At exactly 11am on Monday 15 September 2003, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the heart of London in honour of one of England's unsung luminaries – the 17th-century astrologer William Lilly (1602–1681).
To be eligible for what are known as 'Westminster plaques', individuals must be highly regarded by their profession, have made a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness and be either recognizable to the well-informed passer-by or deserving of national recognition. The first person to be celebrated in this way was Sir Winston Churchill; others include Oscar Wilde and computer pioneer Charles Babbage. Lilly was the 53rd recipient of a plaque, and the first astrologer.
What is it about Lilly? Coming from a humble farming family, he rose by his own efforts to become the most famous man in England – more acclaimed than Charles I or Oliver Cromwell. He was a publishing sensation and the nation's first ever media darling (celebrated in print and song), thanks to his bestselling pamphlets containing uncannily accurate forecasts about events of national importance.
During the Civil War, he was a key figure consulted at the highest level by the King and Parliament, as well as by the radical sects. His astrological intelligence on the timing of critical battles helped win the war for Parliament. A true democrat, he was committed to making the science of the stars accessible to all, whatever their background. He helped everyone who came to him, even those who could not pay. Because of Lilly, astrology became a mass phenomenon; he held the populace in thrall with his predictions and had the power to bring the nation to a standstill. But the hold he had over the public concerned and angered establishment figures, and many tried to silence him. William outwitted his opponents again and again.
Universities study his writings, associations still celebrate his life; his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography of necessity runs to several pages. He was talented, charming, mercurial, democratic and wily, but it is only in recent years that the full extent of his influence and vision has begun to be appreciated. As the city of London identified, William Lilly is deserving of national recognition.
The Sun signifies the self, kingship and
the father, the masculine principle and the hero.
It is associated with gold, sunflowers, the lion and the eagle,
rubies, royal courts and palaces, and the heart.
William Lilly considered the flask of urine held out to him. In the light from the lanthorn hanging above the entrance to the Corner House, the thin, swirling liquid gleamed golden-yellow; the face behind it was in shadow. It was early evening in London on the last day of November 1643 and he had been ready to finish work. But here was another case to judge. Taking the vial, he beckoned the stranger on the doorstep, then turned to note the time from the iron chamber clock on the wall. It was five hours and 53 minutes after noon.
Settling his new client, Lilly placed the flask of urine on a sturdy oak table and opened up his casebook again. The pages showed it had been another busy day for the rising 41-year-old astrologer. He had greeted his first customer, a maid from Kent, at 7.20am; she was keen to know whether to say yes or no to a marriage proposal. He counselled her not to marry the 'proud young fellow' she was in love with. A better match lay in the future, if she could wait.
Her query 'Should I marry?' was one of the most common Lilly heard. But it was the more general 'What is to be done?' that was the most popular question asked at the Corner House, his home situated at the eastern end of the Strand – a stone's throw from the north bank of the Thames and a brisk ten-minute walk from either the burgeoning City to the east, or from Whitehall and Westminster to the west.
No two days were the same. Any problem might be brought to him, and he typically answered a fascinating assortment of questions. His second client on this particular day had wanted to know whether he was bewitched or not, and if not, what ailed him? The next lady was a returning customer: satisfied with Lilly's services last time, she had come back because she was curious about the cause of her husband's anger.
Later, he had been challenged to find the culprit who had stolen a tankard from the Sun Inn in Westminster – he identified two men. Mid-afternoon, Mr Fowler enquired if it would be good for him to join a shipping voyage to the East Indies. His last two clients, both ladies, were struggling with situations wrought by the Civil War. The first asked, 'Is my husband alive?' The second, 'When will my son be home?'
His clientele's background revealed astrology's social reach: around 20 per cent of his customers were of noble birth; another 20 per cent worked in traditional trades and crafts; 15 per cent were seafarers; less than one per cent were paupers; military men and professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, each represented five per cent; with female servants making up the rest – and the majority – of his client list.
The Civil War was changing Lilly's caseload. Since Charles I, King of England, had raised his standard against the forces on the side of Parliament in August 1642, people burdened with a different set of concerns had been arriving at his door. In a time of limited and slow correspondence, the distressed and the scared sought clarity about the whereabouts and wellbeing of family; many wondered if their offspring should go to war or which side they should support; one customer had simply asked: 'Whether good to adhere to King or country?'
Gaining military insight was a common aim. Would the King's nephew Prince Rupert gain honour by the wars, and would he worst Parliament's general, the Earl of Essex? Would Charles I procure help from Irish forces? Was the report that Cambridge had been taken by the King's army true? Would the Earl of Essex take the town of Reading? These questions had all been posed recently.
Lilly judged that Whitelocke would initially recover, but he warned that within one month he would suffer a dangerous relapse brought on by overindulgence. Whitelocke recovered quickly, as predicted, but ignored the rest of Lilly's counsel and before the month was out he fell violently ill after eating too much trout. With his physician despairing whether he would live, a frightened Whitelocke turned to Lilly again.
The astrologer's prognosis – that the MP was not facing death and would be well within five to six weeks – once more proved true. Whitelocke showed his gratitude by introducing the astrologer to his circle of parliamentary colleagues, among them Sir Philip Stapleton, Robert Reynolds and Denzil Holles. Lilly's association with Parliament had begun.
The pot of urine brought to the Corner House that evening symbolized the growing regard many parliamentarians now had for Lilly. Its contents belonged to John Pym, the leader of Parliament and the most influential man in the country after the King.
Since November 1640, when Charles I had called Parliament to meet for the first time after eleven years of personal rule, it was the vocal and articulate Pym who had led opposition to the monarch in the House of Commons. It was Pym who drew up the Grand Remonstrance, a provocative document listing Charles's misdeeds against the country and demanding religious and political reform, which was passed by Parliament at the end of November 1641. Pym was then one of the five MPs whom an incensed Charles tried and failed to arrest for treason six weeks later.
When war became a reality, it was Pym who was the architect of Parliament's forces: he raised the funds to finance the army by creating a new system of taxation and organized the network of parliamentary committees governing during wartime. When, in mid-1643, military fortune favoured the King's men, it was Pym who negotiated and concluded an important alliance with Scottish Covenanters in the late autumn. Strengthened in numbers and spirit, Parliament's reinvigorated forces now had a chance to seize control of the fighting. But suddenly Pym was worryingly ill: too ill to leave his sickbed. The gentleman at the Corner House was a concerned friend sent by an alarmed Parliament; Pym was not aware his urine was being brought for astrological analysis, the visitor told Lilly, but could he help – would he look into the future and tell him whether John Pym would live or die? Nodding his assent, Lilly got to work.
The craft he was practising was an ancient one. Correlating the movement of the planets and stars above with events on Earth below had provided a way of understanding the universe since the people of Mesopotamia had first begun observing and recording 'the writing of heaven' in the 3rd millennium bce. The science of the stars was the first great theory of everything.
At its heart was judging the nature of time: is this a good moment to set out on a journey?; does this point in life support entering into marriage?; if we fight now, will we win? Four main branches of what was known as judicial astrology (astrology that made a judgement) developed over the centuries, each with its own set of complex sidereal rules. Mundane or world astrology was concerned with the rise and fall of royalty, dynasties and nations; natal or genethlialogical astrology looked at the lives of individuals; elections focused on selecting auspicious moments; while horary (or interrogations) was the art of answering any question depending on the time it was delivered.
Lilly was going to use horary astrology (the name means 'of the hour') to divine Pym's prospects. It was the most common astrological technique of the era because, in the hands of a skilled astromancer, it provided clear-cut and detailed answers quickly on any topic, and without the need for an accurate time and place of birth (which many people did not possess).
All that was needed for a horary was the time and location the question was posited, or, if it was a medical problem, when the urine was presented. For health queries, it was the precise moment the sample was received that had the greatest significance (rather than any physical facts about the fluid); this was why men like Lilly were called 'piss-prophets'.
Using his ephemeris (a reference booklet containing tables of planetary positions), and knowing the latitude of his work place in London, 51º, Lilly calculated the position in the zodiac (the invisible path around the Earth along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move) of each of the seven classical planets – Sun , Moon , Mercury , Venus , Mars , Jupiter and Saturn . He also looked at which sign of the zodiac (which of the twelve equal sections of the zodiac) each planet was in – it could be Aries , Taurus , Gemini , Cancer , Leo , Virgo , Libra , Scorpio , Sagittarius , Capricorn , Aquarius or Pisces . After, he calculated the astrologically significant points known as the Part of Fortune and the North Node or Dragon's Head.
With this information, he could then begin to draw up the figure of heaven (astrological chart) for the moment he had received Pym's urine. In the 17th century, this two-dimensional representation of the position of the planets was depicted in a square setting
Charts are also subdivided into twelve sections, known as the houses of heaven, and Lilly had to calculate which house each planet occupied (in his square chart the twelve houses are depicted by the triangles around the inner square; in the modern version by truncated slices of a pie). Each house signifies a particular facet of human life – the second denotes money, the third siblings, the fifth children, the eighth death and the twelfth secret enemies. The first house begins at the middle left of the chart (at a point known as the Ascendant); subsequent houses follow in a counter-clockwise order.
It took Lilly about ten minutes to cast the chart. Now he had to judge it using horary's specific rules. In the ancient star science's language, the planet ruling the zodiac sign at the start (or cusp) of the first house symbolized Pym. In his horary chart, the sign was Cancer, which meant that the Moon (Cancer's planetary ruler) was his signifier. The position of the Moon confirmed Pym's poor state of health straightaway: it was within five degrees of the sixth house, the house of illness.
Knowledge of the nature of the parliamentary leader's ailment was drawn from the zodiac sign the Moon ruled – Cancer. In astral theory, each sign signified a particular area of the body: Aries ruled the head, Taurus the neck, Gemini the arms and hands, Cancer the breasts and belly, through to Capricorn ruling the knees, Aquarius the ankles, and Pisces the feet.
Lilly then analysed whether the Moon was in any angular relationships (or aspects) with other planets in the chart. There were five possibilities: planets could be in opposition to each other (180° distant from one another), trine (120° distant), sextile (30°), quartile or square (90°), and conjuct or in conjunction with each other (when the planets were adjacent).
Overall, the information led him to pinpoint Pym's stomach as the source of the sickness. Ruling out poisoning, he diagnosed digestive problems caused by a stoppage of some kind in the belly. The next step was the prognosis. For this, he looked at the Moon's movements in recent days and through into the future: with which planets in the chart had the fast-moving Moon come into contact with, or was going to? When would such meetings take place? The portents were ominous.
The day before, the Moon had conjoined in the heavens with the malevolent planet Mars and the malefic fixed star Cor Scorpii (the Scorpion's Heart or Antares), which was associated with sickness and death. In addition, the Moon was, in the words of the mantic art, combust (moving to conjunction) with the Sun in the house of disease – this signified death.
The last question was when death would occur. Lilly's forecast was that the parliamentary leader would die in eight days' time. He assessed this by looking at the Moon's movements, and at the planet ruling the zodiac sign at the start of the house of death (the eighth house). In Pym's chart, this sign was Aquarius, which is ruled by Saturn.
By William's calculations, the length of time left to live came from the number of days it took the Moon to move from its current position in the zodiac sign of Sagittarius to one where it was adjacent to Saturn. Checking in his ephemeris, Lilly noted that the Moon and Saturn would meet on Friday 8 December. This, he told Pym's friend, was when the great man would die.
Closing the door after his guest had departed, Lilly paused briefly to take in the weight of the verdict he had just given. Pym's death would be a great shock to the parliamentary cause and would leave a gaping hole in its leadership. How would Parliament's men react, and how would the King respond?
At this point, it was hard to say which side – King or Parliament – William was wholly for. Such a stance was not unusual. At this time very few were against monarchy altogether: Parliament insisted it was fighting 'for King and Parliament', and MPs hoped genuinely for a negotiated settlement.
William helped anybody who came to him, whatever their allegiance. He had chosen to continue to live and work in the parliamentary stronghold of London and was increasingly wellknown and respected within parliamentary circles.
Yet he had cavalier leanings too: he believed in and approved of monarchy and enjoyed the friendship of those who supported the King. One of his closest friends was the royalist Sir William Pennington of Muncaster in the county of Cumberland and today, having done all he could to support Parliament, Lilly was about to head out to help Pennington.
Lilly and Pennington had met in 1634, shortly after Lilly had begun practising astrology and not long after he had wed for a second time. However, married life had not been running smoothly, and instead of being at home with his new bride, William had chosen to embark on a gentlemen's night out. The occasion was a treasure- hunting expedition organized by their mutual friend, the King's clockmaker, Davy Ramsey (finding hidden treasure was something of a craze in the 16th and 17th centuries).
Ramsey, who dabbled in the occult, had heard there was a great quantity of treasure buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. Eager to find out if this was true, he sought permission to hunt from John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln. Yes, they could go ahead, the bishop said, with the proviso that if any treasure was discovered, his church should have a share of it. So, late one winter's night, equipped with a 'half quartern sack' to put the treasure in, Ramsey, Lilly, Pennington and more than twenty other gentlemen and their aides entered the Abbey.
Lilly was known for his knowledge of the dark arts, as well as astrology, and it was he and an acquaintance, John Scott of Pudding Lane, who led the search using mosaical or divining rods (hazel rods used to locate metal or water). As William later recalled, the two men 'played the hazel-rods round about the cloister'. What they were waiting for was the rods to turn one over another – this would be 'an argument that the treasure was there'.
Then it happened: 'upon the west-side of the cloisters' the rods moved together and crossed. It was time to dig. Standing back, the gentlemen watched with rising anticipation as their men wielded spades and pickaxes. Eventually, after digging 'at least six foot deep' into the floor of the Abbey, they unearthed a coffin, but after deliberating, the party decided not to open it, which they afterwards 'much repented'.
But then, as the disappointed group was walking back from the cloisters into the Abbey church, the unexpected occurred.
All of a sudden, a wind rose up, 'so fierce, so high, so blustering and loud' that the men 'verily believed the west-end of the church would have fallen upon us; our rods would not move at all; the candles and torches, all but one, were extinguished, or burned very dimly.'
In the dark, with a strange gale howling around them, the terrified gents looked to Lilly and John Scott. After a pale and amazedlooking Scott admitted he 'knew not what to think or do', William took control. Being well versed in magical practices, including how to communicate with spirits; he stood firm and delivered the correct directions for the dismissal of daemons set to guard treasure. His commands finished, 'all was quiet again,' and each man 'returned into his lodging late, about 12 a-clock at night'.
It had not been a successful treasure-hunting night: Lilly blamed the daemons' anger and the consequent failure to find anything on the presence of too many people, and the laughter and derision from some in the party. Despite this, lasting friendships had been made. Pennington and Lilly became comrades in arms, with William describing Pennington as an 'ever bountiful friend' and his 'most munificent patron'.
Now, on this cold November evening nearly ten years later, Lilly's last task of the day was to help Pennington avoid having his goods and lands seized as part of the campaign to sequestrate royalist estates that Parliament had begun earlier in the year. Pennington was under threat of sequestration because in 1642 Charles I made him one of his commissioners of array and, as such, he had put his signature to an array warrant for raising royalist troops. It was this one document identifying him as on the King's side that was now coming back to haunt him.
A few days ago, Lilly had discovered that John Musgrave, the man who had the array warrant confirming Pennington as a royalist and who was threatening him with sequestration, was in London. Making his acquaintance, Lilly had pretended to be one of Pennington's bitter enemies. Musgrave was charmed by Lilly and, delighted to meet someone who apparently shared his feelings and who could perhaps help him snare his man, he had agreed to join him for a drink.
Now, greeting Musgrave at their arranged meeting place, the Five Bells Inn, Lilly soon realized that luck was on his side. It was almost too easy. Musgrave was eager to show him the array warrant: he asked if Lilly could confirm it was signed in Pennington's hand. Hearing it was, he laid the warrant, together with other documents, down on their table – all William had to do now was to find an opportunity to remove it from him.
Thinking quickly, Lilly looked around for a way to distract the other man. Letting their candle burn out, he passed it over to Musgrave, who was closer to the inn's fire, and asked him to re-light it. Turning away, Musgrave left the table briefly, and William made his move, grabbing the warrant and slipping it into his boots. Minutes later, feigning tiredness, he concluded their business and left for home. His day's work was finally done.
His subterfuge was a resounding success: Musgrave did not even miss the document until a week later, by which time it was in the post to Pennington, with a friendly caveat from William attached – 'sin no more'.
* * *
A dispirited, mournful mood pervaded the House of Commons. Only a few weeks had passed since John Pym's ceremonial burial in Westminster Abbey. Pym had died on 8 December 1643, eight days after his urine had been taken to William Lilly. On dissection, Pym's physicians had found a fist-sized growth in his belly, large enough to be felt from the outside, which had been interfering with his digestion (the tumour may have been cancerous).
Lilly's piss-prophecy had pinpointed precisely the nature and timing of the parliamentary leader's illness and death – and now Parliament's piss-prophet was about to reveal his potential as its spindoctor too.
In the House, a low murmur of rustling, turning pages and the occasional comment passing to and fro broke the sombre silence. At this point, just a handful of members were reading the pamphlet: Bulstrode Whitelocke was the first (he had been given a manuscript copy by Lilly).
The Speaker of the House spotted him; then Whitelocke's cronies got hold of copies. Then with news spreading quickly about this rousing, must-read booklet, more and more MPs joined them and the noise grew steadily louder, until the House was in a ferment of raised, agitated voices.
Merlinus Anglicus Junior ('England's Little Merlin'), Lilly's first almanac, was the source of the commotion. Almanacs were pocketsized pamphlets containing astrological forecasts for the year ahead. Often incorporating a calendar and useful information on farming, fairs and physic, they were essential reference books – the original personal organizers. Popular and cheap (typically a penny or tuppence), they were also the country's most favoured reading material: in a nation of between four to five million they were read by one in three households. Even the devil, it was said, possessed a current copy.
Depending on the author, almanacs incorporated gossip, health advice, tips on when it was best to enjoy sex, how much sleep to have to avoid being the 'most drowsy drumbledozy', and even comments on fashion: for example, when lap dogs were de rigueur at the start of the 17th century, Edward Pond dismissed them as 'effeminate follies'. They were the first lifestyle magazines, with a broad appeal, as summed up by astrologer Richard Allestree in 1622:
Wit, learning, order, elegance of phrase,
health, and the art to lengthen out our days,
Philosophy, physic and poesie,
All this, and more, is in this book to see.
Politically and prophetically speaking, though, almanacs tended to be staid affairs – devoid of controversial predictions and reverential in tone to regal and religious leaders.
'Curse not the King, no not in thy thoughts, and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber'
was a typical admonition in their pages. The lack of astrological vigour was due to the fact that, until very recently, the prognostic content of English almanacs was controlled tightly by stringent press censorship.
Such close monitoring of astrologers and their forecasts was not unusual. For centuries, the world's ruling elite had recognized that prophecies could wreak havoc, and that a leader's birth chart, in particular, possessed considerable political value because it could be used to predict the individual's life span. Hence, restrictions on how astrologers practised and promulgated their art were long-standing and widespread.
The first emperor of Rome, Augustus (63 bce–14 ce), had issued a decree banning astrologers from making death predictions and offering private consultations. His successor Tiberius, on hearing of a plot against the imperial family supported by astrological advice, executed those involved and had Rome's other star-gazers expelled from the city. The frequent expulsion orders from Rome and Roman Italy during the time of the emperors, when the celestial art was not under state control, were typically connected to situations of political instability.
However, for the vast majority of its history, astrology was the preserve of the elite in society: astrologers lived and worked as political and medical advisers at court, where they depended on their sovereign's patronage for survival. Consequently, in the Western world, the problem of having to police astrological promulgations became acute only during the 15th century when two key developments happened – astrologers began to practise outside the immediate court circle, and the invention of the printing press enabled the mass production and widespread distribution of astrological literature.
From then on, leaders across Europe were forced to employ various means to control almanacs, as well as their authors. Early methods were direct and personal. In Italy in 1474, two University of Bologna astrologers forecast the fifth Duke of Milan's impending demise. Outraged and concerned about the effect on public order, Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza threatened to cut the star-gazers into pieces (tagliare a pezi!) if they did not desist from publishing the death prophecy and forced them to circulate a more palatable, albeit falsified, prediction. (The meddling duke did not escape his fate and was murdered two years later.)
Events in continental Europe in 1524 showed how hard it was to control printed prophecy. Mass panic erupted that year after numerous almanacs forecast a deluge of biblical proportions as a consequence of all seven planets meeting in the water sign of Pisces in February. People built arks, and many fled to high ground or sought sanctuary in penitential rites and processions. With the impending horrors broadcast in ballads and print, this was the world's first media event.
More recently in Italy, Pope Urban VIII had written a papal bull against anyone broadcasting predictions about the death of princes or popes: to do so was now a treasonable offence. Urban was a proficient astrologer himself. He could cast a chart and predict someone's life span – a skill he used to ascertain when cardinals resident in Rome would die; and he made sure his papal election occurred at an auspicious moment.
He even released the occult philosopher and heretic Tommaso Campanella from jail in order that Campanella could design an astrological safe room at the papal palace of Castel Gandolfo. Decorated with specific stones, plants and colours to counteract malign rays from heaven and pull down benefic ones, this was where Urban decamped to during solar and lunar eclipses.
His papal bull of May 1630 was triggered when a covert astrological political think-tank based at a monastery in Rome announced forecasts of Urban's imminent death across Europe. Its writings were so successful that cardinals from as far afield as Spain and Germany set off for the Vatican, keen to be present for the calling of the conclave to elect a new pontiff. Urban's retaliation included dismantling the astrological intelligence house and imprisoning its leader, Abbott Orazio Morandi. The abbot died in mysterious circumstances in prison before his case could come to trial.
In England, regulations to control astrologers and the content of almanacs had been in place since the 15th century. Laws against prophecy were first enacted in 1402 and 1406; Henry VII then declared that prophecy based on 'arms, fields, names, cognizances or badges' was banned (a coat of arms was interpreted in much the same way as an astrological chart).
Elizabeth I confirmed this latter act and extended legislation. From her reign onwards, forecasting a monarch's demise was forbidden. This ruling was then widened in 1581 to make casting the ruler's birth chart (also known as a nativity or geniture) an act of treason.
From 1603 (when James I became King of England), regulation of almanacs was tightened. James granted a monopoly to carry out censorship to the Company of Stationers (working with the ecclesiastical authorities).
The Company of Stationers' restrictions specified:
'All conjurors and framers of almanacs and prophecies exceeding the limits of allowable astrology shall be punished severely in their person. And we forbid all printers and booksellers, under the same penalties, to print or expose for sale, any almanacs or prophecies which shall not first have been seen and revised by the archbishop, the bishop (or those who shall be expressly appointed for that purpose), and approved of by their certificates, and, in addition, shall have permission from us or from our ordinary judges.'
The resulting Crown control of printing was highly effective. During the 1630s, only one almanac author, John Booker, risked prosecution by including political speculation in his publications. In 1632, Booker commented on corruption in government and the law. In the following year, as the then Bishop William Laud pushed authoritarian religious policies, he had the temerity to prophesy 'wonderful change in the church'; further offensive remarks in his 1634 publication resulted in his being imprisoned.
But in 1641, as Parliament strove to wrest power from the King, the stringent censorship system collapsed: the result was print pandemonium. As well as increased numbers of almanacs and religious tracts, news pamphlets appeared, as did play-pamphlets containing politico-sexual satire, and later in the year the first newsbook (the forerunner of today's newspaper).
London, with its 80 per cent male literacy rate, was now a heady swirl of ink as the records of city bookseller George Thomason reveal. In 1640, Thomason bought 24 publications; in 1641 this rose to 721; and in 1642 he purchased 2,134.
'Buy a new almanac,' chapmen called as they hawked their penny pamphlets. 'What news?' was one of the most frequently used greetings, while on the cobblestones outside St Paul's Cathedral, where the public clustered to purchase the latest booklet, mercury men and women sang out:
Come buy my new almanacs every one,
Come pick over your choice before they be gone;
One thousand six hundred fifty and one,
Come buy my new almanacs buy.
In a bid to curb the rapid proliferation of inflammatory tracts, Parliament had introduced limited press licensing in 1643, but it was too little too late. Print as a means of mass communication was now firmly entrenched as part of popular culture. More worryingly for those currently holding positions of authority, the medium of print was also increasingly the technique by which support for alternative and radical causes was being mobilized.
England's Civil War was far from being just a battle between the King and his people: it was also a time of fundamentally rethinking who held authority. The royal right to rule and traditional ecclesiastical command were under threat, but in this new political landscape, where did the source of authority lie? Who could be trusted to interpret scripture and God's signs in the world?
The moment at which Lilly began his prophetical print career was a highly unusual and unique one. A power vacuum was opening up and creative, articulate individuals were taking advantage of it, especially in print. With the publication of Merlinus Anglicus Junior, William seized this unprecedented opportunity.
Right from the start, readers of his Anglicus were in no doubt about the source of its authority. God's will, Lilly reminded them, was written in the heavens in the rhythmic dance of the planets, and it was the starry language of astrology that was the key to deciphering these celestial plans.
'God rules all by divine providence, and the stars by his permission are instruments whereby many contingent some small glimpses of the great affairs God intends upon earth'.
Emphasizing that the planets' motions revealed God's design for the world strengthened the potential influence of Lilly's words immeasurably. It also highlighted astrology's propaganda potential. As the MPs in the Commons quickly realized, what greater rallying cry could there be than to be certain that yours was the cause that was celestially sanctioned? That is why they were looking so eagerly at Lilly's view of what the heavens foretold.
To predict what the year ahead would bring for the English nation, Lilly cast a chart for the start of 1644, which in the 17th century began at the spring equinox when the Sun made its entry or ingress into the zodiac sign of Aries. It was important to him that his audience follow his astrological reasoning, so his Chart 2 England's ingress chart for 1644 (based on Lilly's original chart for Saturday 9 March at 9.25pm) pamphlet also included a reference horoscopic chart detailing the meaning of each of the twelve astrological houses, and highlighting, in particular, how readers could differentiate between the fortunes of the King and Parliament.
'When I speak of the tenth house, I intend somewhat of Kings,' he wrote, 'When mention is made of the first house … I intend the Commonalty in general.' (In a surviving copy of this booklet, the annotations of the original reader – writing the word 'Parliament' in the first house of the reference chart and 'Charles' in the tenth – show they had understood William's directions.)
Using the rules of mundane astrology, Lilly then analyzed the ingress chart (also known as an annual revolution or the figura mundi – 'world figure'). His judgement was that, overall, England's scheme of heaven for 1644 was 'averse to monarchy' – Parliament would have a better year than the King. But, he added, 'Both shall suffer and smart, I see no probability of concluding any peace … I am of the opinion there will be strong action and war all this whole year, and that there will be fighting enough and too much.'
Lilly had identified Mars as the planet signifying the parliamentary forces (this was because Mars was the ruler of the zodiac sign of Scorpio – the sign on the cusp of the first house). However, in the chart Mars was conjunct one of the four key angles of the horoscope, the immum coeli or IC (which was positioned at the start of the fourth house). This placement, on an angle, signalled clearly that the year ahead would be troublesome.
'Mars in any angle in figura Mundi, or year's revolution, excites men's minds to war and contention,' Lilly explained, highlighting how even if a nation was at peace, this placement of warmongering Mars 'provokes men to much law suits, the nobility to private duels, the gentry to envy'. The prospect of a martial year was lent weight, he added, by the Moon separating from a hard opposition aspect with Mars: this presaged 'sadness, death, the effusion of blood'.
He dismissed any prospects that ongoing peace negotiations between the King and a faction within Parliament, the Independents, would come to anything, writing that 'all treaties end in smoke and vapour'. The proposals, he cautioned his audience, were too favourable to the King.
He then singled out June and July as particularly volatile months in which England should
'expect to hear of war, slaughter of men, division, towns besieged, some taken, some plundered …'
More specifically, he predicted, watch out for the period around 4 June when there would be 'much mischief, fighting and action' and the start of July: 'The first week in July may prove bloody …'
His foresight was remarkable. The year of 1644 was one of the Civil War's bloodiest years of fighting: informal peace talks were not fruitful, the parliamentary army's advances forced Charles and most of his men to withdraw, on 3 June, from their stronghold in Oxford, and, on 2 July 1644, fighting began on Marston Moor in Yorkshire.
Marston Moor proved to be the greatest battle of the war, involving approximately 45,000 men, and the greatest ever fought on English soil. A decisive victory for the parliamentarian forces, it was a conflict in which the loss of life was immense – the royalists were reckoned to have lost at least 4,000 soldiers, with thousands more captured. The battle also marked the emergence of Oliver Cromwell, then lieutenant-general of horse.
The reaction inside the House of Commons to Lilly's maiden pamphlet was echoed outside its walls. Merlinus Anglicus Junior was an instant hit, with the first print run (typically between 1,250 and 1,500 copies) selling out within a few days; further print runs followed. Its resounding success was due to both its content and its style: Lilly's forecasts were compelling and accurate, his writing was eloquent and populist, and he had revealed some of the star science's secrets. What would this enthralling new prophet see and say next? The public and Parliament waited eagerly.
* * * *
Lilly was 'highly incensed'. It was the start of December 1644, a year since John Pym's death, and hours earlier he had been close to finishing Merlinus Anglicus Junior 1645. He had planned to take it to the licenser of almanacs later that day to make sure it was approved, at the printers and off the press before year-end.
But then a friend had arrived with some unpleasant news, and his plans for Anglicus had changed dramatically. Now, enraged and determined to vindicate his reputation, he had just committed treason and was about to broadcast that fact.
It was a pivotal moment in the ongoing Civil War. Parliament's forces had failed to capitalize on their Marston Moor victory: the King's men rallied in the following months and in late October avoided defeat at the second Battle of Newbury, despite being vastly outnumbered by Parliament's army; Charles entered Oxford in late November in triumph. Instead of sensing outright victory, the parliamentarians were back to negotiating peace terms with a recalcitrant monarch.
In the original version of his almanac, Lilly's overall prediction for the coming months had not offered much hope to either side. He had written: 'we must yet have more wrangling, quarrelling, bloodshed, slaughter of our fellow-subjects … I can promise absolute victory to neither side this year ...'
He had also promised:
'I am resolved to stand close to the rules of art, without partiality to King or Parliament … I cannot flatter, I will not: To mince my judgement, and deliver ambiguous stuff, is to lessen the validity of art. I stand upon the honour of my nation.'
These words were meant to show he did not want any part of the astrological propaganda war that was presently raging between pamphleteers with royalist sympathies and those on Parliament's side.
George Wharton, the most successful cavalier compiler, had begun the print battle over a year ago. Writing from the King's camp in Oxford and 'with his Majesty's command', he brazenly flew the royalist flag in his 1644 almanac. According to him, the heavens foretold that the King would triumph; the religious sects springing up would be suppressed; and leaders of the rebel forces would be hanged.
Putting his own spin on the first major encounter in the war – the Battle of Edgehill in Warwickshire (in which both sides had suffered heavy casualties) – Wharton lauded the King's courage and lambasted leading parliamentarians' cowardly ways, suggesting they were 'skulking in … holes and sawpits'.
John Booker, who was now Parliament's licenser of astrological tracts, as well as its champion, had retaliated straightaway. Aiming to discredit the younger, less experienced astrologer, he described him as nothing but a 'court-parasite'; his booklet was 'a collection of untruths'; his 'reckoning up of victories at this and that place' were 'all false calculations'; his astrological analyses were flawed.
Why, he sneered, had Wharton chosen the ridiculous pseudonym Naworth (using an alias was a common practice among astrologers)? In Booker's opinion, his choice revealed the royalist seer was 'truly … No-worth or a man worth nothing'. Please, he advised the public, 'I hope you will not bestow your money on so lying a pamphlet, or spend your time so vainly in reading such notorious untruths as this counterfeit Naworth would fain persuade you to believe …'
After this initial heated exchange, the war of words escalated rapidly and became more personal. Wharton hit back, accusing Booker of being 'a rebel' who lived by 'cheating and lying', who wrote 'perfidious pamphlets' designed to beget 'fears and jealousies among the people'. He mocked Parliament's army for its large lower-class component: the 'many wood-mongers, fell-mongers, button-makers &c. which are your colonels and commanders. Your schismatical assembly of tailors, millers, cobblers and weavers …'
Furthermore, Wharton warned, Booker had better watch his back.
'You began in blood, and I hope you shall (most part of you) make your end so … Your railing against Majesty will not be forgotten, nor forgiven … Have a care of your neck, for I have calculated your destiny … Your death is not like to prove natural …'
Lilly had hoped to avoid the name-calling and fisticuffs in ink. His aim in recent months had been to establish himself as the almanac author to read – based on his abilities as an astrologer. His approach was working: since July he had published a series of successful pamphlets.
All 1,800 copies of the first print run of A Prophecy of the White King – a controversial reworking of an ancient prophecy – were snapped up in just three days. In Lilly's reading of the white king prophecy, which his audience understood as referring to Charles I who at his coronation had worn white robes rather than the traditional purple, the denouement had Parliament overthrowing the King, and the monarch meeting a violent end. Readers loved it, and further editions were printed.
England's Prophetical Merlin also proved remarkably popular. Designed to whet all appetites, it was an editorially astute blend of sex and prophecy, which showcased a selection of real-life stories and celebrity insights, astrologically told. William had put a lot of thought into its content. He was a remarkably well-read magus: courtesy of his canny first marriage to an older, wealthy widow, he had had the time and the money to study astrology in greater depth than most, and he was making good use of this advantage.
He was following knowingly in the footsteps of a 16thcentury Italian astrologer, Girolamo Cardano, who was catapulted from obscurity to cosmopolitan acclaim after his publications had titillated his audience with celebrity horoscopes revealing intimate secrets. Cardano's second bestseller, De Judiciis Geniturarum (1547), which Lilly owned, was in essence a forerunner of the true life stories devoured so zealously today. In it, Cardano offered a collection of birth horoscopes to stimulate all manner of palates:
'heretics, robbers, pederasts, sodomites … philosophers … the greatest physicians and diviners, and famous craftsmen'.
William's choices were similarly inspired. He covered the salacious: the gentlewoman who enquired whether 'she should have an aged man'; the elderly gent was keen, the maid was not and had her eye on a man of Mars – 'a captain or a soldier'. There was bread-andbutter stuff too: the trial of a lawsuit and a stolen goods query. The inclusion of John Pym's death chart added a note of celebrity, as well as cleverly broadcasting the author's relationship with Parliament.
His array of astral vignettes also worked as a wonderful advertisement for his talents. If folk knew their time and location of birth, England's Prophetical Merlin showed how Lilly could cast their nativity and provide a full natal chart analysis, highlighting all the major incidents in an individual's life as well as their allotted life span. He took his readers through the life of one of his clients – a gentleman who was unmarried 'but sufficiently potent'. This man, he forecast, would at the age of 52 suffer 'a virulent effluxion of matter' as a result of venereal disease, and would die on 5 December 1657.
While the case studies entertained and informed, it was Lilly's prediction of the King's prospects that provided the real meat – and prompted discussion. His forecast for his sovereign was shocking and stark: the Stuart dynasty, which had begun in 1603 when James acceded to the throne, was to be brought to its knees and changed irrevocably. Importantly, Lilly explained the astrological rationale for this. His judgement stemmed from conjunction theory: the analysis of the conjoining of the two superior planets Jupiter and Saturn in different zodiac signs over the centuries. As with all sidereal thinking, events on Earth were expected to mirror what was happening in the heavens.
The establishment of the Stuart line had coincided with a major conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Sagittarius (one of the three signs of the zodiac associated with fire). As this conjunction was the first to take place in the element of fire, subsequent meetings of these slow-moving planets (known as the chronocrators) were expected to occur in fire signs for the next 260 years.
However, in 1643, the cycle had been disturbed – Jupiter and Saturn met in the zodiac sign of Pisces, a water sign. For Lilly, this was an omen that 'the constant order of nature' was about to change.
'Times have no precedents,' he forecast, 'of the like excursion, or mutation (that ever I could read of) nor shall the ages in future see the like … there shall be a sensible disturbance, if not a final subversion, to those commonwealths and monarchies, that had originally their beginning … in 1603'.
January 1649, he foresaw, was the month and year to look out for. From 1647 onwards, he wrote,
'one monarchy begins to totter; and so by degrees God brings his purpose to perfection: but these judgements will be displeasing: for princes love not to hear of such matters … Yet in January 1649 … we have strong confidence of being quite cured of our distempers … we begin to smile: but monarchy is not in such great request as formerly …'
However, all was not quite lost for the Stuarts.
'In the years 1659 and 1660,' he concluded, 'our nobles and gentlemen root again … here's almost a new world, new laws, some new lords: now my country of England shall shed no more tears …'
While William's predictions had, from parliamentarians, garnered him the acclaim he sought, royalists reacted with fury and dismay. One cavalier complained that Parliament's piss-prophet 'led the commons of this kingdom, as bears … are led by the nose with bagpipes before them'. Others noted that if Charles could have persuaded him to the King's cause, Lilly would have been worth half a dozen regiments; a royalist pamphleteer simply wished 'he were ours'.
George Wharton said much more in his almanac for 1644, which had just been published. Lilly, he declared was a 'pseudo-prophet' and 'an impudent senseless rebel' whose predictions were 'absurdities'; Booker was 'a licentious libeller'. It was the news of these defamatory words that had brought William's friend, the physician Richard Napier, racing to the Corner House hours earlier. He thought (correctly) that Lilly would want to know immediately what was being said about him and to have the opportunity to respond in print. This was indeed William's reaction: he immediately began editing his manuscript of Anglicus.
Regarding Wharton's words, he retorted by writing, 'I will only contend in point of learning, and not in multiplicity of ill language,' and proceeded to highlight the many errors in the inexperienced astrologer's calculations. Then he moved on to his next, and bigger, target – the King. He was going to use his astrological know-how to give Parliament the upper hand during fighting.
Lilly was following the example of one of his most admired predecessors – Italy's Guido Bonatti, who was Europe's pre-eminent magus during the late Middle Ages and an expert in the art of war. In Bonatti's book Liber introductorius ad iudica stellarum ('A book of introduction to the judgements of the stars'), which Lilly knew well, he explained the rules of engagement for many conflict scenarios, including how to judge which side will win; whether there will be a battle between two armies; whether besieged castles or cities will fall; and whether a war is just.
Bonatti used his talents in advising his patron Count Guido da Montefeltro (a member of the Ghibelline political faction) on how best to defeat the Guelphs (the supporters of the Pope). Such was his success as a military tactician that the Guelph poet Dante Aligheri consigned both Bonatti and Montefeltro to Hell in his Divine Comedy. Bonatti was placed in the eighth circle of the imagined inferno, his head twisted round to face backwards for all eternity as a punishment for his ability, during life, to see into the future.
Lilly's sidereal battle strategy was based on exploiting his illegal knowledge of Charles I's nativity. Over the last few hours, he had used a technique, known as primary directions, to project the King's birth chart into the future. What he wanted to know was: was there a particular time during the year ahead that would be more difficult for the monarch? He found what he was looking for in early summer 1645.
In June, the key point in Charles's nativity known as the Ascendant, which was at 28° Leo, was approaching a tense and troublesome square aspect with malefic Mars. The astrological reading of this was that from the King's perspective this would not be a good time to fight. However, for the parliamentarian forces this was the point to push hard in battle; the stars revealed that then the heavens were on their side.
Lilly chose his words carefully. In his hastily amended almanc, he wrote:
'When we have probable hopes of good success beforehand promised us, it might encourage our soldiers to attempt greater actions: If the heavens be averse, more caution must be had, and fit election of times framed.'
In his predictions for the month of June, he forecast:
'The tenth or eleventh of June may be casually unlucky to a grandee of England, and he no mean one … The heavens frown on our enemies for a while … Let us totally unite, there's great reason for it, and then if we fight, a victory steals upon us … Without doubt the day is ours, if God give us wisdom to husband time well.'
Satisfied with the new version of Anglicus, Lilly sat back and stretched. Tomorrow he would begin the process of publishing his pamphlet. But first there was something else he wanted to do. It was vital that Parliament and its army were aware of and acted on this specific prediction: could he influence the course of war more directly by alerting his circle of parliamentary and military contacts to 'this unlucky judgement'?
He would try Bulstrode Whitelocke first. Whitelocke was now at the heart of parliamentary politics. Weeks earlier, when new peace terms between Charles I and Parliament were proposed, it was Whitelocke who went to the King's encampment in Oxford to pursue further negotiations. And at the beginning of December, it was Whitelocke's support for Oliver Cromwell that stopped factions within Parliament from making moves against the up-and-coming soldier who had shown such prowess on Marston Moor.
Picking up his papers, Lilly stood and put on his cloak over his doublet; seconds later the door of the Corner House closed behind him. He would be at Westminster soon. Could Whitelocke's position as a respected and experienced Member of Parliament, and his role as Lilly's stalwart friend and supporter of astrology, come together to alter the course of the Civil War?
* * * *
On 14 June 1645, the New Model Army, Parliament's radically reorganized forces, faced the King in battle for the first time at Naseby in Leicestershire. Unaware of Lilly's advisory role within Parliament and dismissive of astrology's influence, modern historians have often been puzzled by the lead-up to Naseby. Why, it has been asked, when the New Model Army was at full strength and ready to fight since the end of April, did it wait until June to engage Charles?
Parliament's campaign has been criticized for being shapeless; old generals sitting on Parliament's Committee of Both Kingdoms have been blamed for the fact that May was a month of surprisingly little activity. Lilly's social circle and his audience knew better: the New Model Army was waiting until the astrologically auspicious time to strike.
Battle began at 11am. The New Model Army numbered between 14,500 and 17,000 men; Charles commanded a smaller force of 9,000 or 10,000 soldiers. Parliamentary infantry also had the advantage of higher ground. But the encounter could still have gone either way. On the field, strong leadership from the New Model Army commanders, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, rallied their troops and ensured Parliament's triumph; above the battleground the stars shone favourably down for them. Lilly's sidereal military manoeuvres were a success.
While conflict was not yet over, the New Model Army's victory over Charles and his men was a decisive one and signalled the start of the end of the war. William Lilly's words had won the day for the parliamentarians and changed the course of English history.
Naseby altered the course of his fate too: he was now the nation's first media celebrity, famed in print and song throughout the land for his gift of foresight. But not everyone was happy to praise the new prophet; to some his rousing words were doing more harm than good. They began to plan their attack.
Dr Catherine Blackledge is a writer whose career
and interests span the worlds of science and the occult. The Man Who Saw
the Future tells
the true story of England's greatest astrologer William Lilly: how his
celestial forecasts changed the course of the English Civil War, and
the establishment's attempts to silence him. Today, prediction is a word
that astrologers often avoid, but prediction is at the heart of
Lilly's astrology. Thanks to his accurate forecasts, he rose from humble
beginnings to become the most famous man in the land. Discover
how he enthralled the nation, which predictions secured his success and
the ancient astrological techniques he used to see into the
future. Catherine's first book, The Story of V, an internationally
acclaimed cultural history of the vagina has been translated into ten
languages. She has a science degree and PhD and has been a student of
astrology for over a decade. Follow Catherine on twitter
Catherine Blackledge will be giving a talk about William Lilly at Watkins Bookshop, 19-21 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ on Thursday, 30th April from 6.30pm - 7.30pm
The Man Who Saw the Future - A Biography of William Lilly: The Astrologer Who Changed the Course of the English Civil War
by Catherine Blackledge
published by Watkins, an imprint of Watkins Media Limited.
Text copyright © Catherine Blackledge 2015 - Hardback, £14.99
This book can be ordered at:
www.watkinspublishing.com or www.amazon.co.uk
Lilly plaque: By Simon Harriyott from Uckfield, England (William Lilly Uploaded by Oxyman) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lilly (in order of appearance):
William Lilly (Frontispiece of his "Christian Astrology", 1659): http://books.google.de/books?id=y35mAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=william+lilly&ei=mIaaS9TXKKnuyATT-7DhCg&cd=2#v=onepage&q&f=true
Book cover by Watkins Media
Lilly's own chart: John Gadbury: A Collection of Nativities. London 1662. p. 188: http://www.astrologiamedieval.com/A_Natividade_de_Willam_Lilly.htm
Horary chart for William Pym: taken from the book
Portrait of 1678: taken from Astrowiki (http://www.astro.com/astrowiki/de/William_Lilly)
England's ingress chart: taken from the book
Wenzeslaus Hollar 1607-1677: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wenceslas_Hollar_-_William_Lilly.jpg
22-May-2018, 10:33 UT/GMT
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