Today, an odd story about Queen Elizabeth and her
007. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
John Dee, the best known
English scholar of his times, was born in 1527. He
studied in England and Flanders. His mind absorbed
everything. Dee trafficked in all known science,
and he made heavy use of the quasi-magical side of
alchemy and numerology. He was as famous in
astrology as he was in astronomy.
In his mid-20s he served Catholic Queen Mary. But
he was closer to her Protestant sister, Elizabeth.
He tutored Elizabeth in science, and when she took
the throne in 1558, Dee took a shadowy role in her
court. She didn't make him an official counselor
because his science veered too close to the occult.
Instead, he traveled Europe as an academic,
gathering information for her.
Elizabeth's eerie talent for sizing people up and
manipulating the men in her court was legendary.
She let an intimate laser charm break through her
regal beauty and iron control just often enough to
keep them slavishly loyal to her.
Part of that intimacy was her practice of assigning
nicknames. Her sea captain, Sir Francis Drake, was
Water. John Dee she called Eyes. And
he was her eyes and ears.
Dee signed his memos to Elizabeth with an odd
symbol: two Ohs (a pair of eyes) followed by a 7
with its top drawn back across the Ohs. The symbol
looked like a Victorian lady's lorgnette. But it
was simply a double-oh-seven.
-- 400 years
before James Bond.
And why the 7? Historian Richard Deacon thinks it
told Elizabeth that Dee put not only his two eyes
and the other four senses at her disposal; he
offered her his occult sense as well.
For example, by 1585 tension between Spain and
England seemed to have quieted, but Dee knew Spain
still had designs on England. So he reported a
conversation with his crystal. "What do you see?"
asks Dee. "I see the risk of fire, great fire," the
It was a coded warning. Dee had unearthed a plot in
Prague. The Spanish planned to set fire to the
English Royal Forest, the source of ship-building
timber. For both Dee and his Queen it took a
crystal ball to give the message its legitimacy.
English forest-keepers rounded up the Spanish
arsonists. And when the Spanish Armada struck 3
years later, England's ships were ready.
Dee read his Queen as accurately as she did him.
She was, he said, studious, interested in physical
fitness, and distrustful of sentiment. All that was
probably pure observation, but Dee read it under
her astrological sign of Virgo.
So the Queen and her magician spy leave us
wondering who believed what. I strongly suspect
that each controlled the other by weaving a web of
mystery -- even threat -- to hide what was, in
fact, only hard-headed intelligence-gathering on
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Deacon, R., John Dee: Scientist, Geographer,
Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I.
Letchworth, Hertfordshire: Frederick Muller, 1968.
Clulee, N.H., John Dee's Natural Philosophy:
Between Science and Religion. New York:
French, P., John Dee: The World of an
Elizabethan Magus, New York: Dorset Press,
For more on John Dee, see Engines Episodes 474 and 621. See also the website,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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