British Library Posts Interactive Manuscript Detailing John Dee’s heritage

The British Library posted an interactive manuscript roll that details the geneology of Gnostic Saint Dr. John Dee. Their site says:

This remarkable manuscript roll, over six feet in length, shows the illustrious family history of John Dee (1527–1608/09) – an Elizabethan scholar, astrologer and magician.

The roll reveals Dee’s attempt to trace his lineage back to the British kings (marked in Latin as ‘Brytanniae Rex’). He proposes a direct connection with the Welsh and English House of Tudor, claiming that he was related to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In doing so, Dee asserts his right to recognition and legitimate status, amidst charges that he practised dark magic.

Self-portrait of John Dee

The scroll includes diverse coats of arms and comments in several different scripts, one of which is apparently the handwriting of John Dee himself. Near the bottom, towards the right, is a little hand-coloured portrait (or more probably a self-portrait) of Dee in a fur-lined black cloak and cap, holding a red book and a pair of mathematical dividers. This is thought by some critics to be the only surviving image of Dee to have been produced in his lifetime.

The well-known portrait of John Dee in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, (though dated c. 1594) is now thought by some to have been made later.[1] Tarnya Cooper suggests that the collector Elias Ashmole may have commissioned it after Dee’s death in the 17th century, as a copy of a now-lost original.

On the roll, John Dee of London is described as a ‘philosophys’ or philosopher and stands proudly beside his family coats of arms or ‘insignia’. Below that is Dee’s Welsh grandfather, Bedo Dee and his father Rowland Dee. Rowland is defined here as an ‘armiger’ (a person entitled to bear a coat of arms), and as ‘antesignanus dapiferorum’ (a chief sewer, or attendant in Henry VIII’s privy chamber). Notably, Dee’s mother, Joan or Joanna, is left wholly out of the picture, emphasising the importance of the male lineage in this era.

[1] See Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 160–61.

Frater Lux Ad Mundi

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