As James Bond embarks on his 22nd big-screen outing in The Quantum Of Solace, the question of whether or not he ever went to Cambridge remains something of a mystery.

Filmgoers can point to references in the movies which suggest Bond did indeed have a First in Oriental Languages from Cambridge, but purists may see it otherwise, since in the original novels by Ian Fleming, Bond’s experience of higher education only involved a brief spell at the University of Geneva.

But whether or not Bond, like Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, belongs on the list of Cambridge spies, there may be another 007 who does.

Born in 1527, John Dee (pictured) was not a notorious womaniser and pre-dated the invention of both the Martini and the fast car by several centuries. According to some, however, he was the inspiration behind Bond’s three-digit code number.

Dee, who studied at St. John’s College and later became one of Trinity College’s founding fellows, was a great polymath and one of the most learned men of his generation.

Thanks to his extensive knowledge of science and mathematics, Elizabeth I appointed him her trusted scientific and astrological advisor, even allowing him to select her coronation date. In Dee’s correspondence with the Queen, we find a mysterious signature symbol – two circles and what could be an elongated number 7.

Writing in his 1968 book John Dee, Scientist, geographer, astrologer and secret agent to Elizabeth I, author Richard Deacon was under no illusions that Dee was indeed the original 007, even calling him “a roving James Bond of Tudor times” who enjoyed an active relationship with Elizabeth’s own “spymaster”, Francis Walsingham. Now, as Bond returns to the big screen, blogs and fansites are once more resurrecting the idea that Dee was the original Bond.

Supporters of the theory believe the “00” either symbolised Dee’s eyes or were themselves a code meaning “For Your Eyes Only”. The “7” has been interpreted as a sacred or lucky number which Dee – who was certainly fascinated by numerology and the mystical property of numbers – may have regarded as a prudent addition. Perhaps most significantly of all, Fleming knew Deacon, and may have borrowed the symbol.

Even if he provided some of the inspiration for Bond, however, many current scholars regard the suggestion that Dee was himself a spy or secret agent as a step too far – and as a theory that may have sounded more convincing during the Cold War than it does today.

Jenny Rampling, a PhD researcher in 16th century intellectual history in Cambridge’s Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, believes it is more accurate to regard Dee as an “astonishing” intellectual whose intelligence was highly prized by Europe’s elite. “He was an immensely learned man,” she said. “European powers wanted to use him because he was regarded as a man in the know.”

Dee was certainly widely-travelled and, like Bond, embroiled in political intrigue at various stages in his life. In the 1580s, he fell in with Edward Kelley, who impressed Dee with his alleged ability to “scry”, or converse with angels using a crystal ball.

Both were lured to the continent (after some angelic advice) by the Polish nobleman Albert Laski, who had designs on becoming that country’s King. When Laski turned out to be bankrupt, they instead made their way to Prague, then capital of the Holy Roman Empire, where they attempted to secure the patronage of the Emperor Rudolph II, a man himself fascinated by the occult.

Their establishment at Rudolph’s court (where Kelley was more sought-after than Dee), sparked an effort by the English to have the two great minds return to their home country instead of working for foreign powers. Dee was eventually persuaded to return home, though quite possibly for no reason other than that he was running out of money. In England, he pursued the interest in matters supernatural that absorbed him in later life, but after Elizabeth’s death he found himself unable to win favour with James I and died in poverty in 1609.

Alongside his many other talents, Dee had a remarkable gift for mechanical and practical applications. Unlike Bond, he was not directly involved in the maritime defence of the nation, but he was able to lend his technical and navigational know-how to sailors at the court of Elizabeth.

“Maybe he was a little more like Q than Bond in that sense,” Rampling added. “At Trinity he put on a performance of Aristophanes’ Pax and constructed a mechanical flying dung beetle. It wasn’t quite an Aston Martin, but for the time it was so sophisticated people thought he had used black magic to make it fly up the stage.”

Dee was also no stranger to the concept of weapons of mass power and destruction. As he became more interested in mysticism, he devoted much of his time to the hunt for the philosophers’ stone – the ultimate (and elusive) gadget of the early modern era, which promised limitless wealth and extended life. Whether or not he was a spy remains a moot point – but as a great Cambridge mind who was often wooed for his great learning, the first “007” was centuries ahead of Bond as an international man of mystery.

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