How Doctor Dee brought the Devil to Manchester

John Dee
Image caption John Dee came to Manchester late in his life to take up the post of Warden

Astrologer, courtier, alchemist, scientist, theologian, magician, spy.

To describe John Dee, the subject of Dr Dee, Damon Albarn's opera for the Manchester International Festival, in one sentence is not easy.

He was an Elizabethan polymath and his investigations and experiments would lead him into the highest echelons of Tudor society and the lowest opinions of its people.

Born in 1527, he was one of the era's greatest minds, dabbling in everything from philosophy to physics.

But it was his fascination with magic that would lead to his arrival in the North West in his latter years.

Yet the most famous mark he left in Manchester was not, if legend is to be believed, left by him at all.

Serving queens

Through his life John Dee held some lofty posts.

He was the royal astrologer for Queen Mary, cast a horoscope to determine the date of Queen Elizabeth's coronation and advised explorers on navigation.

At the same time though he dabbled in the occult and these experiments saw him imprisoned for heresy in 1555.

Upon release, he went travelling in Europe, allegedly to spy for the Queen, but on returning to England Dee found his home ruined - attacked by people who had heard of his occult research - and petitioned Elizabeth for help.

The rumours around Dee meant the Queen could only do so much for him and, while he wanted to move to Winchester, she requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury offer him a post as Warden of the Manchester Collegiate Church (now the cathedral).

Dee took up the offer and moved north in 1596.

Summoning the devil

Despite his work with the occult, Dee was a deeply pious man and on his arrival involved himself with church life.

However, the rumours that had caused him to have to move to Manchester followed him to the city.

Image caption The burn mark is said to have been made by the Devil's hoof

Dee lived in Chetham's School - then Christ's College, home to the priests of the Church - and a table from Dee's time there still exists in the Audit Room.

It bears evidence of a story which blew up around Dee and eventually put paid to his term as warden.

Upon it is a circular burn mark - a mark which, it is said, was made by the hoof of Satan, after Dee summoned him to seek advice and wisdom.

Whatever the truth of the story, the stain on Dee's character, like the mark on the table, was immovable.

He found his position untenable; his congregation wanted rid of him, not only because of the rumours, but because they disliked his sermons and choice of curates too.

He petitioned the new king James I, but his request was denied and he had to leave Manchester in 1603 in disgrace, returning to his family home in Mortlake, Surrey.

As a final insult and injury, an epidemic of plague in the city prior to his departure took the lives of his wife and two of his daughters.

There is no doubt that, with Dee's departure, went one of the minds of the age and a man who would not return until brought back in song and show more than 400 years later.

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