John dee & the Magical origins of the British Empire

At last, the true purpose of John Dee’s invention of the ‘British Empire’, previously hidden, can now be revealed. Conventional wisdom holds that he was responsible for naming that empire, which became identified with a progressive Protestant mission to bring enlightenment to a benighted world. However, that picture is the complacent result of intervening centuries of imperial history. From neglected manuscripts and hints within Dee’s writings, we now discover that, for Dee, the real purpose of the British Empire was to fulfil its prophetic and apocalyptic destiny. He drew upon ancient prophecies of a Last World Empire under an Emperor (or Empress) who would reform global religion, society, and politics before the return of Christ to rule the world for a millennium.
In fact, Dee was not a Protestant of the kind assumed by later centuries. He was born into a Catholic London family in 1527, baptised in a ritual which the Church taught exorcised demons from the infant, and brought up to believe in the magical powers of the priesthood and its rituals. His patrons at St John’s College Cambridge, where he studied as an undergraduate, and Trinity College, where he became a Fellow in 1547, were all conservative Catholics. Dee also studied at Louvain, when that university had become a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. Therefore it is no surprise that Dee finally became a Catholic priest in February 1554, partly to please his master, the Earl of Pembroke, who needed to ingratiate himself with Queen Mary, and partly to escape suspicion through his family’s connections with the Wyatt Rebellion, which had just been bloodily suppressed.  Dee served ‘Bloody’ Bonner, Bishop of London, as chaplain, making rather ineffectual attempts to convert the Protestants whom Bonner persecuted. Dee was not a very doctrinaire Catholic; he belonged to an ecumenical generation of European intellectuals who hoped for a ruler who would heal the dreadful schisms in Europe. Many believed that alchemy would produce this end, for the Last World Emperor would wield the philosopher’s stone to reform all of decaying Nature, including human beings. Dee was persuaded by these ideas, which had been repeated by European intellectuals and seers for many centuries. The prophecy had originated in an apocalyptic text known as Pseudo-Methodius, after a semi-legendary bishop.
Written c.674-8 CE in remote Syrian Mesopotamia, recently conquered by Islamic invaders, the prophecy was influenced by Jewish messianic expectations of an earthly ruler over a period of peace and plenty. It promised a mighty Last World Emperor who would destroy Islam, recover Jerusalem, and rule benevolently until Gog and Magog appeared. PseudoMethodius prophesied that the Emperor would defeat them and rule in Jerusalem for ten and a half years until Antichrist appeared, when the Emperor would resign his powers into God’s hands and die. The short, troubled reign of Antichrist would end with his destruction by Christ, and the end of time. Translated from Syriac into Greek, this prophecy of a great imperial destiny rapidly proliferated in the Byzantine Empire. Already by 800 CE it had been translated into Latin, as the expansion of Muslim power increasingly threatened western and southern Europe. Together with the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations it became the most
widely-read of medieval apocalyptic texts and exercised a powerful fascination over the Western imagination for the next thousand years. Printed broadsheet excerpts describing God’s apocalyptic Emperor were distributed to stiffen the Christian defence of Vienna against the Ottomans in 1683.
The complex text known as the Tiburtine Sibyl eventually incorporated another variant of this story. Its Greek original was written in response to the disastrous defeat suffered by Byzantium at Adrianople in 378 CE, but the Latin text was often rewritten to keep it relevant. Originally it retrospectively ‘prophesied’ Constantine the Great, who would rule for 30 years, advance true religion, fulfil the law and do justice. Later it prophesied an Emperor Constans would reign for 112 years in peace and plenty over all the Christians, destroy pagan lands, baptise them and convert
their temples to churches. After 120 years the Jews would be converted. Gog and Magog would appear and be defeated by the Emperor, who would surrender his rule over all Christians to God at Jerusalem before Antichrist appeared to battle Elijah and Enoch.
The Last World Emperor prophecy enormously enhanced the apocalyptic aura of eleventh-century Jerusalem and helped stimulate the first four Crusades. However, because Augustine of Hippo insisted that Christ’s Kingdom would not be a millennial or ‘chiliastic’ earthly kingdom, even in the fullest version by Godfrey of Viterbo in the late twelfth century, the Emperor’s triumph is almost immediately followed by the appearance of Antichrist.
Within a few years a twelfth-century Cistercian Abbot, the Calabrian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), revolutionised Augustine’s teaching that Christ’s Kingdom would only be established outside history. The enormously influential Joachim predicted human renewal in the third ‘status’ within history.
After the ‘status’ of the Father and of the Son these ages would combine their natures in a long Sabbath Age within history. This spiritual and charismatic prediction added a powerful aura of apocalyptic expectation to both Joachim’s own prophecies and those that his later followers fathered upon him.
     Furthermore, as Joachim’s ideas ‘went viral’ amongst a host of medieval followers, the Joachimist tradition absorbed texts that adapted Byzantine apocalyptic ideas to Western imperial needs. Later redactors blended prophecies about the Last World Emperor into pseudo-Joachimist prophecies. In the process they altered Joachim’s prophecies of apocalyptic troubles from the North, by looking to
another scriptural tradition, in which threats originated in the hot, desert East. In Genesis, Cain, the first follower of Satan, dwelt in the land of Nod east of Eden (Gen. 4:16), whence came the east wind that blasted crops and dried up the waters (Gen. 41:6, Ezekiel passim), and in Exodus 10:13 brought plagues of locusts. Throughout the Old Testament story ‘the children of the east’, the descendants of
Abraham’s concubines, persecuted Israel (Gen. 24:6). The Old Testament used the east wind as a metaphor for vain knowledge such as divination (Isaiah 2:6), and in Revelation 16:12 the vial poured out by the sixth angel prepared the way for the apocalyptic ‘kings of the east’ by drying up the
Euphrates.Therefore, the first apocalyptic text explicitly awarding the western emperors an apocalyptic role, the Frankish Abbot Adso’s Letter on the Origin and Life of the Antichrist(950 CE), drew on this pre-existing tradition. Adso not only became the most influential propagandist for the translation of empire from East to West, but also implicitly stigmatised the East by turning the Last Emperor from a ‘King of the Romans and Greeks’ to the ‘King of the Franks’ who would restore a chaotic world.

The Joachimist tradition also took up and publicised a text of Ps Methodius from which three quarters of the original text had been removed, in order to fit it to the rise of emperors in the West. The redactors added further references that envisaged a western power, rather than the Byzantine Empire, conquering Islam, now identified as the threat from the East.

The Tiburtine Sibyl was also shortened, to make room for new prophecies that German rulers would face threats from “a king from Babylonia, meeting place of Satan,” who would bring great calamities. Traditionally, Antichrist was to be born in Babylon from the tribe of Dan deported to Babylonia. This may refer to the sultans of the Seljuk Turks.
In this way the East became the source of threats, countered by the rulers of the West, such as a descendant of Henry IV, who as Last Emperor sets out from Byzantium to defeat the Muslims, and to establish the universal kingdom of the Christians for an indeterminate but long period until the End.
Imperialists were particularly attracted to another apocalyptic text, the Erithrean Sibyl, which first appeared in the 800s but became so popular that its predictions were frequently revised to keep abreast of political developments.
The most influential version was created c. 1195 by Eugenius of Palermo (d. 1203), Admiral to the King of Sicily. Written, therefore, at the front-line of the long struggle against the Saracens in the Mediterranean, this version of the prophecy describes Mohammed as a “horrible beast coming from the East” confronted by “a most mighty lion” from the West who would rule for 500 years.

The Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II sponsored interpretations of biblical prophecies that awarded him a messianic role, and adapted Joachimist prophecies for his own ends. The Erithrean Sibyl, revised about 1249-54, now served western powers, threatening the Greeks with the power of a Hohenstaufen as the Last World Emperor.
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries the Kings of France contended with German emperors in claiming the inheritance of Charlemagne’s empire in the West and the prophetic status of the future Last World Emperor, especially because the weak fifteenth-century German emperors inspired few messianic hopes. However, with the accession of Maximilian I (1493-1519), Habsburg fortunes began to recover, and the emperor’s patronage of propaganda increasingly identifying the House of Habsburg with the role of messianic emperor began to drown out French claims in the sixteenth century. Skilful manipulation of printed texts and images by Habsburg publicists helped revive western Europe’s apocalyptic conception of the East, a revival exacerbated by the House of Habsburg’s struggle against the inexorable expansion of the Ottoman Empire. By the early sixteenth century, this cosmic conflict abundantly and increasingly fulfilled ancient western assumptions about the rise of the Whore of Babylon, the Antichrist, in the East.

The vision of the Last World Emperor enabled the Renaissance to hold in tension expectations of imminent Antichristian calamities with the positive prospect of a returning classical Golden Age and a Joachimist hope of a renovated world after Antichrist’s defeat. The prophetically-charged imperial election of Charles V in 1519 seemed to bring these hopes towards final fulfilment, because Charles united the French and German royal bloodlines. His early victories over both the Turks and Protestant heretics also seemed to fulfil a multitude of Sibylline prophecies, now clearly pointing to his destiny in the East. Ever since Virgil’s Iliad, imperial aspirants had appropriated the solar god Apollo, guarantor of the migration of sovereignty from East to West. This thousand-year-old tradition fed into prophecies of the Last World Emperor taken up by Charles’ grandfather, Maximilian I, and vigorously exploited by his son, Philip II, whose astrologers emphasised how his solar emblem prophesied the conquest of the East, conversion of the infidel, and perpetual establishment of universal peace.

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