Excerpt from the book Jason Louv. "John Dee and the Empire of Angels. Enochian Magic and Occult Roots of Modern World." Rochester; Toronto: Inner Traditions, 2018.
As of the twenty-first century, Drake’s Bay lies thirty miles northwest of the hyperreal technological mecca of San Francisco, California, a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge through the low, mist-covered hills and forest of Marin County. The bay stretches along eight miles of coast, and centers at Drake’s Beach, a small cove that looks out onto the Pacific, surrounded by sandstone hills and ice plant.
Here, in 1579, a privateer named Francis Drake landed after circumnavigating the tip of South America in a clandestine mission, proving that it could be done for the first time. He named the coast he had alighted upon Nova Albion. The man who had masterminded Drake’s mission was John Dee.
While Dee’s previous work had been theoretical, in the 1570s he involved himself in Elizabeth’s geopolitical planning, laying the ideological framework for building a new world empire. This empire—which would spread the new ideals of the Reformation and lead to the birth of America—would soon grow to compete with the Spanish Catholic efforts at colonization. It was to be a cold war for a New World.
An omen of this war came seven years earlier, in 1572, when a new star appeared in the heavens, remaining visible night and day for seventeen months—we now designate it SN 1572, a Type Ia supernova that occurred in the constellation Cassiopeia.1 Dee, who rushed to make observational measurements of the supernova, thought that it confirmed that the final restoration of the world—the eschaton—was at hand.2 The astronomer, alchemist, and astrologer Tycho Brahe, for whom the supernova is now named, believed that it was the first new star to appear in the sky since the birth of Christ. Five years later, in 1577, a great comet arrived above England, also observed by Brahe—confirming for the populace that the end of the world was nigh, fears upon which Dee was called to consult by Elizabeth.3
Indeed, it was the end of the world. By Dee’s time, Luther’s Reformation had initiated sea changes in Europe that broke a centuries-long status quo. Inheriting a tiny and vulnerable country, Elizabeth had pursued a strategy of avoiding war with the Catholic powers. To do so, she had kept France and Spain out of conflict by offering to increase support for whatever country was threatened by the other; both religion and Elizabeth’s own marital status were drawn into this delicate political maneuvering. Yet the gambit could only last so long before war did break out, dragging England into the fray.4 Concurrently, the Netherlands had erupted into open revolt against the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain, which would result in the formation of the Protestant Dutch Republic by 1581.
England was also economically insecure, besieged by desperation, homelessness, and plague. As England still grew its own food, it was vulnerable to famine if a wheat crop failed. Although the country’s food supply never ran out, famines would later make the 1580s and ’90s miserable for many, with the poorest potentially resorting to eating bark and grass; French peasants from the same time period are recorded as feeding on unripe grain, roots, and the intestines and blood left over from animals slaughtered for those that could afford them.5 One of the primary reasons for England’s failing economy was the massive amount of silver that Spain was extracting from its New World colonies, massively tipping the balance of economic power toward Spain. By contrast, England relied on textile exports, the manufacture of which had kept its population employed, and Continental demand was now minimal, leaving much of the country out of work. Trade with Russia, the Mediterranean, and Guinea had brought in some funds, but the real prize would be wresting at least partial control of the New World from Spain.6
Fig. 1. Francis Drake. Portrait by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder, 1598.
It is in this context that Dee gave the world the concept of a “British Empire,” a phrase he coined. After Columbus’s discovery of the New World, Pope Alexander VI had divided the Americas between Portugal and Spain in the Treaty of Tordesillas, handing them dominion over the Atlantic. Dee, with his back pocket full of superior knowledge of geography, navigation, and optics, would soon suggest Elizabeth contest this, and expand into the New World not just to rival Catholic domination, but for economic growth. Dee’s knowledge of optics, as well as the geographic and cartographic information he had absorbed under Mercator and his other mentors, at a time when accurate cartographic information was largely confined to the Continent, made him invaluable in not only conceptualizing but actualizing this plan. Yet for Dee himself, exploration of the New World had little to do with mercantile or even political goals. His fascination with imperialism pertained more to his occult calculations. It was clear to Dee, if no one else, that America had been colonized by King Arthur—even that still-existing Arthurian colonies might be found in the Northwest Passage. If this was the case, England had just as much spiritual claim to America as Rome did.7
The Muscovy Company, however, was already engaged in making real profits from trading with the tsar in Russia, and wasn’t seeking to take further risks on exploring west. Martin Frobisher got Elizabeth to lean on the company, and they in turn granted Frobisher a license with the proviso that he accept a company man, Michael Lok, as his treasurer. Dee was brought in to minimize risk by examining the plans for the voyage and imparting his knowledge of geometry, cosmography, and navigational instruments to the expedition leaders; Dee had spent fifteen years planning logistics for just such a voyage.8 Lok quickly warmed to Dee after realizing Dee wasn’t interested in competing with him. Since Lok had outfitted the expedition with expensive new navigational technology, he also had to make sure that Dee explained to his men how to use it without breaking it. Two ships were next commissioned—the Gabriel and Michael, named after the archangels that Dee would later record extensive traffic with during the angelic conversations.
Despite mishaps along the way, the Michael being forced back to port, and the near loss of the Gabriel (it was only heroics by Frobisher himself that saved the ship, nearly killing him) the voyage found land—the cyclopean ice walls of what Frobisher called Meta Incognita, the Unknown Limit, which we now know as Baffin Island in Canada. While exploring the coastline, Frobisher’s expedition came into conflict with Inuits, capturing and marooning one individual on a rock. An exploratory mission of Frobisher’s men went missing shortly thereafter. After taking an Inuit as a hostage with a boat hook, Frobisher abandoned hope for the return of his men and reversed course to England. The Inuit captive would be recorded as an object of great wonder and fascination for the English, before vanishing into the annals of history and a probably unpleasant fate.9
Fig. 2. Later map of Meta Incognita by Sir Robert Dudley and Antonio Francesco Lucini, c. 1647.
Even more interesting to the Crown was a sample of black ore that Frobisher had found in Meta Incognita, and that English alchemists claimed to have found gold in. For Dee, this discovery validated that the 1572 supernova foretold the discovery of the philosopher’s stone. For the English government, it was a galvanizing reason to return to Meta Incognita for more, under the cover of secrecy, to avoid claim jumping. Funding was no longer an issue—even the cash-poor Dee, seeing the potential for return, invested £25 (about £6,000 or $7,700 in 2017 terms).10
A crew of 140 was raised, including several prisoners who were to again board the Michael and Gabriel, along with a third ship entitled the Aid, and then to be left in the New World to try and win the “good will” of the locals, in much the same way that America and Australia would later be colonized. After six weeks, the expedition reached what is now known as Frobisher’s Strait and moored in what they named Jackman’s Sound, which Frobisher claimed for England in the country’s first act of colonial conquest of the New World. Setting out to search for more of the gold ore, the crew found nothing but a dead narwhal, which they called a “sea unicorn.” Immediately thereafter, the sailors found more of the black ore, which they began loading into the ship, all while fighting off violent attacks from the now-incensed Inuits.11
In all, Frobisher hauled over 140 tons of the ore back to England, presenting news of his find to Elizabeth, along with the narwhal’s horn. The ore was put under lock, key, and security detail, and tests on it commenced, whereupon only minute quantities of gold and silver were extracted, to Frobisher’s dismay.12
Despite the low yield of precious metals, a third voyage was sent back to Canada to claim what profits could still be salvaged. The crew returned with 1,150 tons, but by this time Lok’s Cathay Company was severely over budget; as a result of the expeditions, Lok declared bankruptcy and was thrown into debtor’s prison. After countless salvage attempts, the final extracted yield from the black ore was one single pinhead of silver.13
To Dee, however, the political value of the English voyages to Newfoundland and Baffin Island was immense—and not only because they were gathering data in the search for the Northwest Passage.14 In November 1577, Dee presented a new imperial plan to Elizabeth, suggesting that England wrest control of the New World from Spain—General and Rare Memorials, a set of documents laying out plans and technical guidelines for a new era of English colonization.
The Memorials continued the occult inquiry Dee began in the Propaedeumata aphoristica and Monas hieroglyphica; as with those books, Dee thought the Memorials divinely inspired (also by the angel Michael, in the case of the Monas). For Dee, the Memorials were a revelation from the angels, divine guidance on the creating of a British Empire, through a Royal Navy that would hold the world in its sway.15
In the text, Dee argued that Britain had the greatest need of any country for a continually operational navy, and that it also had the world’s greatest supply of timber, shipbuilders, willing volunteers for shipyard labor and staffing ships, and even suitable harbors. Establishing such a navy would make Britain nigh-on invincible (it did), and expansion of the British Navy and colonization of the New World not only had historical precedent but would surely raise vast riches for the Crown (it did).16 Such a plan would establish Elizabeth as the world ruler before the end times arrived; the money raised for the naval effort, Dee later added, could also be used to help build a new alchemical institute to produce the philosopher’s stone—the final perfection of which would reestablish the empire in full.17 In his partially lost 1577 manuscript “Famous and Rich Discoveries,” Dee speaks of how he would ascend above the heavens, to look down upon the earth and divine the Northwest Passage.
The cover of the Memorials depicts Elizabeth helming a ship representing British imperialism, with the angel Michael flying before her with sword and shield in hand and the Tetragrammaton above her, the ship being drawn forth by “Lady Occasion” toward freshly conquered territories. Following this are several pages rebuking Dee’s reputation as a sorcerer—Murphyn and Prestall’s attacks had been so successful that Dee was forced to address their slander upfront.
The four volumes of Dee’s imperial magnum opus were as follows:
General and Rare Memorials, completed and still extant. This addressed raising funds for and constructing a Petty Navy Royal of sixty 120-ton to 200-ton “tall ships” and twenty small warships weighing between twenty and fifty tons each, staffed by 6,600 well-paid men, the funds to be raised through taxation, as the wealth gained by imperial expansion would trickle down to the English people. This navy, Dee thought, would be the “Master Key” that would solidify English dominance, a “war machine”10 to guard England against its enemies. Although Dee was not originally concerned with state affairs, court politics would later force Dee to rewrite the Memorials to encourage the support of Holland and Zealand. The combination of the Dutch and English militaries would solidify control over the Narrow Seas in the wake of Spain’s withdrawal from the Low Countries. Also disgusted by the state of the Thames (upon which Mortlake was situated), Dee added an ecological broadside against the improper use of nets to fish the river.18
Fig. 3. Cover of Dee’s General and Rare Memorials, 1577.
A set of navigational tables, calculated using Dee’s paradoxical compass, which would have been larger than the English Bible. This was unpublished and is presumed lost. (Dee’s paradoxical compass could have been used along with these tables to keep navigation precise; unfortunately, the newly drafted sailors found it too complex, and resisted training in its use.)19
A volume so secret that Dee stated it “should be utterly suppressed or delivered to Vulcan’s custody” (i.e., burned).20 Also lost, this manuscript may well have dealt with angelic magic or other occult or astrological calculations relating to imperial expansion. It may also have had to do with Rome or the Spanish, which would have necessitated even greater secrecy than occult material.
Of Famous and Rich Discoveries, which survived, albeit in a partly fire-destroyed form. Here Dee set forth the case for English expansion and territorial claims, and suggested exploratory voyages.21
Following the exploration of Newfoundland, Dee became concerned with discovering if America was a separate continent from Asia. Abraham Ortelius had suggested that a “Strait of Anian” connected the Northwest Passage to the Pacific; however, North America was suspected to be so large that anybody who tried to discover this passage by entering Newfoundland where Frobisher had and continuing to sail west would run out of supplies and freeze to death long before hitting the Pacific. Yet if one were to sail south, rounding the tip of South America, conditions would be far more favorable to continued sailing, and an expedition could look for the outlet of the Northwest Passage on the other side of North America. In the pages of Of Famous and Rich Discoveries, Dee made a compelling case that England should do exactly that.22
To undertake this perilous voyage, Dee and Elizabeth looked to an unlikely candidate: the privateer and slave trader Francis Drake. Drake undertook the mission between 1577 and 1580, taking a fleet of six ships, including his own Pelican. The voyage was beset by storms, loss of personnel, mutiny, and ship rot—by the time Drake reached the Pacific, only the Pelican remained, which he rechristened the Golden Hind. Drake proceeded up the coast of South America, attacking Spanish settlements and capturing ships as he went, looting treasure, wine, and maps in the process. Had Drake been commanding an official English fleet, this would have been an act of war, but his privateer status lent England plausible deniability, making Drake’s raids a form of naval black ops. In June 1579, he landed at what is now called Drake’s Bay, north of San Francisco, before reversing course, and returning to England by way of the Cape of Good Hope and the Sierra Leone. Upon his arrival, the logs of the expedition, and therefore the route Drake had discovered, were immediately ordered classified.23 Drake returned to England a celebrity, and was knighted soon thereafter.
As soon as Drake returned, plans for another voyage began to coalesce. In September 1580, Humphrey Gilbert and Dee drew up a plan that, should Gilbert gain control of the northern New World, Dee would receive everything above the fiftieth parallel—granting him Alaska and the majority of Canada.24 Two years later, Dee still suspected that a Northwest Passage existed across the top of North America, and drew a map for Gilbert depicting it, in which he placed the West Coast of North America only 140 degrees west of England.25
Meanwhile, on February 5, 1578, Dee had married Jane Fromoundes. Supported by Elizabeth, he had proposed only a few months after the death of his first wife, Kathryn Constable, in March 1575. Jane was a member of court, a gentlewoman servant to Lady Katherine Howard, Elizabeth’s best friend. Fromoundes’s Catholic family hardly approved of the “arch-conjuror”; her father, Bartholomew Fromoundes, died of a stroke the day after John and Jane Dee’s son Arthur was born.26 Dee may have had one eye on securing a better position for himself by marrying into court. Unfortunately, to Dee’s lifelong disadvantage, there was no patronage for scientists during Elizabeth’s reign—unlike the Continent—explaining Dee’s quest for patronage abroad. The best Dee could hope for in England was an academic or Church position, and even these he was regularly frustrated in attaining.27
In the meantime, sectarian conflict was only intensifying. Over the previous decade, the Protestant Low Countries had exploded into open revolt against Spain’s Catholic rule, which would soon result in the formation of an independent Dutch Republic, and suggest strategic alliances with England. This added to the backdrop of war between the Protestant and Catholic spheres. Dee was soon called upon to defend Elizabeth from Catholic magical attack yet again, when wax images of Elizabeth and members of the Privy Council were discovered in a dunghill—as the dunghill melted the wax, by the logic of sympathetic magic, so would Elizabeth and her council come to harm.
Though the Council was as alarmed by Dee’s countermagic as they were by the original sorceric attack, Dee found himself well positioned: Dudley needed him to dig up as much evidence as possible on Catholic magical attacks, as this would assist Dudley against his Catholic rivals at court. Those captured thanks to Dee’s detections were held and tortured.28 Among those arrested on Dee’s cue was John Prestall, who was tied to a suspected Catholic conspiracy to magically attack the queen. Elizabeth was indeed ailing, but the cause was probably poor dental hygiene, not the occult. Prestall—whom Dee may have had arrested at least partially out of desire for revenge—was tortured for over a month, but no information on any conspiracy was forthcoming. The Council subsequently fetched Prestall’s cosaboteur Vincent Murphyn for interrogation.29
While Dee was sent to seek a cure for Elizabeth’s ailment from the German alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser, Dudley whipped up a propaganda war against Catholic sorcery, which could be lurking around any corner. But Dee and Dudley’s occult pogrom collapsed when it was revealed that the magician Thomas Elkes had made the wax dolls as part of a love spell for a client. Dee was revealed to have been wrong the entire time.30
After long decades of theoretical work, Dee was now turning his attention to actual operative magic—he had embarked on a series of alchemical experiments with an assistant named Roger Cook, as well as attempts at angelic contact with Humphrey Gilbert’s brother Adrian.31 The court, perhaps impressed with any magic Dee had performed to alleviate perceived attacks against the queen, also furnished Dee with a new scryer, Bartholomew Hickman.32
In the meantime, Dee’s enemies were plotting their revenge against the “arch-conjuror.” Prestall was now locked in the Tower under a death sentence, where he would stay until 1588; this left Murphyn to counteraccuse Dee of being a Catholic conspirator who was himself working magic against the queen. Dee’s occult experiments at Mortlake would furnish Murphyn with new ammunition. Dee sued in response.33
So alarmed was Elizabeth with Dee’s absence from court that on September 17, 1580, she traveled to Mortlake to roust him from his studies herself, riding by coach and appearing in his garden; as Dee recorded in his diary, “She beckoned her hand for me. I came to her coach side: she very speedily pulled off her glove and gave me her hand to kiss: and to be short, willed me to resort to her Court.”34 Two weeks later, Dee arrived at court to hand deliver a new manuscript, the Brytanici imperii limites or “Limits of the British Empire.”
Addressed solely to Elizabeth and her Privy Council, the Limits sought to establish a spiritual mandate not only for giving Elizabeth control of both the Low Countries and America, but for establishing her as the sovereign of a new global order. Dee now privately elaborated the occult and esoteric dimensions of the Memorials that he had wisely withheld from the general public.35 Just as he believed the Memorials to have been divinely inspired by angels, Dee thought he had been moved to write the Limits by the Holy Trinity itself. The same angelic idea that had inspired him, he believed, had inspired Edgar I’s naval expansion in the tenth century.36
Dee argued that during his reign King Arthur had held dominion not only of America, but of thirty countries.37 If this was indeed the case, then England had at least as much of a spiritual claim to world power as Rome, and all Elizabeth had to do was assume his mantle and become the Arthurian world empress. Even Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, whose court circle Dee had connections with during his time at Louvain, had long seen Arthur as the model on which the future world ruler would be based. After the Dutch Revolt, it was hoped that Elizabeth would claim Dutch sovereignty—and that she, and not a Habsburg, would become the Arthurian world emperor, uniting the globe under the banner of a reformed Christendom.38
Mercator himself had written to Dee that King Arthur had sent an expedition of four thousand men into the seas near the North Pole, and that some of the members of the team had survived, with their descendants appearing at court in Norway in 1364. Also of interest was the Welsh legend of Madoc, a prince who supposedly explored the New World in 1170; Dee not only feverishly sought to discover evidence of Madoc’s existence in Spanish records of America, but believed that he was descended from the prince. Claims by Dee that Arthur had ruled over “Hollandia” only added to the case for Elizabeth becoming the world emperor of Christendom. Maps drawn up by Dee on the foundation of the Arthurian claim to the New World sprawled from Florida to Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean.39
Save the Arthurian angle, this was not a new idea—the hope for a last world emperor had long been part of Catholic eschatology, with the long-expected monarch reestablishing a new Roman Empire with dominion over the entire globe, as a bulwark against the Antichrist. This final emperor had been predicted in the widely known seventh-century Syriac text Apocalypse by Pseudo-Methodius, a product of Eastern Christianity, which prophesied that Christendom would be savaged by Muslim invaders as God’s retribution for widespread sexual licentiousness, including homosexuality and even transgenderism. This onslaught would be overcome by the final Roman emperor, who would push back the forces of the Antichrist to come, who would be born in the village of Chorazin.*11
An earlier individual who had connected this apocalyptic prophecy with European exploration of the New World was none other than Christopher Columbus. After the completion of his voyages, Columbus composed a religious text entitled El libro de las profecias, the “Book of Prophecies,” which suggested (following Joachim of Fiore) that four critical events were necessary to prompting the Second Coming. These were the Christianization of the planet, the discovery of the physical Garden of Eden, a final Crusade to recover Jerusalem from Islam, and, ultimately, the election of a last world emperor to ensure the crushing of Islam, the retaking of the Holy Land, and the return of Christ to the world.40
While Columbus had held out for Ferdinand and Isabella to assume this world emperor role, Dee’s plan marked a radical departure by suggesting that the world emperor should be Protestant, not Catholic—Elizabeth. Where the Catholic and Protestant vanguards of exploration differed was not in their goals, but in jockeying for control. As a result, Dee set to work building a case for Elizabeth-as-emperor, using the Arthurian claim to the New World.
Dee was further encouraged in his belief that Elizabeth should assume world power by Trithemius,41 whose De septem secundeis concerns itself not with terrestrial empires but rather with the course of history. For Trithemius, history was ruled by seven angels corresponding to the seven planets, each of which held regency over a period of 354 years and 4 months, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. Trithemius’s scheme held a deep appeal for Dee, who nevertheless recalculated the senior initiate’s math, assigning the Elizabethan period to the angel Anael, Venus, on account of the great number of female leaders in Europe, as well as the 1572 supernova. And though Elizabeth’s regency was currently guaranteed by the angel of Venus, a shift to the age of Jupiter was imminent. Dee felt it his sacred duty to initiate British expansion before Jupiter arrived and the window passed.42
Like Dee’s later Monas, De septem secundeis had been addressed to the Holy Roman emperor—in this case Maximilian I, not II; Trithemius’s introduction to the work suggests that he was delivering it to the emperor not as his own work but as an emissary of a body of initiates who concurred that, indeed, seven spirits corresponding to the seven planets, proceeding from the first Intellect, ruled the world in successive periods. This concept was not unique to Trithemius—some early Gnostics held to a doctrine of seven Archons, or evil “rulers” of reality, who were arguably related to the seven planets. In the nineteenth century, the dispensationalist evangelical John Nelson Darby would propose that there were seven distinct periods or dispensations of world history, beginning with the Fall and culminating with the Second Coming, a belief system now adhered to by the majority of American evangelical Christians.
Just as with the similar Hindu system of Yugas,44 Trithemius’s scheme outlines rising and falling curves in the quality of the overall consciousness in humanity, with debased periods marked by witchcraft, the worship of multiple gods, and even the worship of princes and rulers as gods. The great drama of history, for Trithemius, hinges on celestial events as well as terrestrial political shifts, with comets and other events in the skies marking the progress of history—like (as Dee did not fail to note) the supernova of 1572 and the Great Comet of 1577.
Remarkably, De septem secundeis, composed in 1508, predicts “the institution of some new Religion,” that “a strong sect of Religion shall arise, and be the overthrow of the Ancient Religion. It’s to be feared least the fourth beast lose one head.”45 The fourth beast is the fourth beast of Apocalypse from Daniel, a world kingdom that devours the earth. As Trithemius was writing the Septem, Martin Luther had only just been ordained a priest. It was not until 1517 that he would post the Ninety-Five Theses and spark the Reformation. Even if Trithemius was extrapolating future events from pre-Luther European sentiment, his prescience was outstanding. And thanks to Dee, a world kingdom was indeed about to arise to devour the world.
If Dee’s calculations were correct—and Elizabeth had both a legal mandate for imperialism, following Arthur, and an astrological one, following Trithemius—then this opened the way for the true apocalyptic goal of establishing an evangelical British Empire: converting the entire world to Christianity, and thereby assuring that the souls of the world’s inhabitants were accounted for prior to the Second Coming. While the new empire would be a Protestant one, Dee was not exclusively Protestant in his imperial scheme, suggesting that Elizabeth convert the American Indians partly to Protestantism, partly to Catholicism. The idea that Elizabeth would convert the world to Christianity and lead it into the eschaton as its reigning sovereign was not unique to Dee; it was broadly circulating in English society at this time, with the end of the world predicted for 1588 by the author and translator James Sandford.46
As payment for his intellectual contribution, Dee requested free reign in the dominions under Elizabeth’s absolute protection, to fulfill unspoken services for the empire—not for Elizabeth, but under the direction of God himself.47 This would have meant the expansion (or recovery) of the now-named British Empire, including America. Dee’s use of the term British Empire long predated the use of the word British to mean the British Isles; it referred instead to Arthur’s legendary Britain, reaching to North America.48
Though Dee’s occult expansionism captivated the Privy Council, including Dudley and Philip Sidney, Cecil was underwhelmed. Despite the grandiose patriotism of Dee’s plan, Cecil scoffed at Dee’s claims of Elizabeth’s Arthurian genealogy, and, most of all, the foreign policy disaster that overtly pushing Elizabeth as the world sovereign would create. Part of the reason Cecil may have soured on Dee was that shortly before their meeting he had entertained Vincent Murphyn, and heard the cunning man’s concocted story of Dee’s Catholic plotting. Whether he believed Murphyn or not, enough of a germ of suspicion was raised that Cecil decided he was unable to take even the slightest security risk. Patiently sitting through Dee’s arguments, Cecil grew irritated and finally stonewalled Dee altogether.49
Dee, now fifty-three, had offered up the fruit of his youth and of his Great Work; the Memorials and Limits had been the culminating achievement of his laborious studies, his burning patriotism, his far travels, and even the tortures he had endured for staying loyal to England. He had given everything to advance the cause of his country. Despite little to no recognition or recompense, Dee had continued toiling in Elizabeth’s service for decades, producing the imperial plan that would save his nation from poverty and conquest, for which Dee regarded himself a “Christian Aristotle.”50 Yet the response from Elizabeth’s court in general, and Cecil in particular, had been to say “thank you very much,” take his work, and show him the door. Dee must have been heartbroken.
Returning to Mortlake in defeat, Dee found his mother seriously ill. She died soon thereafter, compounding the sorrow of one of Dee’s darkest hours. Elizabeth visited him personally the same day to console him, telling him that all was not lost, and that she would study his plan in greater detail—even that Cecil had been impressed by his historical reasoning. Cecil later sent Dee a joint of venison—small payment for the gift of an empire. Yet no reversal of Cecil’s (apparent) decision to shut Dee and his plan out would be forthcoming, and Dee, who shrank in fear from Cecil, would find himself progressively estranged from court. Shifting European politics would make Dee’s apocalyptic imperial thinking less relevant, and further voyages to the New World would fail to turn up any evidence of Arthurian settlements, undermining Dee’s claims. In the midst of this, Murphyn attacked Dee yet again, although Dee now had an ally in Elizabeth, as Murphyn was later brought up on charges for slandering the queen.
While Dee himself was shut out of Elizabethan geopolitical strategizing, his plan itself would soon be enacted. England would develop great naval might, take the New World, triumph over the Spanish, and establish a British Empire. But Dee, the initiating magus, would enjoy no part of it, not even as a commercial partner; Dee’s place in the “Fellowship of New Navigations Atlantical and Septentional” would be taken by the younger Sir Walter Raleigh.51 History itself would forget Dee’s role in establishing the empire, passing over his legacy in favor of that of Richard Hakluyt, Francis Drake, and Raleigh—despite the fact that Dee was far more central to planning.52 Dee’s contribution was providing the justification and story behind why expansion was important, christening the nascent British Empire and giving his child a life script and ideology.53
In time, this single idea of a British Empire, dreamed up by an eccentric English academic—or given to him by the archangel Michael, as Dee believed—would come to dominate the planet. Following World War I, the “Empire on which the sun never sets” claimed over 458 million subjects, somewhere between one-fifth and one-fourth of the world’s population,54 and covered a full fourth of the land on Earth as well as most of the world’s oceans.55 What had once been a tiny nation that would today be considered developing—wracked by poverty, hunger, religious terrorism, and fearful superstition—now dwarfed the achievements of Alexander, Caesar, or the Khans. During its time, the empire controlled Canada, the eastern colonies in America, parts of the Indies and British Guiana, a large swathe of Africa, much of the Middle East including Palestine and Iraq, India, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Antarctica, and many more territories around the world.
If we are to consider the American empire to be the logical successor of the British one, to which global power was transferred when its progenitor began to collapse due to financial overextension, then we must also hold John Dee as the great-grandparent of the modern world. This Anglo-American world order is ruled not by a single world sovereign but by a bureaucratic centralization of power, united not under the banner of Protestantism but under that of its crowned and conquering child, the single world religion of global capitalism, yet with the exact same Protestant eschatology operating in the background.
And if all of this can be said to stem from revelations given to Dee by Michael, it fires the imagination to consider that the Islamic world stems from the utterance of Michael’s companion Gabriel, who gave Muhammad the Quran, and would also be present at Dee’s later angelic conversations. It is also Gabriel who told Mary of the coming birth of Christ. Angels guided Abraham and were present at the delivery of the Law to Moses, creating Judaism; Michael is said to safeguard the state of Israel. Yet if all of these things were indeed created by the same beings, why do they consistently come into conflict with each other?
If geopolitics are a “grand chessboard,”56 as former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said, then the players are the angels, and they play multiple sides. God works, we are told, in mysterious ways, though God’s workers should look to store up for themselves “treasures in heaven,”57 rather than this world, if Dee’s payment with a single haunch of meat is any indicator.
Can all of this be said to serve a greater good? It depends on whether one accepts a teleological view of history. If, like Teilhard de Chardin or John Dee, you believe that time is moving toward an Omega Point or eschaton—the Second Coming of Christ—it all comes into focus.58 After all, the angels who exiled mankind east of Eden also, through the British occupation of Palestine, laid the groundwork for the modern state of Israel east of the Mediterranean, upon which both Judaic and evangelical Christian eschatology, and the final redemption of mankind, thereby hangs.
As to the empire itself—how to even begin assessing the effects of Dee’s creation on the world?
The archly conservative English historian Niall Ferguson has argued that the British Empire was the best of all possible empires; it was considered a leading light in the world, the “global policeman” before America inherited the mantle, and by comparison, its rival empires—the French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and others—were even more monstrous. Indeed, Ferguson argues, the British Empire was a liberal one, built on the principles of Edmund Burke, with occupied territories expected to come to self-governance.59
But the empire was not without its atrocities. Among them were the ongoing rape of India under the Raj and tens of millions of continual starvation deaths, including the 1760s Bengal famine in which one-third of the Bengali population died (with some victims resorting to cannibalism) while England grew fat on the spoils,60 and the nineteenth-century policies that resulted in the hunger deaths of twenty-nine million Indians.61 There were the massacres of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by British colonists, including the use of smallpox blankets as biological warfare during the Siege of Fort Pitt—an estimated two to eighteen million Native Americans died during European colonization of North America, in part thanks to English settlers.62 In the Oceania region, Tasmanians and Australian aborigines were genocided by the English en masse.
Then there was the role of the slave trade in building the empire—until the 1807 British abolition of slavery, the English transported over 3.5 million Africans to the Americas to be used in forced labor, one-third of the total transatlantic slave traffic.63 Once colonies were established, British efforts toward crushing rebellions were severe, as in the Sudan, Ceylon (where 1 percent of the population was killed in a single retribution), Jamaica, Burma, the detainment of almost the entire Kenyan population in camps (in which thousands were beaten to death or died from disease, including almost all of the children),64 South Africa (where one-sixth of the Boer population died in English concentration camps, primarily children), Afghanistan, and Iraq.
These are, of course, only some of the crimes we know about. Many of the archived records detailing the abuses committed during the final years of the empire were intentionally and illegally destroyed by the Foreign Office before they could be moved into the public domain, allegedly including records of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents; the massacre of unarmed Malayan villagers by the Scots Guard; records of a secret torture center in Aden, Yemen; and all of the sensitive records pertaining to British Guiana.65 While the empire spread across the globe, racism, cruelty, and genocide followed in its shadow.
Perhaps the nineteenth-century British politician Lord Salisbury summarized the empire best when he quipped, “If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made.”66
: #0xx0oA “On the Origin of the World, Nag Hammadi Codex 2, 5, in Barnstone and Meyer, The Gnostic Bible, 416–37."