John Dee arrived in Manchester on Monday afternoon, February 15, 1596, and took up his abode in the Collegiate as its Warden.  Born in the village of Mortlake in 1527, he was already thus sixty eight years of age.

Once the scientist astrologer to the court of Elizabeth I and probably the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero in the Tempest, his career had to date covered science, geography, astrology, antiquarian and secret agent.  He had the largest library in England, he was by all accounts the quintessential man of the Renaissance.

He had arrived in Manchester under somewhat of a cloud, having been effectively exiled from the court of Elizabeth I.

The Collegiate he found was a disunited one when Dee arrived, complaining to Edward Dyer in 1596 that it almost became no college but a labyrinth of baffling financial complexity fraud and incompetence.

The buildings had been bought by the Earl of Derby at the dissolution and had not been given back after the founding of the college in 1556. Its income was paltry, having leased out its land on long low rents and its fellows spent long hours squabbling over how to share its income.

Installed as Warden on the Saturday following his arrival, Dee unfortunately left no account of the ceremony.

Dee had turned 68 and his wife was about to give birth to their seventh child.Their household would have to support them plus nine servants and all on four shillings a day eventually persuading Lord Derby after dining with him twice and producing a horoscope for his daughter to rent him rooms within the college.

Soon he was embroiled in the ramifications of the Collegiate land disputes as the manorial lords began converting grazing land into land for crops, at the same time destroying the ancient boundaries.

One of Dee’s first acts was to invite Sir John Byrom to dine in April 1596 raising the issue of tithes. He was later to discover that the baron’s tenants had built houses and barns on the grazing land of Newton Heath and they claimed ancient rights. In response, Dee employed Christopher Saxton to survey the lands especially those which bordered Failsworth and Newton and armed with the facts set about prosecuting Byrom’s tenants.

But the dispute was never resolved and bad harvests in the next two years hampered any chance of increasing the amount raised from tithes.

Dee also set about sorting the state of the College and he authorised a Duchy commission which set up to look at embezzlement, forging of the seal and the granting of the long leases. It though never resolved the problems and politics prevented it from reporting for four years.

The state of the buildings at the college also became precarious, one of the gatehouses collapsing during heavy rain and when Dee left for the summer, he found that the Earl of Derby had mortgaged the college house leaving him without lodgings.

But Dee was to have one more notorious action in Manchester….. 

The Presbyterian minister John Darrell had gained a lot of popularity over his curing of the demonically possessed by group prayer and fasting.

In Dec 1596 a Nicholas Starkie of Cleworth consulted Dee, probably having heard of his angel magic, over the demonic possession of seven people in his household.

The story is told that in 1595 two of his sons had started convulsing and after spending £200 to no avail in curing them, he employed an Edmund Hartley as a servant who succeeded where money had failed using papish charms and herbs.

However Starkie suspected Hartley of bewitching three other children a maid and another relative and these became together the Lancashire Seven.

There are two versions of what happened next, firstly that Dee refused to get involved instead recommending that he consult Darrell,the second claims that he examined Hartley who was at least temporarily eased of his symptoms.

Dee was drawn into a battle between Presbyterians and conformists and Darrell was imprisoned and subjected to a show trial in London in which he was declared a counterfeit exorcist but in the days when your standing at court was more important than the law, he was released within two years.

Dee’s involvement had been used to discredit Darrell and during this time he was mostly absent from Manchester and on his return in 1600, the fellows petitioned the Bishop of Chester to investigate him, though no records survive of the outcome.

However the discontent continued the fellows petitioning Robert Cecil over the fact that Dee was no preacher and therefore the college was unable to provide preaching – they set up a fund raising exercise to get another, William Burne to lecture.

On the death of Elizabeth, the new king ordered Dee to appoint Burne to the fellowship and grant him the next warden-ship.

Dee was now 76 and had been ravaged by his Manchester posting, constantly struggling for money, his health had begun to suffer with bleeding from the anus starting in 1597 a symptom which was to effect him until his death.  He also began to suffer anxiety attacks.

The new Parliament under James began debating a witchcraft bill, Dee thought it was aimed at him as it replaced the previous one which said dealing with spirits was only a crime if it resulted in physical harm.  This one would mandate death for any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit.

Dee petitioned the King but was ignored and the bill quickly passed into law.  Returning to Manchester, the plague hit the town and took his wife as one of its first victims. He had already lost two children in the previous two years and with Burne now preaching, Dee left the town for the last time.

He disappeared for two years, perhaps weary of the new witchcraft act, reappearing in London in Feb 1606. Contrary to popular view he remained Warden until his death.

His final years were a slow descent as attitudes against his magic hardened.  Forced to sell his Mortlake house, he resurrected a scheme to find buried treasure and he died in March 1609 at the age of 85.


No responses yet

Leave a Reply