Page last updated at 06:36 GMT, Tuesday, 22 September 2009 07:36 UK

Lost 'Renaissance Man' celebrated

St John's College, Cambridge
John Dee went to St John's College, Cambridge

A celebration is taking place to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of a Welshman who helped develop the idea of a British empire.

John Dee, a scholar who excelled in science and maths, delved into early Welsh history to identify a common identity for the Welsh and the English.

But, despite being dubbed the "Renaissance man" of the Tudor era, his achievements have gone unremembered.

A University of Cambridge event will honour Dee, who died in 1609.

Specialists from all over the world are gathering for a two-day conference on Monday and Tuesday, during which they aim to celebrate his achievements and restore his reputation, which they say remains unfairly tainted by his interests in the supernatural.

Jennifer Rampling, from the Cambridge University's department of history and philosophy of science, said: "John Dee was probably the dominant figure of the English Renaissance, certainly as far as science is concerned.

John Dee was probably the dominant figure of the English Renaissance
Jennifer Rampling, Cambridge University

"Yet although he was one of Europe's leading mathematicians, he never managed to find a patron who would support the full range of his interests. Ironically, this continued even after his death."

Born in in 1527, Dee formulated blueprints for a national library and the modern calendar and was also Queen Elizabeth I's astrologer, choosing the date for her coronation.

Although from London, he belonged to a Welsh family which had moved to the area a few decades earlier.

Dee, who went to Cambridge's St John's College, traced his own ancestry to Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the medieval Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, and claimed ancestral ties to legendary figures such as Rhodri Mawr and Coel Hen.

It was this ancestry which inspired him to look into the issue of identity, which became fundamental to England's ambitions in the New World.

Welsh legends

Dee coined the term "British Empire" long before Britain as a nation existed.

Alongside his scientific interests, he was fascinated by the medieval myth-history of both England and Wales, seeing the two as united by a common British identity and a shared, ancient, imperial past.

In 1574, he undertook a tour of western England and eastern Wales on a quest to find antique materials that would support this notion of a shared heritage.

At the same time, he delved deep into Arthurian legend and took a particular interest in the story of the voyage of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, a mythical Welsh Prince who legend has it discovered America in 1170.

Together, this enabled Dee to formulate historical "evidence" for a British claim to large parts of North America.

These rights to the New World were set out in legal documents and presented to Queen Elizabeth around 1580, laying the basis for England's settlement of the Americas and its evolution as an international power in the century that followed.

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