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Discourse on History, Geography, and Law: John Dee and the Limits of the British Empire, 1576-80.


Historians have examined in some detail John Dee's efforts on behalf of the British Empire.(1) From the mid-1550s he was recognized as an expert in geography and when seeking advice and instruction for trade expeditions it was to Dee that many explorers turned. Dee prepared maps and instructions for several explorers, including John Davis, Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, and Walter Raleigh, in their well-known attempts to search out trade routes and settle new-found lands. With respect to Dee's efforts regarding Queen Elizabeth's sovereign title to new-found lands, however, historians have been more hesitant to assign him an important role. Most writers accept that Dee created the phrase "British Empire," but otherwise argue that his imperial vision was simply propaganda and antiquarianism, without much practical value and of limited interest to the English crown and state.(2) Recently, literary scholar William Sherman offered the most detailed examination of Dee's imperial writings yet attempted, including a brief discussion of his most important collection of manuscripts on empire, the "Brytanici Imperii Limites," which was only discovered in 1976. Like earlier writers, Sherman concluded that Dee's imperial writings, though demonstrating his exceptional erudition, were passively received by a small audience. Drawing upon Sherman, John C. Appleby has had the final word on the subject to date in the Oxford History of the British Empire (1998): "the impact of [Dee's] ideas ... was limited."(3)

When Dee's writings on this subject are examined and reconciled with the nature of overseas enterprises at the time of their preparation, it becomes clear that his ideas were of more value than scholars have admitted. His imperial writings came at a vital period, corresponding directly with the most intense English overseas enterprises to date, when Frobisher, Drake, and Gilbert undertook their adventures in new-found lands. It is within the context of specific voyages that Dee prepared his early imperial works. The first, the General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfecte Arte of Navigation was written in 1576 to promote Frobisher's voyage and the trading goals of the Muscovy Company. It was published at a key time in 1577, with copies being furnished to important crown officials. The second, "Of Famous and Rich Discoveries," was written in 1577 to promote Frobisher's second voyage and Francis Drake's circumnavigation, which departed in November of that year. Although neither of these works were especially influential at court, Dee established himself as an expert with these writings and was shortly afterward commissioned by the crown to prepare and present a series of works that were far more valuable. Copies of these works are extant in the "Brytanici Imperii Limites" ("The Limits of the British Empire"). The four manuscripts in the collection were prepared in 1577-78, and presented when Dee met with Elizabeth, Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Lord Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. These crown officials were then involved in considering, and ultimately authorizing, the establishment of the first English colonies in the New World, Frobisher's settlement in the North Atlantic and Gilbert's in North America. In his most important audience with the queen and Burghley in October 1580, Dee informed the crown of its rights literally days after the Spanish ambassador lodged an official complaint upon Francis Drake's return from his famous circumnavigation. As these commissions and meetings at such propitious times attest, the crown placed some value on Dee's ideas about empire.(4)

Especially noteworthy are the maturation, complexity, and longevity of Dee's ideas. As plans for the expansion of the British Empire became more elaborate, shifting quickly from exploratory trading voyages into the unknown in 1576 to settlement of territory by 1578, and as Dee's ideas became increasingly sought and respected at court, his arguments became more focused and better grounded in evidence. Dee buttressed his claims by building up an impressive scholarly edifice of classical and contemporary historical, geographical, and legal evidence, at a time when each of these disciplines was increasing in use and importance.(5) Significantly, these writings show that the establishment of English sovereignty over new found lands was conceived by Dee in terms that were internationally intelligible, by employing nascent precepts of international law rather than English common law. This sets Dee's work apart from, and in certain ways above, the propagandist tracts written during the Elizabethan period, such as those of Humphrey Gilbert, Richard Hakluyt, George Peckham, and Walter Raleigh, which have been examined in detail.(6) Dee proclaimed the queen's right to trade in new found lands by natural law, and to draw into her dominion those lands that were discovered by English subjects and were not currently in the actual possession of a Christian prince by civil law, canon law, and the law of nations. He laid the foundation for the British claiming territory by occupation rather than mere discovery, recognizing that in civil law possession was not an act of will or intent (as the Spanish tended to see it) but of physical presence and effective control. He also challenged the Iberian countries' claims of dominion by taking on, almost as a lawyer arguing a case, the explicit language of Alexander VI's papal bull awarding all terra incognita to the Spanish and Portuguese. As Anthony Pagden has shown, justifications of this nature were important to English officials, who encouraged overseas activities but who also knew that the Spanish and Portuguese had already laid claim to the entire Western world by virtue of Columbus's discoveries and the papal donation.(7) Although they were developed within specific contexts, Dee's arguments were well enough grounded in scholarship to germinate into long-term intellectual justifications for claiming sovereignty.


In the 1570s, Dee associated regularly with a group of men sometimes called by historians the "Sidney circle," whose goal was the creation of an empire that would bring wealth to their monarch, increase British importance in foreign affairs, and spread the Protestant cause. The group included several favourites of Queen Elizabeth, such as Sir Edward Dyer and Sir Philip Sidney, termed by one contemporary as "the two very diamonds of her majesty's court." Both of these men were at one time Dee's pupils and continued to visit their teacher at his home in Mortlake throughout the 1570s and 1580s. The group was also in close touch with Sir Christopher Hatton, by 1577 vice-chamberlain and a privy councillor, and Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's principal secretary in the 1570s.(8) As we shall see, these would become useful connections for Dee in the late 1570s during his quest for royal patronage. It was Dyer, for example, who in 1576 interested Dee in Frobisher's northwest attempt and encouraged him to become active in the enterprise. Dee subsequently provided instructions to Frobisher and Michael Lok before their departure and possibly made a personal financial investment when the company was having difficulty raising funds.(9) To continue his support for the enterprise, in August 1576, while Frobisher was in the middle of his first attempt, Dee wrote in six days his General and Rare Memorials.(10) Consistent with the goals of the Sidney circle Dee advocated the creation of a large trading corporation under state annexation. This enterprise could be protected by a standing navy of sixty or more ships, fully manned and equipped, which would ensure that British merchants could travel unassailed into all parts of the world.

In justifying this activity, Dee's argument began to take on useful historical, geographical, and especially legal dimensions. Dee once wrote that while at the University of Louvain, where he studied in the 1550s, he had "entered into a plain and due understanding of diverse civil laws, accounted very intricate and dark."(11) Despite this training, Dee was not a civil lawyer, and his knowledge of civil law was not broad. Most of his arguments came directly from the collection of ancient civil laws codified by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century AD. Writing in 1597, Dee indicated that during his life he had spent "some few hours" extracting "out of certain Roman, and other civil laws, judgements and answers, written De acquirendo rerum Dominio (in the book of Digests, contained)."(12) This was a reference to Justinian's Digest. The chapter named by Dee -- book forty-one, chapter one, entitled "Acquisition of ownership of things" -- has the most important legal precedents regarding possession and use of land and seas in all Roman jurisprudence. Heavily annotated copies of Justinian's works were to be found in Dee's library.(13) This limited source base does not undermine Dee's arguments. Together, the Digest and Institutes, the most often studied portions of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, were the basis all non-religious legal education in both English universities.(14) England's adherence to traditions of common law made them slow to receive the medieval and renaissance interpretations of civil law. In Dee's England, Justinian remained the primary source for studies of civil science and legal humanism. The well-known early modern civil law commentaries of men such as William Fulbecke, Alberico Gentili, Hugo Grotius, and John Selden were still decades in the future.(15)

In Memorials Dee was concerned primarily with unmolested movement along trading routes and with protecting the queen's sovereign rights as "empress" within the "ancient bounds and limits" of the "British Empire.(16) For the first, Dee claimed that common sea passage was a right of all sovereign princes and that neither the Portuguese nor the Spanish kings had any right to restrict passage, for the purposes of trade, on any oceans and seas.(17) Justinian's code made a similar proclamation in the Institutes, that "by natural law, the following things are free to all men, namely: air, running water, the sea, and for this reason the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is prohibited from approaching the seashore."(18) Dee's arguments for the second and more important matter were more complex, as he was required to define in some detail the limits of the British empire. In a lengthy chapter, Dee described the Saxon King Edgar's yearly circumnavigations of Albion and the "lesser isles, next adjacent." This gave him, by virtue of the historical precedent of first discovery, possession of this territory and therefore dominion of the entire "British Ocean," which extended north-west, encompassing Greenland and Iceland and possibly as far as North America.(19) Because this territory was in "ancient and lawful possession" of a sovereign prince no other country could claim any preexisting right to these territories.(20) Justinian's opinion was that "what presently belongs to no one becomes by natural reason the property of the first taker," which to Dee was Edgar.(21) Implicit in this passage is a distinction that Dee was not to recognize until his later writings, that the land had to be "taken," a physical act that required more than mere discovery. Finally, Dee argued that since the "British Ocean" was part of the British Empire, foreign countries could only enter it for the purposes of trade but had no right to extract commodities such as fish from the waters and ore and minerals from land.(22) As Justinian recorded in the Digest, "a person entering another's land for the purpose of hunting or fowling can, if the latter becomes aware of it, lawfully be forbidden entry by the landowner."(23) Dee did not recommend forbidding such activities, but he proposed that all foreign persons be charged customs, which the navy would be responsible for collecting and remitting.

Before Memorials was published in September 1577, Dee embarked on his next major imperial writing. This was a large manuscript entitled "Of Famous and Rich Discoveries," which was written, according to several dated chapters, between 24 March and 8 July 1577.(24) These dates and other convincing circumstantial evidence outlined in detail by E.G.R. Taylor help to show that it was promotional literature for Drake's voyage, to which we should add that it might also have been commissioned by Dyer and Sidney, and written to promote the Frobisher voyages in particular and exploration in general.(25) Dee had several purposes in mind while writing "Discoveries," each of which can be reconciled with Drake's and Frobisher's voyages. The first was to provide all known historical, geographical, and hydrographical details of the northern and eastern regions of the world to enable future pilots to travel to these areas by way of a north-east passage. Armed with this knowledge English merchants could more easily travel to and trade in "all the Oriental parts of Asia & the Isle of Chryse [Japan]."(26) The second purpose was to encourage discovery of terra incognita. Englishmen should, Dee wrote, "proceed upon the farther discovery of that part which yet is least known to Christian men, & lies in the eye of Envy, of other great Conquerous Christians."(27) These included the unknown lands in the northern part of North America and the "Isles of Spices" in the East Indies, areas about which ancient authorities conjectured but whose exact location and nature were not currently known. Here, again, Dee emphasized the importance of claims to first discovery leading to rights of possession. The last purpose, not unlike that of Memorials, was to prove "that all these Northern Isles and septentrional parts are lawfully appropriate to the Crown of this British Empire."(28) These final two chapters were written shortly after Frobisher departed on his second voyage; that they were written almost as an appendix to a large manuscript that focused up to that point on trade in the eastern world suggests that Dee, perhaps induced by the knowledge that Frobisher was travelling back to the Baffin Island region in hopes of finding gold, took this opportunity to explain how Elizabeth had come to have sovereign rights over these territories.

Dee knew that if Queen Elizabeth, Britons, and Europeans were to subscribe to his ideas he required substantial evidence to back up his claims. He needed to provide "truth ... sufficient for ... humane and Civil Service," that is, authorities with enough standing to convince the queen and potentially other European monarchs of the claims he was advancing for the British Empire.(29) In addition to making claims to vast and impeccable research, Dee was careful to assure his readers that "the principal authors ... are used and creditted," and he appended a bibliography of these writers and their works which occupies several folio sheets in the manuscript.(30) Indeed, Dee's use of evidence was impressive and deserves careful attention both because this empirical edifice would become the foundation of his future imperial writings and because, from a more intellectual standpoint, it shows how historical, geographical, and legal evidence was, for the first time in any detail, put to practical application in proving England's territorial claims in new-found lands.

His most common proofs came from historical or antiquarian writings. At a time when, as Daniel Woolf has recently shown, the reading and writing of history and the ownership of historical books were steadily increasing, Dee's use of this type of evidence provided considerable support to his arguments.(31) For the north-western regions Dee's authorities are all British chronicles, which he used, as did many of his contemporaries, selectively to serve his ulterior purposes. His historical agents were the Trojan Brutus, who allegedly discovered and conquered the "Septentrional British Islands," and his lineal descendant the sixth-century Welsh King Arthur, who conquered thirty northern kingdoms and supposedly planted colonies in those islands and regions.(32) Especially because Queen Elizabeth was herself of Welsh descent she was deemed to be a direct descendant of Arthur and was, therefore, entitled to all his conquered territories. Knowing the dubiety of this evidence, Dee devoted a dozen folios to proving the various activities of Brutus and Arthur in order to quell those who doubted their existence or actions, such as Polydore Vergil, who proclaimed in 1534 that the whole history of Arthur was a romantic legend.(33) Dee was not alone in Tudor England in proving (to their own satisfaction, at any rate) the historical accuracy of the Brutus and Arthur legends. The British chronicles of John Bale, John Hardyng, John Leland, Humphrey Llwyd, and John Stowe, among others, all reinvigorated the legend begun by Geoffrey of Monmouth and infused it with historical evidence. Dee owned, read, and annotated all of these chronicles although Geoffrey's Britannia, annotated by Dee in 1574, was clearly his most influential source.(34)

For the north-east and south-east regions Dee's authorities are more diverse, generally respected, and international. He used ancient, classical, and contemporary collections of travel narratives, which were closest in scholarly method to English antiquarianism. They were highly descriptive yet non-political, making them, at least in Dee's opinion, useful and objective sources of information.(35) To Dee these works bridged the gap between history and geography. He turned to Ptolemy and Strabo for descriptions of ancient travels particularly to the eastern regions. Dee had seven copies of Ptolemy's Geographia and his copy of Strabo's work had over two thousand marginal notes, probably the most heavily annotated book in his library.(36) He also used the travel narratives of more recent authors, such as Arrian and Krantz, believing these works to be as objective as their classical counterparts. A principal source of Dee's knowledge, from which he extracted the narratives of, for example, King Solomon and Marco Polo, was Giovanni Battista Ramusio's well-known Navigationi et Viaggi (Venice, 1550-59), a collection of descriptions of world exploration that is an excellent example of how history and geography could be drawn together to create a complete Renaissance narrative. Annotated copies of all these authors' works were in Dee's library.(37)

Modern geography was used by Dee as a form of scientific proof. This was the subject in which Dee was most at home, because the majority of his professional training was in mathematical geography acquired during a period of intense geographical study in the English universities.(38) In the 1570s, Dee was a leading figure in a coterie of geographically-minded scholars, and he was with good reason the primary navigational advisor to nearly every overseas traveller into the 1580S.(39) While at the University of Louvain, Dee had studied under Gerard Mercator and Gemma Frisius, leading geographers of the age, and he was a regular correspondent with Pedro Nunez, cosmographer royal in Portugal, and Abraham Ortelius, whose collection of geographical knowledge in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) was seminal for the period.(40) Dee's library was furnished with two of Mercator's globes, and during the preparation of "Discoveries," he corresponded directly with the Dutchman whose reply Dee interpreted as confirming his ideas about the northern regions and the conquests of Arthur.(41) In January 1577, Dee wrote a letter to Ortelius in which he asked specifically about the northern coast of the Atlantic; two months later Dee met with Ortelius in person and the following month he began writing "Discoveries."(42) Dee owned the geographical works of all these men plus those of other well-known geographers and cosmographers, such as Sebastian Munster and Andre Thevet.(43) Being also a member of the Sidney group, it is not surprising that Dee would use this vast knowledge to advance an imperial ideology, cloaked under the guise of accuracy and objectivity. Dee's supposed "knowledge" of the regions he was describing -- and his knowledge certainly equalled that of any contemporary -- lent considerable strength to his argument, and although he had not yet provided the crown any cartographic evidence to bolster his narrative, his ability to define and describe the regions of the earth in such detail could make up for other evidentiary weaknesses.(44) Lesley Cormack has written that "the courts supplied an important venue for those who had studied geography," because the ideology of Dee and others "was precisely that which was best suited to the royal agenda."(45) In using geographical evidence to define the limits of the British Empire, then, Dee was offering exactly the type of justification for expansion that the English crown was interested in exploring.

Dee's final source was legal, relying upon much the same precedents he had used in Memorials. To trade to other parts of the world Dee employed the law of nature: "for, the whole Ball & Spherical frame of the earth & water is given Filii hominum: no part excepted: unto them to use & enjoy."(46) That is, the law of nature allows all men to use the oceans and seas, and to land in any territory for the purpose of trade. This was an explicit assertion that the Iberian countries had no right to stop England from traveling and trading throughout the world and we have already seen that Dee's views were supported by civil law.(47) As for reestablishing dominion over the lands under ancient British jurisdiction, Dee once again used the arguments of first discovery, which his detailed treatment of Brutus and Arthur were designed to show. In noting the various settlements of territory by King Arthur, Dee showed himself to be at least implicitly aware that possession stemmed mostly from inhabitation. But in general he had still not accepted that in civil law first discovery could be used only to lay an inchoate claim, which had to be followed up with actual possession of the territory.(48) As long as the Iberian countries showed no interest in settling the northern territories, this was not a significant issue to address. On the whole, Dee's knowledge was impressive for a lay person, and this basic foundation would become stronger in future writings.

Dee wrote of Memorials and "Discoveries" that "never, in so small time, so much matter, of so great importance, with such sincere and dutiful zeal to pleasure his Native Country: had by any Subject (British or English) been delivered."(49) As this passage implies, Dee was above all seeking crown patronage, which he had hoped to gain through the publishing of Memorials as a limited run of one hundred copies in September 1577. In the published version, Queen Elizabeth was the target audience. This, and the queen's role as "empress" of the British Empire, was made explicit in a descriptive title page of Dee's own design. At the top of the image are two Tudor roses positioned left and right, and the royal coat of arms centred above the title. Within the image, the figure of Elizabeth is controlling the rudder of a ship labeled the "Europa," and Europa is riding on a powerful bull beside the ship. Elizabeth, Dee writes, is sitting "at the helm of this Imperial Monarchy: or, rather, at the helm of the Imperial Ship, of the most part of Christendom." In the sea, and on the land adjacent, are ships, soldiers, and fortresses, defending British interests. In the ship are three supplicating gentlemen, receiving direction from their queen. From the sun, moon, and stars descends St. Michael, armed with sword and shield. On a fortress stands Occasio, offering a floral crown, which Elizabeth is steering her ship to seize. Kneeling beside an ear of corn that is deep within the earth is Lady Britannica, appealing to Elizabeth to rule the waves and take advantage of the fertile ground and commodities in lands across the waters.(50) For all of its complex allegory, the message is fairly simple: God and Britain are behind Elizabeth's seizing the occasion to improve the wealth, strength, religious convictions, and European power of her empire through activities in other lands. Indeed, this image puts in pictorial form many of the chief elements that Dee included in both Memorials and "Discoveries."

The distribution of Memorials was limited. In a catalogue of his library prepared in 1583, Dee indicated that sixty copies were left on his shelf.(51) He gave copies of Memorials to Christopher Hatton, Francis Walsingham, and Edward Dyer, three potential links to the queen, in hopes that the queen would fund the printing of "Discoveries" and provide Dee with further employment.(52) There is one passage in "Limites" which shows that the queen saw Memorials and provides a vital clue why it (and perhaps "Discoveries") did not receive a larger audience. Dee wrote that he had recently penned a "little book, which by your Majesty's order is yet stayed in my hands [my italics] being the last year printed."(53) This suggests that the queen, having been shown a copy of Memorials, forbade Dee from further distributing it, either because she found its content subversive or, more likely, because she wanted to keep secret the ideas it contained. This also offers an explanation why "Discoveries" remained in manuscript. If Memorials would compromise English interests in the North Atlantic, surely "Discoveries," which made explicit mention of Drake's secret voyage and offered -- were it to become public -- enough geographical details to undermine English efforts, would also have been suppressed. Shortly after the printing of Memorials, however, Dee was commanded by Elizabeth to attend her at court and then to write the documents in "Limites." This indicates that his ideas were intriguing to the English crown, and that Elizabeth, who was at this time interested in furthering English exploration, was sufficiently impressed by Dee's justifications for the British Empire to wish to hear more. For the good of the body politic, these ideas were to remain between himself and crown officials, and not be disseminated through the popular press. These early works, then, put Dee on the path to patronage and also allowed him to develop historical, geographical, and legal foundations which, as we shall see, would become highly significant in "Limites."


Dee's audiences with Elizabeth were initiated by reports that the Spanish and French had turned their attention to Frobisher's voyages, believing him to have returned to London recently with ships laden with gold ore. In October 1577 a notary in London was examined for translating into Spanish an account of Frobisher's second voyage: and correspondence between the Spanish ambassador in London and King Philip II of Spain, preserved in the archives of Simancas, shows clearly the official interest of the Spanish. The French were kept informed of Frobisher's efforts through their ambassador in London, who tried to report as accurately as possible where Frobisher had extracted the gold.(54) Given these potential challenges just prior to the third and most important Frobisher voyage it made sense for Elizabeth to call Dee into her presence and hear his opinions on her rights to the northern regions. Dee was invited to Windsor, where between 22 and 28 November 1577 he declared to Elizabeth and Walsingham the queen's title to the northern islands. The content of these meetings was likely what survives as the first two manuscripts in "Limites," which were, as internal clues such as Dee's use of personal pronouns indicate, written expressly for the queen.(55) In these manuscripts, each only two quarto pages in length, Dee summarized much of what was in Memorials and the final two chapters of "Discoveries." He explicitly challenged the notion that the Spanish had any claims to the North Atlantic, and at this time informed the queen that "an accurate, comprehensive, and full account" of this and other matters relating to the queen's sovereign title had been "written lately in a large book in our vulgar tongue," a clear reference to "Discoveries."(56) It might have been at this meeting that Elizabeth ordered Dee to suppress Memorials, and this was probably the first that she had heard of "Discoveries."

There followed in 1578 two works of seminal importance to Elizabethan overseas travel. These documents are dated 4 May and 22 July 1578 respectively and were clearly written as companion pieces, although they were presented to Elizabeth separately.(57) They were apparently prepared at Elizabeth's request, for Dee indicated that the "Brytanici Imperii Limites" was "compiled speedily at her majesty's commandment Anno 1578."(58) This command might have been occasioned by the intended voyage of Humphrey Gilbert to North America, which was in its initial planning stages. In November 1577, Gilbert had consulted with Dee and then submitted to the queen his "Discourse how to annoy the king of Spain," a proposal for piratical exploits, using Newfoundland as the base of operations.(59) Gilbert recommended that the queen issue a letter patent to show to any curious party that the enterprise was lawful, and under this "cloak" he could get ships to the Atlantic world without incident and engage with the Spanish in Newfoundland. This action, though perhaps enticing to the queen because of the recent beginnings of enmity with Spain, was clearly against the laws of war and peace, and therefore against the embryonic international law. The solution was the commissioning of Dee, who could provide a rationale, in the form of historical, geographical, and legal evidence, in support of a project of this nature. With English overseas activities directly impinging on territories claimed already by Spain in North America, and for the first time being concerned with territorial acquisition rather than merely commerce, it made sense for the crown to turn to Dee for an explanation of its rights in this matter.

In the first document, entitled "Unto your majesty's title royal," Dee began by explaining succinctly what were, in his opinion, the limits of the British Empire. It shared much with Memorials and "Discoveries" but was also clearly his most aggressive formulation to date. It was:
 A brief remembrance of sundry foreign regions, discovered, inhabited, and
 partly conquered by the subjects of this British monarchy: And so your
 lawful title (Our most gracious Sovereign Queen Elizabeth) for the due
 claim, and just recovery of the same disclosed; which (in effect) is a
 title royal to all the coasts, and islands beginning at or about Terra
 Florida, and so alongst, or near unto Atlantis, going Northerly and then to
 all the most northern islands great and small. And so compassing about
 Greenland, Eastwards ["until the territories opposite unto the farther
 Easterly" added], and northern bounds of the Duke of Muscovy his dominions:
 which last bounds are from our Albion, move then half the sea voyage to the
 Cathayen lie. China] westerly, and north on sea coasts.(60)

Of these lands and coasts plus the "huge main land" of America itself, Dee concluded, "the title royal and supreme government is due, and appropriate unto your most gracious majesty."(61) This document was intended to be a historical and legal treatise through which Dee could prove Elizabeth's sovereign title to these vast regions. Dee enumerated four points to be discussed: "the claim in particular" (the passage quoted above), "the reasons of the claim," "the credit of the reason," and "the value of the credit by force of law." In asserting these claims, Dee employed new evidence that considerably strengthened his previous arguments.

Dee's historical evidence was improved by additional reports of voyages and discoveries. He established Elizabeth's jurisdiction over the northern regions by repeating the story of the conquests in Iceland and Greenland by King Arthur circa 530, and introduced King Malgo's settling of several northern colonies in 583, the Irish cleric St. Brendan's discovery of western parts toward Atlantis in 560, and Edward III's settlement of "the four great northern islands" in 1380.(62) For Florida and the surrounding regions Dee related the discoveries of the Welsh Prince Madoc in 1170. In this apocryphal tale Madoc traveled westward, discovered the region, and then returned to Wales, gathered together people and equipment, and traveled back to Florida, planting a colony.(63) Dee's source was likely Humphrey Llwyd's Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, published in 1572, of which Dee owned two copies and from which he may have adopted the phrase "British Empire."(64) In addition to these dubious, quasi-historical, medieval claims, Dee included modern discovery narratives. To strengthen his claims to North America and parts of the West Indies, Dee introduced the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot and the Bristol fishermen from the 1490s through the 1550s, during which time various territories around Newfoundland and "Atlantis sea coasts made southerly" were discovered.(65) For the West Indies, Dee used the voyages of Robert Thorne, who had written a letter to Henry VIII in 1527 in which he claimed to have found North America, and then traveled down the coast five thousand leagues, until he reached "the Indians," the West Indies. Dee's copy of this letter is filled with his marginalia, including a note reading "Our title to the West Indians."(66) Finally, Dee cited Frobisher's first two attempts, securing for the English crown the islands of the northern "Atlantis sea coasts," presumably including Baffin Island and neighbouring territories.

As an improvement on his legal argument, Dee in this work acknowledged that claims to first discovery and repeated travels to these territories were not in themselves sufficient to establish sovereignty. Unlike in Memorials and "Discoveries" he recognized that civil law required that these preliminaries be followed by inhabitation, without which possession -- that is, acquiring legal title to the territory -- was incomplete. In the Digest, Justinian explained that possession could not be only mental (animo) but must also be physical (corpore): "there can be no acquisition of possession by intent alone, unless there be a previous physical holding of the thing."(67) This requirement, Dee argued, had been partly accomplished by Arthur, Malgo, Madoc, the Cabots, Frobisher, and others, who had inhabited, or at any rate peacefully used the territory for a long period. In civil law, such usage is called prescription, which, like discovery, lays an initial but inchoate justification for acquiring possession. But Roman law also subordinated discovery and prescription to actual, effective control of the territory. Justinian wrote that "any of these things which we take... are regarded as ours for so long as they are governed by our control. But when they escape from our custody ... they cease to be ours and are again open to the first taker."(68) The legal expectation was that possession stemmed principally from control of the territory and, therefore, discovery and prescription, while establishing preliminary acts toward acquiring possession, had to be followed up by physical occupation. Dee recognized that regardless of prior discovery and prescription, Elizabeth could only now possess those territories "which the Spaniard occupieth not."(69) Knowing that the Spanish were looking more seriously at North America north of Florida, Dee feared that the territories long deemed British by discovery and prescription were in jeopardy of being usurped because they were not currently governed by the British, leaving their title incomplete, and giving the Spanish title if they simply chose to settle, govern, and control the territory. Therefore, and there was urgency in Dee's writing, "this recovery and discovery enterprise is speedily and carefully to be taken in hand."(70)

Dee did not restrict himself to written (or positive) civil law. He also explained to Elizabeth that because "other Christian Princes do nowadays make Entrances, and conquests upon the heathen people, your highness hath also to proceed herein: both to recover the premises, and likewise to enlarge the bounds of your Majesty's foresaid title royal."(71) Dee was emphasizing here that it was the received wisdom of all Christian monarchs that making claims to territories in new-found lands was lawful and therefore these actions had formed part of the "law of nations." These laws had their foundation in Justinian's civil law, but were based most fundamentally on the consensus, through regular usage, implicit recognition, or actual acquiescence, of the international community.(72) Finally, Dee appealed to divine law. As a Christian prince Elizabeth had the duty of "spreading abroad the heavenly tidings of the gospel among the heathen," a civilizing and Christianizing mission that required inhabitation.(73) "Ergo," Dee concluded, "partly Jure Gentium," the law of nations, "partly Jure Civili," civil law, and "partly Jure Divino," divine law, combined to justify and legitimize among all European nations England's possession, by settlement and maintaining effective control, of its territorial discoveries.(74) Dee's rather hybridized, multi-legal arguments -- which were not particularly unusual at a time when various legal codes were fighting for preeminence -- had distinct advantages. To Dee, they together provided a watertight case for the crown's right to claim overseas territories. They also offered the possibility of Elizabeth or her councillors rejecting one or two of Dee's arguments while retaining sufficient international justification for sending Gilbert off to inhabit America. This was, then, to be another effort to provide sufficient evidence for civil service.

We do not know when Dee gave this treatise to Elizabeth but it was probably presented to her shortly after its completion on 4 May 1578. This is partly confirmed by, and the importance of Dee's arguments shown in, the letter patent issued to Gilbert on the eleventh of June. Being the first letter patent authorizing actual settlement in new found lands the importance of this document can hardly be overstated, as it in many ways provided a blueprint for patents over the next half century. Gilbert was instructed to "discover, find, search out, and view such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people." He was ordered "to inhabit or remain there, to build and fortify," in defense of an invading force, of which reference was made specifically to Europeans.(75) Elizabeth assumed through this patent the dominion of whatever territory Gilbert settled because in discovering, inhabiting, remaining in, and defending land not currently under Christian jurisdiction, sovereignty was asserted according to the precepts of civil law and was justified according to the law of nations. There was no language of divine law in the patent; the Sidney circle's Protestant vision was not strongly shared by the more practical Elizabeth or her senior officials. While Dee's treatise might not have had pivotal impact on Gilbert's receiving his patent, it is nonetheless significant that in September 1580, Gilbert awarded Dee "the royalties of discovery [to all land] above the parallel of the 50 degree latitude," which would have given him most of present day Canada.(76) This grant probably rewarded Dee for more than simply providing navigational advice. No earlier document set out as clearly the legal precedents of establishing sovereignty in new-found lands as Dee's treatise and given that only one month separated the tract from the patent, there is certainly considerable circumstantial evidence of Dee's influence.

Dee offered the companion piece to this treatise to Queen Elizabeth on 16 August 1578.(77) Elizabeth and her senior advisers were surely aware of the impact Gilbert's patent was likely to have on the Spanish king, who was informed by his ambassador resident in London, Bernardino de Mendoza, that Gilbert had received permission to sail to and settle North America.(78) Elizabeth again turned to Dee, and wished him to work swiftly so that Gilbert's voyage might proceed unencumbered. This document is the most substantial imperial work that Dee offered to the crown, shorter than "Discoveries" but more direct in its presentation. It is Dee's imperial tour de force, combining the principal elements of his writings over the past two years into a comprehensive and only rarely digressive text. Once Dee believed he had secured an interested patron in the person of the queen, he took full advantage.

Whereas in the "forepart of this record," the document prepared in May, Dee had described only such lands, islands, and territories that Elizabeth could possess without disturbing another Christian prince's dominions, in this document his plan was to record many other foreign regions that were "wrested from the government of your highness's ancestors." Dee proceeds to describe these territories in some detail, repeating almost exactly passages from "Discoveries." The lengthy marginal lists of supposed ancient titles that Dee provided are, to say the least, impressive. They included virtually all of Europe and the Atlantic world north of Spain, encompassing the whole of Scandinavia ("Scantia"), including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and all islands between England and Russia. Dee also provided a lengthy discussion of Elizabeth's "absolute and lawful chief superiority over Scotland," referring especially to Edward I's claim to Scotland after the death of Alexander III, King of the Scots, which is "abundantly testified by ancient records."(79) This is why for Dee the monarch -- and the empire -- were British, not merely English. As in his earlier writings, Dee marshaled a variety of historical, geographical, and legal evidence, including a better use of foreign resources than in previous attempts and an intriguing suggestion that certain archaeological expeditions in these regions would undoubtedly turn up additional physical evidence ("monuments") of English activity. Internal evidence also suggests that with this document Dee provided Elizabeth a map to support his narrative, allowing the queen to "see" the outlying regions of her empire and, therefore, to make informed decisions about its recovery.(80)

This treatise shows part of Dee's skills as a propagandist and rhetorician. Although assertions of English sovereignty over much of Europe took up the bulk of the manuscript, they were incidental to Dee's real purpose, which was to state, once again, his previous arguments regarding Elizabeth's title to the northern islands and the Atlantic seaboard. He was distraught that because it was "Christian policy that good peace may be continued, yea rather increased with such Christian princes who long since have intruded into, or unjustly usurped and still do enjoy" the many territories in Europe which rightly belong to Elizabeth, these lands were lost to the British Empire forever. This was all the more reason why the queen should with all due haste and "royal ordinance" take possession of lands "where no Christian prince hath presently possession, or jurisdiction actual in any part of the British Empire." Probably, Dee's intention with this treatise all along was to petition Elizabeth, for the good of the realm, to become more involved in Gilbert's voyage. If the project was supported politically and financially by the crown, "obedient subjects will become marvelously emboldened ... to spend their travails, goods, and lives (if need be) in the recovery, possession and enjoying of such your majesty's Imperial Territories, duly recoverable, and to be possessed."(81) It is not difficult to see men like Gilbert and the Sidney circle in these words, or Dee's poorly-veiled efforts, as in Memorials, to engender more crown interest and support in, and support for, the enterprise.

Dee had one more major plank in his imperial argument. In a key section far along in the document he put the force of his historical, geographical, and legal arguments to maximum use by taking on for the first time the Spanish and Portuguese claims to all new found lands. He correctly indicated that these countries claimed their right to these territories by virtue of first discovery (Columbus) and the papal gift of Alexander VI, made in May 1493. Regarding first discovery, Dee predictably pointed out that the northern territories were in long and peaceful possession of the sovereign British prince, his argument from Memorials, and that North America had been discovered by Madoc and rediscovered by the more recent explorers, the argument developed throughout his writings. His analysis of the papal bull had to be more complex, because Dee fundamentally accepted the authority of the pope to make the award. He could not have employed precedents of divine law had he not accepted the pope's spiritual jurisdiction to authorize Spain and Portugal to enter heathen lands to spread Christianity. He did not appear to share the opinion of many legal thinkers of the period, particularly Francisco de Vitoria, that divine and secular authority were separate spheres. As well as being the secular monarch, Elizabeth was the supreme governor of the Church of England.(82) To deny the pope's authority to extend Christianity to heathen lands by reason of his Catholicism would be to deny Elizabeth's right in these matters as well, which would have undermined a portion of Dee's legal argument, not to mention the goals of the Sidney group.

This did not mean, of course, that he had no legitimate arguments to challenge Spain's and Portugal's pretensions. Dee addressed two particular passages of the bull, although he did not quote them directly. The first contentious passage noted that the Iberian countries "for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others."(83) Dee argued that the bull had been issued over eighty years before and despite much controversy and antagonism, neither Spain nor Portugal had endeavoured to discover many of these unknown lands. They had come to some agreement about regions south of forty-five degrees north latitude, but had not yet "blown their nails" regarding territory north of forty-five degrees (which bisects present day Nova Scotia). Given that so much time had passed, and in the meantime -- and indeed, according to Dee's historical arguments, in the centuries before the bull was issued -- English sailors had discovered and rediscovered much of this territory, making it no longer "remote and unknown ... not hitherto discovered by others," the Iberians had relinquished any possibility of lawful jurisdiction.(84) The second, and to Dee much more significant passage of the bull, was that the Spanish and Portuguese were awarded jurisdiction over "all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south ["occidentem et meridiem"], by drawing a line from the Arctic pole ... to the Antarctic pole," the line to be located at about the centre of the Atlantic Ocean.(85) Dee argued that while Arctic and Antarctic poles were reasonable geographical references in order to make the division equitable, the key phrase was "west and south." To Dee, this meant that Alexander VI's original intent was to donate territories no farther north than Spain, about forty-five degrees north latitude.(86) Therefore, all territory above this latitude was available for discovery and inhabitation without risk of usurping any Christian prince's claims. Had Dee been particularly interested in regions south of forty-five degrees, he probably would have invoked, as he had in the past, historical precedents of discovery predating Columbus and lack of effective control of other regions. But because his interest, like Gilbert's, was in northerly regions he did not address this matter.

There is no evidence that the English crown had much immediate interest in this treatise. Dee's main proposals were too outrageous to be taken seriously, and his real purpose of gaining royal assistance in Gilbert's project was probably thwarted by the recent discovery that Frobisher's gold ore, in the mining of which the queen had personally invested money, turned out to be rock. After this, the crown was disinclined to invest in speculative ventures. Furthermore, because Gilbert's voyage did not get underway until 1582, the Spanish chose not to initiate a diplomatic challenge to the patent as it was expected they would. Dee's arguments, therefore, were not needed by the crown at this time. Two years later, though, Dee's expertise was necessary to solve a diplomatic crisis. This was shortly after Francis Drake arrived back from his voyage around the world in September 1580. Drake had returned with reports of land claimed in the name of Elizabeth, especially "Nova Albion," present day California (or, as recent historians have argued, Oregon or British Columbia), and a store of commodities taken from settlements in the West Indies and South America. Immediately, Mendoza lodged a formal complaint with Elizabeth alleging that these territeries belonged to the King of Spain by virtue of first discovery and the papal bull of donation.(87)

Literally within days Dee was called into service. On October 3, Dee "delivered [his] two rolls of the Queen's Majesty's title." That afternoon Dee was summoned into the Privy Chamber, where Lord Burghley expressed doubt that Dee could make a strong argument for the vast title he pretended for Elizabeth. For the next two mornings Dee and Burghley spoke privately about the matter and Dee returned home the next day. Finally, on October 10, the queen went to Mortlake, called Dee out of the house (his mother had just died and lay within), and reported that "the Lord Treasurer greatly commended [his] doings for her title." She returned the two rolls to Dee, thus ending his involvement in the queen's title to foreign lands.(88) The two rolls were simply another form of the two companion pieces in the "Limites," so Dee did not offer his monarch any new contributions to his imperial vision at this meeting.(89) But Burghley's skepticism suggests that many of Dee's arguments became vitally important to the crown at this time. With the Mendoza-Drake affair, the English crown was required to defend its sovereign rights in new-found lands and with remarkable speed the nation's foremost expert in these matters was called to court and given an extensive audience. Dee's work must have, as his diary indicated, satisfied the crown of its rights because following this meeting Elizabeth accepted into the Tower of London the fruits of Drake's voyage.

The crown's brief reply to Mendoza, formulated likely by Walsingham, Burghley, or some privy councillor, is undated and appears only in William Camden's Annales and not among state papers. Keeping these limitations in mind, it is still significant:
 The Spaniards have brought these evils on themselves by their injustice
 towards the English, whom, contra jus gentium, they have excluded from
 commerce with the West Indies. The queen does not acknowledge that her
 subjects ... may be excluded from the Indies on the claim that these have
 been donated to the king of Spain by the pope, whose authority to invest
 the Spanish king with the New World ... she does not recognize. The
 Spaniards have no claim to property there except that they have established
 a few settlements and named rivers and capes. This ... imaginary right of
 property ought not to prevent other princes from carrying on commerce in
 those regions or establishing colonies there in places not inhabited by the
 Spaniards. Such action would in no way violate the law of nations, since
 prescription without possession is not valid. Moreover all are at liberty
 to navigate that vast ocean, since the use of the sea and the air are
 common to all. No nation or private person can have a right to the ocean,
 for neither the course of nature nor public usage permits any occupation of

This response should immediately remind us of Dee's writings. It stated that the pope had no authority in temporal matters; that trade and the use of the oceans were free to all by the law of nature; and that prescription without effective occupation is not a valid possessory title, leaving unoccupied lands free for inhabitation, which was in accordance with civil law and the law of nations. The English, therefore, were free to trade throughout the world and free to establish settlement in all territories not already inhabited by the Spanish. To be sure, these were not complex legal arguments and they could have been made by any civil lawyer from Oxford or Cambridge. Still there is no denying that based on extant evidence Dee was the most knowledgeable scholar on overseas activities and provided the crown with the clearest formulations on the subject.

Given that he was approached immediately after the Spanish complaint it is probable that his views informed the crown's official response. At the very least, the response shows that Dee was all along arguing within respected and legitimate precedents.


Using history, geography, and law as his supporting evidence, John Dee helped the British crown to define and defend the limits of its empire. To Dee, this empire included all territories westward to the centre of the Pacific Ocean and north of forty-five degrees north latitude, which were either already discovered by British subjects, or remained terra incognita and were outside of the territory granted by the papal donation. In these areas, the English had the force of historical precedent up to and including Frobisher's last voyage, but these discoveries still had to be followed by inhabitation. In southern areas, those below forty-five degrees, which were claimed under the bull, pre-Columbian discovery was sufficient to establish precedent superseding the pope and the rights of the Spanish and Portuguese kings, but only to those lands that were not currently under the dominion of another Christian prince. Dee generally accepted that there was no terra incognita in this region, but peaceful usurpation of uninhabited or abandoned territory could still take place. It is noteworthy that Dee did not accept that any right flowed from the conquering of Christians who inhabited these territories. Once actually inhabited by Christians, the land was lawfully theirs until it was abandoned. For this reason, it was of vital importance that all lands within the British Empire be inhabited as soon as possible. As for the trading component of Dee's imperial veision, he claimed for the British the right to free trade and travel in all parts of the world, which necessarily involved landing to conduct business. This allowed the British free passage to, for example, the West and East Indies, both of which were claimed by the Iberian countries. All of Dee's arguments had historical, geographical, or legal precedents and many, as we have seen, had a combination of the three. It was the cumulative force of this supporting evidence through which Dee was able to provide a strong case for his claims, one which would survive the test of European challenges.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Dee was the most important proponent of these arguments.(91) This honour is usually given to Richard Hakluyt, whose "Discourse of Western Planting" was presented to the English crown in 1584 to advance Raleigh's voyages to America and has been called by D.B. Quinn "authoritative for the period."(92) Dee's writings not only preceded Hakluyt's but, taken together, were also a more comprehensive and persuasive blueprint for the expansion of the British Empire than Hakluyt's "Discourse." It is almost certain that Hakluyt personally knew his older contemporary. He read Dee's Memorials and "Discoveries" before preparing his own works and given his membership in the Sidney circle it is likely that he read at least "Unto your majesty's title royal" (the first of the companion pieces), which Dee had summarized and provided probably to Dyer in another format.(93) In the chapter of the "Discourse" concerning the queen's sovereign title, the most scholarly portion of the treatise, Hakluyt argued that the queen had title to the West Indies and Florida northward to the Arctic based on the voyages of Madoc, Cabot, Thorne, and others mentioned by Dee.(94) Some of Dee's other legal arguments, such as taking physical possession to avoid usurpation and the right of travel to new lands by virtue of the law of nature were, at best, weakly and clumsily expressed within a deeply propagandist framework.(95) On the whole, Dee's works were better received and utilized by the English crown than Hakluyt's "Discourse," which Quinn admits had little impact on the queen or state officials.

In assessing Dee's influence on the crown and his importance in defining and defending the British Empire from about 1576 to 1580, we should remember that Dee's broader maritime scheme remained largely theoretical. The crown had little interest in becoming financially involved in speculative enterprises, nor in establishing a royal merchant navy, collecting customs, spreading the Protestant cause, or overseeing the recovery of a vast empire. In these respects, certain writers have fairly seen Dee's work simply as furthering the goals of Edward Dyer, Philip Sidney, and others. Nor did Dee receive patronage preferment for his considerable efforts. In his "Thalattokratia Brettaniki" of 1597, the last of his writings for the crown, Dee lamented that "little account" had been taken of his "care & diligence" on behalf of the British Empire; he was frustrated that his labours were "vainly employed."(96) But Dee's failure to convince the crown of his worth and of his fuller plans for expanding the British Empire should not distract us from the significance that may be attached to his writings. These works came at an important time, when Elizabethan England was taking its first, uncertain steps into new-found lands, when the promise of wealth flowing into the nation made overseas activities desirable, and when permanent settlement in these regions was first being debated and authorized. This was also a time when the English crown was potentially or actually challenged by European monarchs because of the overseas activities of its subjects. In this context, as Humphrey Gilbert's letter patent and the Mendoza-Drake affair shows, Dee's works provided the crown with valuable justifications for its claims to sovereignty in overseas territories. The crown's interest in, and use of, Dee's ideas also helps to show that the monarch and her advisors were more involved in overseas activities than historians such as K.R. Andrews and several contributors to the new Oxford History of the British Empire have recognized.(97) As the civil lawyer Charles Merbury wrote in 1581, "Master Dee hath very learnedly of late (in certain tables by him collected out of sundry ancient, and approved writers) showed unto her Majesty, that she may justly call herself Lady, and Empress of all the North Islands."(98) Merbury went on to suggest that Dee's efforts placed Queen Elizabeth and the English crown on an equal (or superior) footing with other European monarchs. As we have seen, the queen's role as empress and the necessity of the crown's involvement because of European challenges, were explicit in Dee's arguments.

Even beyond his role as the leading theorist of, and the crown's expert on, England's territorial empire into the 1580s, Dee's arguments were well enough grounded in scholarship to germinate into long-term intellectual justifications for claiming sovereignty. He was one of the earliest English writers to apply the precepts of civil law and embryonic international law to situations involving other European princes. In doing so, he anticipated the writings on international law and the law of nations that proliferated in England in the early part of the seventeenth century.(99) Furthermore, as a number of historians (most recently Anthony Pagden), have suggested, time and again over the next half century arguments grounded in historical precedents, geographical boundaries, the legitimacy of the papal bull, precedents of discovery and prescription, the absence of eminent dominion by another Christian monarch, and effective occupation as the root to possession, were employed by the English as justification for establishing sovereignty in new-found lands.(100) For example, these historical, geographical, and legal arguments formed the foundation of England's negotiations during the Treaty of London (1604), which addressed English rights in North America and the East and West Indies; the conferences with the Dutch over the East Indies (1613-22); the capture of Acadia (Nova Scotia) and Quebec and their restitution to the French (1613-32); and John Selden's important writings on sea sovereignty (1618-35).(101) It was the efforts of John Dee between 1576 and 1580 that helped these arguments become conventional.

(*) I wish to thank McMaster University and the Province of Ontario for funding this project, and Jim Alsop, the members of McMaster's Department of History, and the readers for the Canadian Journal of History, for their comments on versions of this essay. In all quotations, spelling has been modernized, abbreviations silently expanded, and letters changed to conform to modern usage. Dates are old style but the year is taken to begin on January 1.

(1) M.H. Carre, "Visitors to Mortlake: the Life and Misfortunes of John Dee, "History Today 12 (1962): 640-47. N.H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy (London, 1988), pp. 180-84. W.H. Sherman, "John Dee's Role in Martin Frobisher's Northwest Enterprise," in H.B. Symons (ed.), Meta Incognita : A Discourse of Discovery.' Martin Frobisher's Arctic Expeditions, 1576-1578, 2 vols. (Hull, Quebec, 1999), I, 283-98. C. Fell Smith, John Dee (London, 1909), ch. 4. E.G.R. Taylor, Tudor Geography, 1485-1583, (London, 1930), chs. 5-7.

(2) Especially A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethans and America (London, 1959), pp. 17-21; and T.D. Kendrick, British Antiquity (London, 1950), p. 43.

(3) W. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance (Amherst, Massachusetts, 1995), ch. 7. J.C. Appleby, "War, Politics, and Colonization," in N. Canny (ed.), The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, The Oxford History of the British Empire series, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1998), I, 62.

(4) J. Dee, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (London, 1577)(hereafter cited as Memorials); "Of Famous and Rich Discoveries [1577]," British Library (BL) Cotton MS Vitellius C.VII, fos. 26-269 (hereafter cited as "Discoveries"); "Brytanici Imperii Limites [1577-8]," BL Additional MS 59681 ("Limites"). On the latter manuscript's provenance, see K. MacMillan, "John Dee's Brytanici Imperii Limites," Huntington Library Quarterly 63 (2000). I have incorporated my conclusions into the present essay. Dee's visits with the queen are recorded in J. Dee (ed. J.O. Halliweli-Phillipps), The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, Camden Society (1968), pp. 4-9 (hereafter cited asPrivate Diary).

(5) See D.R. Woolf, Reading History in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2000); L.B. Cormack, Charting an Empire: Geography at the English Universities, 1580-1620 (Chicago, 1997); and G. Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution: An Introduction to English Political Thought, 1603-42 (University Park, PA., 1992).

(6) For example, L. Corrnack, "Britannia Rules The Waves?: Images of Empire in Elizabethan England," Early Modern Literary Studies, 4 (September, 1998), 10.1-20 at website; M.C. Fuller, Voyages in Print: English Travel to America, 1576-1624 (Cambridge, 1995); A. Hadfield, Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance, 1545-1625 (New York, 1999); T. Scanlan, Colonial Writing and the New World, 1583-1671: Allegories of Desire (New York, 1999).

(7) A. Pagden, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven, 1994), ch. 1; and A. Pagden, Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-c. 1800 (New Haven, 1995), ch. 3. For a roughly parallel argument that shows the importance England placed on the occupation of territory, and its lack of interest in conquest or conversion, see P. Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge, 1995), chs. 1 and 3.

(8) On the Sidney circle: R. Howell, Jr., "The Sidney Circle and the Protestant Cause in Elizabethan Foreign Policy," Renaissance and Modern Studies 19 (1975), 31-46; R. Kuin, "Querre-Muhau: Sir Philip Sidney and the New World," Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1998), 349-85; and "Dyer, Edward," Dictionary of National Biography, VI, 283-4, quotation on p. 283. On Dee's relationship with the group: G. Yewbrey, "John Dee and the `Sidney Group': Cosmopolitics and Protestant `Activism' in the 1570s," (Ph.D. thesis, University of Hull, 1981); French, John Dee, ch. 6; Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy, pp. 180-88; and Private Diary, pp. 2-4, 8, 18.

(9) Memorials, sigs. A1v-A2. See Symons (ed.), Meta Incognita: Sherman, "John Dee's Role in Martin Frobisher's Northwest Enterprise," I, 289-90; James McDermott, "Michael Lok, Mercer and Merchant Adventurer," and "The Company of Cathay: the Financing and Organization of the Frobisher voyages," I, 119-78, especially pp. 154-57.

(10) See also D. Gwyn, "John Dee's Arte of Navigation," The Book Collector, 34 (1985), 309-22.

(11) J. Dee, "The Compendius Rehearsal exhibited to her most gracious Majesty ... Anno 1592," BL Cotton MS Vitellius C.VII, fos. 2-4. (Hereafter cited as "Compendius Rehearsal.")

(12) J. Dee, "Thalattokratia Brettaniki," BL Royal MS 7.C.XVI, fos. 158-66. (Hereafter cited as "Thalattokratia Brettaniki").

(13) R.J. Roberts and A.G. Watson, John Dee's Library Catalogue (London, 1990), no. 741 (Justinian); also nos. 350, 806, 915, 1867, 2034. This is an annotated photo reproduction of a manuscript Dee prepared in 1583. (Hereafter cited as Library Catalogue).

(14) J. Barton, "The Faculty of Law," in J. McConica (ed.), The History of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1986), III, 263-70; B.P. Levack, The Civil Lawyers in England, 1603-1641: A Political Study (Oxford, 1977), chs. 1-2.

(15) See especially G. Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution; D. Kelley, "Civil science in the Renaissance: the Problem of Interpretation," in A. Pagden (ed.), The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 57-78; Levack, The Civil Lawyers; J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study in English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century, A Reissue with a Retrospect (Cambridge, 1987).

(16) Memorials, p. 21.

(17) Ibid, pp. 3-21, sig. [Epsilon]*2; quotation on p. 21.

(18) Justinian, Institutes, I.2.1.1. As is standard for references to Justinian, original book and section numbers will be given. The translations used in this essay are: Institutes -- Justinian (ed. and trans. S.P. Scott), Corpus Juris Civilis (New York, 1973), II. Digest -- Justinian (eds. and trans. Theodor Mommsen and Alan Watson), The Digest of Justinian (Philadelphia, 1985), IV.

(19) Memorials, pp. 55-60.

(20) Ibid, pp. 21-3.

(21) Justinian, Digest, D.41.1.3.

(22) Justinian, Institutes, I.2.1.2-5.

(23) Justinian, Digest, D.

(24) "Discoveries" was the fourth and last volume in Dee's "Brytish Monarchy" tetralogy. The second, "The Brytish Complement," was a series of gubernautical charts, but this does not survive. Dee abandoned the third work in progress and, according to his own account in the published version of Memorials, burned the manuscript.

(25) Taylor, Tudor Geography, p. 116. Taylor convincingly cites both internal and external evidence. Dyer, Sidney, and the Earl of Bedford, Drake's godfather, the three men most closely associated with Drake's attempt, visited Dee in January 1577 (Private Diary, pp. 2-3), about the time he abandoned the mysterious third volume of the tetralogy and began writing "Discoveries."

(26) "Discoveries," f. 69v.

(27) Ibid., f. 69v.

(28) Ibid, f. 266v.

(29) Ibid, f. 65v.

(30) Ibid, fos. 125-7.

(31) Woolf, Reading History, especially chs. 1-3; and Woolf, The Idea of History in Early Modern England (Toronto, 1990).

(32) "Discoveries," fos. 52-60.

(33) Ibid, fos. 255-65. P. Vergil, An Abridgement of the Notable Works of Polydore Vergil (London, 1546) (STC 24654). Dee had other works of Vergil in his library (Library Catalogue, nos. 731, 865, DM18), but apparently not the Anglica Historia, though he was clearly aware of the argument, which was refuted expressly by J. Prise in his Historia Brytannica Defensio (London, 1573) (STC 20309), an annotated copy of which was in Dee's library (Library Catalogue, no. 669).

(34) The titles of these works may be found in the Pollard and Redgrave Short Title Catalogue under the authors' names. For their presence in Dee's collection, see: Library Catalogue, nos. 274, 548, 601, 669, 1200, 1681, 1686-7, 1703, 1747, 1699-1702, 1968.

(35) Woolf, The Idea of History, p. 13.

(36) Library Catalogue: Ptolemy, 140; Strabo, no. 112, and p. 83.

(37) Library Catalogue: Giovanni Ramusio, Navigationi et Viaggi (no. 273); Flavius Arrianus, Periplus (two editions, nos. 36,405); Albertus Krantzius, various works (nos. 29, 1760, 1761, 1960); Olaus Magnus, Historia de Rebus Septentrionalibus (no. 283); Pliny the Elder, various works (nos. 237, 305, 603, 629).

(38) Cormack, Charting an Empire, ch. 3, especially pp. 124-28.

(39) Dee's contributions to imperial cartography have been well documented. His maps may be found in manuscript: BL Cotton MS Otho E.VIII, fos. 41-80; BL Lansdowne MS 122, f. 30; BL Cotton MS Augustus I.I.I. Other material is mentioned by Dee in John Dee, A Letter, Containing a Most Briefe Discourse Apologeticall (London, 1593), sig. Blv. On Dee's role in the development of contemporary cartography, see: Cormack, Charting an Empire; D.N. Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (Oxford, 1992); W. H. Sherman, "Putting the British Seas on the Map: John Dee's Imperial Cartography," Cartographica, 35 (1998), 1-10; A. de Smet, "John Dee et sa place dans l'histoire de la cartographie," in H. Wallis and S. Tyacke (eds.), My Head is a Map: Essays & Memoire in Honour or R. V. Tooley (London, 1973).

(40) Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy, pp. 26-27. Dee dedicated his Propaedenmata Aphoristica (1558) to Mercator, and mentioned his and Gemma Frisius's tutelage in Louvain. French, John Dee, p. 177, and Taylor, Tudor Geography, pp. 83-85.

(41) "Compendius Rehearsal," f. 9. Mercator's letter (in Dutch) was copied directly into "Discoveries," fos. 264v-269v. It has been translated and examined by E.G.R. Taylor, "A letter dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee," Imago Mundi, 13 (1956), 56-68. See also Taylor, Tudor Geography, pp. 126-28 and 130-34.

(42) Dee to Ortelius, 16 January 1577, in Joannes Henricus Hessels, Abrahami Ortelii ... Epistulae (1524-1628) (London, 1887), I, 67.

(43) Library Catalogue: Gemma Frisius, nos. 362, 967, 1025, 1085, 1091, B74 (a globe), B228; Mercator, nos. 211,212, 1658; Nunez, nos. 100, 189, 674, 769; Ortelius, no. 213; Munster, nos. 88; Thevet, no. 238.

(44) The concept, derived from Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, that geographical and cartographical "knowledge" equalled monarchical and state "power" has been the subject of much literature. See the works of J.B. Harley, especially: "Maps, Knowledge, and Power," in D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels. (eds.), The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 277-303; "Silences and Secrecy: The Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe," Imago Mundi, 40 (1988), 57-76; "Deconstructing the Map," Cartographica, 26 (1989), 1-20; "Historical Geography and the Cartographic Illusion," Journal of Historical Geography, 15 (1989), 80-91; and J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, "Concluding Remarks," in History of Cartography, I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (Chicago, 1987). For a more strictly English treatment, see P. Barber, "England II: Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, 1550-1625," in D. Buisseret (ed.), The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1992), pp. 62-77; and R. Helgerson, "The Land Speaks," in Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago, 1992).

(45) Cormack, Charting an Empire, p. 229. This notion that geography helped to "create a shared ideology of the nascent English empire" is the heart of Cormack's argument (see pp. 225-30).

(46) Discoveries," f. 76

(47) Justinian, Institutes, I.2.1.1-4.

(48) Justinian, Institutes, I.2.6.7, and Digest, D.41.1.3.

(49) Memorials, sig. [Epsilon]*1r.

(50) The title page has received much attention. See especially Cormack, "Britannia Rules the Waves?" paras. 2-6. Dee's original sketch, from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1789, f. 50, is reprinted in Gwyn, "John Dee's Arte of Navigation," p. 319, plate 2. Dee himself explains the title page in Memorials, p. 53.

(51) Library Catalogue, no. 1680, has a marginal notation beside Memorials reading "I left 60 of them ready corrected."

(52) Memorials, p. sig. [Epsilon]*2v, and pp. 79-80.

(53) "Limites," p. 73.

(54) B. Allaire, "French reactions to the northwest voyages and the assays by Geoffroy Le Brumen of the Frobisher ore (1576-1584)," in Symons (ed.), Meta Incognita, II, 594-600; and B. Allaire and D. Hogarth, "Martin Frobisher, the Spaniards, and a Sixteenth-Century Northern Spy," in Meta Incognita, II, 575-88. See also the Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series (Spanish), II (1568-79), 567-70 and 583-615 passim (hereafter cited as CSP Spanish)

(55) "Limites," pp. 4-5 and 7-9.

(56) "Limites", p. 7.

(57) Ibid, pp. 13-21 and 25-94. The date of the last manuscript reads "Anno Domini 1576, July 22" but I am convinced this is July 22, 1578. For more on the dating of the documents, and evidence that they are "companion pieces," see MacMillan, "John Dee's Brytanici Imperii Limites."

(58) "Thalattokratia Brettaniki," f. 161v.

(59) Dee, Private Diary, p. 3. Gilbert's treatise is at Great Britain Public Record Office (PRO) SP 12/118/12(1).

(60) "Limites," p. 13.

(61) Ibid., p. 21.

(62) "Limites," pp. 14, 16-19. Dee believed there were four large islands forming a circle in the Arctic Ocean, a belief he derived from Mercator's world map of 1569.

(63) See R. W. Barone, "Madoc and John Dee: Welsh Myth and Elizabethan Imperialism," The Elizabethan Review (Spring, 2000) and at website --

(64) B. Ward Henry, "John Dee, Humphrey Llwyd, and the name `British Empire'," Huntington Library Quarterly, 35 (1971-72), 189-90.

(65) "Limites," pp. 14-16.

(66) BL Cotton MS Vitellius C. VII, fos. 329-45; the marginal note is on f. 338v.

(67) Justinian, Digest, D.

(68) Justinian, Digest, D.

(69) "Limites," p. 21.

(70) "Limites," p. 20.

(71) Ibid, p. 20.

(72) R. Y. Jennings, The Acquisition of Territory in International Law (Manchester, 1963); and J.L. Briefly, The Law of Nations: An Introduction to the International Law of Peace, 6th ed. (Oxford, 1963).

(73) "Limites," pp. 20-21.

(74) "Limites," p. 21.

(75) PRO Patent Roll C 66/1178, mm. 8-9.

(76) Private Diary, p. 8.

(77) Dee "went to Norwich with [his] work of Imperium Brytanicum," (Private Diary, p. 4) where the queen was currently in residence (Sherman, John Dee, p. 182).

(78) hereafter cited as CSP Spanish, II, 591-607 passim.

(79) "Limites," pp. 25-57; quotations on pp. 25, 57, 46 respectively.

(80) "Limites," p. 25. Sherman has made the case for Dee's inclusion of a map with this treatise in John Dee, p. 186, and "Putting the British Seas on the Map," pp. 3-4.

(82) "Limites," quotations on pp. 25, 26, 72, 65 respectively.

(83) The bull is "Inter Cetera", reprinted in translation in Frances G. Davenport, European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648 (Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1967), pp. 75-78; quotation on p. 76.

(84) "Limites," p. 65.

(85) Davenport, European Treaties, pp. 77-78.

(86) "Limites," pp. 66-67.

(87) CSP Spanish, III (1580-86), nos. 44-50 passim. See also: BL Additional MS 28420. This incident is recounted in E. P. Cheyney, "International Law Under Queen Elizabeth," English Historical Review, 20 (1905), 659-60.

(88) Dee, Private Diary, p. 9.

(89) Sherman, John Dee, p. 187. A fifth section in "Limites" was actually an appendix to the "Brytanici Imperii Limites" proper, and when the collection was drawn together in 1593, the material "in the margents of the long roll" ("Limites," p. 75) became this appendix. This is clear evidence that the two rolls and the bulk of "Limites" consisted of the same material.

(90) Quoted in Cheyney, "International Law," p. 660.

(91) In this I am supported by William Sherman, who termed Dee one of the British Empire's "earliest, boldest, and most ingenious advocates" (Sherman, John Dee, p. 148).

(92) D.B. Quinn, "Introduction," in Richard Hakluyt, A Particuler Discourse ... Known as the Discourse of Western Planting (Hakluyt Society, 1993). This is a photo reproduction of the manuscript ("Hereafter cited as Western Planting").

(93) E.G.R. Taylor, The Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts (Hakluyt Society, 1935), doc. 26 and pp. 404, 446 have textual and editorial evidence of Dee's contributions to Hakluyt's works. The first of the companion pieces in "Limites" was copied onto the back of a map Dee prepared in 1580, BL Cotton MS Augustus I.I.I, which Hakluyt was probably able to consult. Dee's influence on Hakluyt can also be seen in other ways. Hakluyt reprinted Dee's account of King Edgar's conquests verbatim in his Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1589), II; and the first five chapters of "Discoveries," which were among Hakluyt's papers upon his death, were summarized by his literary successor, Samuel Purchas, in his Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrims (London, 1625), I, 93, 97, 105-6, 108-16.

(94) Western Planting, cap. XVIII.

(95) Western Planting, caps. VIII-IX, XV.

(96) "Thalattokratia Brettaniki," f. 104. In November 1592, Dee presented his "Compendius Rehearsal" to two of the queen's gentlemen, from which he had hoped to remind the crown of his service in exchange for a living. At that meeting, Dee pointed to the two great rolls and said that he was once offered 100 [pounds sterling] for them (f. 7v). In response, the gentlemen returned three weeks later and gave Dee the same amount in gold and silver (f. 13). This was apparently the only money Dee received for his imperial writings. It was given not as payment for his services but so that the crown could acquire a copy of his writings, because BL Additional MS 59681 ("Limites") was compiled in 1593, and might have been prepared by Dee or an amanuensis.

(97) K.R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder, and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480-1630 (Cambridge, 1984); and Canny (ed.), The Origins of Empire, introduction and pp. 55-78. In part, this denial of crown agency has resulted from recent efforts of literary scholars -- especially E. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London 1993), pp. 98-99 -- to see well-defined theories of "imperialism" in the sixteenth century, an argument that has been explicitly (and with good reason) denied by D. Armitage, "Literature and Empire" in Canny (ed.), The Origins of Empire, pp. 99-123.

(98) Charles Merbury, A Briefe Discourse of Royal Monarchie (London, 1581), p. 4.

(99) For example, E. Forset, The Bodies Natural and Politique (London, 1606); W, Fulbecke, A Parallele or Conference of the Civil Law, the Canon Law, and the Common Law (London, 1601), W. Fulbecke, The Pandects of the Law of Nations (London, 1602); J. Hayward, An Answer to the First Part of a Certain Conference (London, 1603); T. Ridley, A View of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Law (London, 1607). See also G. Burgess, Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution (New Haven, 1996), especially ch. 3.

(100) The best secondary accounts of the use of these precedents are: L.C. Green and O.P. Dickason, The Law of Nations and the New World (Edmonton, 1993); J.T. Juricek, "English Territorial Claims in North America under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts," Terrae Incognitae, 7 (1976), 7-22; Pagden, Lords of All the World, chs. 2-4; and C. Sparks, "England and the Columbian Discoveries: The Attempt to Legitimize English Voyages to the New World," Terrae Incognitae, 22 (1990), 1-12.

(101) My doctoral thesis examines the historical and legal precedents used during these negotiations in detail. Useful secondary material that implicitly demonstrates the use of these precedents includes: K.R. Andrews, "Caribbean Rivalry and the Anglo-Spanish Peace of 1604," History, 59 (1974), 1-17; J.D. Benson, "The Indies: East and West," in Cooperation to Competition: English Perspective and Policy on Anglo-Spanish Economic Relations During the Reign of James I(New York, 1990), pp. 143-82; and J.G. Reid, "The Scots Crown and the Restitution of Port Royal, 1629-32," Acadiensis, 6 (1977), 39-63. Much of the primary material remains uninterpreted. See especially: PRO SP 103/64, fos. 6-133 and BL Cotton MS Vespasian C.XII, fos. 47-50 (England's justifications of its claims to trade and territory during the Treaty of London, 1604); BL Additional MS 48155, fos. 1-38 (minutes of conferences with the Dutch, 1613-19); and BL Stowe MS 132, BL Egerton MS 2395, PRO SP 103/9, fos. 390-91, PRO CO 1/5/77 and passim (justifications of English activity in Canada against the French, 1613-32). More generally, see the ambassadorial correspondence between about 1580 and 1640 at PRO SP 78 (France); SP 89 (Portugal); SP 94 (Spain); and SP 103 (treaty papers). On Selden, see: J. Selden, Of the Dominion, Or, Ownership of the Sea [Mare Clausum] (London, 1635); and the superb analysis in P. Christianson, Discourse on History, Law, and Governance in the Public Career of John Selden, 1610-1635 (Toronto, 1996), pp. 246-81.
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Author:MacMillan, Ken
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Date:Apr 1, 2001
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