Lilly, William

Lilly, William

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

William Lilly (1602–1681) was the most important astrologer in England at a time when astrology itself had attained a richness and a degree of influence unmatched before or, probably, since. This stature manifested itself in two ways: his role as an astrologer in the wider social and political world, and his place in and impact on the astrological tradition.

Lilly rose to national prominence in the context of the English Revolution, including the Civil War (1642–49) and so-called Interregnum, lasting until the Restoration in 1662, which saw the return of a king, House of Lords, and bishops. In this time of unprecedented upheaval, astrology—liberated from strict censorship—was among the many ideas that, for a time, took national center stage. And Lilly was, during his lifetime, universally recognized as astrology’s preeminent practitioner. Even his disputacious peers made him the leading figure of the London Society of Astrologers, who met annually for a sermon and feast in 1647–58. Lilly consistently issued dire warnings as to the likely fate of Charles I, backed up by inspired and precise astrological exegesis. (Typically, though, he also supplied the beleagured king with private advice, through a royal emissary, as to how to escape it.) His value as chief prophet of the Parliamentarian cause was estimated as equivalent to several regiments, and his annual almanac, Merlinus Anglicus, from its start in 1644, rose to sales of nearly 30,000 copies a year throughout the 1650s. There were bitter complaints (particularly by his enemies the Presbyterians) that people put more trust in his almanacs than in the Bible, and that on the occasion of an eclipse in 1652, many in London were too frightened by his dire prognostication to venture outdoors.

After the Great Fire of 1666, Lilly was examined by a parliamentary committee because he was widely believed to have predicted it in a pamphlet of 1651. (A woodcut therein showed twins—Gemini, long held to be ruling sign of London—hanging suspended above a fire that men are struggling to put out.) But on this and other occasions, Lilly was protected by powerful political allies. One was the alchemist and astrologer Elias Ashmole, a firm Royalist and Controller of the Excise after 1662; despite their very different political convictions, the two men became lifelong friends.

In 1652, Lilly left for Hersham, in Surrey, where he became churchwarden of St. Mary’s Church in Walton-on-Thames, and married for the third and final time. Here he continued the astrological practice that had begun in his house “by Strand Bridge” in London. From the 1640s through the 1660s, Lilly averaged nearly 2000 consultations a year, and his clients ranged from serving girls to politicans and aristocrats, with a scale of fees paid accordingly. By 1662, he was reported to be earning about 500 pounds a year, a very comfortable sum. He also, however, dispensed free advice and treatment to the parish poor. In 1670, he obtained formal permission from the archbishop of Canterbury to practice medicine as well. Lilly died on June 9, 1681, and was buried in St Mary’s, where his marble tombstone, bearing an inscription paid for by Ashmole, can still be seen.

In addition to this remarkable life as an astrologer, Lilly’s claim to fame rests on his authorship of the first astrological textbook in English, Christian Astrology (1657, with a second edition in 1659 and a facsimile reprint in 1985 that is still in use). While drawing on virtually the entire European corpus then available—more than 200 titles are cited—the book is stamped with Lilly’s own unmistakable style, the sample judgments combining the skill of an artist with an authority at once pragmatic and spiritual. Many are horary, reflecting both its importance in a period when many people had no idea of their birth time, but also Lilly’s kind of divinatory astrology. It embraced, without any sense of necessary contradiction, a disciplined and systematic approach to knowledge that has since become identified as “scientific”; the magical sense of not only discerning but negotiating with destiny, and thus potentially changing it; and the possibility of religiously inspired, and piously revered prophecy. Within Lilly’s lifetime, these three strands started to become seriously estranged. Even within the astrological tradition, there were subsequently only either scientific or magical (and sometimes spiritual) astrologers, and these two camps were in perpetual opposition.

Lilly was a genius at something—judicial astrology—that modern mainstream opinion has since decided is impossible to do at all, let alone do well or badly. Only in the final decades of the twentieth century, with a renewal of interest and respect among both astrologers and historians, did he begin to receive proper recognition.

Sources:

Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Moment of Astrology: Origins in Divination. London: Penguin/Arkana, 1994.
Curry, Patrick. Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Geneva, Ann. Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Lilly, William. Christian Astrology. London: Regulus, 1647.
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1973.

—Patrick Curry