Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee
ohn Dee (1527–1609) is one of the most intriguing characters of 16th century England. A member of the Elizabethan court, he is infamous for his attempts to make contact with other-worldly spirits and his study and practice of alchemy. He 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.
Today the Royal College of Physicians library contains more than 100 books previously belonging to Dee: 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, but 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.
Our 2016 exhibition will be the first time the books of Elizabethan England’s most famous ‘conjurer’ will have been displayed in public.