John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic

John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic

Thomas Green ((Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford)

The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe Issue 15 (October 2012)


A detailed study of John Dee’s late sixteenth-century claim that King Arthur conquered the far northern world and North America. Although sometimes treated as Dee’s own invention, the concept of Arthur as a conqueror of the Arctic and even parts of North America clearly antedates Dee. One witness to it is the Gestae Arthuri, which was seen and summarized by Jacob Cnoyen, who probably wrote in the fourteenth century. This medieval document apparently described Arthur’s attempts to conquer the far north, including an expedition launched against the North Pole itself. Another witness is the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae, which dates from the start of the thirteenth century and provides a list of Arthur’s northern conquests, including Greenland, Vinland and the North Pole. On the basis of these and other documents, it would appear that the concept of Arthur as an Arctic conqueror can be traced at least to the later twelfth century, if not before.

From 1577 to 1580 the English polymath John Dee was engaged in manufacturing and disseminating some extraordinary claims on behalf of the English monarchy and its imperial ambitions. Most intriguingly, Dee, generally seen as the originator of the phrase “the British Empire,” argued that Queen Elizabeth could assert dominion over a vast tract of the northern globe and the New World, partially by dint of its having once been conquered and ruled by the Tudors’ reputed early medieval ancestor, King Arthur.

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