New John Dee discovery reveals resemblance to mother and a mysterious 'dwarf'

By Richard Moss | 14 January 2015

Tantalising clues about the family of Tudor magician John Dee emerge from a newly deciphered manuscript

a photo of a page of ink handwriting
The writing found inside a 1547 treatise on how to cast horoscopes© RCP and John Chase
Curators putting together the Royal College of Physicians’ forthcoming exhibition about the mysterious Tudor courtier, magician, astrologer and polymath John Dee have discovered a page of handwritten text full of intriguing riddles and new clues about his life.

Discovered at the end of a 1547 treatise on how to cast horoscopes by the Italian astrologer and physician Girolamo Cardano, the intriguing page of dense scribbles remained hidden for years - glued to the back cover of the book.

And although it was separated from the book cover as early 1901, it is only now that anyone has tried to unpick all of the writing.   

Dee was an inveterate doodler and scribbler in his books, but the text, which is in Dee’s own handwriting, appears to record birth dates and other biographical information about Dee himself, his mother (Joan or Joanna née Wild), and other as yet unidentified individuals.

Half-way through the text he notes the birth date of his mother and the strong facial resemblance he shared with her – apart from her nose.

‘Anno 1508 vel 1509 on Crispinians day 21 [sic] octobris my mother was borne, to whome I am very like in visnomy [physiognomy] saving my nares [nostrils or nose].’

At the top of the page he also records a mysterious person born at four o’clock on Christmas day 1519:

‘in northwales both his feet croked inward as yf they war broken, he being a dwarf, and creping on hand and foote, big hedded and chested with a prety berd’.

a close up of ink handwriting
A close up of Dee's descripton of the dwarf© RCP
Although there was a tradition of “court dwarfs” before and after the reign of Elizabeth I, conjecture abounds as to the identity of this new mysterious person born just a few years before Dee himself.

Given the apparent autobiographical subject of the page, curators believe there may even be a family connection. Dee himself was born in London, in the parish of St Dunstan’s in the East near the Tower, but his family had recently moved from North Wales.

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Describing the find as “a tantalizing fragment of what we would call autobiography” Katie Birkwood, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian and exhibition curator, said the dwarf appeared to have been “introduced into what seems to be the family history”.

“Typically for one of Elizabethan England’s most enigmatic characters, it provides us with intriguing information at the same time as creating more mysteries about this riddle of a man.”

Dee continues to fascinate, centuries after he first set foot in the court of Elizabeth I. A mathematician, magician, astronomer, astrologer, explorer, occultist, imperialist, alchemist and spy he was also one of Tudor England’s most fervent scholars of cryptography - the art or science of making and breaking codes.

“The best part is, the page is yet to be completely deciphered," added Birkwood, "there may yet be more details of the life of Dee and, who knows, more mysteries for us to discover.”

an engraving of a man with a beard holding a dividing compass across a globe
John Dee© RCP
Visitors can see the page as part of the eagerly anticipated new exhibition about the man known as the Queen’s Conjurer as it delves into his enigmatic and paradoxical world.

The Royal College of Physicians holds the largest known collection, more than 100 works, formerly owned by John Dee and the exhibition guides visitors through them – not only exploring the things he read but also the words he wrote, the drawings he drafted, the objects he owned and his life and influence over hundreds of years.

Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee is at the museum of the Royal College of Physicians from January 18 to July 29 2016.  The exhibition and museum are open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Admission Free.

More on John Dee:

A magical glimpse into the Tudor imagination: Lost library of John Dee to be revealed

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The comment about the dwarf by Dee doesn't appear to say "prety berd" (pretty beard). It's clearly a "t" before the "rd" (you can see the crossbar) which would read btrd if the first letter is a "b". Whether btrd stands for "b[as]t[a]rd" or something else, I'm not sure, but it doesn't look like "berd" (beard). It's also possible that the first letter "b" is two letters close together (e.g., lo, or bs) rather than a single "b" which, together with "trd", might stand for a number of words.
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