For the once-feared conjuror, it was achingly pathetic. Standing alongside an expert skryer who acted as his conduit with the spirit world, John Dee was apparently confronted by none other than the archangel Raphael. There was a time, many years before, when such encounters were meat and drink for Dee, when powerful spirits presented the credulous Elizabethan magician with unparalleled arcane knowledge. On that day, however, all the mighty Raphael had to offer the elderly man was "advice on the treatment of Dee's kidney stones and piles". It smacks more of a teenage ouija session than of a brush with the supernatural, yet it seems a fitting theme for a last waltz with the angels.
Benjamin Woolley's engaging journey through the life of Dee, one of the most colourful characters to trace out a Shakespearean trajectory through Elizabethan England, was always going to end with a whimper rather than a bang. That the reader cares so much - to want to shake that stubborn old man by his ruff to bring him to his senses - is a tribute to the verve with which Woolley relates his dramatic story. Through the satisfying detail he provides us with, drawn largely from the content of Dee's secret diaries, he shines oblique light on the philosophical turmoil that would give way to the Enlightenment within a century. For while Dee's gullibility is as infuriating as it is tragically comical, Woolley adeptly illustrates that the course he plotted becomes understandable within its context.
Dee was a brilliant and original thinker. A pioneer of mathematics, an accomplished geographer and a celebrated astrologer, he was plugged into the latest philosophical and scientific advances across Europe. He sought inspiration in the world around him; with his pupil Thomas Digges, he made useful observations of the supernova of 1572 and helped champion the works of Copernicus in England. He also spent a small fortune on alchemical experiments and dug for truth in the vast library of books and manuscripts he collected at his home in Mortlake.
His ability to divine the astrological influences of the heavens was held in such esteem that he was called to select Queen Elizabeth's coronation day. His monarch would often visit to consult on affairs of state, and for a time he rubbed shoulders with some of the age's most exciting figures such as the cartographer Mercator and explorer Frobisher. However, his eternally precarious financial position is reflected in the fact that Dee had to resort to money-making capers such as casting horoscopes and occult treasure hunting, as well as backing voyages of foreign exploration and getting caught up in Walsingham's infamous spy network.
Then, in 1582, Dee met Edward Kelley. This inherently unstable shady character, half the astrologer's age, claimed he could put Dee in contact with the spirit world and give him access to new founts of knowledge that would make his previous studies seem paltry. Initial scepticism gave way to an almost childish infatuation. Kelley would repay Dee's trust with a catalogue of feverish encounters with angels and spirits that only he could see and hear. The allegorical content of what Kelley relayed possessed just the right amount of incomprehensibility, drama and hints of genuine learning to convince Dee he was on to something almost miraculous. Like so many of his contemporaries, he possessed a strong mystical streak. This went far beyond the desire to manipulate the supposed occult connections linking the heavens, the earth and mankind. Like some guru bewitching a naive pop star, Kelley would lead Dee on a merry dance through Europe, initially heightening his master's fame before abandoning him to hog the limelight himself.
Woolley does not force Kelley into the psychiatrist's chair for a bout of speculative analysis, which actually adds to the nightmarish otherworldliness of this central episode in Dee's life. The more petulant and fractious Kelley grew, the more Dee believed in him. On such flimsy evidence, Dee would travel the courts of Europe, risk offending the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and even engage (reluctantly) in wife-swapping.
By the time he returned to England, he was broken. His home in Mortlake had been ransacked and the only income he could find came at the price of exile in Manchester. After his wife's death, he sought the company of angels once more. Dee once told Emperor Rudolf: "I found that neither any man living, nor any book I could yet meet withal, was able to teach me those truths I desired and longed for." And now all the angels had to teach him was about kidney stones and piles.
Steve Farrar is science correspondent, The THES , and is writing a book about the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe.
The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Doctor Dee
Author - Benjamin Woolley
ISBN - 0 00 257139 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £15.99
Pages - 394