John Dee was the son of Rowland Dee; he was born in London, according to the horoscope of his own drawing, on July 13, 1527.
His mother was Jane, daughter of William Wild. Various Welsh writers have assigned to Dee a genealogical descent of the highest antiquity, and the pedigree which he drew up for himself in later life traces back his family history from his grandfather, Bedo Dee, to Roderick the Great, Prince of Wales. All authorities agree that Radnor was the county from whence the Dees sprang.
Rowland Dee, the father, held an appointment at Court, as gentleman server to Henry VIII., but was very indifferently treated by the King. This may partly account for the persistence with which Dee exhibited before Queen Elizabeth his claims to preferment at her hands. To be in habitual attendance at Court in those days, however, bred in men a great desire for place, and a courtier was but a mendicant on a grand scale.
The boy, John Dee, was early bred in "grammar learning," and was inured to Latin from his tender years. Perhaps he was not more than nine or ten when he was sent to Chelmsford, to the chantry school founded there seven years before the great school at Winchester came into existence. The master who presided over Dee's school hours in Essex was Peter Wilegh, whom the chantry commissioners in 1548 reported as a man "of good conversation" who had kept the school there for sixteen years. Dee has always been claimed by the Grammar School at Chelmsford as one of their most famous alumni, whose extraordinary career with its halo of mystery and marvel they perhaps feel little qualified to explore. Dee's testimony that at Chelmsford he was "metely well furnished with understanding of the Latin tongue" is an unconscious tribute to Peter Wilegh's teaching.
In November, 1542, Dee, being then fifteen years and four months old, left Chelmsford to enter at St. John's College, Cambridge, where, as he tells us in his autobiography, he soon became a most assiduous student. "In the years 1543, 1544, 1545, I was so vehemently bent to studie, that for those years I did inviolably keep this order: only to sleep four houres every night; to allow to meate and drink (and some refreshing after) two houres every day; and of the other eighteen houres all (except the tyme of going to and being at divine service) was spent in my studies and learning." Early in 1546 he graduated B.A. from St. John's College. At the close of the same year, Trinity College was founded by Henry VIII., and Dee was selected one of the original Fellows. He was also appointed under-reader in Greek to Trinity College, the principal Greek reader being then Robert Pember. The young Fellow created the first sensation of his sensational career soon after this by arranging some of the (Eirene - Peace) of Aristophanes, in which he apparently acted as stage manager and carpenter.
For this play he devised a clever mechanical and very spectacular
effect. Trygaeus, the Attic vine-dresser, carrying a large basket
of food for himself, and mounted on his gigantic beetle or scarab
(which ate only dung), was seen ascending from his dwelling on
the stage to enter the palace of Zeus in the clouds above. One
has only to think of the scenic effects presented by Faust and
Mephistopheles at Mr. Tree's theatre, for instance, to realise
how crude and ineffective these attempts must have been; but thirty
or forty years before Shakespeare's plays were written, so unusual
an exhibition was enough to excite wild rumours of supernatural
powers. We hear no more of theatrical performances, although several
references in his after-life serve to show that his interest in
the English drama, about to be born, lagged not far behind that
of his greater contemporaries. He does mention, however, a Christmas
pastime in St. John's College, which seems to have been inspired
by this same dramatic spirit. Of details we are totally ignorant;
he only relates that the custom of electing a "Christmas
Magistrate" was varied at his suggestion by crowning the
chosen victim as Emperor. The first imperial president of the
Christmas revels in St. John's College "was one Mr. Thomas
Dunne, a very goodly man of person, stature and complexion, and
well learned also," evidently a presence fit for a throne.
Dee adds: "They which yet live and were hearers and beholders,
they can testifie more than is meete here to be written of these
my boyish attempts and exploites scholasticall."
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