Ron Heisler - John Dee and the Secret SocietiesArticle originally published in The Hermetic Journal, 1992.
John Dee and the Secret Societies
Dee's religious views have always been irritatingly opaque. That he was a Protestant of some sort is beyond dispute. In the time of Edward VI he associated with reformers. The curious affair in the reign of Catholic Queen Mary, when, during investigation by the Court of Requests (a committee of the Star Chamber) in 1555, he was accused of casting horoscopes of the Queen and her Spanish husband with evil intent, is ambiguous, for some of his companions in this possibly criminal venture subsequently proved lackeys of the Catholic monarchy of the most loyal kind. In any case, Dee was released, the official suspicions presumably dispelled. 1
Did Dee go through a Familist stage? We know of his strong links with the bookseller Arnold Birckmann, for a letter of 1604 written by Johann Radermacher refers to their meeting in Birckmann's shop more than forty years before. In 1577 Dee advised the cartographer Abraham Ortelius (a Familist) that correspondence could reach him via Birckmann's servants in Antwerp. 2 Birckmann has long been suspected of being a member of the Family of Love a secret society with several grades of membership, which seems to have taken a spiritualist turn and which recruited indiscriminately from both Catholic and Protestant ranks in England, the Low Countries, Germany and France. In 1585 Birckmann's London shop passed into the hands of the Familist Arnold Mylius, who had married his daughter. 3 Dee was an avid explorer of all frontier territories of knowledge and a flirtation with Familism would have been characteristic of him. One of Dee's pupil-friends, Sir Philip Sidney, was fascinated by the sect: there is a letter to Sidney from his intimate friend, the French savant Hubert Languet, written from Antwerp, where Languet was a guest of the printer, Christopher Plantin, today the best remembered of all Familists. 4 Dee's greatest patron was Queen Elizabeth, and it has been surprisingly uncommented upon that after her death she was accused of being a favourer of the sect. 5
Was Dee ever initiated into freemasonry? There is nothing to indicate that he was, yet he seems to have been keenly interested in matters architectural, an area in which England was singularly deficient even by the mid-16th century, going by the paucity of published works available in the vernacular. Dee owned five editions of Vitruvius; his 1567 copy is laced with notes on architecture. 6 We have no direct evidence of any interest in the mysteries associated with King Solomon's Temple. On the other hand, he wrote the "History of King Solomon, every three years, his Ophirian voyage, with divers other rarities" in 1576, of which fragments were published by Purchas years later. 7 These voyages had been undertaken by the sailors of Solomon, who had been taught seamanship by the mariners of Hiram of Tyre, without whose assistance, of course, the Great Temple at Jerusalem could never have been built, as all freemasons would have known. In the 1590s, having returned, quite prudently, from the uncertainties of Bohemia, where Kelley languished in gaol, accused of fraudulent transmutation, Dee's financial situation was precarious. He ceaselessly sought an office that would bring financial security. In his diary there is an entry for December 7 1594 stating "and on the 8th day, by the chief motion of the Lord Admirall, and som[e]what of the Lord Buckhurst, the Quene's wish was to the Lord Archbishop presently that I shuld have Dr. Day his place in Powles [St. Paul's]." 8 Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral, and Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, have a prominent role in James Anderson's The New Book of Constitutions (1738): both had been Grand Masters of the freemasons.
To unlock the function of the notorious 1580s seances, I think we should first look to Dee's associates. Long overlooked is some correspondence between Dee and Roger Edwardes, whose credentials remain a trifle hazy. Edwardes was, nevertheless, exceedingly well connected: his patrons included the Earl of Hereford, Lord Burleigh and the Queen herself, it would seem. There is a letter to Burleigh of April 13 1574 in which Edwardes described the situation in the Low Countries. 9 His sole published work, A Boke of very Godly Psalmes (1570), was dedicated to Lettice Devereux, Viscountess of Hereford. The daughter of Sir Francis Knollys, she was the mother of the ill-fated Robert, future Earl of Essex. Edwardes mentions in his dedication that he was the "vassal" of the Earl of Hereford. On March 29 of the previous year Edwardes had written to Burleigh forwarding a treatise to be presented to the Queen. Two months later, on May 28, he was bragging to a Mr "Marche" that the book "had been well accepted" by her. 10
Edwardes's mind perpetually travelled the grooves of the apocalypse. In 1580 he wrote "A Phantastical Book", as a later owner of the manuscript entitled it, on the "Conversion of the Jews", the coming of the millenium being dependent on this particular event. Edwardes's manuscript found its way into Lord Burleigh's papers.11 His surviving correspondence with Dee dates from between July 13 1579 and July 16 1580. In one letter, Dee addressed him as "my lovinge friende R. Edwardes". This was one of several letters apparently belonging to a circle whose members included "Thomas Lincoln" (presumably the bishop of Lincoln) and a "W. Cestren" In a damaged letter with essential words missing, Edwardes alludes to "William Herbert", which leaves us in a quandary as to which William Herbert was meant: the Earl of Pembroke or the apocalyptic poet.12 It probably was the latter, William Harbert of St. Gillim, whom Dee records in his diary, in an entry for May 1 1577, as having passed him some notes on the Monas Hieroglyphica.13 Harbert, who chided Shakespeare and Samuel Daniel14 together in a poem, was a friend of Joshua Sylvester,the best translator of Du Bartas's Devine Weekes; Harbert himself produced a now lost translation of Du Bartas Uranus, which he presented to Lord Lumley. I argue elsewhere that the late Elizabethan popularity of Du Bartas was based on the Huguenot's masonic resonances: his Devine Weekes was a quasi-masonic text.15 In A Prophesie of Cadwaller, last King of the Britaines (1604) the Welsh poet depicted James I as a second Brute, who had returned to reunite the kingdom of Britain, which had so famously been divided into three parts by King Lear. As Harbert put it, "Disioynted.... by her first monarches fall", Britain will be restored by a king who "shall three in one, and one in three unite", thus inaugurating a new golden age in which war will be bound in chains.16
Similar millenial sentiments are never far from the mind of Roger Edwardes, as can be seen in Godly Psalmes, where he depicts the "holy citie newe Jerusalem" and projects "a newe heaven, and a newe earthe". Edwardes's influence on Dee is unmistakable, to whom a spirit discoursed freely on the 24th March 1583 on the course of nature and reason, telling how "New Worlds shall spring of these. New Maners; Strange Men...."17 The utopianism of Shakespeare's Tempest was perhaps forged to a degree in the spiritual workshop of the Dee circle.
The apocalyptic ethos of the 1580s was exceptionally intense at the time or virulent, for the overcoming of Antichrist, the Pope in Rome, was the cardinal priority in the scheme of things, coupled with the defeat of Spain. John Aylmer, who had become bishop of London, had years before assigned to Queen Elizabeth the messianic task of destroying Antichrist in Britain, and latterly James Sandford, in his 1576 translation of Guiccardini's House of Recreation, had developed the theme, seeing in Elizabeth "some diviner things" than "in the Kings and Queens of other countries".18 Her role was to inaugurate a new golden age. Sandford, who profoundly believed in a millenial age or "status", was probably the "Mr Sandford" who features in Dee's angelic diaries.19 He had translated Giacopo Brocardo's The Revelation of S. John (1582). Brocardo is rightly considered an important forerunner of the Rosicrucians: the 120 years that elapsed between the legendary Christian Rosenkreutz's death and the finding of his tomb is anticipated by Brocardo with his theory of three stages leading to the overthrow of Antichrist. The stages each of forty years represent Savonarola, Luther, and the struggle with the Pope/Antichrist.20 The goal was to be reached in the year 1600, but the Rosicrucian manifestos shifted goalposts to 1604, when the Rosicrucian vault was discovered. Fleeing from Venice to escape the Inquisition, Brocardo travelled in northern Europe, entering England in 1577, where he almost certainly made contact with the Dee-Sidney circle.
We must now glance briefly at the occult setting that Dee was heir to, Societies with esoteric and secretive propensities were all the fashion in sophisticated Europe. The Italian Platonic academies had long flourished and continued to multiply. In France, poets and intellectuals had flocked to the Pléiade, a hub of Platonism (a home to Daniel Rogers, ami of Dee and Sir Philip Sidney), whilst Henry III, the epicene Valois king, first of all set up his Palace Academy, of which Walsingham had word in February 1576, and then established in 1583 at Vincennes the mysterious "Confrèrie d'Hieronymites". Beginning with twelve members, it was said to be a hive of drug experimentation. It was a development of an earlier Order of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1578, to which belonged the French ambassador to England, the cultivated Michel de Castelnau de Mauvissière, who took into his London household Giordano Bruno for two years.21 The Family of Love, which had become alarming to authority partly because it recruited its secret membership largely outside courtly circles, possibly had as many as a thousand members in England in 1580.
Regarding Dee, there is one important posthumous allegation. It was reported to Elias Ashmole some decades after Dee's death that he was "acknowledged for one of ye Brotherhood of ye R.Cr. by one of that Fraternity,....Philip Zeiglerus..."22 Philip Ziegler, the revolutionary Rosicrucian prophet, had arrived in England in 1626 and created turmoil. Dee had died in 1608. I have not encountered any evidence to confirm Ziegler's assertion. But that Dee knew Francis Thynne, the alchemically minded poet of the London "Rose" society, is probable. In his diary, Dee noted down for March 1 1598 that "I receyved Mr. Thynne his letter".23 Of Dee's close friend and admirer over many years, Sir Edward Dyer, John Aubrey wrote that he "labour'd much in chymistry, was esteemed by some a Rosie-crucian..."24 Dyer completed his mortal coil in 1607. Veracity was not the strong point of either Ziegler or Aubrey and their claims must be accorded some caution.
However, important links with Rosicrucianism can be made through two of Dee's servants. Roger Cook worked for the magus from 1567 till 1581. They quarrelled and split, but made up again, with Cook returning into Dee's employ in 1600. Now it happens that a "Roger Cock" is recorded as having been an assistant to the alchemist-inventor, Cornelius Drebbel, whilst working for the Emperor Rudolph II at Prague up to 1612. Almost certainly "Cock" was Dee's "Cook". Drebbel was among the most important of all Rosicrucians.25 From about 1603 till his death, Dee had a young pupil called Patrick Sanders, who acquired several of his manuscripts after his death. Eventually becoming a member of the London College of Physicians, Sanders edited Roger Bacon's Epistola De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, which was published at Hamburg in 1618. Sanders dedicated the work to the Rosicrucian Brotherhood.26
To most effectively probe into the enigma of Dee we must look to the evidence provided by his contemporaries. We can make no better beginning than with Sir Philip Sidney's curious comment to Hubert Languet on February 11 1574. After disparaging Humphrey Lhuyd's Commentarioli Brittanicae, Sidney wrote: "But of course the important thing, is for you to remember that our 'unknown God' [Dee] is of the same land and substance, and will take amiss your arousing so much laughter at the expense of his blood brother; otherwise in his anger he may perhaps brandish his hieroglyphic monad at you like Jove's lightning bolt for such is the wrath of heavenly spirits."27 Sidney , who studied chemistry "led by God with Dee as teacher and Dyer as companion", was making a witty sally, at the heart of which stands a phrase "our 'unknown God'" which warrants being taken more seriously.28 The hint of the cultivation of the prisca theologia of the original religion within conventional religion is clearly given by Sidney, and we have to pose the issue of whether a Dee sect was already formalized by 1574? We can't be sure about this, but one thing is clear: a cult of John Dee was a fact of life. His insatiable egotism was leavened by an intelligence and learning which commanded the admiration of other minds of stature.
It is a severe comment on the insularity of Spenserian scholarship that hitherto no Spenserian has recognized the portrait of Dee and, by implication, the status accorded to him to be found within the Castle of Temperance episode in The Faerie Queene's Second Book. Spenser describes three "honourable sages", the second of whom "could of things present best advize". Dee was certainly a practical man who organized programmes of exploration. This figure sits in the second room, its walls enlivened with "famous Wisards", as well as with "All artes, all science, all Philosophy". Spenser paints Dee as "a man of ripe and perfect age", who did "meditate all his life long, /That through continuall practice and usage, /He now was growne right wise, and wondrous sage." Dyer and Sidney's co-worker in the Areopagite poetry society was Edmund Spenser, who was at work on The Faerie Queene by 1580.
What went on between Dee and the Sidney circle is unrecorded in detail. But with regard to others posterity has been blessed. The awkward tango that Dee danced with the alchemist and explorer, Adrian Gilbert, the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, is well written down in the spiritual diaries. On March 26 1583 Dee enquired of a spirit "Must Adrian Gilbert be made privy of these Mysteries?" In his marginal note, Dee comments that Gilbert "may be made prive, but he is not to be a Practicer."29 The extent to which Gilbert was to be made "privy to our practice" was a perpetual worry for Dee. By the 1590s Dee had acquired a new set of intimates. We have notes by him on a book's flyleaf, dated May 31 1594, in which he bestowed on a "Mr Barker" (the physician Thomas Barker?) and a "Mr Alped" (undoubtedly Richard Alred) the title of "Discipulos" disciples! Of Alred, Dee noted in the diary on March 23 the same year, "Magus disclosed by frendeship of Mr Richard Alred". Alas, Dee gives no further explanation.30
The greatest competing ego with Dee's within his own circle was that of the Florentine patrician, Francesco Pucci (1543-97), a utopianist of fluctuating and wayward opinions.31 Veering towards Protestantism, he entered England for the first time in 1572, taking an Oxford M.A. in 1574. The following year he was expelled from the University. Passing from the Italian church in London to the French church, he was soon embroiled in controversy again. His unruly personality and brand of anti-Calvinist Protestantism must have made this inevitable. Leaving England, he made his way to Fausto Socinus in Basle by 1577, but the town soon expelled him. Returning to London in 1579-80, he encountered further persecution and departed for Holland and the company of the great scholar Justus Lipsius, whose political thought was to influence Shakespeare and who was to be exposed for Familist tendencies a few years later. Pucci returned to London, and it is presumed that it was in the capital that he completed or wrote out Forma d'una repubblica cattolica in 1581. It was some centuries before his hand was recognized in this unpublished utopian text.
Pucci proposed the organization of a secret "republic" of good people in all lands, who would prepare the world for a great council that would reunify Christianity. Borrowing from the notorious Anabaptists, whose implication in social and political revolution decades earlier had rendered their name anathema in all respectable circles, Pucci's scheme envisaged "Colleges" being established, whose principal officers would include a Provost, a Chancellor and a Censor, elected for terms of four years by males over the age of 25. There were to be central delegate meetings from time to time in friendly territories, which would take place incognito if necessary, using the guise of merchants. Outwardly the organization was to observe conformity to the laws of a land and to obey the civil magistrates, stipulations which indicate a Familist influence on Pucci's thinking. His objective was the unification of all peoples in a comity that reached even the mosque and the synagogue. His immediate target the eradication of the Christian schism would be effected by the calling of a general council of "spiritual persons" and "lovers of truth". At times he contemplated this council being called by the Pope.32
The rediscovery of Pucci in twentieth century Italy created a frisson of excitement in academic circles. Some have been surprised by the absence of obvious utopian precursors to Pucci within the Italian tradition without considering that his utopia may reflect English conditions and thinking. We know that Sidney and Daniel Rogers were strongly influenced by eirenist impulses in the 1570s, which were not completely erased by the St. Bartholomew massacre of Huguenots in Paris in 1572. They first sought to heal schism within Protestant ranks between Lutherans and Calvinists. The religious views of these thinkers, although having a Protestant foundation, could not be reduced to any orthodox straight jacket, Although no firm evidence has surfaced to establish that Pucci knew Dee by 1581, the serious possibility remains that his utopia may actually represent a compendium of the commonplaces being exchanged within the confidentiality of the magus's circle.
What is beyond dispute is that by 1585 Pucci met up with Dee and the brilliant alchemical charlatan, Edward Kelley, at Cracow in Poland. Pucci accompanied the two on their journey to Bohemia. He was at Prague with them by August 20.33 In July 1586 Dee noted in his diary that he and Kelley had left Pucci behind in their lodgings at Prague. Dee's spiritual diaries are enlivened by periodic bouts of obvious paranoia, but on this occasion his apprehensions appear well founded. At Erfurt he wrote, "I was sore vexed in mind to think of Pucci his return to our company, as well for his unquiet nature in disputations, as for his blabbing of our secrets without our leave or well liking or any good doing thereby".34 Dee had become hypersensitive with good reason: the Papal Nuncio was baying for his blood at Rudolph II's imperial court. Of Pucci, the Welsh magus wrote, "he has laid such a bait for us with our mortal enemy, to entrap us by fair fawning words".35 Pucci was trying to convince Dee and Kelley that they should make their way to Rome to conduct their angel raising sessions in the presence of the Pope. They wisely rejected such a seductive offer. By 1587 the unstable Pucci had reconverted to Catholicism. One is baffled as to why Dee did not break off such a dangerous acquaintanceship immediately, assuming that Pucci's move was sincerely meant and not a mere ploy to deceive the Catholic authorities. But he did not and the uneasy relationship continued for some time. That Dee saw his own circle as being essentially a formal sect is implied by a later comment he made on Pucci, whom he dismissed as "being but a probationer, not yet allowed of, and to us known to be cut off."36 Clearly there was a grade of membership of a higher status than probationer. Dee himself had ambitions to enter a yet higher body. At a seance in Prague on August 20 1584 the Spirit Uriel had communicated with him, and Dee poured his heart out: he was "most desirous to be entered speedily into the School of Wisdom "37 Pucci decidedly belonged to the school of unwisdom: he fell into the hands of the Inquisition, who at Rome had him decapitated and burned in 1597.
And what can be said of Dee's religious standpoint when in Bohemia? The Lutheran Budovec described his reception by Rudolph II at the time: he "was at first well received by him; he predicted that a miraculous reformation would presently come about in the Christian world and would prove the ruin not only of the city of Constantinople but of Rome also. These predictions he did not cease to spread among the populace." The Venetian ambassador wrote of Dee in June 1586 that "He does not profess a Christian life but declares he has revelations from angels When the Pope was informed he rightly feared the appearance of a new sect." Pucci, who assumed he was witnessing divine revelation at Dee's seances, at the Actio Pucciana, in which an angelic spirit was activated, "received great confirmation of my hopes for an imminent renovation of all things which God will accomplish " Dee recorded an angel's instructions in 1586, which underlined his non-doctrinal Christianity: "Whosoever wishes to be wise may look neither to the right nor to the left; neither towards this man who is called a catholic, nor towards that one who is called a heretic (for thus you are called); but he may look up to the God of heaven and earth and to his Son, Jesus Christ".38
R.J.W. Evans's summing up of Dee as a believer in a kind of mystical universal revelation strikes me as utterly inadequate, perhaps tending to indicate the magus was a quietist, a follower of a passive Christian route.39 To the contrary, we should regard him particularly in view of his strong filiations with Roger Edwardes, a friendship which lasted till the late 1590s as a full blown apocalyptic and millenialist, with a driving activist nature. His pursuit of angelic guidance was consciously functional, intended to steer his various enterprises the explorations in the Americas, for example, or the rejigging of the political map of Central Europe, with Rudolph II seen as the great prize.
Dr Adam Clarke, Hebraist, alchemist, astrologer and kabbalist, was arguably the leading Methodist intellectual of the early 19th century. Tragically, his manuscript "Mysterium Liber" seems to have utterly vanished from the face of the earth. But at least we have Clarke's note describing this fascinating effort: "N.B. As it is assembd that the six books of Mysteries transcribed from the papers of Dr. John Dee by Elias Ashmole, Esq., preserved in the Sloan Library,.... are a collection of papers relating to State Transactions between Elizabeth, her Ministers and different Foreign Powers, in which Dr. Dee was employed sometimes as an official agent openly, and at other times as a spy, I purpose to make an extract from the whole work, and endeavour, if possible, to get a key to open the Mysteries. A.C."40
In tracing the origins of Rosicrucianism, commentators have often turned to the mysterious journeyings of Nicholas Barnaud, a Huguenot alchemist around whom an enormous mystique has gathered over the centuries.41 Barnaud's fame partly rests on his authorship of one of the most controversial of all Huguenot political polemics, Le Réveille-Matin des Francais et de leurs voisins (prétendus), whose first edition dates from 1573 and for which he used the pseudonym of Eusèbe Philadelphe. This ultra-radical work, which was greatly expanded in subsequent editions, betrays a line of thought more consistent with the revolutionaries of 1789 than with the Huguenot aristocrats and their pet theologians of the 1570s. Virulently anti-church in sentiment, the author insists on the marriage of priests and the abolition of tithes, pursues the theme of a grand Huguenot alliance with the house of Guise to overthrow the Valois dynasty, justifies tyrannicide and the right of resistance to oppression, and outlines a novel form of political control for society with clear republican implications.42 Horrified, the great Calvinist writer Beza rushed to condemn the book at Geneva. Both John Dee and Gabriel Harvey owned copies of the work.
Many pseudonymous works have been linked to Barnaud's name and no satisfactory biographical sketch has ever been produced. We know for certain that he was born at Crest in Dauphiné, visited Spain in 1559, was at Paris in 1572 and fled to Geneva, where he worked as a diplomatic emissary for the besieged Protestants.43 There his name was mispelt quite regularly as "Bernaud" or "Bernard". This raises an intriguing possibility, hitherto unnoticed by historians, for in the Return of Aliens for November 1571 in London we encounter "Jacques Taffyn, who was recejver to the kinge of Fraunce, borne at Tourney in Flanders.... Anne his wife, borne at Tourney. Guy Barnarde and Nicholas Barnarde, brothers to the aforesaid Anna,..., and cam for religion about ij yeres past, and are yet of no churche, but go to the French churche by occasion."44 Regrettably, we have no other information to clarify whether this was the same as our Barnaud or not. Settling in France in his autumnal years, he was excommunicated by his local church described as "that pest". His religious sentiments leaned towards those of Socinus who rejected the Holy Trinity.45
We must now proceed from Barnaud the politician to Barnaud the alchemist. Two of his alchemical tracts were published in Holland by Christopher Raphelengius, grand-son of the Familist Christopher Plantin; the others were brought out at Leyden by Thomas Basson, an Englishman of the Familist persuasion. It was his son, Govaert Basson also a Familist who published Robert Fludd's very first Rosicrucian pamphlets. The Basson edition of Quadriga Auriferae Secunda Rota was dedicated to Sir Edward Dyer, although it is clear from Barnaud's preface of July 1599 that he did not know the English knight personally. But it is quite on the cards that Barnaud had known John Dee as early as 1583. Contrary to A.E. Waite's claim, Barnaud nowhere says that he witnessed Edward Kelley's feat of transmuting mercury into gold at the home of Thaddeus von Hajek in Prague.46 He does state, however, that he saw "projection" achieved by Hajek with the aid of his son at Prague in 1583.47 Now it happens that in that year Dee and Kelley were made most welcome by Hajek, who put them up at his Prague house. Hajek appears to have known Sir Philip Sidney a few years before: his son, who was sent to England to study, was put in Sidney's charge.48 We can infer that Barnaud probably met Dee in 1583, but we cannot prove it.
Barnaud's significance revolves around an alchemical tradition that he was a key precursor of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, although the evidence for this contention in remarkably elusive. The tradition seems to have crystallized with J.S. Semler's Unparteiische Samlungen zur historie der Rosenkreuzer of 1788, which alleged that in 1591 Barnaud, who is known to have travelled in France and Holland that year, founded an alchemical society. Semler goes as far as to claim that a great college of the fraternity of the Rosicrucians met in 1591 and 1597, the implication being that Barnaud was possibly associated with at least the former.49
Semler did not oblige posterity with documentation for these contentions. If they contain a particle of truth, however, Dee who shared with Barnaud patron-friends in Bohemia and Poland almost surely heard about such developments. But that Barnaud may have organized some alchemical sect is not quite beyond the realm of possibility, for in 1597 he produced his Commentariolum in Aenigmaticum quoddam Epitaphium, which contained the "alchemical Mass" originally written by the Hungarian, Nicholas Melchior. The more we know about the Renaissance alchemists, the more we have to respect them for their practical bent: what they wrote down, they attempted to carry out in their laboratories usually. Why did Barnaud edit this "Mass", as did Michael Maier two decades later, if it was not intended for collective use?"50
1. Public Record Office. Proceedings in Court of Requests Cat. I lxxvii 48.