There was only one man to be honoured by Queen Elizabeth I with the title "my philosopher", but even this exalted title does not do justice to Dr John Dee (1527-1608), one of the Elizabethan era's most brilliant and colourful characters, whose long and eventful life is chronicled in Benjamin Woolley's biography The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magi c of Dr Dee. Dee's long career as scholar, scientist, magician and political adviser spanned one of the most turbulent periods of English history, from the death of Henry VIII and England's split with Rome, to the decadent court of James I. Working for the young, embattled Elizabeth, Dee became "an intelligencer", "a seeker of hidden knowledge, philosophical and scientific, as well as political", helping his sovereign to "become an adept at the magical practice of monarchy", as he advised on issues as diverse as foreign policy, internal security, calendrical reformation, overseas exploration, and "spiritual communication".
Woolley is particularly fascinated by Dee's immersion in magic and the occult and his claims that he could "summon the divine secrets of the universe from angels and archangels". It was this involvement in the occult that was to ultimately lead to Dee's fall from grace. The majority of the book deals with Dee's involvement with the sinister Edward Kelley, whose crystal gazing and communications with angels were to lead Dee into virtual exile in central Europe, before his return home in 1589 "after six years, thousands of miles, some triumphs, several disasters, a few accolades and numerous humiliations". Wooley's focus of the increasingly twisted relationship between Dee and Kelley's runs the risk of sidelining Dee's many other achievements, but his description of their magical "actions" is convincing and spooky, and captures Dee's fatal inability to resist his involvement in what he called the "strange participation" between the living and the dead. --Jerry Brotton