We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  William Lilly (1602–1681), by unknown artist, 1646 William Lilly (1602–1681), by unknown artist, 1646
Lilly, William (1602–1681), astrologer, was born on 1 May 1602, in the village of Diseworth, Leicestershire, near Derby, the son of William Lilly and Alice Barham (d. 1619). His family were of long-standing yeoman stock. A different date of birth, 30 April 1602 at 2.08 p.m. was given by his rival, the astrologer John Gadbury; 1 May, given in Lilly's own account, is, however, to be preferred. When he was eleven, Lilly was sent to the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch to be instructed in the grammar school there by John Brinsley, an eminent puritan schoolmaster who taught him grammar, rhetoric, Latin and some Greek, and Hebrew. He remained there until 1620, when his father's poverty obliged him to return home. The same misfortune prevented him, despite some aptitude, from entering university.

First marriages and early astrology

Lilly did not stay long in Diseworth. On 9 April 1620 he arrived in London to enter the service of Gilbert Wright and his wife. Wright was a salt merchant known to Lilly's father's attorney; his wife, who died of breast cancer, was nursed by Lilly in her final illness in 1624. They lived ‘at the corner house in the Strand’ (by Strand Bridge). Wright being illiterate, Lilly also helped with the accounts. After a second marriage, to Ellen Whitehaire, Wright died on 22 May 1627, leaving an annual income of £20 for Lilly. Later that year, Lilly and Wright's elderly widow secretly married, and in an arrangement that apparently suited them both lived together until her death in 1633. He then inherited nearly £1000, a considerable sum.

Recent research has considerably increased knowledge of Lilly's astrology. In 1632 he heard about one John Evans, a wise- or cunning-man living and plying his trade in Gunpowder Alley. After visiting Evans, Lilly became interested in his craft and paid him for instruction in judicial astrology for seven or eight weeks, during which time he learned to ‘set figures’ and picked up some rudiments of interpretation (Evans owned only one book, apart from an ephemeris—Haly's De judiciis astrorum) and a little knowledge of primitive ceremonial magic, chiefly conjuring spirits. Evans was apparently a competent astrologer, but he had a serious drinking habit to support and would supply judgements calculated to please the client even when (as Lilly became sufficiently skilled to notice) the astrological significations were quite to the contrary. Lilly's pointing this out was the occasion of their break, and he then applied himself diligently to studying the subject himself, having bought some old books in a sale.

Lilly also continued with his study of the magical arts and according to his autobiography was partner, in 1632, to a bizarre search for buried treasure in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. It was interrupted by a sudden, fierce, and inexplicable wind that, although apparently quelled by Lilly's dismissal of the disturbed demons, badly scared the participants. Some time in 1634–5 Lilly was engaged to teach John Hegenius the use of dowsing rods and talismans, but he claims that he burnt his magic books a couple of years later, having grown ‘very much afflicted with the Hypocondraik Melancholly’ (Lilly, 33).

Although he apparently dropped practical magic, Lilly continued with astrology, noting in his autobiography that ‘in this time, viz. in 1633, [it] was very rare in London, few professing it that understood any thing thereof’ (Lilly, 23). However, he succeeded in making the acquaintance of Nicholas Fiske, later John Gadbury's tutor, who gave him invaluable assistance with astronomy and mathematics as well as with astrology.

Lilly now acquired a patron, William Pennington MP, of Muncaster, Cumberland. He purchased a number of houses in the Strand, and on 18 November 1634, following the death of Ellen in the previous year, married Jane Rowley; this was less happy than his first marriage as ‘she was of the Nature of Mars’ (Lilly, 31) (that is, bad-tempered). His melancholy continuing, he decided in the spring of 1636 to move to the country, and settled in the village of Hersham, in the parish of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. He lived there quietly and simply, except for trips to London to extricate Pennington from various scrapes. These included a paternity suit and an accusation of immorality by a disaffected divine, Isaac Antrobus. Lilly performed his tasks ably by resorting to means of discrediting the accusers that show a firm grasp of political infighting, if somewhat flexible ethics.

In September 1641, as he recorded:
Having now in part recovered my Health, being weary of the Country, and perceiving there was Money to be got in London, and thinking my self to be as sufficiently enabled in Astrology as any I could meet with, I made it my Business to repair thither. (Lilly, 35)
He continued studying, now Valentine Naibod's commentary on Alcabitius, but also commenced writing his own thoughts upon an approaching great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn—a concern that reveals his interest in mundane astrology and in the broader social and political implications of the stars.

Lilly and the English revolution

The events which began in 1642 certainly offered Lilly plenty of scope. His sympathies were already on the side of parliament and puritanism (broadly defined), when in 1643 he was consulted as an astrological physician in an illness of the parliamentarian politician Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke. Whitelocke credited Lilly's intervention, brought about by John Lisle's wife, with saving his life, and he became a powerful ally.

In April 1644 Lilly published his first almanac, Merlinus Anglicus Junior, and sold out the first edition within a week. He then complained to some MPs that parliament's licenser, the astrologer John Booker, had insisted on ‘many impertinent Obliterations’ (Lilly, 41), and was rewarded with permission for a second, unadulterated edition.

His almanac for the following year, 1645, entitled Anglicus, Peace or No Peace, made his name by suggesting for June—based on an unfortunate aspect from Mars to the king's Ascendant—that ‘If now we fight, a Victory stealeth upon us’ (ibid., 43). The outcome of the battle of Naseby that month spectacularly confirmed Lilly's pre-eminence over the unfortunate royalist almanac-writer, now his chief rival, Sir George Wharton.

After Anglicus, or, An Ephemeris (1646), Lilly produced an almanac annually under the title Merlini Anglici Ephemeris, beginning with that for 1647, until his death. Written in a vivid style that mixed eschatological prophecy, judicial astrology, and gritty politics, it was an immediate success. His sales reached undreamt of heights. The royal monopoly of the Company of Stationers, and censorship by appointed ecclesiastical and university authorities, had broken down at the start of the civil war and both licensed and unlicensed publications burgeoned. His almanacs sold 13,500 copies in 1646, 17,000 the next year, and 18,500 in 1648. The following year this leaped up to nearly 30,000 copies. In the 1650s they were translated into Dutch, German, Swedish, and Danish.

Lilly also published a number of popular pamphlets which, to varying degrees, materially influenced events. One of these, A Prophecy of the White Kings Dreadfull Dead-Man Explaned (1644), drew upon traditional forms of popular prophecy. Two others, England's Propheticall Merline (1644) and The Starry Messenger (1645), were more explicitly astrological. The former was a masterful exposition of the recent conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, various eclipses, the comet of 1618, and the nativities of English kings. Carefully but relentlessly piling detail upon detail, Lilly inferred the end of the Stuart monarchy, indicted Charles for engaging in ‘an uncivill and unnatural war against his own Subjects’ (Geneva, 212), and strongly implied, to an astrologically literate audience, the violent death of the king himself.

The Starry Messenger, published on the day of the battle of Naseby, drew the same conclusions from the appearance in London on 19 November 1644 of a divine but ominous portent, namely three suns (known in astronomical parlance as parhelia)—especially as this occurred at 8° of Sagittarius, the point of the 1603 great conjunction that had ushered in the Stuart succession and, to top it all, Charles's own birthday. Lilly then used the forthcoming solar eclipse of 11 August 1645 to issue his most explicit prediction of the king's fate.

Lilly's astral republicanism was thus both early and consistent, despite the rhetorical red herrings resulting from his natural caution, such as assertions that Charles was ‘not the Worst, but the most unfortunate of kings’ (Geneva, 234), and claims that he had affection for the king personally. There can also be no doubting the sincerity of his astrological (as distinct from political) conviction that unless Charles acceded to parliament's authority—‘Fac hoc & vives’ (‘Do this and live’), as he urged in a pamphlet of 1645—he was doomed.

Despite this, Lilly still had enemies on his own side, particularly the Presbyterians, who (he later recalled) ‘were, in their Pulpits, as merciless as the Cavaliers in their Pamphlets’ (Lilly, 53). He was closely examined by one parliamentary committee in 1645, and nearly again shortly after, but both times powerful personal and political friends interceded on his behalf. They were keenly aware of his value as a propagandist—that of more than half a dozen regiments, as one contemporary put it—and on one occasion cavaliers tried to kidnap Lilly from his house; he wasn't at home.

Two things should be noted here. One is that Lilly himself drew the line at the more extreme sects of his time, such as the Fifth Monarchists and ‘that monstrous people called Ranters’ (Lilly, 64). The second is that political differences of opinion, although serious, were not necessarily insuperable. In 1646 Lilly was introduced by Jonas Moore, a royalist, to Elias Ashmole, a staunch supporter of the king who became Windsor herald and comptroller of the excise after the Restoration. The two men became the closest friends, in a relationship that ended only with Lilly's death.

Christian Astrology and political troubles

In 1647 Lilly published Christian Astrology, the first major astrological textbook in the English language. His decision to publish a specialized work in this manner was deliberate, part of the demotic-democratic programme he shared with other astrologers on the side of parliament and the army, especially Nicholas Culpeper, to make astrology and physic available to as many people as possible in the vernacular. There was a second edition in 1659 (and a facsimile reprint in 1985, Lilly's textbook still being in use more than three centuries later). Christian Astrology was based on Lilly's reading of the 228 earlier titles listed in his bibliography, among whose authors Claude Dariot (1523–1594) seems to have been particularly influential, plus his own innovations. It covers both nativities and horaries, and besides specific techniques reveals Lilly's commitment to an openly divinatory and occasionally prophetic astrology, in which the stars are divine signs, not physical causes, and ‘the more holy thou art, and more neer to God, the purer judgement thou shalt give’ (Christian Astrology, 1647, 13).

In the summer of 1647 Lilly was approached by Lady Jane Whorewood, acting as an emissary of Charles I (then a prisoner in Hampton Court) and with his consent, for his advice as to where the king might safely hide upon escaping; Lilly advised Essex, but the king chose, or had already chosen, to try the Isle of Wight. There, at Carisbrooke Castle, Lilly was again apparently instrumental through Lady Whorewood in supplying Charles with a metal saw and further astrological advice, but again to no avail.

At about the same time, Lilly was granted £50 and an annual pension of £100 (paid only for 1648–9) by parliament, probably for intelligence services. In January 1649, after attending the king's trial, Lilly had the satisfaction, although he evinced no enjoyment from it, of seeing his prophecies regarding the fate of Charles fulfilled, and also of magnanimously procuring the release of his old antagonist George Wharton.

In 1651 Lilly and Booker were sent for by the parliamentary besiegers of Colchester to cheer on their soldiery. The following year, however, tiring of the fray, Lilly purchased Hurst Wood, a house with some grounds, probably on Thrupps Lane, in Hersham, Surrey. But the quiet life was not yet to be. In 1653 he made bold to criticize parliament in his almanac of that year, and he was again arraigned before a committee. He had advance notice from the speaker, however, and quickly arranged with his printer for another edition with the most dangerous passages left out. Then he disowned the former one before the committee; despite the disarray this produced he was imprisoned for thirteen days before being released on bail, after which the matter was quietly dropped.

Lilly breathed more freely after Cromwell's dissolution of parliament in April 1653, but Presbyterian divines continued to harry him with their ‘malevolent barking’ (Lilly, 50). In particular, beginning in 1651, Lilly carried on an acrimonious exchange with Thomas Gataker that only ended with the latter's death in 1654. Matters were probably not helped by the fact that in Christian Astrology Lilly had considered a horary enquiry by Sir Thomas Myddelton as to ‘if Presbytery should prevail, or not, in England?’ Lilly's reply was that ‘the Commonalty will defraud the expectation of the Clergy, and so strongly oppose them, that the end hereof shall wholely delude the expectation of the Clergy’ (Christian Astrology, 1647, 439).

Third marriage and the business of astrology

On 16 February 1654 Lilly's second wife died, unregretted. In October of the same year he married Ruth Needham, in what was evidently a happy match. In 1659 he received a gold chain and medallion from the king of Sweden, whose nativity he had praised in his almanac the preceding year.

All this time Lilly kept up a thriving business as a practising astrologer in his house on the Strand. His surviving (though incomplete) casebooks for 1644–66 reveal a clientele of nearly 2000 a year. Although about a third of his clients were female servants, the remainder included many members of the gentry and aristocracy, and in all, nearly as many men as women. His clients included Major-General John Lambert; Anthony Ashley Cooper, future first earl of Shaftesbury; and the leading Leveller Richard Overton, who sought Lilly's opinion in April 1648 as to ‘whether, by joining with the agents of the private soldiery of the Army for the redemption of common right and freedom to the land and removal of oppressions from the people, my endeavors shall be prosperous or no’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 420, attached to fol. 267). Unfortunately Lilly's reply is not recorded.

Usually questions were more mundane, though no less practical and vital to those concerned: the uncertainties of love-life and children, lost or stolen property, medical problems, and military service in a time of turmoil. The commonest question was ‘Quid agendum?’ (‘What is to be done?’). For this service, Lilly normally charged about a half-crown, but it could be as much as £40 for the well-off. He also taught astrology for a fee, to a considerable number of students. By 1662 he was earning as much as £500 a year—unquestionably a high income.

By now Lilly's reputation was considerable. In a glowing letter of 4 April 1651 he was hailed by Abraham Whelock, head librarian at Cambridge University, as the chief ‘promotor of these admired studies’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 423, fol. 173); at the other end of the political spectrum, John Webster's ambitious attack on the universities in Academiarum examen (1654) recommended astrology as an art ‘high, noble, excellent, and useful’, and praised Lilly and his colleagues (Ashmole, Culpeper, Saunders, and Booker) for ‘unwearied pains for the resuscitation, and promotion of this noble Science’ (J. Webster, Academiarum Examen, 1654, 51). The respected astronomer (and, incidentally, royalist) Vincent Wing wrote to Lilly in 1650 politely seeking his astrological judgements, and asking for ‘a line of Comendacion’ for his new book (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 423), while Lilly's correspondents wrote to him with observations and queries from everywhere in the British Isles, and from continental Europe. As for the popular influence of his almanac, John Evelyn recalled in 1699 that during the solar eclipse of 29 March 1652, ‘many were so terrified by Lilly that they durst not go out of their houses’ (Diary of John Evelyn, 3.144), and an anonymous pamphlet complained that people put more confidence in Lilly than they did in God.

Lilly also seems to have been recognized as an authority on more recondite questions of angels, spirits, and fairies. Among other consultations, Aubrey records that ‘Anno 1670, not far from Cyrencester, was an Apparition: Being demanded, whether a good Spirit, or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious Perfume and most melodious Twang. Mr W. Lilley believes it was a Fairie’ (J. Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. O. L. Dick, 1949, 297).

During the years 1649–58 Lilly was the leading figure in an extraordinary group, the Society of Astrologers. A letter in George Wharton's florid handwriting, dated 24 April 1650, thanks Whitelocke for his patronage, and acknowledges ‘the dextirous Scrutiny and Pains of Mr. Lilly’ (G. Wharton to B. Whitelocke, 24 April 1650, Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 423, fol. 168v). The society met once a year for a feast and sermon from a sympathetic divine; its members numbered about forty, and by common agreement matters of politics or religion were set aside for the evening. The tide, however, was already turning. The society did not survive the Restoration; on 22 June 1677, Ashmole nostalgically ‘summoned the remainder of our old Club about Strand Bridge that are left alive’ (Elias Ashmole, 1485). The last two reconvened feasts took place in 1682–3, after Lilly's death.

The Restoration and after

The Restoration presented Lilly with obvious difficulties. However, he kept his head down, swore loyalty to Charles II, and was greatly helped by Ashmole and (in his turn) Wharton. In June 1660 he was examined by another parliamentary committee as to the identity of the regicide. Providence had not entirely deserted Lilly, it seems, for Richard Pennington, the son of his old patron William, appeared in time to whip up support behind the scenes and convinced one of Lilly's three examiners, Richard Weston, to take his side. Lilly described the circumstances of the king's death, named Lieutenant-Colonel George Joyce, and was let go at that.

Pepys describes a convivial evening spent at Lilly's house on the Strand, together with Ashmole and Booker, on 24 October 1660, so evidently something like a normal life continued. However, Lilly was again arrested in January 1661, and roughly treated before being released at the insistence of Sir Edward Walker.

Apart from a protracted and tedious civil suit over a property dispute, Lilly spent more time in Hersham, where he was made churchwarden of Walton-on-Thames parish for 1663–4. With the plague ravaging London, he and his wife withdrew to Hersham for good in June 1665. On 2 September 1666 the great fire of London broke out, devastating the old city. In the aftermath, it was recalled that in his Monarchy or No Monarchy (1651) Lilly had included some mysterious hieroglyphics, including one a pair of twins (symbolizing Gemini, the sign held to rule London) suspended over a fierce conflagration. People also noticed that the date of the fire fell on that chosen by the former parliamentary conspirators led by Colonel Rathbone, executed in April, for their attempted coup—and chosen for its anti-royal auspiciousness, so they claimed, from Lilly's almanac for 1666. There is in fact no such encouragement in his almanac, but suspicion fell on Lilly and he was summoned to appear before yet another parliamentary committee on 25 October, chaired by Sir Robert Brooke. Lilly was accompanied by Ashmole, who also did some lobbying on his behalf. This time, Lilly was gently treated. He admitted to having foreseen a plague and a fire for London, but pressed on whether he had also foreseen the dates, he replied, ‘I did not, [n]or was desirous; of that I made no scrutiny’ (Lilly, 90). In typically tantalizing fashion Lilly's own copy of the hieroglyphic of the fire carries his scribbled note, ‘forsan [perhaps] 1666 vel [or] 1667’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 553, fol. 1137), but there is no way of knowing whether that was written before or after the event. Only one thing seems sure: even if Lilly had anticipated the date, he would not have admitted it to his examiners.

Despite this backhanded compliment to his powers, Lilly must have found the intellectual and social atmosphere of the Restoration uncongenial. Astrology was becoming firmly identified as ‘enthusiastic’ and vulgar: Lilly was parodied by Samuel Butler as the astrologer Sidrophel in Hudibras (1662–3); Pepys records how he and his friends laughed at Lilly's prophecies in 1667; and by 1664 sales of his now unfashionable almanac had plummeted to about 8000 copies a year.

In Hersham, Lilly continued his practice, consulted by many local people—whom he charged little or nothing—for advice regarding their personal and medical problems. Every Sunday he rode to Kingston for the day, as Ashmole recalls, ‘where the poorer sort flockt to him from several Parts’ (Lilly, 102). He also renewed his study of physic, and asked Ashmole to use his influence with Gilbert Sheldon, the archbishop of Canterbury, to obtain a licence for its practice. This, signed by two physicians from the college, was duly forthcoming on 8 October 1670. Ashmole and his wife were the mainstays of the Lillys' social life, and their letters reveal a touchingly close relationship among the four of them.

In November 1675 Lilly fell ill. Although he slowly recovered, he began to use the London astrologer as an amanuensis in preparing the next year's almanac; Coley would come down to Hersham at the beginning of every summer and stay until it had been dispatched to the press. Coley received Lilly's permission to continue his almanac, under the same title, after his death.

Seized by a ‘palsy’ on 30 May, Lilly died, in the company of his wife and Ashmole, at about 3 a.m. on 9 June 1681 at his home, Hurst Wood, Hersham. He was buried in the chancel of St Mary's parish church, Hersham, the next day. His black marble tombstone, paid for by Ashmole and still in place, bears a Latin inscription which identifies him as ‘a most learned astrologer’. George Smalridge, a future bishop of Bristol, then a scholar at Westminster sponsored by Ashmole, composed an elegy which lamented that
Our Prophet's gone … the Stars had so decreed;
As he of them, so they of him, had need.
(Lilly, 105–6)
Lilly had no children, though he regarded his protégé Henry Coley as his adopted son. His will divided his extensive property and land (over 60 acres) between his wife, Ruth, and Carlton, the son of Bulstrode Whitelocke, and left legacies to his six servants and the parish poor. He had already arranged for Ashmole to purchase his books, papers, and letters from his widow for £50; they were later deposited in the Bodleian Library.

Lilly's place in history

William Lilly, scourge of Charles I and prophet of a world turned upside down, thus died covered in respectability if not exactly glory. His interest, as recent research has shown, lies in his astrology: a pre-Enlightenment unity of what was already, during his lifetime, fast becoming more sharply divided into natural philosophical knowledge, divinatory or ‘magical’ astrology, and religious prophecy. Lilly flourished at the last historical moment when such a thing was unselfconsciously possible. His undoubted powers of sagacity and survival, in this context, were not so much a contradiction as an adjunct—in his own words, ‘Discretion, together with art’ (Christian Astrology, 1647, 397). Probably divination has always worked in such a way. However, his successors, chiefly Gadbury and Partridge, were obliged to embark upon drastic programmes of differing but explicitly ‘rational’ reforms, something with which Lilly was never overly concerned. Overtly magical astrology was now virtually confined to the village cunning-man and -woman, with whom it remained until the time of Ebenezer Sibly.

The historiographical problem Lilly presents is simply stated: he was virtually a genius at something—judicial astrology—which modern mainstream opinion fails to recognize as even something that it is possible to do, let alone do well or badly. That opinion largely has its own historical origins in the very period spanned by Lilly's life. He therefore constitutes a valuable challenge and test of historians' ability to transcend the assumptions and prejudices of their own times.

Patrick Curry

Sources  

P. Curry, Prophecy and power: astrology in early modern England (1989) · A. Geneva, Astrology and the seventeenth century mind: William Lilly and the language of the stars (1995) · K. Thomas, Religion and the decline of magic (1971) · B. S. Capp, Astrology and the popular press: English almanacs, 1500–1800 (1979) · W. Lilly, Mr William Lilly's history of his life and times: from the year 1602, to 1681, 2nd edn (1715); repr. with introduction by K. M. Briggs (1974) · D. Parker, Familiar to all: William Lilly and astrology in the seventeenth century (1975) · DNB · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ashmole 420, 423, 553 · Elias Ashmole (1617–1692): his autobiographical and historical notes, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols. (1966 [i.e. 1967]) · Diary of John Evelyn, ed. W. Bray, new edn, ed. H. B. Wheatley, 4 vols. (1879) · J. Gadbury, Collectio geniturarum, or, A collection of nativities (1662)

Archives  

BL, collection of astrological observations, SI MS 3856 · Bodl. Oxf., astrological collections |  BL, corresp. with Elias Ashmole and Elizabeth Ashmole, Add. MS 4293


Likenesses  

oils, 1646, AM Oxf. [see illus.] · T. Cross, line engraving, NPG; repro. in W. Lilly, Almanack (1678) · Hollar, engraving, repro. in W. Lilly, Almanack · W. Marshall, line engraving (after oils, 1646), BM, NPG; repro. in W. Lilly, Christian astrology (1647) · Vaughan, engraving, repro. in W. Lilly, Almanack · line engraving, BM; repro. in W. Lilly, Merlini Anglici Ephemeris (1667) · line engraving, NPG

Wealth at death  

property and land; personal possessions; also small legacy: DNB