Cypher signature of John Dee for correspondence to Queen Elizabeth I, showing two zeros and a backwards seven

The Original Welsh 007?

by james w thomas

James Bond [Timothy Dalton]: This no place for you, Q. Go home.
Q [Desmond Llewelyn]: “Oh, don’t be an idiot, 007.

In other words, here are two Welsh actors planning to save the world again, or, at least, the movie – License to Kill (1989) – but where did Ian Fleming get the designation “007” for his fictional hero “Bond, James Bond”? One interesting theory states that another spy, on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, signed himself as 007 for Queen Elizabeth…the First. And that man would be Dee, John Dee…or was that ōō7?

Fleming took his character’s name from an actual man, the ornithologist James Bond, author of Birds of the West Indies (1936). (Fleming enjoyed bird watching.) As the spy-master put it in a letter to Bond’s wife, Mary, he needed a “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name” for his British secret agent 007. But why 007? Did Fleming take the number from John Dee – who just had his 490th birthday – an occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and a spy with a secret number?

Born in London on 13 July 1527, John was the son of Roland Dee, a low-level courtier to Henry VIII, and grandson of the Radnorshire-born “Great Bedo Dee the Standard Bearer” for Lord Edward Ferrers of Warwickshire across the dyke. In Welsh, that would be Bedo Du, from the Welsh du – black. John Dee further claimed descent from Rhodri Mawr to even better position himself at court with Elizabeth Tudor.

Before her reign, Dee, an original Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, graduated to academic travels on the continent. He returned to England in 1553 for the court but, after casting horoscopes for Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, he barely escaped a treason charge for it and then went home to build his personal library, which rivaled the universities. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth, perhaps because of the horoscope, made Dee a trusted advisor on scientific, astrological, and geographic matters, making maps for Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. He coined the phrase “Britannici Imperii” or “British Empire.”

By 1583, however, Dee’s weakening position in London led him back to Europe with his new friend, Edward Kelley, a fellow Renaissance occultist, traveling to the courts of Bohemia and Poland. As Emperor Rudolf II in Prague and King Stephen Bathory in Krakow were Catholic, suspicions of spying followed Dee the Protestant when he returned to England in 1589, where his reputation had shrunk from the scientific to the magical. With little work, he struggled on until his death in 1608 under James I.

Earlier, Dee had reported on his travels through unfriendly lands to Queen Elizabeth, signing some royal letters with a cypher that could be read as “007.” However, it actually looks more like ōō7 – two circles over-topped with almost a backward square root sign. It could have come from his Five Books of Mystery, a “sourcebook of Enochian magic,” which had a cypher alphabet. So did the spy have a secret language?
Maybe it was a simple glyph or pictograph that represented handheld eyeglasses – ōō7 – denoting “for her eyes only” or was it Dee deciding that he was “the queen’s eyes” abroad? Or is 007 simply modern?

Ian Fleming, during World War II, worked for Royal Navy Intelligence in Room 39 at the Admiralty. A nearby section, Room 40, had been famous during World War I where British intelligence broke the German diplomatic code and translated the infamous Zimmerman Telegram to the Mexican government that helped the United States declare war on Germany – coded 0075. Anything labeled “00” was highly classified. Was Fleming reading up on British cyphers, older and newer, at the same time – ōō7 to 007?

Fleming never definitely declared himself on the source code of 007 as he did on the naming of James Bond. So it’s fun to speculate that secretive old John Dee may have had a hand in the modern, fictional, spy business as show business. But I won’t go into the idea, put out by Isaac D’Israeli, father of PM Benjamin Disraeli, that John Dee was the real-life basis for Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest.