The lost library of John Dee

The Royal College of Physicians library holds more than 100 volumes stolen from John Dee during his lifetime, the largest single collection of Dee’s books in the world.

Our exhibition ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’ ran from 18 January 2016 to 28 July 2016.

John Dee (1527–1609) was one of Tudor England’s most extraordinary and enigmatic figures – a Renaissance polymath, with interests in almost all branches of learning. He served Elizabeth I at court, advised navigators on trade routes to the ‘New World’, travelled throughout Europe and studied ancient history, astronomy, cryptography and mathematics. He is also known for his passion for mystical subjects, including astrology, alchemy and the world of angels.

Dee built, and lost, one of the greatest private libraries of 16th century England. He claimed to own over 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, which he kept at his home in Mortlake near London, on the River Thames.

The authors and subjects of Dee’s books are wide-ranging, and reflect his extraordinary breadth of knowledge and expertise. They include diverse topics such as mathematics, natural history, music, astronomy, military history, cryptography, ancient history and alchemy.

These books give us an extraordinary insight into Dee’s interests and beliefs – often in his own words – through his hand-written illustrations and annotations. The books are identified as belonging to Dee by these annotations, by Dee’s distinctive signature and by evidence from both Dee’s and the RCP’s library catalogues. Details all the books at the RCP believed to have been Dee’s are available in the library catalogue and in the handlist to the collection and exhibition.

While Dee travelled to Europe in the 1580s, he entrusted the care of his library and laboratories to his brother-in-law Nicholas Fromond. But according to Dee, he ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’. Dee was devastated by the destruction of his library. He later recovered some items, but many remained lost.

We know that a large number of Dee’s books came into the possession of Nicholas Saunder. Little is known about Saunder, or whether he personally stole Dee’s books. He may have been a former pupil; the presence of multiple copies of some books in Dee’s library catalogue suggests that he kept additional copies for pupils. Saunder must have known that his books once belonged to Dee, because he repeatedly tried to erase or overwrite Dee’s signature with his own. Given that several books have part of the title page missing, we can also assume that Saunder probably cut and tore signatures from some books.

Saunder’s collections later passed to Henry Pierrepont, the Marquis of Dorchester: a devoted book collector. Dorchester’s family presented his entire library to the RCP after his death in 1680, where this exceptional collection of early printed books remains today.