John Dee: How Is a Sorcerer Related to the First Public Museum?

The Ashmolean Museum was the first modern museum accessible to the public. Its conception was inspired by Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician known as “The Queen’s Conjurer”.

Mar 1, 2022By Deianira Morris, BA Anthropology w/ Archaeology Concentration

john dee and cabinet of curiosities ashmolean museum


When the Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683, it was the first modern museum accessible to the public. This achievement was due in no small part to the efforts of Elias Ashmole. A 17th century English scholar and government official, Ashmole helped guide the construction of the museum and provided its first collections. While the English scholar is famous for his interest in mathematics and natural sciences, what is less well known is that Ashmole was also interested in occult topics like alchemy and astrology. Correspondingly, Ashmole’s interest in establishing institutions of learning was significantly influenced by another English scholar who was just as interested in both science and the occult: Dr. John Dee.


John Dee: The Scholar 

Illustration of John Dee, ca. 1700 – 1750 CE, via the British Museum


Dr. John Dee was a Renaissance scholar who lived during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Having displayed a talent for mathematics from a young age, he attended St. John’s College where he earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the subject. He then traveled throughout Europe for several years studying mathematics, navigation, and cartography with other European scholars such as Pedro Nuñez and Gerardus Mercator. He also became proficient in the study of astronomy and medicine. Upon his return to England, Dee made a name for himself in the court of Queen Mary I by teaching mathematics and navigation to courtiers. When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne, he became her primary scientific and medical advisor.


John Dee used his political influence to advocate for the advancement of scholarship in the English court. He tutored courtiers in math, science, and philosophy. He recommended that England adopted the Gregorian calendar and tried to convince Queen Mary to open a public library that would be accessible to all. Although he was unsuccessful in these endeavors, he compiled one of the largest personal libraries in England and allowed scholars open access to his books. Dee was also a proponent of exploration and was involved in setting up several English voyages during this period.


John Dee: The Queen’s Conjurer

John Dee Performing an Experiment for Elizabeth I, by Henry Gillard Glindoni, ca. 1852 – 1913 CE, Wellcome Collection, London, via Art UK


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John Dee’s interest in mathematics led him to a fascination with the occult as well, and he invested much of his time studying astrology, alchemy, and Kabbalistic numerology. This was not uncommon for the Renaissance era, however, as many scholars considered aspects of science and the occult to be related. Aside from his role as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, he was also her astrologer and was said to have predicted that the famous queen would have a long reign as a monarch. What distinguished Dee from most of his peers was that his occult interests extended into topics that were considered heretical at the time, such as trying to communicate with angels and spirits of the dead. As a result of this, John Dee was often referred to as “The Queen’s Conjurer”.


Despite censure by the church, Dee threw himself into his occult pursuits and eventually entered into a partnership with a man named Edward Kelley, who claimed to be a spirit medium. The seances that John Dee conducted with Edward Kelley inspired him to create a complex code known as the Enochian alphabet. Unfortunately, Dee’s association with Kelley also caused him to be the subject of scandals and accusations that overshadowed his academic achievements and ruined his reputation. As a result, John Dee lost his standing at court and died poor in 1608.


A Sorcerer’s Legacy

Occult artifacts associated with Dr. John Dee, ca. 17th century CE, via the British Museum


John Dee maintained a dubious reputation as a sorcerer long after his death, and many scholars believe that he was the inspiration for the character Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although his occult interests overshadowed his role as a scholar, his support of exploration and his involvement in educating the English elite in the art of navigation laid the foundation for the explosion of English exploration in later years. The term first used by Dee to describe England’s potential for expansion, “The British Empire”, would later be used in common reference to England’s influence over the rest of the world. Additionally, John Dee supported the study of mathematics as a way of understanding the universe and his philosophies would inspire further interest in these subjects among later scholars.


As a result of both his mystical reputation and his academic legacy, John Dee became a subject of interest among the European elite. Roughly a decade after John Dee’s death, his house would be purchased by the English antiquarian Robert Cotton, who systematically cataloged the objects and manuscripts that remained. Many of these artifacts and archives would end up in the private collections of English aristocrats such as the government official Horace Walpole and the scholar who eventually founded the Ashmolean Museum, Elias Ashmole.


The Life of Elias Ashmole

Portrait of Elias Ashmole, ca. 1681-1682 CE, via the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Elias Ashmole was born in 1617 as the only son of a lower-class saddler. Thanks to wealthy relatives, Ashmole was able to attend grammar school and later studied law under a private tutor. After graduating, Ashmole ran a successful legal practice until the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. Ashmole sided with the Royalists and continued to staunchly support the crown throughout the entire conflict. During the war, Ashmole was given a military post at Oxford where he became acquainted with leading scholars and politically influential members of the aristocracy. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II rewarded Ashmole’s loyalty to the crown by appointing him to a number of political offices.


The Battle of Nasby, by Charles Charles Parrocel, ca. 1728 CE, via


Although Elias Ashmole was not born into wealth, the political offices gifted to him by the monarchy came with significant revenues. Ashmole also inherited land and wealth from two of his three marriages, both of which were to widows of English aristocrats. As a result, Elias Ashmole amassed a sizable fortune that enabled him to pursue his own interests. Rather than returning to his legal practice, however, Ashmole began pursuing academic studies on a number of topics.


Ashmole also became keenly invested in accumulating artifacts and manuscripts related to his academic studies and he used his wealth to amass a large private collection. A large portion of Ashmole’s private collection came from the English botanist John Tradescant the Younger, who was a close associate of Ashmole’s that had amassed his own private collection throughout his life. In his later years, Elias Ashmole was able to attend university at Oxford and he received a Doctorate in medicine.


Ashmole’s Interests: Science and the Occult

Illustration of Elias Ashmole as a bust, ca. 1656 CE, via the British Museum


Records indicate that Elias Ashmole became interested in the study of mathematics, science, and natural philosophy during the English Civil War when he was posted at Oxford. Ashmole attended lectures at Gresham College and he became acquainted with several pre-eminent scholars at Oxford, such as Jonas Moore and Charles Scarborough. Early into his studies, Ashmole began actively collecting books and objects related to his topics of interest. He was also introduced to the works of Sir Francis Bacon, an English statesman, and philosopher who advocated for the preservation of knowledge and the use of the scientific method to explore the natural world. Later on, Ashmole also became interested in medicine, English history, and botany. When Ashmole met John Tradescant in 1650, their shared interest in botany and antiquity would prompt a friendship that would encourage Tradescant to give his private collection to Ashmole upon his death.


Similar to John Dee, Ashmole’s interests in mathematics and science also led him to study occult topics, such as astrology and alchemy, that were still closely associated with the study of the natural sciences in academic circles. During the English Civil War, Ashmole joined the Society of Astrologers at Oxford and would contribute to the war effort by casting astrological predictions in favor of the Royalists. Similar to his study of natural sciences, Ashmole actively collected manuscripts related to the study of alchemy and astrology. As a result, Ashmole became interested in scholars who wrote about the natural sciences as well as more mystical topics such as the Arabic alchemist known as “Geber” and, of course, Dr. John Dee.


Scholarly Admiration: Elias Ashmole and John Dee

Gold disc owned by John Dee, ca. late 16th century CE – 17th century CE, via the British Museum


Records indicate that Elias Ashmole had taken an interest in John Dee by the late 1640s. During this time, Ashmole contacted Dee’s son, Arthur, and asked if he could provide Ashmole with more information about his father. Arthur Dee responded by providing him with biographical information about his father and by giving Ashmole John Dee’s diaries. Although Ashmole collected the manuscripts of numerous scholars, he maintained a particular interest in Dr. John Dee. In addition to Dee’s works on alchemy and astrology, Ashmole collected his manuscripts on the study of mathematics and his records of English weather during the Tudor era. During the late 17th century, Ashmole was given more of John Dee’s manuscripts by Thomas Wale, who discovered them while his domestic servant was using the documents to line pie dishes.


Page of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, ca. 1652 CE, via the Science Museum Group


Elias Ashmole expressed profound respect for Dr. John Dee throughout his life. In his correspondence with Arthur Dee, Ashmole described Queen Elizabeth’s advisor as “that excellent physician…whose fame survives for his many learned and precious Works”. In 1652, Ashmole published a compendium of English alchemical literature called the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. The text included works from John Dee, and Ashmole also provided a short biography of the scholar in which he described Dee as “an absolute and perfect Master” of mathematics. Records indicate that Ashmole even intended to compile a lengthy biography of Dee that would restore his reputation as a respected scholar, but Ashmole never completed this endeavor. Despite this, Ashmole maintained a high opinion of the Elizabethan scholar and would continue to advocate for John Dee in his personal correspondence and other published works.


Great Minds Think Alike

Printed Illustration of Dr. John Dee, ca. 1792 CE, via the British Museum


Dr. John Dee was, first and foremost, a scholar who spent his life advocating for the preservation of knowledge and the advancement of learning. Dee implored Queen Mary to establish a national library that would conserve books and make them accessible to the public. When that failed, he compiled his own library and gave open access to researchers. In doing so, Dee essentially ran his own research institute long before the idea had been conceived. Both John Dee and Elias Ashmole originated from humble backgrounds and rose to become pre-eminent scholars in their time. Both men also had a keen interest in the integrated study of mathematics, science, and the occult as a way to enhance their understanding of the world around them. It is possible that these parallels were not lost on Elias Ashmole and may have influenced his opinion of John Dee.


Cover of Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, ca. 1652 CE, via the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC


Correspondingly, Elias Ashmole likely would have come across John Dee’s philosophies about the preservation of knowledge in his diaries and other manuscripts. Ashmole’s own views on the preservation and accessibility of knowledge were significantly influenced by Sir Francis Bacon, who similarly advocated for the conservation of knowledge and objects of learning. Arguably, Dee’s stance on the subject would have resonated with Ashmole’s pre-existing views. Scholars have also pointed out that Ashmole likely saw similarities between the destruction of John Dee’s library and the vandalization of libraries during the English Civil War. Some scholars have suggested that this, along with Ashmole’s respect for Dee as a scholar, could have solidified his determination to collect and preserve objects so that they could be used academically.


Founding the Ashmolean Museum

The Cabinet of a Collector, by Frans Francken the Younger, ca. 1617 CE, via the Royal Collection Trust


Although the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras saw a renewed interest in establishing learning institutes, the concept itself can be traced as far back as Classical Antiquity. Classical scholars like Aristotle founded schools and philosophical communities in high-population cities such as Athens and Alexandria. Some of these institutes also maintained libraries for collecting written knowledge as well as research facilities, known as mouseions, that collected objects of academic interest. Before its destruction, the Library of Alexandria held thousands of books and manuscripts from all over the ancient world.


In 17th century Europe, however, collecting objects and manuscripts was an expensive endeavor that was almost entirely monopolized by the wealthy elite. These collections were displayed in private exhibits that were exclusively accessible to the friends and acquaintances of the collectors, such as galleries and cabinets of curiosities. While some of these collectors accumulated the objects out of academic interest, these private exhibits more often functioned as status symbols.


Illustration of John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger¸ ca. 1793, via the British Museum


In 1634, John Tradescant the Elder and his son opened the first publicly accessible private museum using their personal collection of natural and historical objects. The museum, often referred to as “The Ark”, was located in Tradescant’s home and featured objects such as a wall hanging from Pocohantas’ father and the stuffed body of a dodo bird. When Elias Ashmole inherited the Tradescant collection, he utilized his significant resources and contacts at Oxford to establish a much larger institute that would be dedicated to exhibiting objects of academic value and accessible to the public. In further support of this, Ashmole donated the Tradescant collection, as well as his own private collection, to serve as the foundation of the museum. When it opened in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum would feature a large exhibit of objects, a library, and a research laboratory.


John Dee in the Ashmolean Museum 

Front Entrance of the Ashmolean Museum, ca. 2021 CE, via the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


At its conception, Elias Ashmole expressed his vision for the Ashmolean Museum as an institute of practical research and learning. The aim of this institute, according to Ashmole, would be to advance people’s knowledge of the natural world. These sentiments arguably echoed John Dee’s desire to create an institute dedicated to making knowledge publicly accessible. Similarly, Elias Ashmole’s donation of his own private collection to the Ashmolean Museum can be compared to the way in which John Dee gave researchers open access to his private library to encourage scholarship. Unsurprisingly, included in Ashmole’s donation were John Dee’s manuscripts that he had collected over the years as well as a rare portrait of the Elizabethan scholar.


Although John Dee would not see the establishment of publicly accessible research institutes in his lifetime, his scholarly legacy would eventually be carried out by individuals such as Elias Ashmole. There are now thousands of publicly accessible research institutes all over the world that are dedicated to the advancement of learning. The Ashmolean Museum still operates at the University of Oxford, where it continues its mission of promoting knowledge and understanding of human history and the natural world. Among its collections are the manuscripts and portrait of Dr. John Dee, preserved by the museum and accessible to the public.

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By Deianira MorrisBA Anthropology w/ Archaeology ConcentrationDeianira is an archaeologist and museum enthusiast with a love for studying the ancient past. She holds a BA in Anthropology with a concentration on Archaeology from the University of Arizona, during which she also attained a Minor in Psychology. Her research focuses on how past societies used images and symbols to demonstrate communal identities and cultural worldviews. Deianira also has a passion for ensuring the preservation of cultural heritage and is pursuing a career as a museum professional. As a writer, Deianira’s goal is to make information about ancient history more accessible and interesting to the public.