The magical mathematician -2

Dr John Dee

You may recall from the last blog that we were left wondering why the Bishop of Salisbury in the late 17th century, Seth Ward, would be interested in a Kabbalistic work like Dr John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica which appears to support a geocentric view of the solar system rather than the Copernican heliocentric view. Seth Ward was a renowned mathematician and astronomer in his own right and most definitely in the second camp.

The central glyph in the Monas

After all The Monas is a very strange book. According to Glynn Parry in The Arch-Conjuror of England Dee applied the sacred art of Kabbalah to this ‘new realm of symbols’. “Dee found that the Monad’s components, the ‘common astronomical symbols of the planets’, derived like letters from geometrical elements of points, straight lines and the circumferences of circles,” writes Parry. Their proportions ‘also evoked cosmic meanings, because he believed that the planetary symbols, like letters, were not mere human conventions but “imbued with immortal life”.’ Then again Caiyros Arlen Strang contends in Understanding the Monas Hieroglyphic Monad that it seems likely that the ‘Monad Symbol is a complete structural image that if meditated upon long enough, one will begin to see the appearance of Angelic Language in front of them’.

But perhaps the answer to our query about Seth Ward’s interest actually lies in two other books bound with the Monas. One of these books is written by Dee and the other by Thomas Digges. These two men had a close relationship and at one stage Dee was Digges’s mathematical teacher. The two books, published in 1573, were written in response to the ‘new star’, which turned out to be what has come to be called Tycho Brahe’s Supernova Type 1a explosion.

Tycho Brahe’s Supernova

Digges (1546-1595) was an interesting man in his own right. He was the first to expound the Copernican system in English and to discard the notion of a fixed shell of immovable stars to argue for infinitely many stars at varying distances. He was also the first to postulate the ‘dark night paradox’, which states that the darkness of the night sky conflicts with the assumption of an eternal static universe. The night sky is one of the pieces of evidence for a dynamic universe such as the Big Bang model.

What is fascinating in these two books, which are the ones most commonly bound together rather than the Monas, is the different approach to mathematics. For Dee, the new star was enrolled in his conception of mathematical astronomy as a calendrical and chronological art which also revealed portents in astrology and alchemy. For Digges, however, it announced a celestial reformation in which mathematics triumphed as the key to heavenly truth. So, perhaps it was this shifting role of mathematics in human thought that attracted Bishop Ward rather than the Kabbalistic Monad.

But from these heavenly delights we now return to earth and, in particular, to Dee’s association with Wilton House and the Pembroke family – and many thanks are due to Alan Crooks of Fisherton History Society for providing a wealth of information about Dee’s relationship with the family. We know that Dee entered the household service in 1552 and that the first Tudor House was built by William Herbert, the first Earl of Pembroke in 1551, which raises the intriguing possibility that Dee spent some time in Wilton. The evidence is sketchy because there was a fire at Wilton House in the 1640s and, as Wiltshire archives points out, all the family’s papers were destroyed. The original house lasted for 80 years before it was largely rebuilt to form the building we see today. However, we do get a hint about Dee’s involvement with Wilton House in Alan’s article The St Thomas Church Alchemist in which he records that said alchemist, Dr Simon Forman, is referred to in John Aubrey’s Natural History of Wiltshire as being a great favourite of Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke and that she had an ‘active interest in spiritual magic and was close to Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, Dr John Dee’. Mary was an extraordinary person who created and led the Wilton Circle, the most important literary circle in England’s history, was also trained in medicine and is ‘known to have kept a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House’.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Further evidence of Dee engagement both with the Pembrokes and with Mary’s own family, the Sidneys, is given in “Lady Alcumy”: Elizabethan Gentlewomen and the Practice of Chymistry by Sienna Louise Latham, also, incidentally, provided by Alan. In this thesis Latham states that Dee had a longstanding ‘association with both the family into which Mary was born and the one she joined through marriage’. Latham also claims that Dee may have tutored ‘young Henry Herbert, who would become Mary’s husband’. And before that: “While there is no evidence that Mary studied under Dee, she may have joined her brother in chymical training with the magus.” And Alan has pointed out that Peter J. French in his book The World of an Elizabethan Magus writes: “Whether or not the Countess of Pembroke received instruction in chemistry from Dee is uncertain, but it seems decidedly possible.”

So there we have it, it seems highly likely that Dee spent some time in Wilton and may have even instructed the Countess. We may never know, however, how long he was there or the extent of his engagement. It seems entirely appropriate, however, that these three books by Dee and Digges resides in Salisbury Cathedral library, just three miles from Wilton and it beggars belief that Dee did not visit Salisbury and, maybe, the library itself. The Cathedral library is not a public library but bookings for tours once the lockdown has been lifted can be made on the Cathedral’s website.

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