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The Arch Conjuror of England

Hermetic Library fellow Colin Campbell reviews The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee by Glyn Parry.

Firstly, I would like to suggest that if and when I am named the arch-conjuror of the United States, or a particular state, or perhaps even the local Starbucks, I would prefer it to be done so without the hyphen. “Archconjurer” just seems more tidy to me; but then again, arch-nemesis is hyphenated, so there’s the counterpoint to my own argument. Or should it be “counter-point”? Either way, someone had better conjure up an iced grande skinny vanilla latte, no whip, or there will be hell to pay.

I just finished up Glyn Parry’s work ‘The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee”. I was very excited about this book, firstly because I had to get it all the way from England, or rather all the way from Amazon.uk which makes me feel like the consummate occult hipster (at least outside of the UK), and secondly because it was about John Dee, about whose work I wrote a little bit about some time back. Furthermore, the author is from New Zealand, which country I was in while finishing up the last edits on the aforementioned work, The Magic Seal of Dr. John Dee, The Sigillum Dei Aemeth. I mean, what are the odds? I was meant to read this book – nothing short of Divine providence, I tell you!

And read it, I did. Now, readers be warned, this is not a book like most books on Dee that follow his career in conjuration, exposing all the minute details of his magical system that continue to baffle a number of us well past the point of insanity. There are no speculations on odd lettering or table construction, his seemingly endless dependency on the letter ‘b’, or what Angelic Governors might rule over IP address sub-domains of the World Wide Web. This book is different: it’s about politics, especially the red-state/blue-state conflict of the era, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation that set the stage for the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This conflict would include, of course, the treatment of “popish” – that’s “Pope-ish” – witchcraft and conjuring, bringing Dee right into the midst of the milieu.

While a number of books from magically-inclined authors have noted political machinations as a side-note to the magical work of Dr. Dee, this work does us all the exceptional favor of looking at it from the other direction. Its focus is on the politics and intrigue of Tudor England from the time surrounding Dee’s birth through to his death in 1609. (Parry actually provides reference to external documents showing Dee died in 1609, and not in 1608, about which there has been some debate given the absence of Dee’s diary entries past the earlier of the two dates.) Magic is thus relegated to the side-plot, though not entirely, as its involvement and/or utility in court matters (royal, not legal) was often the measure of Dee’s fleeting successes and failures. It also focuses on his much-overlooked work with alchemy, usually deemed to be Kelley’s forte, but only because the latter seems to have been the more successful promoter of his efforts.

Those of us that have studied Dee know that he was at least at times close to Queen Elizabeth and had the pleasurable acquaintance of many in the upper echelons of the Elizabethan court. However, Dee’s own diaries do not give us much insight into the background of these interactions, nor the many political ramifications that might precede or promote them. Parry’s book does so marvellously, detailing the plots, sub-plots, twists and deceptions behind the national and international political climates of the time.

So, if you are looking for a work on the magic of Dr. Dee, this is not it. There are a few of those about, however, and a quick search on certain online auction sites can quickly part you from a great deal of your money should you choose to pursue some of them. (There are also a number of them readily available that can do so for a much more reasonable price.) However, if you are looking for a fantastic book on the politics underlying and informing the magical work of John Dee, then this is definitely the book. I am glad to have made the purchase.


Colin Campbell, Arch-Reviewer of New England [via]

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

The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee, By Glyn Parry” is a book review by Ronald Hutton of a new biography of John Dee, due to release in the states in April, from Yale University Press. (HT @t3dy)

“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.” [via]