The subject of a current exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, Dr John Dee – mathematician, courtier, astrologist and ‘magician’ are just some of the tags he is labelled with – is one of the most enigmatic figures of Tudor England.

John_Dee_memorial_plaque_at_S_Mary_the_Virgin_MortlakeBorn in London’s Tower ward in 1527, Dee was of Welsh descent and the son of Roland Dee, a mercer and courtier to King Henry VIII, and Johanna Wild. He attended school in Chelmsford and, at the age of 15 entered St John’s College, Cambridge, awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1545 and a master’s degree in 1548. He was also a founding fellow of Trinity College when it was founded in 1546.

Dee travelled through Europe during the late 1540s and early 1550s, studying and lecturing at places including Louvain, Paris and Brussels. It was during this trip that he met mathematicians and cartographers like Gemma Frisius and Gerardus Mercator.

Back in England, Dee was appointed rector at Upton-upon-Severn (apparently on the recommendation of King Edward VI), and in 1555 was made a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. He had, meanwhile, turned down offers of professorships at both the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Oxford, ostensibly because he had hopes of obtaining an official position at court.

It was perhaps in pursuit of this that he subsequently appeared at England’s Royal Court where he took on the role of teacher of the mathematical sciences while also serving as an astrologer to Queen Mary I and courtiers.

The latter role led to Dee’s arrest and imprisonment in 1555 on charges of being a ‘magus’ (magician) – he would go on to appear for questioning in the infamous Star Chamber – but he was eventually cleared of all charges.

In 1558, Dee became a scientific and medical advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and, by the mid-1560s, had established himself in the village of Mortlake (now in the south-west of Greater London) where he built a laboratory and gathered together what was the largest private library in the country at the time, said to have consisted of more than 4,000 books and manuscripts (and the subject of the current exhibition).

Dee was also associated with several English voyages of exploration for which he provided maps and navigational instruments, most famously  Sir Martin Frobisher’s expedition to Canada in 1576-78.

He is also known for his strong views on natural philosophy and astrology and the occult, which included the idea that mathematics had a special, supernatural power to reveal divine mysteries. Some of his occult-related ideas were explored in his 1564 text Monas hieroglyphics – one of numerous works he authored – but his most influential work is said to have been a preface he wrote to an English translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570 in which he argued for the central role of mathematics.

Dee is said to have married three times – the first in the mid-1560s and, following the deaths of his previous two wives, the last time in 1578 when he was wedded to Jane Fromond, who was less than half his age and who had been a lady-in-waiting to the Countess of Lincoln. She bore him some eight children (although there are questions over the paternity of at least one) and died in 1604 of the plaque.

By the 1580s, having failed to win the influence he hoped to have at court and wanting to further his explorations into the supernatural (in particular, communication with ‘angels’ through occult practice of crystal-gazing), he travelled to Europe with a convicted counterfeiter and medium Edward Kelley to Europe.

Returning to England, after much lobbying, Queen Elizabeth I appointed him warden of Manchester College in 1596, but despite this, he returned to London in 1605 where his final years were marked by poverty.

He is believed to have died in March, 1609, at the London home of a friend and was apparently buried in Mortlake (pictured, above, is a memorial plaque at St Mary the Virgin in Mortlake).

It’s believed that William Shakespeare modelled the figure of Prospero in the 1611 play The Tempest on Dee (it’s also claimed that he was the model for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus).

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee runs at the Royal College of Physicians at 11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, until 29th July. Entry is free (check website for opening hours). For more, see www.rcplondon.ac.uk.

PICTURE: Robert Smith/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

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While the association between the Bard and Bankside’s Globe Theatre is well known (see our earlier post here for more), the Bard and his plays were also performed in various other theatres around London. Here we take a quick look at a couple in Shoreditch, then a more rural suburb of London known for its associations with the (somewhat seedy) entertainment industry…

The-Theatre The Theatre, Shoreditch. Built in 1576 by James Burbage on property that had once been part of Holywell Priory, the Theatre was the home of a number of acting companies including The Lord Chamberlain’s Men of which Shakespeare was a member. The polygon-shaped theatre served as the home of the company between 1594 and 1598 when a dispute with a landlord over the lease led them to leave, temporarily settling at The Curtain Theatre, before rebuilding their theatre, now renamed The Globe, in Southwark. Between 2008 and 2010, archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) carried out an investigation beneath a disused warehouse in New Inn Broadway, near the intersection of Curtain Road and Great Eastern Street, and found the remains of a 14 sided theatre about 22 metres across. Plans have been mooted to build a new theatre on the site. To find out more about The Theatre and see a terrific animated recreation by Cloak & Dagger Studios and MOLA (pictured), head to www.explorethetheatre.co.uk. PICTURE: Courtesy of MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and Cloak and Dagger Studios.

The Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men only performed here temporarily, between 1598-1599, before relocating to Southwark. Henry V (the reference to “this wooden O” in the prologue of the play is taken to refer to this theatre) and Romeo and Juliet are believed to be among Shakespeare’s plays which premiered here. Located just a couple of hundred yards south of The Theatre and built the year after it, it also hosted Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, a play in which Shakespeare is known to have performed. The polygonal theatre’s name comes from the road on which it stood – Curtain Road, which, it has been suggested, was named after the Holywell Priory’s ‘curtain wall’. It continued as a theatre until the 1620s and was later converted into tenements. The remains of what is believed to have been the Curtain Theatre were found by MOLA archaeologists in 2012 and further excavations are expected with the hope that one day the site will be open to the public with plays performed here. There is a plaque commemorating the site at 18 Hewett Street which is only a short distance from where the excavations were carried out. For more on the Curtain Theatre, check out www.shakespearesshoreditch.com.

For more on Elizabethan theatres, see Julian Bowsher’s Shakespeare’s London Theatreland: Archaeology, History and Drama.

Born the same year as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was, like him, one of the foremost dramatists of the Elizabethan era.

EdwardiiquartoBorn in Canterbury the son of shoemaker John Marlowe and his wife Catherine in 1564 (he was baptised on 26th February and likely to have been born a few days before), Marlowe attended the King’s School in the city and went on to study at Corpus College in Cambridge, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in 1584 and a Master of Arts in 1587. It is believed that at around this time, he was also working secretly for the government of Queen Elizabeth I, although what the nature of that work was remains unknown.

While Marlowe’s first play was Dido, Queen of Carthage, he first found theatrical success in 1587 with Tamburlaine the Great, later followed with a second part. His other four plays included The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, The Massacre at Paris about the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, and Doctor Faustus.

The plays served as key works for the Admiral’s Men, the company of Edward Alleyn who performed many of the key roles in the plays, and who is strongly associated with the Rose Theatre  – indeed it was here that Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus premiered (you can see our earlier post on the theatre here).

Marlowe, who is known to have lived in Shoreditch, also completed other works included poetry and translations and while there is little evidence about his personal life, there is much speculation including that he was, as aforementioned, a spy as well as a carouser (he is known to have frequented taverns in London including Ye Olde Cock in Fleet Street), a homosexual and/or a heretic. It has also been suggested he was a tutor to noblewoman Arabella Stuart.

It is known that he was arrested in 1592 in Flushing in The Netherlands for counterfeiting coins and was sent back to England but no further action was taken.

His death is one of the big mysteries of his life. A warrant was issued for Marlowe’s arrest over some heretical tracts which were found in the lodgings of his colleague Thomas Kyd (who when questioned apparently implicated him) and he appeared to answer to the Privy Council on 20th May, 1593. They weren’t sitting and he was apparently instructed to appear daily until further notice. He was dead 10 days later.

The exact circumstances of his death remain a matter of speculation. It is often said he died in a drunken brawl with one early source suggesting this was over a homosexual love affair and another, more recent, theory suggesting he even faked his own death to avoid being executed for heresy (an extrapolation of this theory goes that after his fake death he continued writing plays under the name of William Shakespeare but this is generally deemed fairly far-fetched). The official account recorded at the time was that he was stabbed to death in a brawl over payment of a bill with men at a house in Deptford.

He was buried in an unmarked grave at St Nicholas’ Church in Deptford. There is a memorial window to him in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. A gift of the Marlowe Society, it was unveiled in 2002 and controversially included a question mark after the generally accepted date of his death. There is a portrait, dated 1585,  generally believed to be of Marlowe at Cambridge.

PICTURE: Title page of the earliest known edition of Edward II (1594)/Wikipedia

Located at 20 Devereux Court, just off the Strand in the area of London known as Temple, The Devereux takes its name from Elizabethan Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, whose mansion, Essex House, once occupied the site on which it stands.

Devereux, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, inherited the mansion from his step-father, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1588 (the house was originally called Leicester House). A spectacular fall from favor which culminated in an abortive coup, however, led to Devereux’s beheading in 1601 (interestingly, he was the last person to be executed inside the Tower of London – the tower where he is held was named after him).

Used by other members of Devereux’s family following his death, a plaque outside the pub explains that the property was sold to property developer, Nicholas Barbon (also noted as the founder of fire insurance), in 1674, and that he had it demolished soon after.

The present building is said to date from 1676 and was originally two houses. Soon after its construction, it became the premises of the famous Grecian Coffee House which had moved from Wapping Old Stairs.

Noted as a meeting place for prominent Whigs, it was also frequented by members of the Royal Society such as Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane and Dr Edmund Halley as well as writer, poet and politician Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, editor of The Tatler (who gave the coffee house as the magazine’s postal address).

The early 1840s, the premises was into lawyers’ chambers and then later into the public house which now occupies it.

There’s a bust of Essex on the facade beneath which is written the inscription, “Devereux Court, 1676”. The pub is these days part of the Taylor-Walker group. For more, see www.taylor-walker.co.uk/pub-food/devereux-temple/pid-C7177.

For a great book on London’s pubs, take a look at London’s Best Pubs: A Guide to London’s Most Interesting & Unusual Pubs.

It’s been described as the greatest find of Jacobean and Elizabethan jewellery ever made – an extraordinary cache of some 500 gemstones, jewellery and other related items found buried under the floor during the demolition of a building at 30-32 Cheapside on 18th June, 1912.

Now known as the Cheapside Hoard, it dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and includes neck chains, pendants, hat ornaments, cameos and rings – among the items is a gold watch set into a hinged case made from a Columbian emerald, a tiny bejewelled gold scent bottle, and an onyx cameo of Queen Elizabeth I.

Other items include unfinished ornaments and unmounted gemstones which have origins spanning the world – from Asia and Middle East to South America. While these give support to the idea that the hoard is part of a goldsmith’s reserve stock, mystery still surrounds why it was buried in the building (although Cheapside was known for its goldsmiths during the era which the hoard dates from).

The majority of the hoard is held at the Museum of London where some of the items are on display. Other items are at the British Museum and one, an enamelled gold chain, is at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Museum of London is planning major exhibition of the hoard starting in late 2013. Stay tuned for more information.

WHERE: Museum of London, 150 London Wall (nearest tube station is Barbican, St Paul’s or Moorgate); WHEN: 10am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.museumoflondon.org.uk

PICTURE: Museum of London