John Dee & the Magical Origins of the British Empire

John Dee, English astrologer, occultist, navigator, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I.

At last, the true purpose of John Dee’s invention of the ‘British Empire’, previously hidden, can now be revealed. Conventional wisdom holds that he was responsible for naming that empire, which became identified with a progressive Protestant mission to bring enlightenment to a benighted world. However, that picture is the complacent result of intervening centuries of imperial history. From neglected manuscripts and hints within Dee’s writings, we now discover that, for Dee, the real purpose of the British Empire was to fulfil its prophetic and apocalyptic destiny. He drew upon ancient prophecies of a Last World Empire under an Emperor (or Empress) who would reform global religion, society, and politics before the return of Christ to rule the world for a millennium.

In fact, Dee was not a Protestant of the kind assumed by later centuries. He was born into a Catholic London family in 1527, baptised in a ritual which the Church taught exorcised demons from the infant, and brought up to believe in the magical powers of the priesthood and its rituals. His patrons at St John’s College Cambridge, where he studied as an undergraduate, and Trinity College, where he became a Fellow in 1547, were all conservative Catholics. Dee also studied at Louvain, when that university had become a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. Therefore it is no surprise that Dee finally became a Catholic priest in February 1554, partly to please his master, the Earl of Pembroke, who needed to ingratiate himself with Queen Mary, and partly to escape suspicion through his family’s connections with the Wyatt Rebellion, which had just been bloodily suppressed. Dee served ‘Bloody’ Bonner, Bishop of London, as chaplain, making rather ineffectual attempts to convert the Protestants whom Bonner persecuted. Dee was not a very doctrinaire Catholic; he belonged to an ecumenical generation of European intellectuals who hoped for a ruler who would heal the dreadful schisms in Europe. Many believed that alchemy would produce this end, for the Last World Emperor would wield the philosopher’s stone to reform all of decaying Nature, including human beings.

Dee was persuaded by these ideas, which had been repeated by European intellectuals and seers for many centuries. The prophecy had originated in an apocalyptic text known as Pseudo-Methodius, after a semi-legendary bishop. Written c.674-8 CE in remote Syrian Mesopotamia, recently conquered by Islamic invaders, the prophecy was influenced by Jewish messianic expectations of an earthly ruler over a period of peace and plenty. It promised a mighty Last World Emperor who would destroy Islam, recover Jerusalem, and rule benevolently until Gog and Magog appeared. Pseudo-Methodius prophesied that the Emperor would defeat them and rule in Jerusalem for ten and a half years until Antichrist appeared, when the Emperor would resign his powers into God’s hands and die. The short, troubled reign of Antichrist would end with his destruction by Christ, and the end of time.

Translated from Syriac into Greek, this prophecy of a great imperial destiny rapidly proliferated in the Byzantine Empire. Already by 800 CE it had been translated into Latin, as the expansion of Muslim power increasingly threatened western and southern Europe. Together with the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations it became the most widely-read of medieval apocalyptic texts and exercised a powerful fascination over the Western imagination for the next thousand years. Printed broadsheet excerpts describing God’s apocalyptic Emperor were distributed to stiffen the Christian defence of Vienna against the Ottomans in 1683.

The complex text known as the Tiburtine Sibyl eventually incorporated another variant of this story. Its Greek original was written in response to the disastrous defeat suffered by Byzantium at Adrianople in 378 CE, but the Latin text was often rewritten to keep it relevant. Originally it retrospectively ‘prophesied’ Constantine the Great, who would rule for 30 years, advance true religion, fulfil the law and do justice. Later it prophesied an Emperor Constans would reign for 112 years in peace and plenty over all the Christians, destroy pagan lands, baptise them and convert their temples to churches. After 120 years the Jews would be converted. Gog and Magog would appear and be defeated by the Emperor, who would surrender his rule over all Christians to God at Jerusalem before Antichrist appeared to battle Elijah and Enoch.

The Last World Emperor prophecy enormously enhanced the apocalyptic aura of eleventh-century Jerusalem and helped stimulate the first four Crusades. However, because Augustine of Hippo insisted that Christ’s Kingdom would not be a millennial or ‘chiliastic’ earthly kingdom, even in the fullest version by Godfrey of Viterbo in the late twelfth century, the Emperor’s triumph is almost immediately followed by the appearance of Antichrist.

Within a few years a twelfth-century Cistercian Abbot, the Calabrian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), revolutionised Augustine’s teaching that Christ’s Kingdom would only be established outside history. The enormously influential Joachim predicted human renewal in the third ‘status’ within history. After the ‘status’ of the Father and of the Son these ages would combine their natures in a long Sabbath Age within history. This spiritual and charismatic prediction added a powerful aura of apocalyptic expectation to both Joachim’s own prophecies and those that his later followers fathered upon him.

Furthermore, as Joachim’s ideas ‘went viral’ amongst a host of medieval followers, the Joachimist tradition absorbed texts that adapted Byzantine apocalyptic ideas to Western imperial needs. Later redactors blended prophecies about the Last World Emperor into pseudo-Joachimist prophecies. In the process they altered Joachim’s prophecies of apocalyptic troubles from the North, by looking to another scriptural tradition, in which threats originated in the hot, desert East. In Genesis, Cain, the first follower of Satan, dwelt in the land of Nod east of Eden (Gen. 4:16), whence came the east wind that blasted crops and dried up the waters (Gen. 41:6, Ezekiel passim), and in Exodus 10:13 brought plagues of locusts. Throughout the Old Testament story ‘the children of the east’, the descendants of Abraham’s concubines, persecuted Israel (Gen. 24:6). The Old Testament used the east wind as a metaphor for vain knowledge such as divination (Isaiah 2:6), and in Revelation 16:12 the vial poured out by the sixth angel prepared the way for the apocalyptic ‘kings of the east’ by drying up the Euphrates.

Therefore, the first apocalyptic text explicitly awarding the western emperors an apocalyptic role, the Frankish Abbot Adso’s Letter on the Origin and Life of the Antichrist (950 CE), drew on this pre-existing tradition. Adso not only became the most influential propagandist for the translation of empire from East to West, but also implicitly stigmatised the East by turning the Last Emperor from a ‘King of the Romans and Greeks’ to the ‘King of the Franks’ who would restore a chaotic world.

The Joachimist tradition also took up and publicised a text of Ps Methodius from which three quarters of the original text had been removed, in order to fit it to the rise of emperors in the West. The redactors added further references that envisaged a western power, rather than the Byzantine Empire, conquering Islam, now identified as the threat from the East.

The Tiburtine Sibyl was also shortened, to make room for new prophecies that German rulers would face threats from “a king from Babylonia, meeting place of Satan,” who would bring great calamities. Traditionally, Antichrist was to be born in Babylon from the tribe of Dan deported to Babylonia. This may refer to the sultans of the Seljuk Turks. In this way the East became the source of threats, countered by the rulers of the West, such as a descendant of Henry IV, who as Last Emperor sets out from Byzantium to defeat the Muslims, and to establish the universal kingdom of the Christians for an indeterminate but long period until the End.

Imperialists were particularly attracted to another apocalyptic text, the Erithrean Sibyl, which first appeared in the 800s but became so popular that its predictions were frequently revised to keep abreast of political developments. The most influential version was created c. 1195 by Eugenius of Palermo (d. 1203), Admiral to the King of Sicily. Written, therefore, at the front-line of the long struggle against the Saracens in the Mediterranean, this version of the prophecy describes Mohammed as a “horrible beast coming from the East” confronted by “a most mighty lion” from the West who would rule for 500 years.

The Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II sponsored interpretations of biblical prophecies that awarded him a messianic role, and adapted Joachimist prophecies for his own ends. The Erithrean Sibyl, revised about 1249-54, now served western powers, threatening the Greeks with the power of a Hohenstaufen as the Last World Emperor.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the Kings of France contended with German emperors in claiming the inheritance of Charlemagne’s empire in the West and the prophetic status of the future Last World Emperor, especially because the weak fifteenth-century German emperors inspired few messianic hopes. However, with the accession of Maximilian I (1493-1519), Habsburg fortunes began to recover, and the emperor’s patronage of propaganda increasingly identifying the House of Habsburg with the role of messianic emperor began to drown out French claims in the sixteenth century. Skilful manipulation of printed texts and images by Habsburg publicists helped revive western Europe’s apocalyptic conception of the East, a revival exacerbated by the House of Habsburg’s struggle against the inexorable expansion of the Ottoman Empire. By the early sixteenth century, this cosmic conflict abundantly and increasingly fulfilled ancient western assumptions about the rise of the Whore of Babylon, the Antichrist, in the East.

The vision of the Last World Emperor enabled the Renaissance to hold in tension expectations of imminent Antichristian calamities with the positive prospect of a returning classical Golden Age and a Joachimist hope of a renovated world after Antichrist’s defeat. The prophetically-charged imperial election of Charles V in 1519 seemed to bring these hopes towards final fulfilment, because Charles united the French and German royal bloodlines. His early victories over both the Turks and Protestant heretics also seemed to fulfil a multitude of Sibylline prophecies, now clearly pointing to his destiny in the East. Ever since Virgil’s Iliad, imperial aspirants had appropriated the solar god Apollo, guarantor of the migration of sovereignty from East to West. This thousand-year-old tradition fed into prophecies of the Last World Emperor taken up by Charles’ grandfather, Maximilian I, and vigorously exploited by his son, Philip II, whose astrologers emphasised how his solar emblem prophesied the conquest of the East, conversion of the infidel, and perpetual establishment of universal peace.

The Mysterious & Enigmatic Dr. John Dee

Dee encountered Habsburg claims to the role of Last World Emperor at Maximilian of Habsburg’s coronation as King of Hungary at Bratislava in September 1563. In early 1564 Dee wrote his Monas Hieroglyphica to advise the soon to be Emperor Maximilian II. His contribution to Maximilian’s prophetic destiny, of uniting the world by defeating the Antichristian East, took the form of promising the philosopher’s stone. His Monas applied kabbalistic techniques, and ideas borrowed from Joachim of Fiore, to construct and then deconstruct a symbol he entitled his hieroglyphical Monad (right), which secreted the stone within it. This combined the astrological symbols for the Sun, Moon and Aries with the Cross. By now all these had become identified with Habsburg universal ambitions, and Charles V had elevated the Cross to a particular symbol of Habsburg veneration.

When Dee returned to Elizabeth I’s Court in the summer of 1564, he tutored the Queen in the arcane mysteries of his symbol. Some of his lessons probably concerned the alchemical mystery of the philosopher’s stone, which fascinated Elizabeth. Other lessons may have concerned the solar, Arian and cruciform symbolism supporting universal Empire. The decline in political relations between Elizabethan England and Habsburg Spain over the following decades created an ideological rivalry over ancient imperial iconography and prophecy, particularly about the destiny waiting the western empire in the East. The Tudors stole the Habsburgs imperial clothes.

In Elizabethan England such ideas became entangled in wider struggles between radical and conservative Protestants for influence over policy. Ancient imperial ideologies included Virgil’s prophecy in his Fourth Eclogue, addressed to Augustus Caesar, which celebrated the return of the Golden Age of peace and plenty under the virgin goddess of justice, Astraea. From her accession Elizabeth had claimed an imperial authority over both State and Church that reached back to Constantine. By the mid-1570s events enabled some of her courtiers to promote her as the imperial virgin, and to exploit a previously overlooked English strand of Joachimite expectation, in order to advance the aggressive anti-Catholic, anti-Habsburg foreign policy which they made synonymous with “the Protestant Cause.”

The collapse of Spanish Habsburg control in the Netherlands in 1576 persuaded the Earl of Leicester and his followers that Elizabeth could usurp the Habsburg role of Last World Emperor, and with it advance her ambitions in the East. They encouraged her to accept the proffered sovereignty of Holland and Zealand in 1576. John Dee supported these ambitions in a series of writings sponsored by Leicester and circulating at Court, which urged Elizabeth to recover her ‘British Empire’. This name did not look forward, but backward, to the empire of Arthur, King of the Britons. Part of this certainly included North America, where, Dee believed for a time, remnant Arthurian colonies controlled the fabled North West Passage to the Indies. But Dee’s writings placed more emphasis on the vast European empire of Elizabeth’s ancestor, Arthur, to the “south, and east” of the British Isles. Despite his association with Britain, Arthur had been a favoured Habsburg imperial hero, so here again the Tudors challenged the Habsburgs. Dee’s General and Rare Memorials, published in September 1577, included iconography connecting Elizabeth with Constantine, at a time when, Dee later recalled, “great hope was conceived, (of some no simple politicians), that her Majesty might, then, have become the Chief Commander, and in manner Imperial Governor of all Christian kings, princes, and states.” In 1576 Elizabeth also imagined herself bringing peace to the whole of Christendom.

As Dee well knew, a long tradition of astrological calculations added to the excited atmosphere surrounding the ‘British Empire’ in the 1570s. A flurry of apocalyptic prophecies had surrounded the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, predicting that he would restore unity to Christendom, shattered by the Reformation, and would prove the divinely chosen instrument against the Antichristian Turks in the East. One of the most influential prophecies for the later Habsburgs was the 1564 book On the Greatest Conjunction by the Bohemian Astrologer Cyprian Leowitz, which predicted apocalyptic consequences from the conjunction of the superior planets Jupiter and Saturn in the zodiacal sign of Aries in April 1584. Leowitz pointed out that such conjunctions occurred in Aries only every 800 years, that one foreshadowed the beginning of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christ, the next the transfer of the empire to Charlemagne. This must be the final conjunction, for the world could not last more than 6,000 years.

Leowitz knew that the zodiacal sign of Aries the Ram had particular significance for the Habsburgs. Ancient theories considered it first amongst zodiacal epochs, for the world had been created with the sun in Aries, meaning that the sign immortalised the first Age of Gold, mystically transfigured into the Ram’s Golden Fleece. The Habsburgs inherited the sovereignty of the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose members considered themselves God’s Elect, chosen to prepare the way for the return of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God signified by the Golden Fleece, who would rule his earthly kingdom from Jerusalem. Leowitz argued that the imminent return of the heavenly bodies to their positions at the Creation pointed to cosmic struggles for the Habsburgs in Eastern Europe, from Bohemia to Constantinople, where they would battle the Antichristian power of the Ottomans in the Last Days, before planting their banners in Jerusalem and ushering in the second coming of Christ. Dee’s copy of Leowitz’s book survives, with his enthusiastic marginal annotations about the final battles against Antichrist and the foundation of an apocalyptic empire in the East.

In 1576 Dee’s associate in magical learning James Sandford, another Leicester client, dedicated his Houres of Recreation to Elizabeth’s favourite, Christopher Hatton. Sandford put Elizabeth’s universal pretensions into the cosmic apocalyptic context previously reserved for the Habsburgs. Citing Leowitz’s predictions about the great 1583 conjunction, and prophetic visions seen in Poland, Sandford added for good measure the widespread expectation that either the world would end in 1588, or “at leaste governementes of kingdomes shall be turned upside downe.” Elizabeth, in whom “there must needes be some diviner thing… than in the Kings and Queens of other countries” would play a leading role in the End Times. During the Royal Progress at Norwich in August 1578, court poets introduced a new theme into their masques and declamations, celebrating Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen for the first time. A few years later Sandford applied Joachim’s prophecies of the End when he dedicated to Leicester his translation of Giacopo Brocardo’s The Revelation of St John Reveled (London, 1582). This thoroughly Joachimite Protestant prophecy imagined Christ’s Kingdom soon covering “the whole worlde. No other religion, no other lawe, and rule to heare then that of the Gosple.” By now the idea that Elizabeth would prepare the way for Christ by triumphing over the East had permeated the excitable underworld of popular prophecy, and manuscripts circulated declaring that “Elizabeth now Queen of England is ordained of God to be Queen of Jerusalem.”

The ‘British Empire’ John Dee envisaged for Elizabeth I was profoundly different from that which actually emerged in later centuries. It drew upon an ancient prophetic tradition that had become interwoven with widely-held beliefs in astrological influence on earthly events, and with a profound belief in the ability of alchemists to create the philosopher’s stone, through which the Last World Empress would rule. Elizabeth certainly believed in alchemy’s transformatory powers, for she employed male and female alchemists in distilling houses at her palaces of Hampton Court and Whitehall, and in her Privy Chamber. She also believed in the power of astrological forces, on which Dee advised her many times. In the mid-1570s she found the prospect of becoming the universal ruler over a pacified globe deeply attractive.

Why then has Dee’s magical vision of the ‘British Empire’ been condemned to historical obscurity? The answer lies in the reactions of political conservatives at Elizabeth’s Court, particularly her long-time favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, of more obscure figures who supported his rise, and of Hatton’s protégé, John Whitgift. From the mid-1570s these men became influential at Court, and Whitgift became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583. From then on he and Hatton worked hard to drive prophetic expectations of a magical Empire out of politics, because they believed such ideas stirred up the ‘mob’, whom they feared above all, to follow radical, ‘popular’ politics. Once the Earl of Leicester died in 1588, Hatton and Whitgift became even more influential over the ageing Elizabeth. Throughout the 1590s they and their many followers used all the government propaganda machinery at their disposal to suppress the kind of magical ‘British Empire’ Dee had envisaged. They had already forced Dee’s students, the brothers Richard and John Harvey, to recant their beliefs in Leowitz’s astrological predictions of the Apocalypse. They now sponsored attacks on astrological prediction altogether, and others that denigrated alchemists as deluded fools. Whitgift made sure that Dee was blocked from the promotions and appointments he sought, and his career declined in consequence.

During the reign of James, the first English settlements in Virginia helped to switch attention away from the apocalyptic ‘British Empire’ in Europe to its real development in North America. The chaotic events of the Civil War sealed the fate of the magical Empire. The collapse of royal authority meant that press censorship also disappeared, and in the 1640s and 1650s there was a wild explosion of excited apocalyptic prophecies by obscure writers, again calling upon astrological and alchemical ‘proofs’ that their envisaged empire would come to pass. The restored monarchy of Charles II set out to suppress such ideas once and for all. It imposed a rigorous press censorship and made it clear that magical, prophetic thinking would disqualify anyone with pretensions to social or political advancement. As a result, magical ideas were driven underground, and members of ‘polite’ society, such as the Fellows of the Royal Society, felt constrained from discussing them in public, though they continued to do so in private letters. The success of the Establishment’s reaction can be measured by how forgotten ‘magical’ ideas of empire remain today. Thus the utopian ‘British Empire’ Dee imagined survived only in ‘popular’ culture, amongst the powerless and marginalised.

At the end of the day, if we still seek such ideas, we should perhaps look at what motivated migrants to leave Britain for its empire in recent centuries. Perhaps we will find a distant echo of John Dee’s belief in his magical ‘British Empire’ in their belief that Australia or New Zealand would prove a better world.

Glyn Parry is author of the new book The Arch-Conjuror of England (Yale University Press, 2012), the first full-length biography of John Dee based on primary historical sources. The book is available from all good bookstores or online book outlets.

This article was published in New Dawn 133.
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Further Reading

Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages. A Study in Joachimism, Oxford, 1969
Marjorie Reeves, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future, London, 1976
Glyn Parry, The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee, New Haven and London, 2011
Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End. Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages, New York, 1979
Ann Williams, ed., Prophecy and Millenarianism. Essays in Honour of Marjorie Reeves, London, 1980
N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, London, 1957
Marie Tanner, The Last Descendant of Aeneas, New Haven and London, 1993
Frances A. Yates, Astraea. The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, London and Boston, 1975
Margaret Aston, ‘The Fiery Trigon Conjunction: An Elizabethan Astrological Prediction’, Isis, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1970), 159-187

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