John Dee Part 1: Actes and Monuments
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous books. This week’s topic is... back in Tudor England. Sorry, I didn’t mean to do so many episodes in a row based in Tudor England, buuuut it happened anyway. The advantage to this is that a bunch of the historical context will still be fresh in your mind.
We’re going to talk about a man called John Dee. Now, when I started researching this topic, it was going to be on a certain text owned by Dee. But of course, as I began researching, I found some other stuff to talk about first. So this week’s episode is going to look at a specific instance in John Dee’s life where there were some texts dangerous for him, due to their impact on his reputation. And John Dee’s reputation is complicated. So before we get to these texts, we need… the historical context.
Dee was born in 1527. Our old friend Henry VIII is on the throne, and as you might remember from the episodes on Mary and Elizabeth, Henry helps instigate a rather turbulent period when it comes to religion. In the 30s the Reformation was in full swing as Henry fretted over annulling his marriage to Catherine. His separation from Rome was, shockingly, not something the Pope liked, and it also put England at odds with all the other European countries that were still Catholic.
Now, obviously, before the Reformation, Dee and his family were Catholic. But after the Reformation, they… remain Catholic. When John enters St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1546, aged fifteen, he favours the minority of teachers who were still Catholic. He gets is BA in 1546, and Henry makes him a junior fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Dee spends a couple of years researching and teaching, and in 1547, financed by Trinity College, he travels to the Catholic University of Louvain for the summer, to learn from European masters. Louvain is in what is today Belgium, and you might recognise the name as Leuven.
Of course, something else happens in 1547: Henry dies. And this has consequences for John. See, his father, Roland Dee, had been Packer for Henry VIII. What does that mean? Well.
Henry had been getting antsy about… customs fraud. He was worried that he was being cheated out of taxes paid by merchants using the ports. It was the Packer’s job to collect the money. Up until this point, the Packer was a position held by the City, rather than the King. But Henry decides to employ someone to act as ‘King’s Packer’, and in 1544 he also employs Roland as ‘Packer to the Strangers’, overseeing the City’s own Packers, so that Henry can be sure he’s getting all the taxes he’s supposed to be getting (Parry 2012: 7). These are not popular moves among the traders in the City, nor the City Council. They officially complain about the damage Roland is doing to their trade (Parry 2012: 7).
When Henry dies, Edward takes the throne. As we know, he continues his father’s protestant reforms, but under his rule, an advisor, Sir John Thynne, manages to convince the Lord Protector – the guy holding the reigns for Edward until he’s old enough to do it himself – that they need to sort this Packer business out with the city. The Lord Protector gives the okay, and Roland is removed from his position, which is granted to Thynne. Glyn Parry suggests that Thynne most likely did this to settle a personal score (2012: 14).
When the Thynne gets the position, he surrenders it back to control of the City rather than the Crown. So Roland is out of a job, and suddenly the people who’d resented him being in charge of them are now in charge of themselves. And things go even further downhill from there. Roland spends a bit of time continuing to loiter around the warehouses and quays, trying to dupe people who don’t know what’s happened into paying him the Packer’s fees. Which, y’know. Doesn’t do much for his reputation (Parry 2012: 14). The Councilmen of the City start demanding to see Roland’s financial records. Which he is reluctant to share. And they want him to pay some money he owes them. Which he is reluctant to do. By 1949 the City had succeeded in getting him to pay its their legal costs, but nothing more (Parry 2012: 14).
Around this time Roland also yoinks a gold altarpiece from the church where he held the position of senior churchwarden. Roland had the authority to sell such items with the church’s consent, but this wasn’t what happened. Roland kept the money himself, and refused to say who he’d sold the item to (Parry 2012: 15).
After this, Roland ups and leaves and hides out in Gravesend, the home of his wife’s family, where he would be protected by the important local businessmen’s families, the Dudleys and the Wyatts. Put a pin in those names.
In August of 1548, John Dee decides it’s time for another trip to Louvain, this time to study law. There may just be a link between this and what happened to his dad (Parry 2012: 16). Not that I think this is the only reason Dee decided to go back to Louvain. He finished his MA at Trinity College around this time, too. John was an academic, and the intellectual, and the Catholic climate of Louvain aligned with his own thinking and studies. It makes sense for him to want to be there. But I didn’t explain all that stuff about Roland just to mention that it might have been a factor in John’s decision to go back to Louvain. Roland’s gonna pop up again later, so don’t forget what happened.
Before we move on, it’s worth just mentioning something else that happened whilst Dee was a fellow at Trinity. Writing much later, in 1570, Dee points to this event as the source of the unwelcome reputation that he’s a conjuror. So what was this event??
He puts on a memorable production of a play by the ancient Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes. The play is called Peace, and the main character is a man called Trygaeus who, at one point rides a giant dung beetle, which he named Pegasos, up to Olypmos. And because I’m a classist and, as a rule, therefore delight in telling people exactly how crude the comedy of those ancient, high-browed Greeks is, Trygaeus begs the audience not to fart or crap for the next three days, lest the smell distract his steed. Also, he’s probably using the giant leather phallus all comedic actors wore to steer the beetle. I’m not just mentioning this detail so I can tell you about ancient Greek Comedy, though.
What made this performance memorable, according to Dee, was that he had created stage machinery using methods discovered in a newly found manuscript on ancient Greek stagecraft. This machinery allowed the actor playing Trygaeus to hop on a beetle that then appeared to actually rise up.
Despite what Dee claimed in 1570, this event is not actually the source of his reputation. But I mention it because, as Glyn Parry lamentingly notes, waaay too many people writing and talking about Dee take his claim at face value. As we shall see, there are plenty other events in his life that we know were the source of his reputation, and Dee is just using this story to downplay his association with certain nefarious events (Parry 2012: 11-12).
After studying in Louvain Dee spends a bit of time in Paris, where he picks up some ideas about Christian-inflected kabbalah. Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition that we will inevitably encounter multiple times on this podcast. Dee returns to England in 1551 whilst Edward is still on the throne. Edward’s Lord Protector, however, had not been so lucky. In 1549 he suffered a catastrophic downfall much worse than Roland Dee’s. Like, ‘executed in January 1552’ kind of much worse.
The Lord Protector’s fall was inversely mirrored by the rise of John Dudley, Earl of Warwickshire. Yes, of the Dudley family who were protecting Roland Dee.
So when John Dee gets back from Paris in 1551, the guy who’s been sheltering his father is now the most influential player in Edward’s court. This, and making the acquaintance of our dear friend William Cecil, who despite being a Protestant, was still super interested in this Catholic occult stuff, helped open a way into court for John, who since his return had been living on a pretty paltry academic stipend at Trinity College. Through occasional appearances at court and bombarding important people with manuscripts on astrology, astronomy, and cosmography, he manages to wrangle a yearly pension of £25 from Edward, though we don’t know if he ever actually got paid, because the state of the king’s finances in 1552 wasn’t great (Parry 2012: 22-23).
Dee also enters into the service of the Earl of Pembroke in 1552. Pembroke’s is another name you’re gonna want to remember. He’s also appointed rector of Upton-Upon-Severn, again thanks to the string pulling of a member of the Dudley family. It’s not a smooth appointment, because the local bishop thinks the crown doesn’t actually have the authority to do that. Appointing a rector is his job. And he hates political appointments, he doesn’t think a layman is qualified for it, and he really doesn’t think much of astrology, either (Parry 2012: 25). But Dee gets the rectory anyway.
So, it’s 1552, he’s got some sources of income, and a rectory. Time for things to settle down for a bit, right? Of course not. Firstly, Dee rents out the rectory and ends up with crappy tenants that don’t pay up and trash the place (Parry: 2012: 25). Also, in 1553, Edward dies.
When that happens John Dudley, now Earl of Northumberland, who, I remind you, had been the most influential figure in Edward’s court, and the man whose protection Roland was sheltering under, takes the unfortunate step of supporting Lady Jane Grey’s succession to throne. As is evident from her epithet of ‘the Nine Day Queen’, this did not end well. But it’s not just John Dudley who’s in this plot to get Lady Grey on the throne. Dees’ father is involved, too.
We don’t know exactly what Roland’s role was, but it was significant enough to land him in the tower of London on July 27th. Roland gets released from the tower in September, but as Parry so neatly puts it, ‘Roland may have breathed the air of freedom deeply. But the odour of treason still clung to him like the prison stink to his by now ragged clothes’ (Parry 2012: 27). Roland appeared before a commission established by Mary’s Privy Council. The commission seized all his property, imposed heavy fines, and also charged him £13 – not an inconsiderable amount – to buy Mary’s pardon (Parry 2012: 27-28). That’s the end of Roland’s direct involvement in our story. He dies at some point, but we don’t know when. And despite exiting the story in person, his actions, and the stench of his ruined reputation will cling to John, as well.
So Mary becomes queen, and starts the process of swinging the country back to Catholicism.
In 1554, Mary puts down a rebellion by Sir Thomas Wyatt. If you remember, the Wyatts were the other family under whose protection Roland had hidden. So that also doesn’t help with John Dee’s reputation. And another problem Dee has is that he was appointed by a Protestant king, in a rectory in the bishopric of a man the Catholics considered to be illegitimate. Which would make Dee’s possession of the rectory illegitimate, too (Parry 2012: 28). To help sort this little problem out, Dee’s patron, the Earl of Pembroke, urged him to get ordained as a Catholic priest, which he did.
That same year – 1554 – Mary announces that she’s pregnant. Being aged 38, it’s a risky pregnancy. There are concerns that Mary will miscarry, or she’ll die and the child survive, or that both she and the child would die. All of which, of course, would have a notable impact on the succession to the throne. It’s a tense situation, with various factions preparing for the possible outcomes.
With huge questions raised over her place in the succession, the then Princess Elizabeth consulted John Dee over the future in April 1555 (Parry 2012: 31). On the 28th of May Dee was arrested by order of the Privy Council, based on accusations made by George Ferrers and John Prideaux of producing horoscopes for Mary, her husband, and Elizabeth. When one of Ferrers’s children suddenly died and another developed blindness, the accusations of conjuring and witchcraft were added. And, y’know, if you’re a queen with an incredibly important pregnancy and you’re worried about harm coming to you or your child, this isn’t the kind of thing that puts your nerves at rest.
Dee doesn’t specify in his own biographical notes why these two brought those charges against him, but Glyn Parry notes that Prideaux was a trusted servant of one of Mary’s Privy Councillors. Ferrers possibly believed that Dee’s divination was done to further a plot against Mary, given Dee’s family association with the Dudleys (Parry 2012: 32). What Mary’s supporters really wanted to be able to do was tie Elizabeth to a treacherous plot. John Dee’s involvement could help them do that. If what he did was part of a treacherous plot, then the person who asked him to do it would be, too.
Under interrogation, Dee, encouraged by his patron, Pembroke, names another man who had been involved in the divination, or conjuring – John Field. On the 1st of June, Dee and Field are confined; by the 5th of June, Dee, Field, and a couple of others have confessed to calculating and conjuring. They’re given some more questions to answer and within a couple of days the charges against them are raised to ‘conjuring or witchcraft’. There were rumours in court that the accused men had made wax effigies of Philip and Mary, which had then been impaled, in an attempt to work sympathetic magic against them, and that they’d conjured a demon to seek its advice (Parry 2012: 34).
The thing that most saves Dee’s bacon in this one is that, in July, it becomes apparent that Mary’s was a false pregnancy. By August, questions about what people like Dee were doing became irrelevant, because everyone accepted that Mary was not pregnant, and Elizabeth was going to succeed her. Well, they weren’t quite irrelevant, because now, with Elizabeth being acknowledged as the heir to the throne, any taint of involvement in treason needed to be washed off her. On the 29th of August, 1555, Dee was released on bond until Christmas, though even before that official release date he had been seen discussing theology at the home of the Catholic Bishop, Edmund Bonner.
Now, when we talked about Mary last time, as part of the historical context for understanding what happened between Elizabeth and Mary queen of Scots, we didn’t actually mention the thing that earned her the epithet of ‘Bloody Mary’. If that disappointed you, don’t worry. We’re getting to it now. Mary cracked down hard on protestants in England, in the ‘kill them’ way. And one of the men carrying out Mary’s crackdown was Bishop Edmund Bonner. Though initially seeming reluctant, Bonner ended up racking up quite a kill count. We don’t know the exact numbers, but under his jurisdiction over one hundred people were put to death, and he earned himself the same epithet as Mary. Bloody Bonner.
So Bonner’s not a great guy to be friends with in 1558, when Mary dies, Elizabeth takes the throne, and the country turns back to Protestantism. It’s an association that’s really not going to do him much favour in Elizabethan England. But on the plus side, Bonner had an awesome library, and John Dee loved books.
Before we get on to what happens when Elizabeth takes the throne, let’s take a moment to talk a little bit more about libraries. Let’s hop back to Henry, and event now known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The title is kind of self-explanatory. Between 1536 to 1540, the monasteries in England were stripped of land and money. This is after Henry’s break with Rome, but the monasteries were Catholic holdovers. They were also generally quite rich, and Henry was doing Wars, which are expensive. Yoinking money out of the monasteries seemed like a good way to both get money and supress sites of Catholic resistance. Some monasteries became Protestant churches, some were sold off to others, and some fell into ruin.
This is, of course, a very simplified explanation of some hella complicated political and religious changes and events, but it’s enough for our purposes. One of the most impressive aspects of the Catholic monasteries, if you’re a scholar and you’re into occult-y stuff, (which Dee definitely was), were their libraries. The dissolution of the monasteries was not good for these libraries. Their texts were dispersed or destroyed. And these texts are the kind that Dee would really rather see on his own shelf than anywhere else.
The dispersal of the texts and people who had formerly occupied the monasteries also ties in to an association between Catholicism and magic, which is going to be a permanent strand in Dee’s reputation.
Anyway. Dee wants to preserve these texts. Dee claims that he approached Mary for permission to collect the most important documents for the Royal Library, which had basically been formed for this purpose under Henry – though the texts Henry had been interested in preserving were not the ones Dee was most interested in preserving. Dee, is, of course, interested in preserving the more occult texts. In fact, in a move that would have dismayed Dee, the Privy Council in 1551 stripped the Royal Library of ‘superstitious books’ (Parry 2012: 41). Mary declines his request, but Dee loves books, so this isn’t going to stop him. He starts collecting, borrowing, and buying manuscripts. By July 1556 he’s deep into his studies of these texts, trying to learn all he can from them.
For a couple of years he supports himself with his income as rector of Upton and further money from Bonner, and he was also working as a mathematician and astrologer in London. He consulted for the Muscovy Trading Company, in matters of navigation (Parry 2012: 45).
And then, of course, Mary dies. As we know, the country is going to swing back to Protestantism, and Dee is a Catholic priest, who’s been hanging around with a super unpopular Catholic bishop.
But despite this unfavourable association, Dee does manage to earn back some favour, with the help of his patron, Pembroke, and Robert Dudley. In fact, Dudley actually consults Dee about the date of Elizabeth’s coronation, wanting to know what future would be indicated by this day. Remarkably, it apparently foretold a long and successful rule (Parry 2012: 49). Such a positive horoscope was very beneficial, because France, who England was at war with, was busy publishing Anti-Elizabeth propaganda, including the prophecies of one Nostradamus. If you’ve ever read things about the occult, you may well have come across his name before. And if you haven’t, you’ll certainly come across it again at some point in the future whenever I get around to doing an episode on him.
At the same time a plot against Elizabeth had been uncovered, which involved an astrologer predicting that he reign would be very short and that she would be succeeded by one of the plotters, Arthur Pole (Parry 2012: 48). As a sidenote, Glyn Parry rightly points out that many biographers of Dee claim that Dee actually selected the date, but the date seems to have been decided by the council before Dee is returned to favour (2012: 49).
So Dee’s useful and he’s still got some friends in high places, which helps to ease him back into court favour, but leading Protestant families are literally calling for his pal Bonner’s head, and Dee’s association with Bonner is not something anyone is going to forget, anytime soon. And the Protestants make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.
Back in 1555, just after getting out of the tower, Dee had been involved in the seventh examination of a man named John Philpot. We know this, because Philpot managed to smuggle out accounts of his examinations. He was found guilty of heresy, and burned at the stake on the 18th of December, 1555. Around the same time, the accounts are being read by a man named Edmund Grindal, a Protestant who had been one of six ‘chaplains ordinary’ for king Edward, and who had gone into exile to escape persecution under Mary.
When Elizabeth takes the throne at the start of 1559 and Bonner is ousted from his position of Bishop of London, his appointed successor is… Grindal. And in August of 1559 Grindal and a guy called John Foxe published a book which includes the account of Philpot’s examinations, which obviously includes Dee’s involvement.
Now, not only does this account not paint Dee in a favourable light for the Protestants of Elizabethan times, but it also irritates Dee because in it, he’s referred to as a ‘great conjuror’. And that’s not a reputation he wants either, given that it associates him with Catholic practices that included magical elements that were now falling out of favour. That’s all I’m going to say about it for now, because we need to catch up with Dee’s life, and the life of someone else, first.
Things settle down for a few years. Dee doesn’t seem to have got much financial reward for his services to Elizabeth. She promises to pay him double the elusive pension Edward promised him, but there’s no evidence that he got paid this, either. He becomes rector of Long Leadeneham in Lincolnshire.
Skipping forward to January 1562, Dee sets off on a second trip to Europe in pursuit of academic knowledge and more awesome books and manuscripts. He intended his trip to be just one year, but then… research happened, I guess, and by mid-February of 1563 Dee writes to our dear friend Cecil asking for more time and money. A very relatable request.
Dee tells Cecil he has found a book of particular interest – the Steganographia of Johannes Trithemius. A book which Dee believed gave instructions on how to convey messages instantly using spirits. Including evil spirits, which Dee knew, and apparently was fine with (Parry 2012: 50).
Let’s pause for a small tangent here on the Steganographia because there’s some interesting details about it that are totally relevant to our interests, and also because it’s my podcast and I can indulge in all the tangents I want. See, Dee was wrong about what the Steganographia is.
Steganographia comprises three books. And in the preface to the first book, Trithemius actually explains what the book is about, but apparently lots of readers just… ignored the explanation, thinking it was Trithemius just trying to cover his own ass (Reeds 1998: 292), and arguments about its exact nature continued until fairly recently. Like, 1998 recently. Today, we know that the Steganographia is exactly what he said it was: it’s a treatise on cryptography. But given the three books appear at face value to be about angel magic and supernatural methods of communication, Trithemius only has himself to blame for the belief that it was about magic. Sure, it’s a funny idea to write a book on cryptography is a cryptic manner, but it does mean some people are gonna misunderstand it. Had they understood the Steganographia to be about cryptology, Cecil would have been pretty damn interested in acquiring it, given the kind of political intrigues and spying he was involved in.
Regardless of that, Cecil was damn interested in acquiring it, because he was also into alchemy, and the Steganographia still promised improved, secure methods of communication, and he supports Dee’s request for more time and money.
Dee stays on the continent until 1664, learning about, and picking up books on, angel magic, kabbalah, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac texts, and Paracelsian alchemy. He also wrote a book himself, the Monas, combining his new studies with his knowledge of optics, mathematics, and natural philosophy, and claiming that this allowed him to understand the secrets of Nature, and the underlying divine principles that governed them (Parry 2012: 53). He also thinks that his divine revelations would convert the Jews and prompt the Apocalypse (Parry 2012: 57). We can talk more about the Monas in a future episode, because it’s an incredibly detailed work that I cannot do justice to here, but the idea that it might help usher in the Apocalypse is noteworthy, because it reflects a general feeling at the time that the end-times were near, as can be seen in the works of Nostradamus. Now, today we tend to think of the Apocalypse as death, war, and destruction. But for Dee and his contemporaries, it was more about a golden age that would be ushered in after the world was united under Christianity.
Dee also ties these end-times to the House of Habsburg, the dynasty which provided the Holy Roman Emperors (which is not the same as the pope, just in case you were confused). Dee thought that the Habsburgs would lead the world into the end-times (Parry 2012: 58), and he dedicates his book to one of them – Maximilian. In doing so, he was definitely angling for some patronage, but his thinking is consistent both with Catholic sentiment of the time, and with the developments in his own studies.
Whilst Dee was in Europe, Maximilian, son of the current Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned king of Hungary. Dee was there in person to witness the coronation (Parry 2012: 53). Dee and his contemporaries were expecting big changes from Maximilian, who would soon succeed his father. And six months after his coronation, he does just that.
Maximilian, however, was apparently uninterested in Dee’s epic work, and shortly after, in July 1564, Dee decides it’s time to go home. But England hadn’t stood still whilst Dee was away. The reputation of Catholics and magic had degraded further, and there’s been at least one plot against Elizabeth, and someone has been trashing his reputation. So that was what was happening in Dee’s life. Now it’s time to introduce the other character who’s life we need to know about. He’s a man named John Prestall.
Prestall is a piece of work. Michael Devine describes him a man who showed ‘absolute self-interest at the cost of others’, and as ‘a man willing to use his occult knowledge to pursue self-interest and not indisposed to exaggerated claims of his own abilities while unabashed[ly?] accusing others of the outrageous behaviour he himself displayed’. (2009: 45).
Whereas Dee is a scholar in pursuit of knowledge, Prestall is a total grifter. He wracked up debt early in his life and was perpetually looking for ways to make money to pay them off. Remember that Dudley plot against Mary – the one that Dee’s father, Roland, was involved in, and which damaged John’s own reputation? Guess who else was involved in that plot. That’s right: this guy. We don’t know the exact nature of his involvement, but Devine suggests that he wanted to travel to France where the conspirators were minting counterfeit English money to fund their plan, both to escape his debts in England (where an arrest warrant had been issued for him), and because working as a counterfeiter might allow him to skim off some of that money to pay his own debts (Devine 2009: 53-54).
After that, Prestall disappears from the historical record until the death of Mary. Probably because he decided it would be smart to lay-low for a while. But when Elizabeth is proclaimed the successor, he appears again only to be promptly arrested. Not for his involvement in the plot against Mary, but because of his involvement in a new Plot against Elizabeth. He had been approached by some conspirators to make a forecast of Elizabeth’s reign, and unsurprisingly, he reported that it would be very short, and that her successor would be one of the conspirators (Devine 2009: 55). If you remember, this plot was part of the reason Dudley approached Dee for a positive forecast: to counteract these doom-laden predictions of Prestall’s.
Prestall gets out of this particular sticky situation due to a legal oversight. See, Edward had, uh, inadvertently repealed the Witchcraft Act under which they wanted to charge the ‘conjurors’ in the conspiracy (Devine 2009: 55-56). Head. Desk. This, by the way, might also have played a role in getting Dee off the hook after his arrest for supposed involvement in a conspiracy.
After this, Prestall learned his lesson. Just kidding. But first, in 1559, he gets married. And just in case you were still on the fence about whether he’s an opportunistic diseased parsnip, here’s the point where you can stop giving him the benefit of the doubt. The woman he marries is a widow, and Prestall spends a couple of years merrily defrauding her twelve-year-old son of his inheritance, and saddling the kid with as much of his own personal debt as possible before fleeing (Devine 2009: 41-43). Nice guy.
Whilst John Dee decided to go for a second trip abroad in 1562, Prestall decided it was time to do get involved in another plot. Y’know. Since the first two worked out so well. He gets back in touch with the same conspirators as before, divining more forecasts for them. The result of his forecast is that, apparently, Elizabeth was going to die in March (Devine 2009: 66). But Prestall doesn’t just produce a forecast for the plotters. He hangs around with them for a month, helping to prepare, and then heads with a colleague to Flanders to try and rally money and support for the plan (Devine 2009: 66).
Unfortunately for Prestall, and all the plotters, Cecil had known about their plans all along. But as Cecil liked to do, he was waiting for the right moment to pounce in order to maximise arrests. But Unfortunately for Cecil, he was forced to spring into action sooner than he wanted to, because Elizabeth was visited by frequent guest of this podcast: smallpox. Which was unfortunate for her, too.
But fortunately for Prestall that means he’s not in the country when his fellow plotters are arrested. Unfortunately for Prestall, he’s still tried in absentia along with them, and they’re all found guilty of treason, and the sentence of death is handed down. Fortunately for Prestall, Elizabeth does what she was prone to doing, and commutes the sentence to indefinite imprisonment in the tower of London. Unfortunately for Prestall, that still leaves him stranded on the continent with no money, and unable to return without being arrested (Devine 2009: 66-67). At the same time, Cecil and parliament manage to pass a bill reinstating the witchcraft act.
Prestall sticks around on the continent for 15 months, but in November 1563, broke and having wracked up more debt, he writes a letter to Cecil asking if he could pretty please come back without being arrested. It’s possible Cecil didn’t reply, or did agree to safe conduct for Prestall, and changed his mind when he actually got to England (Devine 2009: 72), which Prestall does in mid 1564, around the same time as our man John Dee.
So what connects these two men, other than getting back to England at about the same time? Well. For some reason that we’ll probably just never be able to fathom, Prestall doesn’t like Cecil. And as you might be surprised to learn, he can be pretty vindictive at times. Now, Prestall can’t go after Cecil directly, but he can go after people supported by Cecil, in order to damage Cecil’s reputation by association. And he chooses to go after a neeew character that I haven’t mentioned up until this point.
Just kidding. It’s Dee. He goes after Dee.
And how does he go after Dee? Enter, for the second time: John Philpot’s account of Dee’s minor involvement in his interrogation. The guys who published the book containing the account back in 1559 were Bishop Grindal and John Foxe. In 1563, Foxe publishes another book: The Actes and Monuments. The book contains an account of Protestant history, and a very notable bias against the evil, evil Catholics. He focuses on the persecution of Protestants by Catholics, and those killed by them were considered martyrs, including John Philpot, whose account is included, still naming Dee as a ‘great conjuror’. But the Actes and Monuments includes some documents that were absent from the previous book. Firstly, it includes an account of another Protestant priest, Bartholomew Green. In that account, Dee is once again mentioned, but it’s a rather benign mention.
However, there’s also another account of Bartholomew Green’s treatment, with a short, snappy title: ‘the copie of a certen letter written by some frend of maister Philpot, and sent to him concerning the ordering and handling of maister Grene, in Boners house at London’ (Parry 2012: 65).
In this version of events, Green asks for books to read so that they may have a sincere discussion about scripture – promising to abandon his Protestantism if the Bishop can prove his own understanding of the text flawed. As our anonymous letter writer tells, us:
The Bishop and his assented, permitting him at the first to have such books, and had sundry times reasoned with him, and had found him so strong and rife in the scriptures and godly fathers, that since then they have not only taken from such liberty of books, but all other books, not leaving him so much as the new Testament, and have since committed him in chamber to Doctor Dee the great Conjuror: whereunto conjecture you. (1563: 1514 )
It’s that ‘whereunto conjecture you’ that really sticks in Dee’s craw. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘make of that what you will’ whilst giving someone a knowing, ominous stare. Where oh where could this damning, anonymous addition have come from?
At the time, Dee doesn’t know. As late as 1576 he’s blaming John Foxe, the author, and his team, for including this outrageous forgery. But a year later, his idea about who was behind it changed. It wasn’t Foxe who had done him wrong, but instead, Foxe had been duped by a forgery (Parry 2012: 67). And Dee has a name for this forger: Vincent Murphyn. Guess who Vincent Murphyn was related to? Yeah. John Prestall.
Glyn Parry describes Murphyn as:
One of those creatures who inhabited the shadowy Elizabethan underworld, making a living of sorts out of casting political horoscopes and spreading political prophesies, conjuring with nail clippings and hair, and dealing in spirit magic. Murphyn also had a habit of forging letters and other documents to support his invented stories, ingratiating himself with the powerful, and to blacken his enemies. (2012: 68).
I guess you can see why he and Prestall would get along.
As I said, Dee doesn’t know this in 1564, when he returns and finds his reputation is Not Great. And it’s not just the Acts and Monuments that’s damaged his reputation. No. The Acts and Monuments was just the start of it. See, Murphyn didn’t stop with that one forgery. That was just the forgery rock on which he built his forgery church.
If you’re hoping to hear more details about the specific contents of these other forgeries and slanderous manuscripts, then… I regret to inform you that we can’t do that. None of them survive. So instead, let’s get back to our broke academic with a bad reputation, who’s struggling to get work.
Like Prestall had done before him, Dee marries a widow in 1565. Now, remember – even though the country was now officially Protestant again, Dee was a Catholic priest. And Catholic priests are not supposed to marry. But just like Prestall, Dee’s financial situation isn’t great, and a marriage would help that. So marry he does. It probably wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, and it certainly had negative consequences for his relationship with Catholic priests on the continent (Parry 2012: 69). And unlike Prestall’s choice of wife, Dee’s new bride doesn’t have a stepson with a notable inheritance. It’s a more modest marriage in terms of financial benefit, and Dee doesn’t actually spend that much time with his wife. She goes to live at the Long Leadenham rectory, whereas Dee spends most of the year living at his mom’s house in Mortlake. Which, again: broke scholar moving back in with their parents? Relatable content.
Dee’s reputation fails to improve, because, for some reason that’s possibly to do with Mary queen of Scots, anti-Catholic sentiment and fears of threats from Catholics were on the rise. As you might remember, Mary flees Scotland for England in 1568, and, after failing to be acquitted of her former husband’s murder, engages in several plots with the Duke of Norfolk. Prestall and Murphyn used the heightened sense of crisis caused by these conspiracies to renew their campaign against Dee in 1569.
And there’s a reason for them ramping up their campaign at this point beyond messing with Cecil, and to explain it we need to pause Dee’s story again and hop back to catch up with the delightful John Prestall.
If you remember, Prestall was imprisoned in the tower of London when he returned in 1564. But he didn’t just sit there sulking about it and plotting to make Dee’s life a misery. He was, of course, trying to get out. He pesters a bunch of influential figures, Cecil included, to try and get released. But his big break comes with the downfall of another alchemist.
As we know from his support of Dee, Cecil was keenly into alchemy, and he wasn’t alone in this. In 1565 Elizabeth and Cecil had been approached by a man named Cornelius de Lannoy. He offered to transmute metals into gold and produce an elixir that will cure everything, through creating that most iconic of alchemical objects: the philosopher’s stone. Elizabeth is really strapped for cash, and she agrees to employ De Lannoy to make the gold, giving him a place to live, a lab to work in, and a pension of £150 (if you remember, Dee had been promised, but never paid, only £50).
It may surprise you to learn that de Lannoy does not, in fact, manage to produce the philosopher’s stone. He stalls, and stalls again, those watching him suspect that he is actually manufacturing gold, but just keeping it for himself, and that he might also be planning to flee the country with Princess Cecilia of Sweden. He’s moved to the tower of London so Elizabeth and Cecil can keep a close eye on him, and he promises he needs only 32 days to produce the stone. At the end of the 32 days, no Rumpelstiltskin has appeared to help him make gold or produce the stone. Elizabeth and Cecil’s patience runs out, and in early 1567 de Lannoy is moved to a cell in the tower, and charged with abusing the queen and many others with his false promises (Devine 2009: 73-75).
This is Prestall’s opportunity, and he grabs it. He first begins trying to advertise his skills as an alchemist in August 1565, but it takes a while to pay off. Cecil is unresponsive to his letters, so Prestall turns to someone else: the Earl of Pembroke. That guy who was – and still was – Dee’s own patron. For eighteen months Pembroke petitions Cecil for Prestall’s pardon, and in January of 1567, the pardon is granted. Prestall is now in the service of the same man as Dee, and Dee is now his professional rival. But what’s this got to do with Mary queen of Scots, and what’s whatever that is got to do with John Dee?
Well, apart from being Dee’s rival in the affections of the Earl of Pembroke, Prestall does what Prestall keeps on doing: he gets involved in another conspiracy against Elizabeth!
This time, it’s Pembroke that drags him in. Pembroke was a Catholic, and though he’d managed to weather the changes in the country and the ruler’s denominational inclinations, in his heart of hearts, he’d really have liked to see a Catholic on the throne next. And so he finds himself one of the men urging the Duke of Norfolk to marry Mary queen of Scots. A move which Elizabeth would not approve of. Pembroke ropes Prestall into the plot in 1569, in the same way as usual – first to divine the astrological forecasts for Elizabeth’s life (and, more importantly, death), and then after in deeper ways which, as with the past conspiracies, we don’t know the details of (Devine 2009: 81). Glyn Parry suggests that Prestall and Pembroke were ‘caught in the middle’ of the schemes, rather than willing and involved participants.
In August of 1569, Elizabeth finds out about Norfolk’s plan to marry Mary, but because this is a Tudor court, rumours had been swirling around about it before then, as, of course, were astrological prophesies cast by various interested parties (Devine 2009: 81). Prestall was again forecasting Elizabeth’s imminent demise.
So if you’re an alchemist engaging, reluctantly or not, in a plot against Elizabeth in 1569, trashing the reputation of another alchemist and drawing as much attention as possible to him might well look like a good idea. In his 1570 Mathematical Preface, Dee complains at length about the slander and forgeries attacking him, in both word and print. And he totally goes on a rant about this. For quite a while. Here’s just part of how he addresses his enemies:
my unkinde countrey men. O unnaturall Countrey men. O unthankfull Countrey men. O Brainsicke, Rashe, Spitefull, and Disdainfull Countrey men. Why oppresse you me, thus violently, with your slaundering of me… ? (A. ij)
As we know from the episodes on Elizabeth and Mary, this plotting to marry Mary ultimately ends up very badly for Norfolk. Prestall, however, once again manages to survive being involved in treason by exiting stage left to Scotland, pursued by Cecil’s men in 1571 (Devine 2009: 82-83).
Parry actually suggests that Dee himself might have been involved in entangling Prestall in the plot. He certainly had motive to do so, Prestall was his rival for Pembroke’s attention, and had attacked his reputation repeatedly. And Vincent Murphyn certainly seems to blame Dee for Prestall’s predicament (2012:. 83).
Because, whilst Prestall might have left the country, Vincent Murphyn is still hanging around, and he’s not done with his forgeries and slander. And to make matters worse, guess what else gets published again in 1570? A new edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. Still describing Dee as a conjuror, still containing the accounts by Philpot and Green, and still containing Murphyn’s forged, anonymous letter.
Also in 1570, Pembroke dies, leaving Dee without a patron.
Also at this point, this episode ends. Will Vincent Murphyn and John Prestall ever just… stop with the forgery and slander? Will John Dee find a way to not be perpetually broke? Will anyone actually succeed in making the philosopher’s stone? Tune in next time to find out.
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Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that cannot be used to transmute base metals.
- The voice of John Dee was: Christina, of the Cults, Cryptids, Conspiracies podcast.
- The voice of Vincent Murphyn’s forged letter was: Inari Porkka.
- The voice in your ears has been: yet another alchemist vying for Elizabeth’s attention.
Carleton, K. (2006) ‘Edmund Bonner’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
Collinson, P. (2008) ‘Edmund Grindal’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
Dee, Mathematical Preface Project Gutenberg.
Devine, M. (2009) John Prestall: A Complex Relationship with the Elizabethan Regime, Masters Thesis.
Foxe, J. (1563) Acts and Monuments, Acts and Monuments Online.
--- (1570) Acts and Monuments, Acts and Monuments Online.
Parry, G. (2012) The Arch Conjuror of England, Yale University Press.
Reeds, J. (1998) ‘Solved: the Ciphers in Book III of Trithemius’ Steganographia’ Cryptologia Vol. 22: 291-317).
Roberts, R. J. (2006) ‘John Dee’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.