Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee

John Dee was one of the most intriguing characters of 16th-century England. A member of the Elizabethan court, he is famous for his attempts to make contact with other-worldly spirits and his study and practice of alchemy.


Dee was also a mathematician and scholar of navigation, a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, a university lecturer on rhetoric and an astrologer. Dee’s library was one of the most famous collections of books and manuscripts of its time, as renowned for its contents as for the fact it was pillaged and dispersed while Dee was travelling in Europe during the 1580s.

Portrait of John Dee (1527–1608) by unknown
John Dee doodle in Arnaldus de Villanova – Opera, 1527, p335

Today the Royal College of Physicians library contains more than 100 books previously belonging to Dee. This is the largest known collection of Dee books surviving in one location. They were acquired as part of the library of the Marquis of Dorchester, presented to the physicians in the 1680s. It is not clear how these 100-plus volumes came to be owned by Dorchester, however there is evidence that many of them were stolen from Dee by a certain Nicholas Saunder. 

The Dee Collection contains some of the most dramatic and beautiful books in the RCP library, including mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts.  Many of the books are heavily and elaborately annotated by Dee himself. The 2016 exhibition was the first time the books of Elizabethan England’s most famous ‘conjurer’ were displayed in public.
 

Professor Deborah Harkness, 'The Renaissance library and the worldview of John Dee'
Bill Sherman, 'Back to the future with John Dee'

The lost library of John Dee


John Dee was one of Tudor England’s most extraordinary and enigmatic figures – a Renaissance polymath, with interests in almost all branches of learning. He served Elizabeth I at court, advised navigators on trade routes to the ‘New World’, travelled throughout Europe and studied ancient history, astronomy, cryptography and mathematics. He is also known for his passion for mystical subjects, including astrology, alchemy and the world of angels. 

Dee built, and lost, one of the greatest private libraries of 16th century England. He claimed to own over 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, which he kept at his home in Mortlake near London, on the River Thames. The authors and subjects of Dee’s books are wide-ranging and reflect his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and expertise. They include diverse topics such as mathematics, natural history, music, astronomy, military history, cryptography, ancient history and alchemy. 
 

Scholar, courtier, magician the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians
Simon Singh on Tudor code breaking and John Dee

These books give us an extraordinary insight into Dee’s interests and beliefs – often in his own words – through his hand-written illustrations and annotations. The books are identified as belonging to Dee by these annotations, by Dee’s distinctive signature and by evidence from both Dee’s and the RCP’s library catalogues.

While Dee travelled to Europe in the 1580s, he entrusted the care of his library and laboratories to his brother-in-law Nicholas Fromond. But according to Dee, he ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’. Dee was devastated by the destruction of his library. He later recovered some items, but many remained lost. 

We know that a large number of Dee’s books came into the possession of Nicholas Saunder. Little is known about Saunder, or whether he personally stole Dee’s books. He may have been a former pupil; the presence of multiple copies of some books in Dee’s library catalogue suggests that he kept additional copies for pupils. Saunder must have known that his books once belonged to Dee, because he repeatedly tried to erase or overwrite Dee’s signature with his own. Given that several books have part of the title page missing, we can also assume that Saunder probably cut and tore signatures from some books.