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John Dee: Manchester's first scientist

John Dee
John Dee was one of the Elizabethan era's greatest minds

You would be forgiven for thinking that Manchester's scientific explosion came with the Industrial Revolution, as names like Joule, Dalton and Crompton forged a new world of discovery.

Yet long before mills changed Manchester forever, one of England's most famous early scientists made his home in the city.

Born in 1527, John Dee was one of the Elizabethan era's greatest minds, investigating everything from mathematics and astronomy to philosophy and alchemy in his life.

But it was his fascination with magic that would lead to his arrival in the North West in his latter years.

A magician and scientist

Through his life, John Dee held some lofty posts. He was the royal astrologer for Mary Tudor, cast a horoscope to determine the date of Queen Elizabeth's coronation and advised explorers on navigation and geometry.

Such things brought him great repute, but at the same time, he dabbled in the occult, and these experiments saw him imprisoned for heresy in 1555.

Upon release, he kept an appearance of respectability, allowing him access to the higher echelons of society, while privately continuing his investigations.

By 1581, he was working with Edward Kelley on a series of mystical experiments using crystal balls, which the pair would claim allowed them to talk to angels.

Taking instruction from their heavenly guides, they travelled Europe together for much of the following decade, parting only when Kelley reported instructions from the angels that Dee found distasteful.

To Manchester and salvation?

Queen Elizabeth I
Dee cast a horoscope to determine Queen Elizabeth I's coronation date

Upon returning to England, Dee found his home ruined - attacked by people who had heard of his occult research - and petitioned the Queen for help.

The rumours around Dee meant Elizabeth could only do so much for him and she requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury offer him a post as Warden of the Manchester Collegiate Church (what would become the Cathedral).

Dee took up the offer and moved north in 1896. Despite his work with the occult, John was a deeply pious man and, on his arrival, involved himself with church life, while also working as a surgeon.

The Lancashire Seven

His reputation followed him though and within a year, he was asked to treat the Lancashire Seven, a number of children alleged to be suffering from demonic possession.

For whatever reason, Dee refused - a move that would turn out to be shrewd, as the surgeon who did take up the case ended up sentenced to death.

Interestingly, the judge who issued the verdict borrowed books on witchcraft and demons from Dee to research the case.

Satan comes to Chet's

The scorch mark on the table in Chetham's Audit Room
The scorch mark on the table in Chetham's Audit Room

It wasn't the only time that demons were linked with Dee in Manchester. In fact, one rumour arose which linked him to the biggest of them all, the Devil himself.

Dee lived in Chetham's School, which at the time was Christ's College, home to the priests of the Church - and a table from Dee's time there still exists in the Audit Room, bearing evidence of the story which dogged the warden.

Upon it is a circular burn mark - a mark which, it is said, was made by the hoof of Satan, after Dee supposedly summoned the Devil.

Leaving the city

Whatever the truth, the stain on Dee's character was immovable and with the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the rise of witch-hunts, he found his influence was waning.

Furthermore, the congregation of the church wanted rid of him, as they disliked his sermons and choice of curates.

He made an attempt to clear his name, petitioning the new king, James I, but his request was denied, meaning he had to leave Manchester in disgrace and return to his family home in Mortlake, Surrey.

As a final insult and injury, an epidemic of plague in the city prior to his departure took the lives of his wife and two of his daughters.

In a time when magic and science went hand in hand, there is no doubt that, with Dee's departure, went one of the minds of the age and, despite the rumours, one of Manchester's first scientists.

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