Yale, £25

The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee, By Glyn Parry

Was Queen Elizabeth wise to appoint a court occultist, even one who claimed to confer with the angels? The truth is, most rulers were at it

One of the most colourful and least respectable figures of the European Renaissance was the magus, a scholar, expert in the hidden wisdom of the created world, who sought the power to manipulate it to the advantage of (depending on his degree of probity) himself, his employers or humanity.

The most familiar such character in fiction is of course Dr Faustus, but the best known in real life is John Dee, a Londoner of Welsh blood who haunted the English and other royal courts throughout the late 16th century.

Much has been written about him in modern times, though little has been produced by experts in his period. To most historians he represents a tragic waste of talent; a brilliant scientist who was diverted into a fruitless attempt to converse with angels, thereby ruining his career and reputation and falling prey to the demented or unscrupulous adventurers who posed as his mediums: above all Edward Kelley, who combined both characteristics and, at one point, even persuaded Dee to swap wives with him under angelic instruction. Modern ritual magicians, by contrast, have seen Dee as a hero who discovered an occult system of genuine validity.

But in Glyn Parry, he has at last attracted a biographer with a talent for uncovering fresh archival material, who has conducted thorough research both into his life and the circles in which he moved.

The basic argument of the resulting book is that Dee was not an anomalous figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth, because that monarch and her leading courtiers – like their counterparts on the Continent – were deeply interested in the occult arts and sciences and were prepared to invest large sums in practitioners who promised material gains from them. As a result, they tapped into an underworld of alchemists and ritual magicians who became tangled up in turn with royal policy-making, political rivalry, and conspiracy.

This situation was the direct and logical consequence of the lack of any perceptible boundary between what would now be defined as the provinces of science and magic. Rulers of the time could no more afford to ignore individuals who claimed to know how to produce the Philosopher's Stone or converse with angels than those of the 20th century could ignore physicists. If somebody claimed to be able to transmute base metals into gold, it was probably wise to give him a try in case his method worked and a rival state got hold of it first. Indeed, a few alchemists of the period did discover valuable processes of metallurgy.

Swirling around this practical need, however, was the religious enthusiasm stoked by the Reformation crisis. Evangelical Protestants, with their heightened sense of divine intervention in human affairs and of the constant activity of good and evil spirits, were especially inclined to support attempts to discover messages hidden by their God in his creation, and even to make direct contact with his supernatural messengers. They included some of the greatest personalities of Elizabethan England, such as the Earl of Leicester, Lord Burghley and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Zealous Catholics shared the same impulses although, as Parry demonstrates, in the later years of Elizabeth's reign a middle ground of English Protestantism developed around courtiers such as Sir Christopher Hatton and Archbishop Whitgift, which was far more sceptical and suspicious of such enquiries, and hostile to those who engaged in them. Parry makes an excellent job of showing how the constant dramatic reversals of Dee's fortunes at court can be explained by shifts in the power of particular royal advisors and in the domestic and foreign contexts in which royal policy was made. Some of his suggestions tend to hypothesis rather than proven fact, but all are valuable.

He also provides the best character-sketch to date of Dee himself, as a person of immense ambition and curious innocence, convinced that he surpassed the Biblical prophets in his ability to discover God's will, and yet never able to read human character or understand court politics. Even his most lasting achievement, the coinage of the term "British Empire", was inspired not by any foresight but by an obsessive belief that King Arthur had once planted colonies in America. He was not a particularly good scientist or an original thinker, and – while his personal piety is undoubted – he moved between Protestantism and Catholicism, and rival patrons, with an ease that gives (and gave) a strong sense of the unscrupulous.

There is still room for further study of him, integrating him better into the history of Renaissance magic as well as of court politics and culture, but this book makes an admirable contribution both to an understanding of his career and of the Elizabethan age.

A Short History of Britain 1485-1660 by Ronald Hutton is published by Yale

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co uk

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