According to the astrological chart drawn up by her husband, John Dee, Jane Fromonds was born on Monday, 22nd April, 1555 at noon. She was the daughter of Bartholomew Fromonds of East Cheam and served as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Howard of Effingham, whose husband, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, later commanded the British fleet against the Spanish Armada.
She probably met John Dee at court. He was a widower who had been married twice before and was aged fifty when he married twenty-two year old Jane on 5th February 1578 at one o’clock – although he omitted to record the exact place in his diary.
Jane Dee was the mother of eight children, although not all survived to adulthood. Her first son, Arthur, was born on 13th July 1579. The same night at ten o’clock, records Dee in his diary, Jane’s father was seized with a fit and rendered speechless. He died the following day at four in the morning. It must have been a time of mixed emotions for Jane.
Most of what we know about Jane comes from the entries that John Dee made in his diaries. He recorded household affairs such as money he gave to her to pay wages to their servants, and added anecdotes about their children, such an accident to Arthur when he slipped and fell from the top of the Watergate Stairs at Mortlake and cut his forehead on the right eyebrow, and the time when Jane was so angry with their daughter, Katherine, that she boxed her ears so hard it made her nose bleed. He also recorded more intimate details about her, including her menstrual cycles, their sexual relations and his investigations into a foetus that she miscarried. It is also interesting to note that after the children were born they were sent to live with local wet nurses until they were old enough to be weaned and brought home.
John Dee often recorded that his wife was angry with him, which was perhaps not surprising when you consider that they were forced to leave their home at Mortlake and travel widely across the Continent as he sought patronage for his experimental work into alchemy and the discovery of the philosopher’s stone. Although he was well known at court and acted as an advisor to the queen, he was not a rich man and most of their marriage was beset by money worries. They also seemed to be often at odds over the role of Edward Kelley in their household and there are hints in Dee’s diary including this one from 6th May 1582 when he writes: Jane in a merveylous rage at 8 of the cloke at night, and all that night, and next morning till 8 of the cloke, melancholike and ch[?ided me] terribly for…. Exactly what she chided him for is unclear as the following part is illegible, perhaps erased, but Dee goes on to say that come to me only honest and lerned men, so it could be that she had made her opinion of Kelley well known to her husband.
Kelley remained with the Dees despite Jane’s protests and perhaps the best known incident in her life is the infamous wife-swapping pact. This was, according to Kelley, an instruction from the angels. Dee records in his diary that when he proposed this ‘cross-matching’ to his wife she wept and trembled for a full quarter of an hour before bursting into a fury of anger. He records that he pacified her as well as he could and it seems that she was eventually persuaded to obey him. “I trust,” said she, “that though I give myselfe thus to be used, that God will turn me into a stone before he would suffer me in my obedience to receive any shame or inconvenience.” She would eat neither fish nor flesh, she vowed, until this action, so contrary to the wholesome law of God, and so different from former actions, which had often comforted her; was confirmed.
The pact marked the end of the association between John Dee and Edward Kelley. The Dee’s returned to Mortlake to find that their house, which had been left in the care of Jane’s brother Nicholas, had been ransacked and much of Dee’s vast library was lost. Around nine months later, Jane gave birth to a son, Theodore, who may have been Kelley’s child.
Impoverished and in need of an income, in 1596 John Dee accepted the role of Warden at the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Manchester, now the cathedral. The family lived in what is now the Chetham’s Library. It was here that Jane died in 1605 during a plague epidemic. She was buried on March 23, but has no marked grave.
Some of the children may also have died at this time as only Arthur and Katherine survived their father who died at Mortlake in 1609.
Read Jane’s story in my novel The Merlin’s Wife