As Shadowblood is now available for purchase (and it makes a lovely Christmas gift for the Sherlockian and/or fantasy fan in your life!) I thought I would do a few posts featuring the real stories behind some of the characters that come to Holmes’s aid or serve as villains in the book.
I’ll start with Doctor John Dee, the great Elizabethan mage, who---in Shadowblood---summons Holmes and Watson to Prague. His call leads to some pretty exciting moments, but in reality his life was, if anything, even more enthralling!
Dee was born in 1527, in London, to a Welsh family that had a connection to the Tudor court. Educated at Cambridge, young Dee attracted attention for the diversity of his skills; his reputation as a magician began in school. Like other great scholars of his day, he travelled and studied widely, spending time in Brussels and Paris. He became an expert mathematician and cartographer, as well as an astrologer. Science and magic had not yet separated into distinct fields in the 1500s, and Dee bridged these two worlds. He was a master of mathematics (one imagines the conversations he could have had with Professor Moriarty!) yet also a seer who claimed to have lengthy conversations with angels. Tinkering with the supernatural was dangerous in the sixteenth century; in 1555 Dee was accused of treason for casting horoscopes for the royal family and hauled before the Star Chamber, though luckily for history he managed to exonerate himself!
In 1558, Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne and Dee acquired his most prominent patron. He chose her coronation date based on a reading of the stars. He also served as her advisor on practical matters, writing books on navigation and mathematics. Some credit him with being the first to use the phrase “British Empire.” Others speculate that Dee served as a spy for his queen during his travels on the continent. He was certainly a busy man, and by the 1580s he was even more interested in magic and supernatural conversations with angels. Along with Edward Kelley, an Englishman who claimed supernatural abilities to ‘scry’---meaning to serve as a kind of medium between Dee and angels---Dee travelled across Europe, holding conferences with kings and emperors.
In 1584, Dee and Kelley arrived in Prague, where they lodged for a time with Tadeas Hajek, the court astronomer to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, in the Old Town section of the city. Hajek was also in charge of Rudolf’s alchemical laboratories. Alchemy—with its driving quest to turn base metals into gold---was another passion of Dee’s. During the sojourn in Prague, Dee’s companion experienced wild visions and Dee (who may also have been on a secret mission to persuade Rudolph to ease tensions between Protestants and Catholics in his realm) sought an audience with the emperor. Though Rudolf received Dee, and listened intently to a prophecy that seemed to promise he could defeat Sultan Murad III of the Ottoman Empire, his advisors later convinced him that Dee was a threat. Dee made the most of his time in Prague, enhancing his international reputation as a magus and receiving an honorary doctorate in medicine. In 1586, the Vatican became convinced that Dee was spreading a dangerous ‘new superstition’ that could undermine the emperor’s court. Responding to papal pressure, Rudolph banished Dee from the empire, though he later relented and allow Dee to spend time doing more alchemical and spiritual researches in Trebon, under patronage of Vilem Rozmberk, a powerful nobleman.
Dee returned to England in 1589. He was horrified to find that his home had been pillaged. His great library---the most amazing one in England and a magnet for scholars---had been destroyed by a mob convinced he was a necromancer. The queen sent him funds and gave him sinecures, including the Chancellorship of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but upon her death in 1603 he had no more friends in high places. The great astronomer, mathematician, occultist, and possible secret agent died in poverty in either 1608 or early 1609.
I can’t help but note that the records of Dee’s exact moment of death have been lost; the parish registers no longer exist and his tombstone has gone missing. So maybe….hmmm….what could that mean???!!!!
Over the centuries, Dee’s reputation has been malleable. While some see him as a deluded, gullible man led astray by the cunning mountebank Kelley, others point to him as one of the most educated men of his time, one with real mathematical skills and sincere spiritual beliefs. He espoused a mystical form of Christianity “beyond dogma and creed” at a time when bloodletting between Catholics and Protestants was commonplace. If there was no other reason to remember Dee, his 1556 visionary plan for collecting and preserving books in a national library (a scheme which fell on Queen Mary I’s deaf ears) would make him worth noting.
I’ve always found Dee fascinating because he bridged the world between the Light and the Shadows. Few men in history have been amazing enough to be cast as a magician for centuries. I'm also not the only person to use Doctor Dee as a literary inspiration. Some scholars suggest that Dee was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest and is referenced by Edmund Spencer in The Faerie Queene. He appears as a character (often a villainous one) in a number of novels, and is the subject of an opera by Damon Albarn. He’s even mentioned in the PS3 game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
So how does he know Holmes? And what special secret is he keeping under those magician’s robes?
Read Shadowblood to find out!
(And for more information on John Dee's time in Prague, check out Peter Marshall's The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague, which I've referenced for this post!)