The General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577) is one of the first texts to express the idea of ‘the British Empire’. We see the author John Dee (1527–1608/9), in his role as maritime advisor to Elizabeth I, recommending the use of a strong navy to defend the country and expand its global territory. The richly illustrated title page, designed by Dee himself, shows Elizabeth at the helm of a ship, in charge of Britain’s imperial destiny.
The General and Rare Memorials is bound here with a rare hand-written copy of Dee’s THALATTOKRATIA BRETTANIKI (a Greek title meaning ‘The British Sea- Sovereignty’) written in 1597. This is one of only three known copies of this manuscript text, signed here by the author. In this work he returns to his previous task of defining the Empire, outlining what he considers to be ‘British Seas’.
John Dee was a British scholar and mathematician who became court astrologer to Elizabeth I. After studying mathematics, astronomy and map-making on the Continent, Dee returned to England in 1551. He established himself in Mortlake with his vast collection of books, manuscripts, maps and scientific instruments – one of the largest private libraries in England at the time. This might remind us of Prospero’s ‘library’ filled ‘with volumes’ that he prizes ‘above his dukedom’ (The Tempest, 1.2.167–68). Dee calculated the most favourable date for Elizabeth’s coronation and advised her on British expansion. He became a leading expert on navigation, receiving regular visits from many key Elizabethan explorers - Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher and Walter Ralegh.
Yet Dee also had a darker reputation as a notorious magus involved in alchemy (transforming base metals into gold), pursuit of occult knowledge and summoning angels or spirits. Though trusted by Elizabeth, he was imprisoned in 1555 by Mary I (for using enchantments against the Queen’s life) and again accused of sorcery by James I.
An inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero
Dee is often thought to be a model for Shakespeare’s magus, Prospero. Both men raise troubling questions over the use and abuse of their ‘Art’ or magical power. They present a potential conflict between their ‘secret studies’ and their pursuit of ‘worldly’ political ends (The Tempest, 1.2.77–89), and they continue to inspire debate over their involvement in ‘theurgy’ (white magic) or ‘goety’ (using magic for dark purposes).