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 that could well be the next ‘Longitude’.
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 bestselling 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.
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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 BrottonReview:
‘Fresh and original…Woolley thinks and writes beautifully. This is a distinguished and rather brilliant book – it’s also a rattling good story.’ Lisa Jardine
‘A fascinating, brilliant account of the Renaissance world picture…’ Kathryn Hughes, New Statesman
‘Woolley 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
Praise for ‘The Herbalist’:
‘The research is superb – rich, detailed, and original – and the lives Benjamin Woolley describes are as passionate as the great events of the English Civil War around which they orbit.’ Adam Nicolson
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