John Dee and his association with Mortlake

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John Dee (1527-1609) was one of the most influential figures of the Elizabethan age. He studied mathematics and astrology, he spoke several languages, he advised Queen Elizabeth. He lived with his family by the River Thames in Mortlake for many years, travelling from there to Prague and other cities in Europe. He had one of the largest libraries in Europe at his house in Mortlake.

In Charlotte Fell Smith’s book John Dee (1909) she describes the house:

It was a rambling place standing west of the church between it and the river. Dee added to it by degrees, purchasing small tenements adjoining so that at length it comprised laboratories for his experiments, libraries and rooms for a busy hive of workers and servants. Mrs Dee occupied a set of rooms of her own.

After Dee’s death the house passed through an interesting phase of existence, being adapted by Sir Francis Crane for the Royal Tapestry Works. At the end of the 18th century a large panelled room with red and white roses carved and coloured was still in existence.

Early in the 19th century the house was used as a girls’ school.

Nothing of the house exists today, beyond a garden wall that separates the churchyard from modern flats, appropriately called ‘John Dee House’.

Portrait of John Dee, holding dividers and scroll. Oil, 19th century © Wellcome Library, London
Portrait of John Dee, holding dividers and scroll. Oil, 19th century © Wellcome Library, London
John Dee coat of Arms
The present church was built in 1543, after Henry VIII ordered the removal of the church from its former site next to the Manor House, on the site of the present brewery. The bell tower is the only part of the 1543 church which survives, together with the font brought from the previous church.

John Dee is believed to be buried in the chancel of the original 1543 church, between two servants of the Queen, Edward Myles and Anthony Holt. A lion, as part of his coat of arms (see left) is among various devices on the wooden panelling in the chancel of the church.