John Dee is regarded as one of the period’s leading scholars, who cast horoscopes for Queen Mary and her Spanish husband, Philip, and suggested the most auspicious date for the coronation of Elizabeth I.
But he was also said to use crystal balls to communicate with angels and collaborated with a conman who assured him the angels had suggested a spot of wife-swapping.
A group of international scholars gathered in Cambridge has tried to restore his reputation, four centuries on.
Jenny Rampling, organised the two-day conference at Dee’s old college, St John’s, where he became an undergraduate aged 15 – to celebrate him as the forgotten hero of English intellectual life.
It was at college where he suffered the first of many accusations of sorcery after a spectacularly successful stage effect for a production of Aristophanes’s Pax, according to The Guardian.
“There was never a single blockbuster discovery with Dee as with Galileo or Newton, because his interests spread so wide,” she told the paper.
“So if you’re looking for a founding father of modern science, he’s probably not the man.
“But if you’re looking for one of the most original thinkers of his day, in touch with all the major intellectuals of Europe, consulted by princes, right at the cutting edge of mathematical theory, author of the preface of the first English edition of Euclid, owner of the greatest private library in England and one of the best in Europe, that’s Dee.”
She added: “But even by the 17th century that part of his reputation was overshadowed by the stories of sorcery and conjuring.”
He is credited with coining the phrase “the British empire” and advising on some of the great Tudor voyages of exploration, including the search for the North-west Passage through the Arctic and is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist.
He also proposed the reform of the Julian calendar to bring it into line with the astronomical year two centuries before it was implemented in England while he also presented Mary with a detailed plan for the first national library.