This remarkable manuscript roll, over six feet in length, shows the illustrious family history of John Dee (1527–1608/9) – an Elizabethan scholar, astrologer and magician who is often thought to be a model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.
The roll reveals Dee’s attempt to trace his lineage back to the British kings (marked in Latin as ‘Brytanniae Rex’). He proposes a direct connection with the Welsh and English House of Tudor, claiming that he was related to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In doing so, Dee asserts his right to recognition and legitimate status, amidst charges that he practised dark magic.
Self-portrait of John Dee
The scroll includes diverse coats of arms and comments in several different scripts, one of which is apparently the handwriting of John Dee himself. Near the bottom, towards the right, is a little hand-coloured portrait (or more probably a self-portrait) of Dee in a fur-lined black cloak and cap, holding a red book and a pair of mathematical dividers. This is thought by some critics to be the only surviving image of Dee to have been produced in his life-time.
The well-known portrait of John Dee in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, (though dated c.1594) is now thought by some to have been made later. Tarnya Cooper suggests that the collector Elias Ashmole may have commissioned it after Dee’s death in the 17th century, as a copy of a now-lost original.
On the roll, John Dee of London is described as a 'philosophys' or philosopher and stands proudly beside his family coats of arms or ‘insignia’. Below that is Dee’s Welsh grandfather, Bedo Dee and his father Rowland Dee. Rowland is defined here as an ‘armiger’ (a person entitled to bear a coat of arms) and as ‘antesignanus dapiferorum’ (a chief sewer, or attendant in Henry VIII's privy chamber). Notably Dee’s mother, Joan or Joanna, is left wholly out of the picture, emphasising the importance of the male lineage in this era.
 See Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 160–61.
- Full title:
- Genealogical roll of the descent of John Dee … showing his kinship with the Sovereigns of the House of Tudor
- Genealogical roll / Manuscript / Illustration / Image
- John Dee
- Held by:
- British Library
- Usage terms:
The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.
- Cotton. Ch. XIV.1.
- Article by:
- Emma Smith
- Power and politics, Magic, illusion and the supernatural, Comedies
In his portrayal of Prospero's 'art', Shakespeare seems to draw parallels between theatre and magic. Emma Smith explores these, but questions the idea that the magus is a self-portrait of the playwright.
- Article by:
- Malcolm Hebron
- Comedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Malcolm Hebron explains how the Renaissance figure of the Magus, as a force of both good and evil, helps us understand the character of Prospero in The Tempest.