by Manchester Area Psychogeographic


MAP‘S psychogeographic exploration of the northwest has taken us from our first action, commemorating Dr John Dee’s arrival in Manchester, through the Jacobean masque and the death of William Lawes, to the actions of luddites in the early 1800s and the rise of the women’s movement less than a century later. Our argument has concerned the separation and alienation of the male and female elements which had been essential to the workings of the geoalchemical project; the separation being due to the takeover of Dr Dee’s machines first by the seventeenth century monarchy, and soon after by proto-industrial merchants. Not that chronology really matters. What matters is pattern, the movement across the geography, and the placing of actions and characters.

Dee was fundamentally concerned with geography, as a mystic study. He supervised the making of the maps which helped Drake, Frobisher, Davis, the Gilberts and Raleigh on their overseas explorations. One of Dee’s first visitors after he settled in Manchester in 1596 was Christopher Saxton, the mapmaker, who stayed with Dee from June to July. They went to Bough (End) Hall, on July 6 (it’s still there, in Chorlton, hemmed in by horrendous concrete creations). And on July 10 Saxton "described and measured Manchester town" He left on July 14. We don’t know what Saxton’s work led to, no map can be traced, but Dee’s collaboration with one of the leading cartographers of the period is fascinating.

Mysteries also surround Dee’s books. Famously, his library in Mortlake, Surrey had been vandalised when he was away in Europe with Kelly. Many others were sold. But he had a good many books with him in Manchester, and we know this because he wrote about the ones he lent, frequently to people he needed to borrow money from. Books were so much a part of his inner life that he dreamt about them. In August 1597 he described such a dream, in which he saw a book entitled "Notus in Judea Deus", plus others "new printed", containing "strange arguments". Next day, August 6, he lent Malleus Maleficatum to Edward Hopwood.

Where did Dee live? People speculate about a house, in an ancient street, preserved under the Corn Exchange. It seems more likely that Dee lived in what is now Chetham’s School. Christ’s College, of which Dee was warden, surrounded the Church dedicated to St Denis and St George, now the Cathedral. The warden lived in "barons’ hall and yard", which after 1653 became Chethams Hospital. But Dr Dee may have had a second home on Deansgate. He notes a visit from the "Earl and Countes of Derby" on August 19, 1597, to "Alport lodging", (Alport was the name of the old village at the Castlefield end of Deansgate). Then,on August 21, "they held a banket at my lodging at the colledge", which may suggest the College was his official home, while Alport might have provided him with privacy.

Dee was an ageing man with a young, noisy family. On November 7, 1597, he noted a typical childrens’ accident. His son Arthur’s left eye was hurt playing at fencing with "rapier and dagger of sticks". Arthur’s mother was Dee’s third wife, Jane (his first, Katherine Constable, died in 1574, and his second marriage, to an unknown woman, lasted only a year, until in her death in 1576). Jane Fromond was well-connected. She had been lady in waiting to Lord Admiral Howard, until 1578 when she married Dee. She died during an epidemic of plague in Manchester in 1605. Two of Dee’s daughters may also have been taken away by the disease, too. His son, Arthur, and daughter Katherine, survived.

Dee may not have been a stranger to the region when he came to live in Manchester. And its closeness to Wales was undoubtedly important to him. Dee knew Chester and had visited the city in late August 1574, travelling out to Wrexham (Aug 23), Bangor, Oswestry and Presteigne. He was in communication with contacts and relatives in Wales, notably Thomas Jones of Tregaron, aka. Twm Sion Cati, the Welsh Robin Hood, who visited him twice in Mortlake in 1590, and in Manchester on Aug 10 1596, driving cattle over to the city for Dee’s use. Twm/Thomas was also a poet-singer or "herald bard", but also a magician, and his exploits in Wales have achieved legendary status. At one point, Dee even referred to Thomas as his cousin. Dee’s ancestors were Welsh, and he emphasised the fact.

He drew up a family tree which originated with an ancient Welsh king, Rhodri Mawr, Rhodri the Great, thus connecting Dee with the house of Tudor and Queen Elizabeth. He likened himself consciously to the druids, to Welsh tradition, trying to appropriate it to the royal advantage. Therefore, not so much of the mystic, Dee plundered seams of legend which fed back into a recognisable picture we now know as nationalism, Welsh and English. The Enochian angel-speak recorded by Dee and Kelly is also reminiscent of ancient Welsh (a language understood by Dee) and possibly Aztec (Dee possessed an Aztec mirror of obsidian, now in the British Museum).

Dee equated himself with one legendary Welsh wizard in particular: Merlin. And in keeping with Arthurian legend, the Does named their eldest son Arthur. Arthur outlived two brothers, two sisters, as well as his parents, and followed his father in researching the neo-Platonic: he became a doctor, but was disliked by the Royal College of Physicians because of his Paracelsian approach. His book Arca Arcanorum was dedicated to the Rosicrucians. Like his father, he also travelled, and even worked for the Tsar in Moscow for 14 years. He was a friend of Sir Thomas Browne, and died in Norwich.

There were other regional associations which Dee knew about before coming to live in Manchester, notably concerning his partner and scryer, Edward Kelly. Prior to meeting Dee, Kelly had supposedly lived in Lancaster, and conjured the dead in the church yard at Walton le Dale.

After being pilloried for forgery (and possibly losing his ears), he travelled around Dee’s favourite principality, Wales, where he claimed to have unearthed various valuable artefacts at Glastonbury Abbey (a key site in Arthurian legend, of course). Kelly’s discoveries included 2 powders of projection for the transmutation of metals, an elixir (delivered to Dee in 1588), "glasses" and "apparatus" (doubtless alchemical) plus, last but not least, the Book of St Dunstan. St Dunstan, who died in 988, was born near Glastonbury, was a musician, scribe and metal worker and was patron saint of goldsmiths - a figure, if ever there was one, with whom the Elizabethan alchemist could surely identify.

Dee and Kelly’s experiments, which took them across Europe, linked the astral world to the geographical. In a way, they were alchemical mapmakers. In 1584 in Cracow, Dee and Kelly received information concerning "91 parts of the Earth named by man." from their angelic contacts, published as "The book of the science of Terrestrial Help and Victory", listing areas of the earth, and their angelic representatives. Dee’s subsequent research work with the explorers and mapmakers of his day has a vital alchemical motivation. Thus his association with Saxton in Manchester is tantalising.

Geography held deep meaning for Dee and his contemporaries. Wales held meaning which supported Dee’s political, proto-imperialist interests, as well as his magical concerns. Even nearer Manchester lay the flatland of Cheshire, where they dig the salt. Hence the towns ending in "wich": Northwich, Middlewich, Nantwich. Salt of the earth, linked to ash and the earth dragon uroboros. Salt dissolved in water, which alchemists call aqua pennanens. Salt the preservative. The dragon moves across the county in the form of dragon lines, the local version of leylines. Houses named after dragons. And this is before you even get to Wales.

But by the time Dee came to live in Manchester, Kelly was dead - fatally injured trying to escape from a castle in Bohemia, after being imprisoned for not transmuting enough base metal into gold. Did Dee continue his alchemical researches in Manchester? There are fascinating clues suggesting that he did. And he certainly dreamt about it. On Aug 6, 1600 he wrote about a dream of "working the philosophers stone with other". On Sept 29, he burned papers written by his servant and scryer Batholomew Hickman describing the latter’s "untrue actions", or "reports of sight and hering spirituall." Was Hickman making contact with angels? Then, on September 30, "Mr Roger Kooke" offers his help "in the processes chymicall". This character, with his name variously spelt by Dee, seems as dogged, determined, and devious as his twentieth century doorstepping namesake. On November 1, "Mr Roger Coke did begyn to destill." Then on Feb 2 1602, Arthur discovers a "supposed plat laying to my discredit" in the handwriting of "Roger Cook." Whatever the nature of this "plat" or plot, "All was mistaken and we reconcyled godly". Cook had been around the Dee household for some time. He is referred to by Dee in 1581 as being of a "melancholik nature". And on September 5 of that year he tried to leave. "Notwithstanding his unseamely dealing," Dee promised him a hundred pounds as soon as he could spare it, and "some pretty alchimicall experiments, whereuppon he might honestly live." Cook left, but returned, buzzing round the Dee household for years to come.

Was Dee fooled by people like Kelly, or Cook? Evidence seems to suggest that he wasn’t gullible. One well-known Manchester incident concerned his refusal to exorcise a woman and a group of children supposedly possessed by spirits, under the influence of a conjurer called Hartley. It’s now thought they may have been suffering from epilepsy or mass-hysteria.

What’s the latterday importance of Dee living in Manchester? Aside from the importance of Dee’s work on theatrical machines (explored in MAP 7) there’s Dee’s lifelong interest in codes and encryption, which is how he recorded the communication with angels, and probably linked him to the Elizabethan secret service. In the 1940s, Alan Turing worked on machines to break the German enigma code. The ensuing computer-machine envisaged by Turing, who later lived and died also in Manchester, was a processor of knowledge, as knowledge represented a "process" for Dee. Turing’s suicide occurred partly as a result of his neglect by the State, in whose services he spent most of his working life. At the time of his death, back home in Mortlake in 1608, Dee was also neglected, but was surrounded, thankfully, by people who took care of him, including his daughter Katherine, and scryors Batholomew Hickman and Francis Nicholls. Dee and Manchester form a focal point in the invention and realisation of everything we have to live through and deal with: mechanisation, post-industrialisation, the simulacra of "nationhood" and "the state". To enter Dee’s world of Jacobean Manchester can initiate a deconstruction of Now.

Originally appeared in Manchester Area Psychogeographic # 8, Summer 1997