Historical Interest

The Life of England’s Merlin, William Lilly

William Lilly

Perhaps England’s most famous and influential astrologer, William Lilly was born to a family of provincial farmers in Diseworth, a small rural village in Leicestershire County, in early May 1602. It was his mother’s wish that Lilly become a scholar, and through her encouragement Lilly pursued an education away from the family farm. At eleven years of age, Lilly’s father sent him to a school in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, a town ten miles southwest of Diseworth. There he learned English, Latin and Greek from Mr. John Brinsley, whose careful instruction helped Lilly to develop command of written language.

6 May 1602 (NS), 2:05am. London, England.

16 May 1602 (NS), 2:05am. London, England.
Regiomontanus Houses.[1]

Lilly studied in Ashby until he was 18 years old, ceasing when Brinsley’s school was interrupted and Brinsley was forced to relocate to London. While at school Lilly’s mother passed, but her insistence that her son exceed his father’s status continued to fuel Lilly. He planned to attend university and enter the church, but his father’s financial condition was unable to support tuition. On the censure of Brinsley’s education, Lilly reports in his autobiography, “I was also enforced to leave school, and so came to my father’s house, where I lived in penury for one year, and taught school one quarter of the year, Until God’s providence provided better for me.”[2]

God’s providence came in the form of his father’s attorney, Samuel Smatty, who took pity on Lilly’s condition as an aspiring scholar trapped in rural life. Smatty arranged a meeting with Lilly to share details of his recent trip to London. There Smatty met a gentleman in need of an attendant and scribe, a post for which Lilly was well suited. With his father’s blessing (and as Lilly tells it, “my father … was very willing to be rid of me, for I could not work, drive the plough, or endure any country labour; my father oft would say, I was good for nothing”),[3] Lilly departed for London by foot on 4 April 1620. The journey took five full days of travel in uncomfortable, wet and cold weather. He arrived in London on 9 April with a meager sum of money and two days’ worth of clothing.

Upon entering London Lilly met his new master, Gilbert Wright, who provided him with fresh food and a new cloak that Lilly greatly treasured. Wright was a well-spoken and attractive man by Lilly’s account, albeit illiterate and without a formal profession. Wright’s was a self-made made of diverse revenue streams, the principal of which was the annual rent that came from the various lodgings he kept and maintained. His workload required the assistance of someone younger and more educated, and so for seven years Lilly worked for Wright as his servant and secretary.

When Wright died in May 1627 his estate remained with his widow, Ellen. Ellen was far older than Lilly, not particularly educated or ambitious but well off financially. In his autobiography, Lilly noted “all her talk was of husbands, and in my presence saying one day after dinner, she respected not wealth, but desired an honest man.”[4] Lilly believed himself capable of being a decent and honest husband to Ellen, and in a bold act offered his hand in marriage. In his autobiography (William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times, hereafter History), Lilly recalled the anxiety of mind he experienced precipitating that daring move:

I was much perplexed hereat, for should I attempt her, and be slighted, she would never care for me afterwards; but again, I considered that if I should attempt and fail, she would never speak of it; or would any believe I durst be so audacious as to propound such a question, the disproportion of years and fortune being so great betwixt us (History, p. 57).

As that conversation continued Ellen entertained Lilly’s thoughts on the particulars — how to reconcile matters of age, finances, exchange of security and care and love. Contented with Lilly’s responses, Ellen agreed to marry Lilly. The two were wed at St. George’s Church in Southwark on 8 September 1627 and kept their marriage secret from the public for two full years. The marriage was a happy one, devoid of complaints, each lovingly attending the other until Ellen’s death in October 1633. Ellen left Lilly approximately one thousand pounds,[5] funds that allowed him to procure the lease for his corner house and a share in thirteen other houses on the Strand.[6]

While still serving Master Wright, Lilly developed something of a passing interest in astrology. Despite his inheritance, he was forced to put his interest aside due to financial restrictions and focus instead on his duties. With the purchase of the houses on the Strand, Lilly was able to sustain himself on their annual rents, and they afforded him the ability to study astrology without fear of impoverishment.

In 1634 Lilly remarried to a woman that he described as “of the nature of Mars.”[7] Very little was written about the difficulties of their marriage, but on her death in 1654 Lilly wrote that he “shed no tears.”[8] Later that same year Lilly entered his third and final marriage, reportedly his happiest. Lilly remarked, “I married the third wife, who is signified in my nativity by Jupiter in Libra; and she is so totally in her conditions, to my great comfort.”[9]

Shortly before the death of his first wife Ellen, Lilly was introduced to John Evans, a London occultist who was knowledgeable in many esoteric pursuits — astrology, crystal gazing, talismanic magic, the invoking of angels and spirits, etc. Through Evans Lilly learned the basics of astrology, but Lilly permanently distanced himself from Evans after witnessing him shamelessly deliver a false judgment for monetary gain.

Lilly frequently underscored the importance of moral rectitude in practitioners of astrology and often classified his contemporaries as sound or unsound based on their purity in intent and humility. On page 86 of his autobiography Lilly explains his reasoning for refusing a man’s request for tutelage, saying, “Artis est celare artem [trans.: “It is true art to conceal art”], especially to those who live not in the fear of God, or can be masters of their own counsels.” Lilly’s Epistle to the Student in Astrology is an excellent moral primer for those seeking to engage in the study of astrology, and can be found in the introduction to Lilly’s Christian Astrology of 1647. It has been reproduced here: Lilly’s “Epistle to the Student of Astrology.”

Lilly would continue to study astrology independently. He focused on building connections to like-minded individuals, and as his autobiography recounts many of these had a wide range of esoteric and occult interests. Through his associations Lilly began to participate in the practice of magic. A handful of his magical experimentations are documented in Lilly’s autobiography, ranging from the incredible to the mystifying, from the awe-inspiring to the sinister and terrifying. Between 1634 and 1636 Lilly’s health slowly began to deteriorate, eventually causing him to retire to the countryside. There he burned all his magical textbooks and memorabilia, and slowly regained his health over a period of five years. While recovering Lilly wrote and published one six-page pamphlet exploring the astrological effects of a solar eclipse in Gemini, but lived an otherwise uneventful life in the countryside, continuing on in his astrological studies.

By 1641 Lilly’s health was restored, and “being weary of the country, and perceiving there was money to be got in London,” he returned to London in September of that year. For the next two years, Lilly read and re-read his classical textbooks to perfect his understanding of astrology. Lilly recognizes Naibod’s Commentary upon Alcabitius as especially illuminating, writing in his autobiography, “having seriously studied him, I found him to be the profoundest author I ever met with; him I traversed over day and night, from whom I must acknowledge to have advanced my judgment and knowledge unto that height I soon after arrived at, or unto: a most rational author, and the sharpest expositor of Ptolemy that hath yet appeared.” He began a consultation practice in London working with all manner of clients from across the social strata, charging a half-crown[10] for his judgments and amassing a reputation as a skillful and capable astrologer extraordinaire.

In 1643 Lilly delivered an astute judgment of the nature and course of an illness for Sir Bulstrode Whitlocke, a member of Parliament’s House of Commons. Lilly judged that Whitlocke would recover but relapse within one month’s time due to an excessive amount of eating or drinking. Just as Lilly had predicted, Whitlocke recovered only to suffer relapse after an excessive intake of trout. Lilly visited Whitlocke daily, later remarking, “Dr. Prideau despairing of his life; but I said there was no danger thereof, and that he would be sufficiently well in five or six weeks; and so he was.”[11] A strong friendship developed between Lilly and Whitlocke, and through Whitlocke, Lilly was introduced to many members of Parliament and the governing bodies of the time.

Lilly’s first almanac, entitled Merlinus Anglicus Junior, was published in 1644, not without some notable publishing difficulties. To license and publish his work, Lilly partnered with John Booker, a contemporary astrologer with an esteemed reputation. Lilly himself greatly anticipated meeting Booker, saying, “I had a desire to see him, but first, ere I would speak with him, I would fit myself with my old rules, and rub up my astrology; for at that time (and this was 1640) I thought John Booker the greatest and most complete astrologer in the world.”[12] Lilly’s interactions with Booker through the licensing process quickly revealed that Booker had only a modest understanding of astrology and was hindered in judgment by a number of technical and theoretical deficiencies. Booker struggled to understand how Lilly could judge the particulars that he had in Merlinus Anglicus Junior, and being licenser (and de facto censurer) of astrological almanacs, he cut Lilly’s material back to what he himself could easily follow and agree with. The result was a significant departure from what Lilly had intended, but with the support of Parliamentary MPs his Anglicus would be sent for re-publication shortly thereafter unabridged and observations intact. The re-published version contained a prediction that would solidify Lilly’s standing in England at that time as England’s great astrological mind — that the King would suffer a terrible defeat at Naseby in June of 1645, and so he did, “the most fatal overthrow he ever had.”[13]

In 1645 Lilly published his Starry Messenger, a treatise exploring both the significance of two mock suns that appeared simultaneously in London on 29 May 1644 and the effects of a solar eclipse on 11 August 1645 (visible in London). Within two weeks of Starry Messenger’s publication Lilly was made to answer for its content before a Committee of Examinations. He was accused of rallying troop tensions against the Commissioners of Excise (along with a number of other offenses), and while this charge was serious Lilly was ultimately discharged after supporting testimonies from his allies and friends.

Over the next two years Lilly set his pen on completing what would become his great astrological introduction to be published in 1647.[14] Lilly expounded on four primary reasons for writing Christian Astrology in his autobiography: first, there was a great need for an updated textbook on astrology as very little was available in English at that time, and what little was available was, in Lilly’s judgment, defective and lacking; second, it was becoming increasingly necessary to advocate for the social and spiritual lawfulness of the practice of astrology, as both the English government and oppressive Presbytery were fixed upon weeding out occult practices generally; third, the influence of the Presbyterian ministry was growing ever stronger, and Lilly feared that their political strength and malevolence toward astrology would soon restrict his ability to publish an introduction to astrology, perhaps indefinitely; and fourth, best expressed in Lilly’s own words,

I had something of conscience touched my spirit, and much elevated my conceptions, believing God had not bestowed those abilities upon me, to bury them under a bushel; for though my education was very mean, yet, by my continual industry, and God’s great mercy, I found myself capable to go forward with the work, and to commit the issue thereof unto Divine Providence (pgs. 128-9).

Christian Astrology, so named to dispel concerns of heresy and sorcery, was immediately regarded as a sound and highly reputable piece of astrological writing. John Booker, who had previously criticized Lilly’s technique, took to independent study of Christian Astrology and successfully increased his knowledge in natal delineations. Lilly commented that as a result of Booker’s study, he saw many charts delineated by Booker that were “very judiciously performed.”[15] Booker’s gratitude for Lilly and his work bonded them and created a deep friendship that lasted until Booker’s death in 1667.

Lilly’s life and influence can only be properly appreciated when compared to the historical backdrop of the time in which he lived and practiced astrology. Between 1644 and 1651, England was entrapped in a Civil War with the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) rising up against the Cavaliers (Royalists). Lilly was seemingly fluid in his allegiances, often tangled up in politics on both sides of the conflict. Lilly wrote,

Before [1645], I was more Cavalier than Roundhead, and so taken notice of; but after that I engaged body and soul in the cause of Parliament, but still with much affection to his Majesty’s person and unto monarchy, which I ever loved and approved beyond any government whatsoever; and you will find in this story many passages of civility which I did, and endeavoured to do, with the hazard of my life, for his Majesty: but God had ordered all his affairs and counsels to have no successes (p. 107).

In 1647, Lilly’s astrological guidance was solicited in secret to advise Lady Jane Whorwood on how King Charles I might escape imprisonment. Lilly first suggested the King be removed from London and placed into hiding some twenty miles northeast from London, but the King had already been moved for unknown reasons by the time Lady Whorwood was able to return to him.

Whorwood went to Lilly twice more between 1647 and 1648. In their next meeting, Lilly provided a saw to assist the King in sawing the bars off of his prison window. The King successfully cut through the bars and was halfway out the window when doubt ravaged him, and he retreated back into his cell. The King’s attempted escape was noticed, and he was very closely watched thereafter.

The third and final time Lilly counseled Whorwood (and by extension, the King himself) was in September 1648. The King was informed that Parliament intended to send their Commissioners to him to sign peace propositions. Lilly was able to astrologically ascertain the date that the Commissioners would arrive and elected a time for the King to receive the Commissioners and sign the papers. The King was then directed to ride immediately for London, as the armies that fought against him were far removed from London at that time.

As it happened, the King fell trap to his own arrogance and was flattered by a Commissioner, one Lord William Sea, who urged him not to sign the propositions after hearing the King’s plans. Sea told the King there were still those loyal to his cause in Parliament, and that he would return with propositions more sympathetic the King’s position. As a result, the King did not sign the propositions, contrary to Lilly’s direction. Unbeknownst to both the King and Lord Sea, another Commissioner was watching Sea closely for suspicions of misplaced allegiance. Parliament was swiftly notified of Sea’s intentions and the King received no further opportunity to acquire his freedom. King Charles I was beheaded shortly thereafter following a trial at White-hall, which Lilly by chance attended.

After the King’s beheading the English people grew tiresome of Parliament’s heavy hand. Himself discontented with Parliament’s actions and inactions, Lilly wrote in 1652 that its members “became insufferable in their pride, covetousness, self-ends, laziness, minding nothing but how to enrich themselves,” and that “the Parliament stood upon a tottering foundation,” and if the Parliament continued to levy injustice, “the commonalty and soldiery would join together against them.”[16]

These statements were published in his 1652/3 Merlinus Anglicus and aroused the animosity of Parliament and Presbytery alike. Lilly was brought to trial before the Committee of Examinations and put to tough questioning. To his advantage, Lilly received warning the night prior of what was to come and prepared a clever scheme to fight back. Lilly printed, overnight, six edited versions of his Anglicus with the phrases that aggravated Parliament altered or removed wholesale. Lilly denied ownership of the Anglicus copies the Parliament held, stating the six in his possession were the only authorized versions of his almanac and the others were created by his mortal enemies, the Presbyterians, who sought to ruin him. This threw the Committee in a tailspin, but still landed Lilly thirteen days in jail. To his great fortune, Oliver Cromwell — whom he had never met before — interceded on his behalf, and allowed him to be bailed from imprisonment.

A mere two months later, Oliver Cromwell himself would be personally responsible for enacting Lilly’s prediction of the people’s militarized overthrow of the Rump Parliament. In April 1653, Cromwell stormed Westminster with a band of soldiers and forcibly dismissed the Parliamentary MPs from their posts. The doors were sealed shut to Parliament with a notice pinned on the door, reading, “This House is to be let: now unfurnished.”[17] Thus began Cromwell’s Protectorate, which would run for six more years until Cromwell’s death in 1658. During Cromwell’s governorship, censorship was lessened and Lilly enjoyed more liberty in his writings.

In 1655 Lilly was indicted on a charge of accepting payment for divining the whereabouts of stolen items. The trial was repeatedly brought back to court as the judicial system struggled to come to an appropriate resolution. Lilly wrote that he was put to answer this charge because of a dim-witted woman manipulated by his enemies. The woman was carefully instructed on what to say in court, and gave a perfectly rehearsed testimony. In her final round of questioning she shared with the court that she had visited Lilly several times before and afterwards experienced night terrors and visions of lions, tigers and bears. Having never seen any, she was unable to describe what these animals looked like, and the whole matter was tossed out of court on the agreement that the accuser was “an idle person, only fit for Bedlam”[18] (the name of an infamous mental asylum in London).

Lilly published a failed prediction in 1659 stating that Cromwell’s son would successfully inherit the Protectorate and establish a strong foundation for a new government. Cromwell’s son did assume power, but was soon deposed. Parliament and the monarchy were restored in 1659 and 1660 respectively, with Charles II assuming power as King. This would be the beginning of a very difficult period for Lilly, as the censorship pendulum swung once again from the Protectorate’s relaxed approach to the King’s oppressive enforcement.

In 1660 Lilly was called to meet with an investigatory Committee, accused of the execution of Charles I. Lilly was ultimately discharged, but imprisoned one year later during a witch hunt of “supposed fanaticks.”[19] He was able to post his own bail and, through his many connections, negotiate his release.

In 1665 Lilly left London “wherein that horrible and devouring plague so extremely raged,”[20] returning to the countryside where he would live out the remainder of his days. He was called yet again to an examination in 1666 for charges relating to the Great Fire of London, a disaster he had predicted in hieroglyphic form, published in Monarchy or No Monarchy (1651). In his autobiography Lilly expresses his gratitude that Elias Ashmole joined him in his summons to Parliament and advocated on his behalf. Lilly then gave his testimony and was acquitted of all charges.

Lilly spent the last decade of his life practicing physic in the countryside, focusing mainly on aide to the poor and miserable. His health began to decline in 1677, eventually losing sight and strength in his senses and perception. Lilly began to work more closely with his adopted son, Henry Coley, until his eventual death by paralysis and flux in June 1681. He was aged eighty years.

William Lilly’s influence has extended far beyond what he could have imagined. Today, he is regarded as one of the utmost authoritative voices in medieval astrological history, and his text is responsible for the recent revival in traditional astrological technique. His life was one of curiosity, political intrigue and wisdom, and by the example set in the historical record he demonstrates for modern day astrologers the importance of embracing the times in which we are born. Ars longa, vita brevia.


FOOTNOTES.

[1] In his autobiography Lilly says he was born on 1 May 1602 (p. 16), and in his annual Anglicus titled Peace or No Peace (1645) he states that he was born with Venus in cazimi and a Pisces Moon. These individual chart attributes are incongruous with a 1 May birth, as that date would give a Capricorn Moon and Venus just outside generally accepted cazimi limits (though some historical authors did define cazimi as within 1º of the Sun). It is likely that Lilly, the son of a yeoman farmer, was himself unsure of the exact details of his birth data, which can account for variations in recorded information.

Lilly’s younger contemporary and detractor, John Gadbury, publicly contested Lilly’s comments about having a Pisces Moon, instead favoring a date and time rectified by James Blackwell. In his Collection of Nativities (1661), Gadbury published the following in reference to that rectified figure (p.188):

The person whose geniture this is (to puzzle the understandings of the inquisitous) hath pretended himself to have two several nativities:

(1.) In his Almanac of 1645 he tells his reader (in the Epistle thereunto) that he had the Moon in Pisces, which makes him a piece of a good fellow, &c., which (if true) he must be born the 5th or 6th of May 1602.

(2.) In his Introduction under his effigies, he says he was born on May 1st 1602, and then the Moon will not be in Pisces but in Capricorn, as in this figure. I am of the opinion he hath not the Moon in Pisces but in Capricorn, and therefore believe this to be his right nativity; the rather because my loving friend Mr. James Blackwell hath proved it so to be by thirteen several arguments or accidents printed a year-and-a-half since by itself. In which little tract, the ingenious Artist may meet with a concise method for calculating and judging a nativity; and unto which I refer the desirous reader for further satisfaction in this geniture. The reason why I am no larger herein is: because I would not be esteemed either envious or partial.

The chart embedded in this article is set for 6 May 1602 (OS) at 2:05am, which allows for both a Pisces Moon and Venus within 1º of the Sun. (A 5 May birth, same time, has the same attributes and is a potential alternative.)

All dates are recorded in Old Style (OS), unless otherwise stated. Old Style dating adheres to the Julian calendar, replaced in England with the Gregorian calendrical system in 1752 under the Calendar Act of 1750. Converting to New Style (NS) for 16th and 17th century dates requires a correction of +10 days. Back to text »

[2] Lilly, William. William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times From the Year 1602 to 1681 (hereafter, History). Dodo Press. 2009, p. 21. Back to text »

[3] Ibid., p. 24. Back to text »

[4] Ibid., p. 57. Back to text »

[5] According to http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/default0.asp, £1,000 in the 1630s would convert to approximately £89,160 GBP or $140,000 USD in today’s values. Website accessed 28 November 2014. Back to text »

[6] The details of this transaction are explored astrologically in Lilly’s chart judgment for “If I should purchase Master B., his houses” (Christian Astrology, pgs. 219-222). Lilly comments,

The truth of the matter is, I had a hard bargain, as the Figure every way considered does manifest, and shall never live to see many of the leases yet in being, expired: and as Venus is in Aries, viz. opposite to her own House, so did I myself injury by the Bargain, I mean in matter of Money; but the love I bore to the House I now live in, wherein I lived happily with a good Master full seven years, and therein obtained my first Wife, and was bountifully blessed by God with the Goods of this World therein, made me neglect a small hindrance, nor now, I thank God, do I repent it; finding God’s blessing in a plentiful measure upon my Labours (CA, p. 222).

Back to text »

[7] History, p. 78. Back to text »

[8] Ibid., p. 166. Back to text »

[9] Ibid., p. 167. Back to text »

[10] Plant, David. “The Life and Work of William Lilly.” The Traditional Astrologer, August 1993: 13-16. A half-crown is worth approximately £16 GPB or $25 USD in 2014 values. (See footnote 5 for historical currency conversion source.) Back to text »

[11] History, p. 103. Back to text »

[12] Ibid., p. 87. Back to text »

[13] Ibid., p. 108. Back to text »

[14] Lilly often referred to Christian Astrology as his Introduction. Back to text »

[15] History, p. 105. Back to text »

[16] Ibid., p. 156, 158. Back to text »

[17] “Dissolution of the Rump Parliament, 1653.” BCWProject, http://bcw-project.org/church-and-state/the-commonwealth/dissolution-rump-parliament. Website accessed 28 November 2014. Back to text »

[18] History, p. 170. Back to text »

[19] Ibid., p. 205. Back to text »

[20] Ibid., p. 214. Back to text »

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