Magic at the Elizabethan court, Glyn Parry argues here, was pretty much like sex. Even if no one talked about it openly, everyone was thinking about it, wanted to do it and feared they might not be any good at it. And so someone who promised to unlock its secrets for the right price was immensely alluring. But a magical pimp of this kind was also, by his nature, on the edge of respectability.
John Dee (15-1609), philosopher, alchemist and angelologist, is a familiar name of the period. But he is usually treated as a fringe figure and his arcane interests as an aberrant side-channel of the Elizabethan mainstream. Parry wants to put him and his magic slap in the centre of political life. He doesn't entirely succeed, but the effort is eye-opening.
First things first: the scholarship is first rate. Even though the account of Dee's years in Poland, Bohemia and Germany makes only limited use of European archives, this book is the most detailed account of Dee that we have ever had. All kinds of new titbits turn up, from the record of Dee's ordination in 1555 through to a firm identification of Dee as Walter Raleigh's own "conjuror". And Parry is assured in handling the dizzying range of Dee's interests.
Vilified as a conjuror and atheist, Dee was something stranger: a practitioner of Neoplatonic Christian magical philosophy. Like the Kabbalists, he saw magical significance in alphabets and letter shapes. His own name, he noted, was transliterated into Greek as delta, the mystic triangle: he Latinised his name as "Deus". He cut across divisions between Catholic and Protestant, explaining transubstantiation in alchemical terms and working with Puritan exorcists.
His interest in Arthurian prophecies led him to foresee a "British Empire" (a phrase he apparently coined) comprising much of Europe and also North America, which he believed the Welsh had discovered in 1170. He favoured the new Gregorian calendar, for astronomical reasons but also apocalyptic ones. Much of the joy of this book is Parry's ability to explain how all these and many other views fitted together.
Parry also emphasises that several key Elizabethans - including Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; and above all the Queen herself - were fascinated and enticed by these ways of thinking. And why not? Alchemy, especially, was an alluring prospect: the nuclear fusion of its time, a plausible technology that could potentially produce unlimited returns on a small investment. As Parry points out, some alchemical techniques, such as transmuting iron into copper (in other words, using iron hydrometallurgically to extract copper from a copper sulphate solution) worked.
Dee's problem was not that he was a magician but that he was too philosophical about it. With his occult mysticism, he was less appealing to the regime than his showier colleagues, who promised transmuted cash on the barrelhead.
Indeed, the problem with Parry's thesis is that Dee's political career was so manifestly a failure. He existed from hand to mouth, hoping that the miserly Queen might one day make good on one of her airy promises, and increasingly facing the disapproval of more po-faced clerics. He had few firm friends and some very dedicated enemies. A key moment of opportunity that Parry uncovers, when Dee's warnings of a renewed Spanish attack in 1592 provoked an unprecedented clampdown on English Catholics, turned out to be as illusory as the Armada he had conjured up.
Dee's kind of magic mattered in Elizabethan England; it was plausible, coherent and alluring. But it was never respectable, and always on the outside looking in. If he was indeed the "arch-conjurer of England", it was only in his own grandiose imaginings.
The Arch Conjurer of England: John Dee
By Glyn Parry. Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300117196. Published 29 February 2012