6 December 2011


Nicholas Dakin. John Dee of Mortlake. Barnes and Mortlake Local History Society, 2011.

Readers of the old printed Magonia who have long memories may recall that at one time our address included the line ‘John Dee Cottage’, as the world headquarters of the giant Magonian media empire was situated adjacent to the site of the house and garden of the great seventeenth-century magus, astrologer, magician, cryptographer, spy, alchemist, mathematician, navigator and all-round genius John Dee.

Coming up to the 400th anniversary of his death in 2009 a group of Mortlegians (that is apparently the correct name for a citizen of Mortlake) set up the John Dee of Mortlake Society to spread the word locally about our town’s most famous inhabitant, and to campaign to have a plaque in his memory erected in St Mary the Virgin’s church [left] where he is buried, which we believe will be the only extant monument to his memory anywhere in the world.

At the moment the application for permission to install the plaque is working its way through the Byzantine complexity of the Church of England bureaucracy, but we hope for a successful conclusion soon. The plaque will be of slate from a quarry near the Dee ancestral home in Wales, with an inscription by a skilled letter-carver rather than by mechanical means - this was a requirement by the Church authorities. As you can imagine, this will not come cheap!

Besides campaigning for a suitable memorial to him, the John Dee Society of Mortlake also organises talks and events, and in the past we have had a number of distinguished scholars speaking about Dee’s life, the era in which he lived and the instruments he used in his work. There is also the now-legendary ‘Dee Tea’ held at Mortlake and Oxford every year on his birthday. You can find the Society’s website and details of how to join HERE.

The local history society for Mortlake and the neighbouring village of Barnes (called, unsurprisingly, The Barnes and Mortlake History Society - link HERE) has just published a book on John Dee’s life and home in Mortlake, and below is the review I have written of it for the John Dee of Mortlake Society’s own website.

Nicholas Dakin. John Dee of Mortlake. Barnes and Mortlake Local History Society, 2011.

Searching for ‘John Dee’ on Amazon brings up over 600 books by or about him. Many of these are detailed historical monographs, or attempts to understand and explain the details of his mystical and philosophical thought. And there are, indeed, some very interesting and readable biographies.

Nicholas Dakin’s book is not specifically a biography of John Dee (1527 - 1609), although it does give a broad outline of the life of this incredibly complex character. Nor is it an exposition of Dee’s occult beliefs, his mathematical work or his philosophical system. Rather it is a straightforward explanation of why John Dee is important and why Mortlake should honour the memory of its greatest resident

This book is called John Dee of Mortlake, and the ‘of Mortlake’ is the important bit. The author shows that John Dee’s house, with its library and its laboratory, was the centre of a great intellectual network that stretched across Europe, and in a way, across the Atlantic as well.

He reconstructs Dee’s house and garden in Mortlake High Street from the barest hints of description in Dee’s diaries, and accounts by people who knew him. He describes the Bibliotheca Mortlacensis, the great library Dee created at Mortlake, probably one of the largest collections of books in the world at that time.

Next to the river, and convenient for travelling to and from London and to the Queen’s palace at Richmond, the Mortlake house received many visitors: Queen Elizabeth herself, explorers like Martin Frobisher, as well as some of the great Tudor noblemen and foreign statesmen. He taught Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Lord Walsingham the art of code-breaking, others came to consult Dee for advice on navigation, for instruction in the use of mathematical instruments and maps, and in some cases to have horoscopes cast for them. Astrology was seen as a scientific practice, in the days before science and magic parted company. 
But besides these affairs of state and Dee’s great project of promoting a ‘British Empire’ - a phrase he used first - we are also shown the domestic life of Dee and his family and his life in Mortlake. Although local children were sometimes frightened by his appearance, and reputation - entirely unjustified - as a sorcerer, he was also seen as a peacemaker in disputes between local families.

We learn of Jane Dee, a dutiful wife who bore him eight children, and sometimes despaired of the domestic chaos she witnessed around her, but who was very much her own person, juggling her domestic duties, but also helping organise the transport of her entire household across Europe when her husband travelled to the Court of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.

The author challenges some of the stereotypes that have developed over the centuries, of Dee as a black magician, necromancer, or someone who raised the spirits of the dead, and shows him as a devout Christian whose so-called ‘occult’ work was an attempt to gain for himself a greater understanding of the word of God. He also gives a very clear explanation of the nature of Dee’s relationship with the medium Edward Kelley, carefully weighing up whether he was a charlatan, a chancer, or he genuinely believed he had talents which would be useful to Dee.

Dee was an astrologer, alchemist, mathematician, navigator, philosopher, spy, clergyman, traveller, and magician. Many of the 600 books on Amazon will tell you all about those parts of his life, but it would be difficult to find one which will give you a clearer, more entertaining and straightforward account of the man who made the little village of Mortlake into the centre of the world of scholarship and learning. -- John Rimmer

Buy the book using this link.

1 comment:

Dougie1 said...

Ah, Indeed a Pariarch for Mortlake to be proud of. A true advoctae of progressive thaught and education : The model that superstition should/could not prevail as an explaination ofHis wonderouse world. He, now of notoriety in far off, Mason, Wisconsin, U.S.A. Thank You so much for the effort to preserve His Spirit. (What ever happened to His gravestone ?)
Doug Hilgers
Mason, WI. , U.S.A
visiting the Wirral Upon Dee