He lived in John Pontois’s house in Bishopsgate Street, a frail, white haired figure of eighty-five, surrounded by manuscripts and books that overflowed the shelves of a large study and spilled out of numerous trunks. They included the Arabic book he called Soyga, which combined angel magic with alchemy and astrology, and a valuable manuscript of Paracelsus. His astrological clock survived, together with some precious mathematical instruments. His cedar chest with its hidden compartment still protected his secrets – his olive wood rosary and cross, his angelic manuscripts, his own writings. Pontois believed implicitly in the angels, and long afterwards he kept the chest, the Holy Table and a certain round flat stone like Crystal. Dee died amongst these remnants of his long life of learning at 3 a.m. on 26 March 1609’. ~ The Arch-Conjuror of England, John Dee

Glyn Parry has used many of the original sources in writing Dee’s life through the course of Elizabethan religious politics. There is an extensive Notes section or list of references to source documents that can baffle the general reader even one with a fair knowledge of the Elizabethan Era. However, Parry has uncovered ‘new’ material especially pertaining to John Dee’s Ordination and imprisonment.

I read ‘The Arch-Conjuror of England’ by Glyn Parry in hopes of getting better acquainted with Dr. John Dee a man I find quite interesting who lived through and witnessed one of the most intriguing periods in history. I enjoyed reading the chapters pertaining to John Dee’s youth, his life in the Tudor court, his teachings and knowledge of Angels I believe as truth for personal reasons. However, I struggled reading through the chapters detailing Astrology and Mathematics because I was not emotionally grasping who John Dee truly was.

I would highly recommend this biography to any open-minded truth and knowledge seeker!

NOTE: The Arch-Conjuror of England John Dee will be published in the United States in April 2012. For now, it is a U.K. and Europe publication.

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,


Anonymous said…
Definitely a colorful figure! A nice review which gives a good flavor of the man who seemed to know how to survive the good times and the bad. gigigirl
Robert Parry said…
Thank you, Kimberly, for a review of what certainly appears to be a book with plenty of new information, especially regarding Dee's imprisonment in 1555. Many will also be surprised at his ordination as a Catholic priest around that time and that the whole process took only one day (which sounds like quite a feat of 'magic' in itself). This is definitely one for the bookshelf for all of us fascinated by one of the most learned and courageous men of the Tudor age.
Maggie said…
What a great review. I remember reading about him in Virgin and the Crab. I'll have to read this biography now! Maggie
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks for commenting gigigirl.Yes,he was a colorful figure!

Thanks Robert for commenting.If anyone knows about John Dee,it would be you! I agree, this is one for the bookshelf!

Thanks Maggie for commenting.I appreciate everyones comments and taking the time to stop by. I hope you enjoy this biography and a different view of John Dee!
There are two quite good novels featuring Dee, Peter Ackroyd's 'House of Doctor Dee' (1994) and Gustav Meyrink's 'Angel of the West Window' (1927).
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hydriotaphia, thanks for commenting on my review and recommending such interesting books on John Dee. I'll definitely look into both!

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