A HEINOUS CRIME
John Dee performing an experiment
for Elizabeth I, painting by HD Glindoni - Wiki Commons
Tonight as May draws to a close, four candles flicker around me. The candlelight does not dispel the shadows in my stygian book-lined study. There are shadows over all learning these days. The spectre of fear. Black days for education and mathematics in particular.
It is as if they detest knowledge of any kind. History, I know, is strewn with ignorant people who destroy anything they cannot understand. They must feel threatened, which is a joke of the highest order, as it is we Protestants who are threatened by Mary’s Roman Catholics.
I feel that it is not heresy to believe that God designed with mathematical precision this universe we inhabit. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of this. On my desk is an exquisite ammonite paperweight and on the bookshelf to my left a perfect spiral conch-shell. That stuffed eagle on his perch died of natural causes but it was made faultlessly by the Creator to soar the heavens and to espy its prey with two sharp eyes, its feathered wings mastering the ether.
Heartily do I pray that mastery of numbers can one fine day mend the split between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. If mathematics can bring order to the universe, then understanding should surely follow and with comprehension will come peace and harmony: universal justice for all.
Is this too much of a dream for a scientist?
Perhaps the first step to spreading understanding and knowledge is to create a national library. A repository of all important books which men could consult to settle such doubts and points of learning as might cumber and vex their heads. Indeed, it would wonderfully advance learning.
Due to my impecunious state, I have been unable to add as many tomes as I would have liked, yet my own library is quite considerable and to be cherished. Perhaps some knowledge is misplaced or incomplete, but new discoveries can be made and measured against the written word of the dead seers and scientists and thus our world can be immeasurably improved.
My friend Gerardus Mercator has already proved that the world is shrinking before our eyes. Indeed, I can vouch that travel enriches the soul and broadens the mind. Should you possess the correct instruments of navigation – like those beautiful examples that I acquired in Paris on the side table – it seems that you can travel anywhere in the world.
I would have thought my being a consultant to the new Muscovy Company established by the navigator and explorer Sebastian Cabot might have helped me become accepted as a normal man devoid of any threat to religion.
After all, the company was granted a monopoly of Anglo-Russian trade. And one of its chief aims is to locate the Northwest Passage – the back door into the Orient. Surely their religion needs the fruits of this company’s commerce? Have I not instructed crews on geometry and cosmography and prepared nautical charts for the navigation of the Polar Regions?
All this learning and skill to explore this marvellous God-given world. Why do they still whisper against me? It is as though they want to police our thought processes. The country abounds with informers, many of whom are of dubious probity. Is it jealousy or something more sinister behind it?
There are, too, heavenly influences which affect our daily lives, each planetary body emitting rays of force that acts on other planets and even on us, we separate and unique individuals on this Earth. The mathematics of this does seem to me to be irrefutable.
Yet there are whispers that astrology is demonic. But it is only an extension of astronomy, after all.
Hark, I hear them coming for me now. The night-watchmen possess a distinctive and fearsome tread at three of the clock in the morning...
‘John Dee!’ shouted the sergeant-at-arms to the accompaniment of a fist pounding on my front door. ‘Present yourself, John Dee! Or we shall force an entry!’
Shrugging into my scarlet and black robes, I hurried along the passageway with a black candle that illumined cobweb-garnished wooden walls festooned with charts and maps.
I unbolted the heavy door and swung it wide.
A slight draught flickered the candle flame but it held.
Standing on the cobbles outside were two heavily built men and the sergeant-at-arms, Joshua Gilpin. ‘This is a late visit you make, Master Gilpin,’ I said.
‘Don’t come the innocent with me, John Dee!’ he said, his fleshy lips curling in a sneer. He had gained his position through favours and could neither read nor write. He was also lacking in courtesy. Clasping his cloak close around his body, he pushed past me, almost toppling the candle from its socket; but, glimmering, it held.
I stepped back and the hallway suddenly seemed very crowded.
As I shut the door on the early-morning damp and chill, Gilpin flung a side of his cloak over his shoulder and pulled a parchment sheet out of his belt pouch. His rheumy eyes held me then cast down on to the paper, staring. He gave a good impression of someone reading and intoned, ‘John Dee, I am arresting you–’
‘On what charge?’
‘Don’t interrupt while I am about official business, Mr Dee,’ he growled. He didn’t give his piece of parchment another glance. ‘The charge is calculating.’
A heinous crime indeed, then. These Roman Catholics considered it to be the equivalent to the possession of magical powers. Perhaps the English language is at fault here? Because it does seem quite magical to arrive at certain results through mathematical means. At one time I know that even the ability to write was considered otherworldly and evil...
‘Who has denounced me, Master Gilpin? I believe I have the right to know.’
‘An informant by the name of George Ferrys,’ said Gilpin, ‘who alleges that one of his children was struck blind and another killed by your “magic.” This is a serious charge, Mr Dee.’
‘If it can be proven, yes,’ I replied equably.
‘However, Ferrys further declares that you have been directing your enchantments against the Queen’s life.’
I sighed and presented an unconcerned face to these preposterous charges. Yet inside I was quaking, because if those worthies in the Star Chamber are determined to have my life, no matter how outlandish the charge, then they will have it.
Young and fit though I was, I knew I was no match for Gilpin’s henchmen. ‘Then you must do your duty, Master Gilpin.’ I gestured to the study at the end of the short hallway. ‘Might I take a book with me to prison?’
Gilpin laughed. ‘I think not, Mr Dee! They have got you into too much trouble already. Prescott here has orders to search your dwelling and to remove all sacrilegious conjuring books.’
‘But they’re mathematical treatises!’ I protested.
‘That’s what I said, Mr Dee. Sacrilegious! They will burn!’
There’s nothing like a good book-burning for ignorant people to feel self-righteous. Thank the Lord that there are more books in this world than idiots like Master Gilpin. Surely, they will have their petty little triumphs – the destruction of the Library of Alexandria was a crime against all humanity – yet these Philistines cannot stop the march of knowledge.
While the one called Prescott ransacked my home, I was led away.
I was barely twenty-eight and really feared my life was about to come to an early end. As I walked in chains along those dank dark prison passages, it occurred to me that it was perhaps foolish of me to communicate with the captive Princess Elizabeth through my cousin Blanche Parry. Yet Elizabeth was eager for my horoscope readings.
Those were bleak days.
Charged and acquitted of treason, I was rearrested as a suspected heretic. Someone seemed determined to see me damned...
With conviction I managed to argue my way out of conviction. The Star Chamber of the Palace of Westminster reluctantly exonerated me, as did the Catholic Bishop. I suspect that it was not insignificant that I had also been astrologer to Queen Mary. Sadly, Queen Mary did not take up my plan for a National Library, though I am sure its first stone will be laid in good time.
When Mary died three years later, Queen Elizabeth called for me to determine an auspicious date for her coronation. This queen was as brave as any man. She knew the dangers of having a suspected magician in her court entourage, yet condoned my presence and continued to consult with me. I was able to help too by bringing esoteric forces to bear upon the Spanish Armada. Some say that mere mortals cannot influence the weather, but I believe it is possible, though perhaps not in a global sense.
I was able to travel abroad to collect numerous books and many seekers of truth frequented my library of over 4,000 tomes. At times too I have been of service to the realm, indulging Walsingham with my discoveries in ciphers and cryptography.
My tour round Europe with the wretched Edward Kelley gleaned much, indeed. Consulted by the powerful men and women of Europe, I was able to peer into their hearts and minds and pass on to my spymaster what these foreigners desired and feared most. Little did my critics know that I, ‘a companion of hellhounds and a caller of damned wicked spirits’, was employed as a secret agent to protect our British Empire.
In retrospect, I can see that my life has not been easy, and perhaps I did not help myself by believing Kelley in his conversations with angels. The last straw came, I suppose, when he wanted us to exchange wives at the behest of an angel. I doubt if dear Jane ever forgave me for that nonsense. To punish me, either the plague or God took her and my children three years gone; it pains me to outlive my children, save for poor Katherine who tends me still. Truly, life is not just.
My search for true spiritualism was a quest for universal justice, since it does not reside on earth as I write. True, the foundations are there, to be built upon by good and true men. Yet the men of influence do not understand that justice is for the common good, not simply for those with wealth and means.
While I am fortunate to end my days here in my home at Mortlake, it grieves me that I am known as a wizard and considered no better than a fortune-teller. This is life’s little irony, the injustice of Fate, perhaps. Though I am poor again, over all, I have had a long and good life and in that time I’ve written seventy-nine works that deal with logic, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, navigation, geography and the calendar. And even now I am not sated and still wish to learn more.
But I am in my eighty-first year, a very old man, and I fear that my time is almost done.
That knave of an assistant, Edward Kelley, duped me into talking with angels by means of my magic crystal. But I finally saw through him, if not the crystal.
Soon, though, I believe I will discover the whole truth of everything, angels included. I am about to embark on the greatest, most magical adventure and, dear Lord, I feel quite ready.
Originally published in The New Coastal Press, 2011. Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.
Tolerance had no currency among the monarchs of this period, it would seem, judging by a new book just published: God's Traitors by Jessie Childs (Bodley Head).