Although Dr. John Dee's reputation as a black magician may be undeserved, he seems destined to remain so categorized in the history of magic and the occult. Dee came from a family of means, and he was admitted to St. John's College, Cambridge, when he was only 15. His application to his studies was intense, and he soon distinguished himself as a scholar. He slept only four hours per night, ate a light meal, participated in various forms of recreation for two hours, then used the remaining 18 hours for study.
When he left Cambridge, he traveled to Holland to study with Mercator (1512–1594) and other learned men of his day. Returning home, he was made a fellow of Trinity College, and he gained a wide reputation as an astronomer.
Dee left England again soon after acquiring fame as an astrologer and an astronomer, and he taught at many European universities. In 1551, he was back in England and was received by King Edward VI (1537–1553), who awarded him a pension of 100 crowns per annum. This stipend Dee later exchanged for a rectory at Upton-upon-Severn.
During Queen Mary I's (1516–1558) reign (1553–58), Dee was accused of trying to kill her by "enchantments." He was seized, confined, and tried. After a long trial that lasted until 1555, he was at last acquitted.
When Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ascended to the throne in 1558, she consulted with Dee as to which day the stars deemed the most propitious hours for her coronation. Pleased with his pronouncements, she continued to grant him the favor of her attention, and she made many promises of preferment—none of which were kept. Disillusioned by the intrigues of the English Royal Court, Dee left the country for Holland. In 1564 while residing in Antwerp, Dee published his greatest work, Monas Hieroglyphica. After he had presented a copy to the Emperor Maximilian II (1527–1576), Dee returned to England to produce more learned occult volumes.
In 1571, while residing once again on the Continent, Dee fell ill. When Elizabeth heard of it, she sent two of her best physicians to attend to him. The queen also conveyed additional proofs of her high regard for him and made further promises. When he recovered, Dee returned to England and settled at Mortlake in Surrey. Here he accumulated an extensive library of works on occultism and allied subjects, prompting his neighbors to decree that he was in league with the devil. While Dee insisted that he did not practice black magic, it seemed apparent that he knew a great deal about the subject.
After Elizabeth's death, James I (1566– 1625) refused to extend patronage to Dee because of his troubled reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts. Dee returned to Mortlake, where he died in 1608 in a state of neglect and poverty. Dr. John Dee's globes, magic stone, and other items of his occult practices may be seen today in the British Museum.