As many of you will know, the first person to use the phrase, “The British Empire”, was John Dee, the philosopher and alchemist from Elizabethan England. Indeed, he wrote a book titled Brytanici Imperii Limites (Limits of the British Empire). However, Britain as such did not exist in Dee’s time. Scotland was still an independent kingdom. Ireland had been invaded by the Normans, but English control of the country had lapsed during the Wars of the Roses and was only just in the process of being re-established. What Dee meant by “Britain” was something rather different than a Victorian, or someone today, would understand by the term.
Dee’s Britain was Prydain, an ancient country dating back to before the Roman conquest that had been conquered by the English. Elizabeth Tudor, her father and grandfather could trace their ancestry back to that ancient land. Indeed, Henry VII claimed descent from the greatest king of Prydain, Arthur himself. Most people in Tudor England knew Prydain by the English name for it: Wales.
Many of you will also be familiar with the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which it is claimed that Arthur conquered Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark & Gaul, and established a British empire. It is a rather fanciful tale, and no historian gives it credence, but in Dee’s day history was much less developed.
Besides, there was other evidence. I have come across a great paper on Academia.edu which talks about Dee’s sources for his book. There was a book called Gestae Arthuri which may have been lost by Dee’s time but was discussed in a book by a Dutch traveler, Jacobus Cnoyen van Tsertoghenbosche. Dee corresponded extensively with the geographer, Gerard Mercator, on the subject of the Dutchman’s writings. There was also Archaionomia sive de Priscus Anglorum Legibus libri by William Lambarde, of which Dee owned a copy. Both of these books discuss Arthur’s conquests in the Northlands, including parts of Muscovy, Finland (sorry guys), Greenland and the countries to the west beyond the “Indrawing Seas”. The latter appears to refer to parts of North America which were icebound much of the time and therefore deeply hazardous to Arthur’s ships. In these lands Arthur encountered both little people and people who were 23 feet tall.
It seems pretty clear that both of Dee’s sources were British re-tellings of the voyages of Erik the Red, with Arthur in the hero’s role. If the travel to North America wasn’t enough, the 23 foot tall people story is a dead give-away. So Dee’s empire is sadly imaginary. However, all sorts of things can happen in fantasy. After all, if Patricia Kennealy can write about a Celtic empire in space, I’m sure someone can use John Dee as a source.