The Life & Times Of William Lilly

The Life And Times Of William Lilly

Recently took a leisurely stroll eastwards down the Strand. I passed Somerset House and Kings College and came across a disused underground station.

This is the Strand Station. It was closed in 1997. The track is still working and the station is still used as a film location. Over the years the premises has graced such works as 28 Weeks Later, V For Vendetta, Death Line and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.

I digress. However it was a digression that brought William Lilly to my attention. I was admiring the station when I happened across a plaque on the side of it.

“William Lilly (1602-1681)

Master Astrologer

Lived in a house near this site.”

My curiosity was piqued.

Upon returning home I got researching & the result is this blog.

William Lilly was a very interesting man living in very interesting times.

William Lilly’s life began in the village of Diseworth, Leicestershire, on April 30th 1602, in a cottage close to the fourteenth century church. He was the eldest son of a yeoman farmer called William Lilly and Alice was his mother.

Senior was a prosperous landowner at the time of Junior’s birth. However by the time Junior was coming to school age (which was about 7 in those times) the farm was experiencing financial difficulties. Alice Lilly, however, refused to let this get in the way of her son’s education. Maybe she saw the dwindling estate and thought that a bit of quality learning would be the best bet for her boy. So off William went to primary, and then to grammar school in nearby Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

He left school in 1619 with great command of Latin and English. Many of his peers would have gone to university at this point, as this was an extremely good school. The financial situation at home, in Diseworth, meant that this was not to be William Lilly’s path.

Senior was in a last ditch battle to avoid debtors prison. William took teaching work in his old primary school and also acted as messenger boy for the correspondence between Senior and Senior’s lawyer. The lawyer recognized that William was bright and well educated, and told him about a man in London he had dealings with who was on the lookout for a secretary and a general servant.

William seized the opportunity. He did not get on with his father who wanted his sons to be farmers, something William was obviously not cut out for.

So William walked to London. It took him about a week.

He set off on Monday April the 3rd 1620 and arrived on the Strand the following Sunday.

(Incidentally, “strand” is an Old English word meaning shore or bank. Presumably the name of the road referred to the shore of the, then wider, pre-embankment River Thames.)

Lilly’s master, Gilbert Wright, was high up in the salt business. Gilbert Wright was illiterate, so Lilly became indispensable for his business. He lived with the Wrights in their house: “the corner house in the Strand”. This may not have been on the riverfront side, as the properties on the riverfront were very grand. The corner house may have been on the corner of Drury Court.

Gilbert Wright had married his second wife, Margery, for her money. By the time Lilly had arrived, Margery was a suspicious woman. She was constantly asking Lilly if Gilbert had been up to any funny business.

In 1622 Margery developed a cancer, which worsened in 1623. Lilly nursed her throughout her illness, and she insisted that he was the only person to apply the bandages, ointments and ultimately to perform surgery on her. She was terminally ill.

On her deathbed she gave him five pounds and told him to go to her friends house where he would find a chest with a hundred pounds in gold. But it was empty. Someone had seen an opportunity and seized the day. She was mightily hacked off, and told William he could have anything in the corner house.

Margery passed and William saw to the burial arrangements. As he was preparing her body he found a little scarlet bag under her arm. It contained talismen made of iron, gold and one of “pure angel gold, of the bigness of a thirty three shilling piece of King James’ Coin”. (This had been made for Margery by Simon Forman. Simon Forman was a famous Elizabethan Astrologer.)

By his own account, this was the moment when William Lilly discovered Astrology. He copied the markings on the talismen and sold them.

Plague struck London in1625 and Gilbert Wright fled town, leaving Lilly to run the house. There wasn’t that much to do, apart from not die. This outbreak was serious. Lilly learnt the bass viol, went bowling in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and went to church a lot.

He went to St Anthony’s Church, known as “Antholin’s”, on the corner of Watling Street and Sise Lane, east of St Pauls. (The one he attended was destroyed in the great fire: this is the replacement.)

He was a puritan.

When the plague subsided Gilbert Wright returned to London and remarried.

In May 1627 Gilbert died. As Gilbert’s brother and widow were illiterate, Lilly tidied up his affairs, and administered his estate. Then he married the widow. He was 25.

On September 8th, 1627, Ellen Wright and William Lilly were married at St George’s, Southwark. Lilly’s life changed from that of a servant to that of a man of leisure. He fished in the Thames down by Somerset house, went to the theatre, played cards, and also enjoyed watching the dancing around the giant maypole which was on the Strand literally feet from his front door.

He also regularly attended services and religious lectures at Antholin’s.

It was in church one Sunday in 1632, waiting for a service to begin, that he struck up a conversation with his neighbour in the pews. The conversation turned to the subject of almanacs and those who made them. Lilly was very interested and his acquaintance arranged for him to meet an astrologer.

The man they went to meet was John Evans. He lived in a hovel in Gunpowder Alley, off Shoe Lane (in the region of Fleet Street). He made his living making and selling Antimonial Cups. These were the 17th century equivalent of Epsom salts.

First impressions were not great. John Evans was “much addicted to debauchery”, Lilly noted, “ and when very abusive and quarrelsome, seldom without a black eye, or one mischief or other”. However Lilly thought he was a good astrologer and became his student.

Nowadays astrology is commonly equated with the popular Sun-sign newspaper columns, which originated in the 1920s. In the time of Lilly astrology was widely considered to be a science. Astronomy and astrology were often synonymous.

The astrologer made a forecast and assessment of character of subject based upon more complex systems than the simple one of what sign the Sun occupied when someone was born. The precise position of the planets at the moment of, and for the place of birth would be calculated. By that reckoning no birth-chart can be identical unless one was born in the same room within 4 minutes of another person.

When the planetary positions had been calculated, the symbols representing the planets were placed in a birth-chart (known as a “figure” or “scheme”). The astrologer would consider the relative positions of the planets and the angles they made with each other. He (it was usually a man) would also consider the planet’s positions within the Zodiacal signs and houses. The system was strict, based on collection of information going back over 4 millenia, with written evidence for astrological techniques dating from 500BC onwards.

Prior to Lilly’s birth, astrological theory fitted into the Elizabethan worldview and concept of the universe. It emphasized the order of things, that the planets and fixed stars within the observable universe exerted regulatory powers. It provided a paradigm, a framework of ideas by which a man could learn about his place in the universal, natural order of things.

During the Renaissance, art and science continually made use of astrology.

Astronomers were invariably, until after Newton, also astrologers. It could be argued that one of the driving forces behind more accurate astronomical observation was the desire for more accurate horoscopes.

Probably the most famous astrologer of the 16th century was John Dee, known popularly as “Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer”. He was engaged to calculate a good date for her coronation, and during her reign he was called upon for advice and to cast horoscopes. He was also the most infamous practitioner of astrology of his time and it has been argued by some that his reputation contributed to the erosion of respect given to astrology. He was rumoured to be a sorceror and a witch, being referred to as “Dr Dee the great Conjurer” and as a “caller of Divils” by John Foxe in a book widely circulated in cathedral churches of the land. Dee successfully petitioned to have these references removed from later editions of Foxe’s book of martyrs but his reputation was greatly damaged.

Another famous astrologer of Elizabethan times, one whose consulting practice Lilly’s would have been similar to was Simon Forman. Born in 1552, as an apprentice in Salisbury he persuaded a schoolboy who lodged with his master to teach him at night what he had been taught during the day. He became a schoolmaster and then he went to the Hague to study astrology. He set up practice in London as a consulting astrologer in 1585, remaining there until his death in 1611.

Incidentally Simon Forman was a fan of theatre and is remembered for his “reviews”, his impressions, of Shakespeare’s plays, which are among the earliest on record.

Forman was consulted about lawsuits, the sailing and safety of ships, the whereabouts of lost or stolen items and, naturally, about matters of the heart.

For example Dean Thomas Blague, of Rochester, a chaplain to the Queen went to him to ask “whether his wife be enchanted by Dean Wood or no,” while Mrs Blague gave Forman 28d.8d. to look into the matter of Dean Wood’s lovers and what would become of them, and promised to pay a further five pounds “when he (Wood) is a full friend of her”.

As more astrologers, like Forman and after him Lilly, took on consultative roles the consideration of Astrology as a serious study was eroded

Treatise on astrology in Europe in the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries were largely pro-astrology and the tendency was to uphold these beliefs.

In England, however, the tide was turning. Astrology could be very profitable. During the years when Lilly was learning and beginning to practice astrology there were many more quacks than serious astrologers and Lilly encountered a fair few of them. Here are a few he met.

There was Alexander Hart, of Houndsditch, whose practice mostly concerned telling gamblers when they might most profitably play at dice. Lilly recounts going to see Hart several times and never getting a satisfactory answer.

In 1633,not long after Lilly had begun his Astrological studies, Mrs Lilly died. With the inheritance he bought the lease on the Corner House (naturally he drew up a chart to advise him) and other properties on the Strand. He remarried in 1634, to Jane Rowley. Not much is known of Jane apart from Lilly’s comment that “she was of the nature of Mars”. What was he inferring? That she was sensual or that she was vicious.

Lilly learnt the basic techniques of astrology from Evans. He learnt how to set up a birth chart and to interpret it. So he could draw conclusions about the character and personality of the subject.

He learnt how draw up a chart for the moment an event took place (the arrival of an important letter, say, or even an idea) and to conclude the probable course of events to follow.

He learnt how to cast a chart to predict the ideal time for starting a venture and to answer a question by drawing up a “figure” for the moment it was asked.

He also learnt how to set up the “annual revolution”, to chart the time when every year the Sun reached the same degree and minute of the Zodiac as it occupied in the birth chart. This would reveal trends for the year ahead.

He also learnt how to use astrological means to predict where on a client’s body one might find moles and other distinguishing features.

Lilly was augmenting his studies with Evans with voracious book reading. He built up a large library of astrological works. No mean feat in a time when books were printed in editions of around a hundred, and were expensive.

Lilly parted with Evans after witnessing him give a false judgment to please a client. Throughout his career, Lilly was an astrologer of principle.

He began to practice as an astrologer around 1634, age 32.

In the early seventeenth century astrology was aligned with occultism, and Lilly did have an interest in ghosts and fairies, alchemy and communications with spirits. While not an occultist like John Dee, his knowledge would be called upon for certain cases.

In 1634 the king’s clockmaker, David Ramsey, had come to believe that valuable treasure was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. The Dean gave him permission to search for it in exchange for a share of any treasure found. Ramsey elicited the services of a dowser and of Lilly. Here is Lilly’s account of the affair (bookmark 4)

Lilly left London in 1636 to live in Hersham, near Esher. He was suffering from some kind of depression and for five years or so lived almost like a hermit. In 1640 he had a fever and had violent visions, which he took to be warnings of the coming Civil War.

Leaving London may have had something to do with King Charles. King Charles was ruling without a Parliament, favouring high church, tolerating Catholics and persecuting Puritans.

Lilly had been a royalist but the present circumstances caused him to revise his opinion somewhat. By the time he decided to move back to London in 1641, aged 39, he believed that Charles was not an upright representative of the royalist system he believed in. As a Puritan he would have been engaged on Cromwell’s behalf.

By his own account he was guided by his astrology. He had the confidence in the revelations of the planets regarding his future and he believed that the signs were in Cromwell’s favour.

Civil war started in the summer of 1642. By this point, Lilly was on the side of the Parliament.

After his period out of town, Lilly returned to his astrological studies and to his ever-increasing number of clients. The 1640s were an important time for Lilly. He became established as a well-known astrologer in London and the provinces, and he came into contact with eminent folk who would be of great help to him in his future.

For example a woman came with a urine sample from an ill friend, asking about prospects for recovery. Lilly set up a “figure” for when the sample was brought to him, and told her that her friend would recover, though there would be a relapse in a month’s time.

This indeed happened, with the subject having a relapse caused by eating too much trout at a dinner party. Lilly was sent for and assured him that the planets would preside over a return to full health.

The patient was Sir Bulstrode Whitlocke, soon to become Keeper of the Great Seal. Like Lilly, Bulstrode was to walk a balancing act between republicanism and monarchy. Bulstrode was a great friend of Lilly and helped him out on numerous occasions. Through Bulstrode, Lilly also met many of the great and good.

In 1644, Lilly published his first almanac, Merlinus Anglicus Junior. He published an annual almanac from that date until his death. It was a means of preparing the country for horrors and delights to come. It also acted as a self-advertisement and as a means to argue with and to put down fellow astrologers.

It became the most popular of the many astrological almanacs published at the time. An astrological almanac is a calendar containing astronomical detail with astrological interpretation.

At that time nothing could be printed without a licence. The licencer of astrological books was a man called John Booker, himself an astrologer. Lilly rated John Booker, in 1640 calling him “the greatest and most compleat astrologer in the world”.

John Booker published an almanac himself, and may have been looking after his interests by censoring Lilly’s work. However when the first impression sold out in a week, many copies to members of parliament, Lilly was able to get the second run printed extant.

In his almanacs Lilly would offer a disclaimer, setting out what astrology could and could not do. It could not find lost or stolen goods (the practice of asking astrologers to do this was illegal), it could warn a man if the woman he loved was unsuitable, it could advise on the matters of health, on the success of voyages, on good times to start a venture, on physical danger. It could predict the outcome of unwise actions.

Throughout his life Lilly made these warnings, which he personally disregarded.

In 1644 after the success of Merlinus Anglicus Junior, Lilly published England’s Prophetical Merline, and also A Prophesy of the White King, which was the most successful and notorious of the three. I will come back to that a little later.

Lilly was prospering now, with his publications and his private practice. So much so that he could afford to have his portrait taken.

You may notice he is holding a blank chart bearing the words “non cogunt”. The implication is that the stars incline, not compel. The idea was that the astrologer predicted possible trends and the subjects had the free will to act within the circumstances.

Other evidence of Lilly’s rise is the increasing incidence of printed criticism.

In 1647 the royalist astrologer William Wharton alleged in a publication that Lilly had, for a bribe, made a chart telling an heiress to walk in a particular place at a particular time to meet her future husband. Wharton then alleged that Lilly had set this up so that the man who had bribed him could meet the heiress and marry her. This was a serious slander, which an anonymous pamphlet bearing considerable stylistic similarity to Lilly’s own writing addressed. The heiress in question also confirmed Lilly’s innocence of wrongdoing and a scandal was averted.

Apart from his astrological practice and almanacs, during the 1640s William Lilly wrote a book that put him on the map as a serious scholar of astrology. It was called Christian Astrology modestly treated in Three Books, was published in 1647 and is his major published work.

In Book One he describes how to use an ephemeris (a table of values giving positions of astral objects), how to draw up an astrological chart, the nature of the twelve astrological signs and of the planets.

In Book Two he tells the student how to approach questions wishing to be answered by astrology.

In Book Three he tells the student how to interpret a birth chart.

He dedicated the book to his friend Bulstrode.

The English Civil War, which was a series of armed conflicts between the Parliamentarian Roundheads and the Royalist Cavaliers, started in 1642.

The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II and replacement of the English monarchy with the Commonwealth of England. The Commonwealth lasted from 1649-1653.

The Commonwealth was replaced with a Protectorate, under Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule. This lasted until 1659 with the restoration of the monarchy and crowning of Charles II in 1660.

Lilly moved back to London roundabout the time of the start of the Civil War.

For the first 18 months of the war it looked very much like the King was going to win the war. London was a parliamentary citadel and was not in the best of health. The Royalist army menaced the city, folk were panicked and disturbed and civil defenses were set up. Some streets were bricked up (St James’s, Holburn, St John Street) and there were turnpikes, roadblocks, where one had to provide evidence of identity.

Lilly didn’t make any pronouncements in the early years of the war, but as the conflict progressed and the course was becoming more clear he began making predictions for the Roundhead cause.

Most English Astrologers of the 17th century published their opinions on the war, but Lilly and the royalist astrologer George Wharton were the most active.

Wharton had been publishing his own almanacs since 1641, a few years before Lilly started. In 1643 he was in Oxford where the King was and was pronouncing astrologically for the King.

Wharton’s first literary and astrological opponent was none other than John Booker, the licenser of astrological books with whom Lilly had had an argument with.

Booker attacked Wharton’s 1644 almanac, written “with His Majesty’s command”, in a paper called Mercurius Coelius.

Wharton wasn’t going to take any criticism lying down and fired off Mercurio-Coelico-Mastix, “an Anti-caveat to all such, as have had the misfortune to be cheated and Deluded by that grand and Traiterous Imposter of this Rebellious Age, John Booker”

Booker was up for it and returned fire with A Rope for a Parrot, or, a Cure for a Rebell Past Cure. He wasn’t messing about

Lilly escaped Wharton’s notice until the publication of A Prophecy Of A White King in August 1644. Lilly set his political stall out with this piece:

“You see what stormes, what miseries, what cruel warres our Nation is once like to suffer by the meanes and procurement of a King called a White King who brings over strangers to destroy us and God gives us command to provide sepulchers and graves for him and them…”

The White King was immediately recognized as Charles, whom favoured wearing the colour white, choosing to wear white clothing at his coronation rather that the more usual purple. Lilly claimed that the prophecy was translated from a Welsh prophecy from about 1677AD.

It predicted the death of the White King.

Lilly encouraged Parliament to hope for victory, despite setbacks.

While the Prophecy was still at the printers there was a Roundhead victory. On July 2nd York fell to the Roundheads and the North was lost to the King.

Wharton attacked Lilly by name in his 1645 almanac.

These almanacs and pamphlets had wide circulations. Lilly’s almanacs rose in circulation from around 13,500 in 1646 up to around 30,000 in 1649. They certainly had propaganda value.

Lilly made a prediction in his 1645 Merlinus Anglicus based upon the King’s nativity, finding that his ascendant was approaching the the quadrature of Mars, about June 1645; “If now we fight, a victory stealeth upon us.” So it did: in June 1645 at Naseby the Roundheads defeated the Royalists in a key battle of the Civil War.

Wharton once again attacked Lilly and Booker by name in his Astrological Judgement upon his Majesties Present Martch: Begun from Oxford, May 7 1645, a pamphlet encouraging the King and his forces on their march from Oxford.

The planetary positions appeared to support Warton’s optimistic Royalist viewpoint (something he was rewarded for in the Reformation when Charles II awarded him with a Baronetcy in 1677.)

Lilly didn’t like being called “an impudent and senseless fellow” in Wharton’s Astrological Judgement and penned The Starry Messenger in a matter of hours of receiving a copy of Wharton’s piece. It was published on the day of

the Roundhead victory at the battle of Naseby and was a great success.

In The Starry Messenger, Lilly was showing even more determined support of Parliament. In the 8,000 word interpretation of the eclipse of the Sun which was to come on August 11th 1645, Lilly clinched King Charles’s future and that of his supporters.

The success of The Starry Messenger brought more enemies out of the woodwork, and not only royalist. Miles Corbett, parliamentarian chairman of the Committee of Examinations, was not happy about Lilly’s criticism of the parliamentary practice of not paying it’s soldiers. Corbett ordered Lilly be seized and brought before the committee. Luckily, some influential parliamentary friends of Lilly came along to aid him in his defense at committee and the committee found no case to answer for.

One of the accusations leveled at Lilly was from the Solicitor for the Excise who claimed that the “slander” of The Starry Messenger incited a mob to burn down his house. This was proved not to be the case as the mob had burned down the house before The Starry Messenger was published.

Lilly attracted compliments from one time rival, the astrologer, John Booker.

By now, Wharton had it in for Lilly and published Merlini Anglica Errata, or, the Errors, Mistakes and Misapplications of Master Lilly’s New Ephemeris for the yeare 1647. Discovered, Refuted and Corrected.

He went to great lengths to disprove Lilly’s predictions before throwing in a character assassination for good measure.

Bt this stage, Lilly and Wharton were outright propagandists for their chosen causes and their criticisms of each other’s interpretations, abilities and probity became more and more venomous.

In 1647 Lilly came to the aid of Charles I.

Throughout the Civil War, despite his political position, Lilly was a consulting astrologer to a large number of Royalist clients.

In 1647 King Charles I was kept under guard at Hampton Court and, sensing his tenuous position, began plotting his escape. The plotters got in touch with Jane Whorewood who went to visit Lilly at the Corner House in the Strand. She explained that she came on behalf of the King, that the King intended to escape, and asked Lilly to cast a chart and advise “in what quarter of this nation might be most safe”

Lilly drew up a chart and advised that the King should hide in Essex. He received 20 pieces of gold.

The King made his escape attempt on November 11th but headed for Southampton, hoping to take ship for the continent. The only ship was to the Isle of Wight. He was, again, detained.

In 1648, the year that Lilly was awarded monies by Parliament thanking him for his support, he was, once again approached by Jane Whorewood. The King was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle, and there was another escape plan afoot. Lilly was approached for help of a more practical nature. He got a locksmith in Bow to make a hacksaw strong enough to saw through the iron bars of the King’s cell. With hours to go before the escape attempt, the King was moved. The King had been betrayed.

In September Mrs Whorewood asked Lilly to set up a chart for when would be a good time for the King to negotiate with Parliament to make some kind of settlement. Lilly did this. Once again his advice wasn’t followed.

One get’s the impression that the King’s advisors may have trusted Lilly more than the King.

Maybe the King had a point. In 1648 Lilly and Booker were invited by Parliament to travel to Colchester to which the Roundheads were laying siege.

There they encouraged the troops “assuring them the town would very shortly be surrendered, as indeed it was”.

On January 20th 1649, Lilly was walking in Whitehall and met an acquaintance, the preacher Hugh Peter. Hugh invited him to come to see the trial of the King. So Lilly was there at the trial where the King was condemned as “a tyrant, a traitor, murderer and public enemy to the good people of this nation”, to be executed “by the severing of his head by his body”.

Lilly did not attend the execution.

Lilly wrote; “For my part, I do believe he was not the worst, but the most unfortunate of Kings”.

Elias Ashmole was a celebrated English politician, antiquary, astrologer and alchemist. During the Restoration he was astrologer to King Charles II.

When Lilly met him in 1646 he was on the Royalist side and about to co-write with Wharton another attack on Lilly. However Ashmole and Lilly struck an immediate friendship, which was to be lifelong, and Ashmole withdrew from his partnership with Wharton.

Lilly took Ashmole to the Astrological Feast at the White Heart in the Old Bailey that year. The annual Astrological Feast was organized by the society of astrologers. Over 40 astrologers and invited guests would meet in convivial atmosphere, all hostilities suspended under a temporary ceasefire. Typical meetings would have Lilly, Booker, Wharton, Culpeper (the herbalist) sitting at the same table with psychic and cabbalistic astrologers, scientists and astrologers. Royalists and Parliamentarians drank together in good spirits, the discussion of politics being banned.

Lilly’s and Ashmole’s friendship, though immediate, was initially guarded. Lilly wasn’t pleased when he found out that Ashmole had been reporting their conversations to Wharton, but still forgave him.

After the King’s execution Wharton’s anti-parliamentarian rhetoric had become rabid. Wharton was arrested in 1649. The word on the grapevine was that Wharton was to be hung for sedition. Ashmole went to Lilly to ask for help on Wharton’s behalf.

Lilly went to the aid of his erstwhile enemy Wharton. He visited Wharton in prison and advised him to lie low, to not make any statements that would draw attention to himself. Lilly’s friend and patron Bulstrode Whitelocke became president of the council in 1650 and quietly released Wharton.

Wharton was grudgingly grateful.

Ashmole, seeing Lilly come to the aid of his antagonist, Wharton, became a firm friend to Lilly at this point.

In the early 1650s Lilly became less and less impressed with Parliamentary rule, predicting its overthrow in his almanacs. Censorship, heavy taxation, confiscation of property, suppression of popular entertainments, enforcement of strict moral code: life under the Rump Parliament was rubbish. Unless you were an MP.

Lilly’s Almanac for 1652 landed him in front of the Committee for Plundered Ministers

Luckily the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, was a friend of Lilly’s and let him see the passages of the almanac that the committee were going to interrogate him of. Lilly got 6 new copies printed with the passages removed from them.

When he got to the Committee he was handed an almanac. He looked at it and then said; “This is none of my book. Some malicious Presbyterian hath wrote it, who are my mortal enemies. I disown it.”

He then produced the new almanacs to a now stunned room; “These I own, the others are counterfeits, published purposefully to ruin me.”

Even so, and in spite of the representations made by MP friends on his behalf, he was committed.

As he was leaving the Court Oliver Cromwell personally intervened. First he allowed Lilly to be freed for the night, as no warrant had been drawn up for his arrest. Second he ensured that Lilly only spent a few days in Newgate before helping to organize his release.

In 1652, after his brush with the Presbyterians, Lilly bought a house in Walton-upon-Thames. This became his main home for the rest of his life; he would pop up to the Corner House on the Strand for consultations, but for the main would consult and teach from his country home.

Lilly was not loved by the Royalists in exile with Charles II in the Hague. His biography of Charles I was particularly unpopular.

So now Lilly was unpopular with the Parliamentarian and with the Royalist causes. His rival astrologers were as ever keen to take him down, as were certain churchmen. In 1653 the Presbyterian preacher Thomas Gataker published an attack on astrologers in general and “the scurrilous aspersions of that grand imposter, My William Lillie” in particular.

Lilly was, however, still an influential figure. The appointment of Cromwell as Lord Protector gave him some security and he had a list of extremely august clients. He was able to recommend his patron Bulstrode Whitelocke for the position of Ambassador to Sweden.

Lilly’s second wife passed that year. In his autobiography he noted that “I shed no tears” so they can’t have been close.

In 1654 he remarried to a Ruth Needham, and it was a happy marriage. Ruth, ultimately, survived Lilly.

Gataker continued to attack Lilly in print so vociferously that even fellow astrologers with no love for him came to his defence.

In 1655 Lilly was accused of unlawfully using astrology to help a woman recover stolen goods. This prosecution was under the act of 1603, “against conjuration, witchcraft and dealings with evill and wicked spirits”, which said that if anyone used witchcraft, enchantment, charms or sorcery to help recover stolen goods they should be imprisoned for a year with regular 6-hour appearances at the pillory on market day. Second offence was a capital offence.

In a courtroom packed full of Lilly’s favourite religious denomination, Presbyterians, he was accused, by one Anne East of receiving half-a-crown for telling where 10 stolen waistcoats could be recovered.

He was also accused of making several successful astrological predictions for other clients.

Lilly explained that Astrology was legal and was not contradicted by scripture and that he had advised Anne East that her possessions would never be recovered. The case was dismissed before Anne East went off the testimony prepared for her by her ministers and claimed that after meeting Lilly she was troubled by bears, lions and tigers.

In 1659 Lilly received a gold chain and medal from the King of Sweden. He had been offering support for the king in his annual almanacs. In 1656 he had predicted successes against the Poles, in 1659 he had suggested that a new star discovered by Tycho De Brahe referred to the King of Sweden, in 1658 he predicted more military successes. These predictions were translated and given to the troops in the King of Sweden’s army. His predictions of success for Sweden in 1659 were rather wide of the mark, and henceforth he distanced himself from making further predictions.

His rivals had a field day, ridiculing him in pamphlets. The astrologer John Gadbury, once an admirer now a critic was particularly nasty.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, and his eldest surviving son “Tumbledown Dick” took on the protectorship. Lilly predicted success for Richard, this was not to be. The “free parliament” voted for the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Lilly was now in a tight spot. He was parliamentarian astrologer in a royalist ascendence. Within weeks of the Reformation his rival astrologers published A declaration of the several treasons, blasphemies and misdemeanors acted, spoken and published against God, the late King, his present Majesty, the nobility, clergy, city etc by that grand wizard and imposter William Lilly otherwise known as Merlinus Anglicus.

In the coming months friends of Lilly’s, like the preacher Hugh Peter who had taken Lilly to see the trial of King Charles I, were tried and executed.

Lilly got off lightly: his friends in high places ensured that he survived any enquires sent his way and he merely had some of his properties confiscated.

Lilly’s friend, Elias Ashmole, was appointed Windsor Herald and Controller of the Excise by the King. Ashmole had the King’s ear and this ensured Lilly’s safety.

In 1665 his friend Ashmole asked Lilly about a passage in his Collection of Ancient and Modern Prophecies he had made in 1645, which referred to the year 1666:

“The influence and efficiency of the third conjunction with Saturn and Jupiter in Sagittarius then impending will produce no small alteration of the church and commonwealth in England”

Lilly answered carefully: a controversial interpretation could be argued to be seditious. He wouldn’t elaborate further on the passage.

A couple of years later an astrologer, John Heydon, was imprisoned and tortured for drawing up a birth chart for Charles II. The Duke of Buckingham, who commissioned the chart, was put in the Tower.

In 1665 the Great Plague struck London. The woodcut from Lilly’s 1651 publication Monarchy or no Monarchy was considered by many to be a direct prophecy of the plague.

Monarchy or no Monarchy contained 19 plates of “heirogliphics”, ”which in enigmatical types, forms, figures and shapes doth perfectly represent the future condition of the English Nation and Commonwealth for many hundreds of years yet to come.”

4 plates in particular were to become notorious in the late 1660s.

2 are printed on the same page and show emaciated corpses wrapped in bundles and gravediggers busy at work.

Another shows a city in flames by a river.

Another shows men pouring water onto a bonfire with the Gemini Twins falling into the flames. Gemini is the zodiacal sign associated with the city of London.

In his own copy of Monarchy or no Monarchy, Lilly had written the words “mortalis circa 1665” under the plague woodcut, and under one of the fire woodcuts had written “1666”

In April 1666 an army colonel, John Rathbone, and 7 officers and soldiers were charged with conspiring to kill the King and overthrow the government.

They were found guilty and executed.

The Great Fire Of London started on Sunday 2nd September 1666 and lasted until the Wednesday.

Lilly was ordered to attend the inquiry into the cause of the Great Fire on the 25th October to answer questions.

Lilly was extremely worried. He went to ask for help from his friend Ashmole, who accompanied him to the enquiry. Ashmole was a mover and a shaker and knew a few of the committee members; he quietly had words on Lilly’s behalf.

The committee did not question Lilly about any association with the Rathbone plot: Lilly’s 1666 almanac did not mention anything about the downfall of the monarch, the 3rd was the anniversary of Cromwell’s death and always brought out the fanatics.

The committee was more concerned with the idea that Lilly may have had a hand in laying the fire to prove his prophecies in Monarchy or no Monarchy right. Lilly was able to convince them that he was not. He was allowed to leave the enquiry. He was most relieved. In fact the episode did no end of good to his reputation.

As he got older, Lilly developed a passion for medicine, and in 1670 was granted a licence to practice physick by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Part of Lilly’s medical practice was dedicated to the poor: he would travel every Saturday to Kingston where he would offer advice and treatment free of charge.

Astrological physicians tended to rely on herbal remedy, consulting the planets to determine the best times to bleed a patient or to operate.

In fact Culpepper’s Complete Herbal contains comprehensive instructions to astrologers.

Lilly would have cast figures to aid diagnosis.

He would have drawn up charts upon receipt of samples, or meeting the patient to trace the course of the illness and the prognosis.

Particular illnesses were associated with astrological signs: Gemini tended to encourage diseases of the arms, for example. The planets had their associations also: Mars was the planet of Gouts, Jaundice and Vomiting of Blood, for example.

In the last 10 years of his life he spent much time with his friend Ashmole, who was now court astrologer. Among other things they tracked down papers written by Doctor Dee and researched into his career together.

The pace of life for Lilly was slowing, and he was more frequently troubled by illness. He suffered a stroke in March 1681 he died in June of that year.

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  1. Napier was probably the best known of all ministers practising ‘medicine’- a strange mix of Christianity, pagan thought, astronomy and health care. Later, Lilly said that he had instructed many other ministers and lent them “whole cloak bags of books”. He replicated Forman’s occultist interests but ran these alongside his clerical duties.

    ‘Picatrix’ (the text of Arabic magic otherwise known as the ‘Ghâyat al-Hakîm fi’l-sihr’) which is now in the British Library. Picatrix is a composite synthesis of earlier work. Forman’s copy went through other significant hands on its journey to the British Library: Richard Napier, Elias Ashmole and William Lilly.

    Amongst the more obscure but interesting works by Lilly are…

    G. Woodfall – ‘Liberorum impressorum qui in museo Britannico adservantur Catalogus’, Vol 4 (1815) identifies a work by William Lilly – ‘A peculiar prognostication whether or no His Majesty shall suffer death this present year’ (1649). It was very much in line with Lilly’s output at the time.

    And his work on eclipse forecasts. There had been a number of separate predictions for eclipses which did not take place or which were only partial eclipses and not viewable across the whole of the country. Of particular note is Lilly’s ‘Merlini Anglici Ephemeris or predictions upon severall eclipses and celestiall configurations for the yeare 1649’. Lilly also made a prediction for the partial eclipse of 1648.


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