The Queen's Conjuror: the science and magic of Doctor Dee

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9780002571395: The Queen's Conjuror: the science and magic of Doctor Dee

A spellbinding portrait of Queen Elizabeth’s conjuror – the great philosopher, scientist and magician, Dr John Dee (1527-1608) and a history of Renaissance science.

John Dee was one of the most influential philosophers of the Elizabethan Age. A close confidant of Queen Elizabeth, he helped to introduce mathematics to England, promoted the idea of maths as the basis of science, anticipated the invention of the telescope, charted the New World, and created one of the most magnificent libraries in Europe. At the height of his fame, Dee was poised to become one of the greats of the Renaissance. Yet he died in poverty and obscurity – his crime was to dabble in magic .

Based on Dee’s secret diaries which record in fine detail his experiments with the occult, Woolley’s book is a rich brew of Elizabethan court intrigue, science, intellectual exploration, discovery and misfortune. And it tells the story of one man’s epic but very personal struggle to come to terms with the fundamental dichotomy of the scientific age at the point it arose: the choice between ancient wisdom and modern science as the path to truth.

Dee was not alone in his search for wisdom through the occult. Copernicus discovered that the earth went round the sun because he believed in the sun’s divinity; Tycho Brahe divined from the stars and discovered they were scattered through an immeasurable space; Kepler sought to prove Plato’s belief in the music of the spheres and stumbled on how the solar system worked; and Newton, in his search for the magic stone discovered how it was tied together by gravity.

But Dee went further. Others sought to understand magic whilst Dee seemed to possess its power. He could interpret ancient mystical texts, create potent compounds using alchemy, perform miracles with machines and see the future. His experiments led him to pledge everything in a Faustian pact in return for a chance to explore the spirit world himself.

Woolley’s book unfurls and recreates this brilliant man’s perilous quest for knowledge set against a dynamic age of exploration and scientific discovery. It is electrifying.

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Review:

There was only one man to be honoured by Queen Elizabeth I with the title "my philosopher", but even this exalted title does not do justice to Dr John Dee (1527-1608), one of the Elizabethan era's most brilliant and colourful characters, whose long and eventful life is chronicled in Benjamin Woolley's biography The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magi c of Dr Dee. Dee's long career as scholar, scientist, magician and political adviser spanned one of the most turbulent periods of English history, from the death of Henry VIII and England's split with Rome, to the decadent court of James I. Working for the young, embattled Elizabeth, Dee became "an intelligencer", "a seeker of hidden knowledge, philosophical and scientific, as well as political", helping his sovereign to "become an adept at the magical practice of monarchy", as he advised on issues as diverse as foreign policy, internal security, calendrical reformation, overseas exploration, and "spiritual communication".

Woolley is particularly fascinated by Dee's immersion in magic and the occult and his claims that he could "summon the divine secrets of the universe from angels and archangels". It was this involvement in the occult that was to ultimately lead to Dee's fall from grace. The majority of the book deals with Dee's involvement with the sinister Edward Kelley, whose crystal gazing and communications with angels were to lead Dee into virtual exile in central Europe, before his return home in 1589 "after six years, thousands of miles, some triumphs, several disasters, a few accolades and numerous humiliations". Wooley's focus of the increasingly twisted relationship between Dee and Kelley's runs the risk of sidelining Dee's many other achievements, but his description of their magical "actions" is convincing and spooky, and captures Dee's fatal inability to resist his involvement in what he called the "strange participation" between the living and the dead. --Jerry Brotton

Review:

‘Fresh and original… Benjamin Woolley thinks and writes beautifully. This is a distinguished and rather brilliant book – it’s also a rattling good story.’ Lisa Jardine

'Woolley has written a fascinating account, not just of Dr John Dee, but of the complex social, intellectual and religious context that produced him… a brilliant account of the Renaissance world picture…' Kathryn Hughes, New Statesman

'He charts the course of the angelic discourses in spellbinding detail and with admirable objectivity… Crammed with telling detail…' Ann Geneva, Financial Times

'… handsomely captures a society torn between rationality and romance, cynicism and hero worship'. New Scientist

'… an informative and enlightening book. It offers concise and lucid explanations of Dee's more abstruse and arcane theories. And it is immensely enjoyable, its narrative exciting and inexorable. I have not read as stimulating a study of the Elizabethan period since Charles Nicholl's book on Marlowe, the Reckoning'. Thomas Wright, Daily Telegraph

'Unexpectedly poignant' J P D Cooper, TLS

'An evocative portrait of the Tudor age, and Dee…. casts a spell on the reader'. Sebastian Shakespeare

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