The Spy Who Invented an Empire

The story of the man who invented the British Empire, inspired 007, and dabbled with AI.

The Spy Who Invented an Empire
Inventor's Lair, Midjourney Art, Reivin Alexandria

Dr. John Dee was a magician, genius, and spy — and the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s 007 — Queen Elizabeth I’s advisor, Dee invented the British Empire and changed the world forever.

There is nothing that defines an institution so much as its struggle for existence: if it survives, its values endure; if it fails, those values become obsolete — vanquished to evolutionary entropy.

The Sixteenth Century was an era of unprecedented change, fraught with religious tension and social upheaval. The Monarchy was fighting for its life. Queen Elizabeth I was in constant fear of being dethroned. The rule of the few was being contested, as it always is, by the mob.

There was no one who defined this time better than John Dee. John Dee loved his Queen, he loved his Country, and he loved God — so much so that he sacrificed everything for them.

He also invented an empire.

Not only was Dee the first man to coin the phrase, “the British Empire,” he was also the inventor of its primary stratagem: naval dominance. And he conceived of the method for achieving it, too. It was John Dee, Britain’s intellectual godfather, whose efforts would ensure that Britannia would truly “rule the waves.”

But the Sword of Empire has two sides: one Light, and one Dark. And its down-swing is beyond compare.

John Dee was born in London, England in 1527. He would eventually graduate as an alumnus of St. John’s College, Cambridge, before going on to gain a reputation as a conjuror and occultist. This would make him one of the most famous (and feared) men of his time.

Dee’s Occult library was considered the finest in England, so vast that it dwarfed the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge Universities combined. It would ultimately be burned to the ground by a mob on a witch-hunt — but that comes later.

Dee began his career as a tutor to the most important child in England — the young heir to Britain’s throne, the future Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I lived at a pivotal moment in Britain’s history — and a dangerous one. She had reason to fear: Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic with an army, wanted her throne and wanted her dead. Elizabeth needed “eyes and ears” everywhere to avert assassination.

Elizabeth sought the advice of her long-time consigliere, John Dee. Dee was clever enough to assure her personal safety by developing a Secret Intelligence service.

Dee — her closest advisor — was a brilliant polymath and the preeminent occultist of his time. Linguist par excellence, poet-philosopher, and social engineer, he was also (along with Sir Francis Walsingham) the progenitor of institutional espionage.

Dee was not only the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero, and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, as well as most of the so-called Merlin legends — he was also the inspiration for the king of spies himself: James Bond.

Of particular interest are John Dee’s most secret communiqués with his Sovereign… His nickname for Her Majesty was M. Her nickname for him — and how he signed his correspondence with her — was 007.

John Dee’s genius, however, went well beyond keeping the queen safe. Not only did he invent “the British Empire,” he legitimized its Divine Right.

Via a sleight-of-hand that focused on King Arthur’s conquests of Greenland, Canada, and the North-West, Dee deftly validated Britain’s claim to rule North America.

Let that sink in.

Dee’s shrewd interpretation of history gave birth to a New Atlantis; one that would belong to his queen.

No doubt already a potent father figure to the young Elizabeth, Dee became a senatorial fixture in her court, too — confidante, exemplar, teacher… and of course, Magician.

But eventually, this intimacy would be salt to Dee’s wound. Elizabeth elevated and empowered Dee for many years (albeit for her own and the Empire’s benefit). Then she destroyed him (albeit for her own and the Empire’s benefit).

Dee’s is a story of tragedy. A man born into ordinary circumstances in an explosive time in history, he combined a rare mental capacity with assiduous hard work. Yet despite this, as all too frequently happens with poets, artists, and thinkers ahead of their time, Dee was an offense to established norms. His dalliances with the occult, openness to experiment, and his penchant for expounding his truth despite the cost — none of it was received well.

Dee was, however, committed to results. This commitment, and the murky zones of exploration it led him through, are perhaps what garnered him that most damning of reputations — that of being a sorcerer.

Practicing the “dark arts” would bring Dee to the brink of insanity. Dark alleys, dark groups, dark truths — whatever the cost to himself.

And the cost was indeed great.

Dee is now reverentially remembered by the cognoscenti as a genius swept under history’s rug. A mortal man too bright for his world who yet sought immortality. And yet his story is an all too familiar one. For history is not written by the better, wiser men but by those who stole from them to stay in power, hijacking their purity of thought — the “fire” that only more perfected souls could foment.

John Dee’s magnum opus, the Monas Hieroglyphica, was a milestone in kabbalistic syncretism. In it, Dee reduces all knowledge into a vision extrapolated from a single “meta-symbol” of astrological signification. He also outlines an ingenious system of correspondences linking and connecting all cosmological ideas, in all spheres.

John Dee, Midjourney Art, Reivin Alexandria

The modern dilemma of a forced choice between two mutually exclusive contraries — namely Science, or God — is a false one. Dee’s Elizabethan world did not view them as different. In their world, Science and Divinity shared space. Everything was connected.

Understanding the keys of the Universe to then be able to utilize them, was considered God’s work (or the Devil’s, depending on your perspective…). And it is in that context (both of them) that Dee can be said to have dabbled in Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence has been around for a long time. Indeed, “intelligence” is etymologically grounded in the Latin sense of “tying ideas together,” and the root of “artificial” is art plus action. Thus, one could say that Artificial Intelligence is “the art and action of tying things together for productive use.”

Dee believed that harnessing Art and Science (together) was firmly in the interest of humanity’s betterment. Whether termed Artificial Intelligence or, in Dee’s parlance, Alchemy, this unification founded the cornerstone of today’s Technocracy.

We have all too often seen the overreaching of uncommon minds, the Promethean fall of men driven to snatch fire from the gods but who instead found their wings burned by it — their reputations sacrificed, forgotten. Dee was no different. Indeed, he was the epitome of this. As with so many artists and eccentrics before him, Dee’s cerebral brilliance was rewarded with suspicion, spite, and exile, his legacy buried under six feet of ignominy and his contributions vanished into aether — we imagine still pleading to be re-discovered, to be decoded by some future generation.

However history judges him, Dee was a genius who made some of the most enduring contributions to the canon of Western ideology. A radical, an iconoclast, a Renaissance Man enthused with the grand idea of knowing literally everything, he applied his every sinew, manically, to the Great Work. Come what may.

But John Dee’s bold counsel and eccentricities ultimately rattled the establishment beyond its threshold of tolerance, leading to a tragic fate and an “unmarked grave.” And yet, Dee’s impact was profound. Without him, the English language would not be the world’s chosen tongue today; without him, there would be no American Empire. Without him, there would be no James Bond, no 007, no CIA, and no MI6 — no spies to protect us. No “eyes and ears” coming in from the cold.

Dr. John Dee died in Mortlake, Surrey, England, in 1608.

Gabriel Mason is a London-born producer who currently lives and works in Los Angeles. As an executive he developed HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, THE GRUDGE, THE RING, and THE DEPARTED, as well as the television series, BATES MOTEL. His producer credits include ABDUCTION (John Singleton), ASSASSINATION OF A HIGH SCHOOL PRESIDENT (Bruce Willis), and the MTV series, I'M WITH ROLLING STONE. Most recently, he executive produced the narrative podcast, AMERICAN HOSTAGE, starring Jon Hamm, which is now being adapted into a television series by Sony. He also produced THE FOXES OF HYDESVILLE, starring Carey Mulligan, an 8-episode origin story for Spiritualism set at the start of the women’s suffrage movement.