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The Life and Work of William Lilly by David Plant



William Lilly is regarded as the principal authority in horary astrology. England's most illustrious astrologer, he led a colourful life in politically unstable times.



William Lilly, - known as 'the English Merlin' to his friends and 'that juggling Wizard and Imposter' to his enemies, was born in the Leicestershire village of Diseworth on 1st May 1602. [1] His ancestors were yeoman farmers, but Lilly had no inclination to follow the family tradition. By his own admission, he 'could not work, drive the plough or indure any country labour' [2] In 1613, he went to grammar school at Ashby-de-Ia-Zouch. He was taught by John Brinsley, an enlightened schoolmaster who preferred to encourage and praise his pupils rather than terrify them with the harsh discipline usually found in 17th century schools. Under Master Brinsley, Lilly gained the command of English that made his writings so popular, and also the knowledge of Latin that later enabled him to study the great authorities of classical astrology.

Lilly's ambition was to go to University and enter the Church, but his father, having fallen into debt, was unable to continue financing his education. In 1619, Lilly returned to Diseworth and taught at the village school. Then, through his father's attorney, he heard of a gentleman in London who wanted a literate youth to attend him. Lilly obtained a letter of recommendation and set out to apply for the post. He left Leicestershire on 4th April 1620. It was a cold, stormy week; Lilly walked all the way to London alongside the carrier's wagon. He arrived at half-past-three in the afternoon on Palm Sunday, 9th April 1620, and made his way to the residence of Gilbert Wright at the corner-house on the Strand. For the next 7 years Lilly was employed as Wright's servant and secretary.

When Gilbert Wright died in May 1627 he left his property to his wife, Ellen. A few months later, Lilly took the audacious step of proposing marriage to her. She accepted, despite the difference in their age and social stations. They were married on 8th September 1627 at St. George's Church, Southwark, and remained happily married until Ellen's death in 1633. She left Lilly about 1,000 which enabled him to buy a part share in 13 houses in the Strand and the lease on the corner-house. [3]

He remarried on 18th November 1634, but this marriage was disastrous. He described his second wife, Jane, as 'of the nature of Mars". The marriage lasted until her death on 16th February 1654, at which Lilly 'shedd no teares'. His third marriage, to Ruth Needham in October 1654, was the happiest of all, she being 'signified in my Nativity by Jupiter in Libra and... so totally in her condition, to my great Comfort'.

Lilly began to take a serious interest in astrology in 1632 when he was introduced to John Evans of Gunpowder Alley, 'that was an excellent wise-man and studied the Black Art'. Evans, a Welshman by birth, had formerly been a clergyman in Staffordshire but was forced to flee to London when his occult activities attracted the attention of the Church authorities. He taught Lilly the rudiments of astrology, but Lilly had a low opinion of his tutor. He disassociated himself from Evans when he caught him giving a false astrological judgement to please a paying client. Thereafter, he continued his studies on his own, building up a comprehensive library of classic texts.

Lilly began to teach and practise astrology in 1634, at a time when he was experimenting with various forms of occultism. His autobiography contains many descriptions of talismanic magic, crystal gazing, the invocation of spirits, and other 'incredibilia'. His active involvement in these practices ended when his health declined and he became 'very much afflicted with the hypochondriack melancholly, growing lean and spare and every day worse'. In May 1636 he rented a house at Hersham in Surrey, burned his magical textbooks, and lived quietly in the country for the next 5 years.

Lilly spent this period refining his astrological skills. His 'Fish Stolen' judgement, dated 10th February 1638 and given as an example chart in Christian Astrology, is a horary masterpiece. He also began to think about the wider applications of 'mundane' astrology affecting national political issues, and wrote a treatise upon the effects of the solar eclipse in Gemini, 22nd May 1639. By September 1641, Lilly had recovered his health. 'Perceiving ther was money to be gott', he returned to London and set up as a professional astrologer from his house in the Strand. He answered horary questions for a fee of half-a-crown, and soon attracted a stream of clients from all classes of society. The example horaries in Christian Astrology give an indication of the range of problems he tackled. At the peak of his popularity he was answering close to 2000 questions a year.

In February 1643, Lilly impressed Bulstrode Whitelock MP with his accurate prediction of the course of an illness. Through Whitelock, he met many members of the 'Long Parliament' engaged in directing the Civil War against King Charles I. With his interest in mundane astrology, Lilly was soon deeply embroiled in the politics of revolutionary England. His first almanac, Merlinus Anglicus Junior, published in April 1644, was an immediate best-seller and his prediction of the King's crushing defeat at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 established his reputation as England's leading astrologer. Lilly wrote prolifically during the mid-1640s. As well as his annual almanac, he produced a series of astrological and prophetic pamphlets. His major work, Christian Astrology, was first published in 1647.

Through his writings, Lilly wielded a great deal of influence amongst the civilian population and the soldiers of the Roundhead armies. Though army 'Grandees' like Fairfax and Cromwell were inspired more by religious faith than by astrology, they certainly recognised the propaganda value of his prophecies. In 1648, he and his colleague, John Booker, were ordered to attend the siege of Colchester to encourage the troops with predictions of victory. Throughout the Civil War, both Lilly and Booker traded insults and counter-predictions with the Royalist astrologer, George Wharton, in a venomous propaganda war conducted through their almanacs and pamphlets. When the war was over, however, Wharton was imprisoned and would have been hanged if Lilly had not intervened on his behalf through his powerful friends in Parliament.

Privately, Lilly advised many leading politicians and soldiers. He was even consulted by Royalists, notably Lady Jane Whorewood, who secretly visited him 3 times in 1647-8 when she was plotting King Charles's escape from imprisonment. Not surprisingly, in view of Lilly's reputation, the King ignored his advice. Lilly has often been accused of duplicity in his dealings with the Roundheads and Cavaliers. He delighted in political intrigue, but the question of whether he was a self-seeker with an eye for the main chance, was genuinely neutral in the conflict, or was playing a subtle double-game remains a matter of opinion and conjecture.

Publicly, Lilly was identified with the Independent faction in Parliament, as against the Presbyterians who vehemently opposed astrology and all religious toleration. His comments sometimes got him into trouble. In 1645 he was hauled up before the Committee of Examinations for supporting army complaints about arrears of pay and other grievances, and in 1652 he was imprisoned for predicting that the army and the common people would combine to overthrow the new revolutionary government which had become tyrannical and oppressive. He was helped on both occasions by his influential Independent supporters, and claimed in his autobiography that Oliver Cromwell, who was about to dissolve Parliament and seize power for himself, took a personal interest in his case in 1652.

Lilly reached the height of his influence during Cromwell's Protectorate (1652-8) when the relaxation of censorship allowed him to write 'freely and satyricall inough'. Sales of his annual almanac rose to around 30,000 and some editions were translated into foreign languages. Lilly's private practice also flourished. He was consulted by Cromwell's son-in-law, John Claypole, and through him secured for his patron Bulstrode Whitelock the post of English ambassador to Sweden. Lilly ventured into international politics in 1658 by urging an English alliance with Sweden and received a gold chain and medal from the Swedish King, Charles Gustavus, in acknowledgement. Lilly's rival John Gadbury, however, supported an alliance with Denmark, then at war with Sweden, and correctly predicted the death of the Swedish monarch, which Lilly had failed to foresee. His reputation was dented again in 1659 when he predicted that Cromwell's son Richard would succeed in establishing a strong government after Oliver's death. In fact, Richard Cromwell was deposed within a few months of Lilly's prediction.

The Restoration of King Charles II in May 1660 was a worrying time for Lilly, who had become so prominent in the discredited Commonwealth. In June 1660 he was summoned to appear before a Parliamentary committee investigating the execution of Charles I, but was discharged after giving his evidence. He was arrested again in January 1661 in a general roundup of 'supposed fanatics' , but sued out a pardon and pledged his allegiance to the King, paying a fee of 13 6s. 3d. for the privilege. Lilly had made many enemies, but his reconciliation with the new regime was made easier by his friendship with the eminent Royalist, Elias Ashmole, who worked behind the scenes on his behalf. Ashmole was fascinated by magic, alchemy and astrology, and befriended many astrologers regardless of political allegiance. He first met Lilly in 1646 and was impressed when he spoke up for George Wharton in 1650. They had been firm friends ever since.

During the l660s, Lilly's practice was in decline. He continued to publish his annual almanac but censorship had been re-imposed and his sales were falling. On 27th June 1665 he left London to escape the Great Plague and settled at Hersham, having been appointed churchwarden at the parish church of Walton-upon-Thames. On 25th October 1666, he was summoned to appear before a committee investigating the causes of the Great Fire of London, which he had predicted in 1652 in the form of a coded drawing or 'hieroglyphic'. There was a suspicion that the fire had been started deliberately, and Lilly's enemies were eager to implicate him. With Ashmole's assistance though, he managed to convince the committee that his prediction was not precise and that he knew nothing about the cause of the fire. [4]

Lilly's hieroglyphic predicting the Great Fire of London Recommended link:: Lilly's hieroglyphic was decoded by Maurice McCann in The Secret of William Lilly's Prediction of the Great Fire of London


Thereafter, Lilly lived quietly and comfortably at Hersham with Ruth. He devoted much of his time to studying medicine, and in 1670 was granted a licence to practise physic. He treated the poor free of charge; the better-off paid a shilling or half-a-crown for his remedies. His friendship with Elias Ashmole deepened. In 1672 they recovered some manuscripts written by the legendary Elizabethan mystic, Doctor Dee. These, along with Lilly's own library and other astrological and mystical texts, are preserved in the Ashmolean collection at Oxford.

Lilly's last public altercation took place in 1675 when he baited and made fun of his rival Gadbury. He continued to publish his annual almanac but, because of declining health and failing eyesight, handed it over to his 'adopted son' Henry Coley with whom he collaborated closely from 1677 until his death. Lilly died of paralysis at about 3 am, 9th June 1681. He was interred a few feet from the altar at the parish church of Walton-upon-Thames. Ashmole paid for a black marble stone with a Latin inscription to his memory, which can still he seen today.

Lilly is now regarded as the principal authority in horary astrology. To many of his contemporaries though, he was seen as a prophet. From the multitude of prophecies circulating in 17th century England, Lilly adapted those attributed to the mythical Arthurian seer, Ambrosius Merlin. In The Prophecy of the White King and Dreadfull Dead Man Explained (1644) and similar publications, he applied Merlin's obscure utterances to King Charles I. The hieroglyphic drawings printed in Monarchy Or No Monarchy (1651)were derived from what Lilly called the 'secret Key of Astrology, or Propheticall Astrology'. Regarding the esoteric side to his art, he wrote:

I had not that learning from any Bookes or Manuscript... it is deduced from a caball lodging in Astrology.., the Asterismes and Signes and Constellations give greatest light therunto.


In conventional astrology, Lilly usually gave detailed explanations of his reasoning. Thus, in England's Propheticall Merline (1644), he introduced his predictions concerning the recent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn with a long treatise on the theory of Great Conjunctions illustrated with charts of past conjunctions and nativities of famous people. Similarly, Annus Tenebrosus or the Dark Year (1652), was published with a 'short Method to Judge the Effects of Eclipses'. Lilly was an enthusiastic astrologer and liked to share his knowledge - though some of his techniques, like his use of comets and other celestial omens, seem alien to modern practice. His Starry Messenger (1645), for example, was: 'an Interpretation of that strange Apparition of three Suns seene in London' on the King's birthday.

In 1985, a facsimile edition of Christian Astrology was published by the Regulus Press. Lilly's text, written when he was at the peak of his powers, was intended as a 'plain and easie Method for any person... to learn the Art... without any other Master than my Introduction' (i.e., Christian Astrology). Encompassing chart calculation, horary, decumbiture, nativities and directions, it was the first comprehensive astrological textbook to be written in English rather than Latin. The bibliography lists over 200 works by classical and contemporary masters. Lilly's brilliant synthesis was grounded in his own practical experience. With its down-to-earth approach and vivid glimpses into Lilly's world, Christian Astrology has become a key text in the modern revival of horary and traditional astrology.



Notes & References:
  1 ] All exact dates are in the old-style Julian calendar. Add 10 days to convert to the equivalent new-style date.
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  2 ] The manuscript of Lilly's autobiography, The Life of William Lilly, Student in Astrology, wrote by Himselfe in the 66th year of his Age, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The quotes in this article are transcribed from a photocopy obtained by Sue Ward. An edited version, published in 1715 as William Lilly's History of his Life and Times, is available from Ascella Publications or Ballantrae Reprints.
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  3 ] This transaction is described in the horary, 'If I should purchase Master B. his houses?' (CA p.219).
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  4 ] Lilly's hieroglyphic was decoded by Maurice McCann in The Secret of William Lilly's Prediction of the Great Fire of London (A.A. Journal, Jan/Feb 1990).
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David Plant is a respected scholar of the history and traditional practice of astrology. He is also an expert on the English Civil War period and the life and work of the 17th century astrologer William Lilly. He runs two very reputable websites: the English Merlin site, which is devoted to all aspects of the life and times of William Lilly and his contemporaries; and the British Civil Wars and Commonwealth site, which explores the turmoil of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, and the constitutional experiments of the Commonwealth and Protectorate period of the 1650s.
Both sites are leading points of reference for their fields and a visit is strongly recommended.


© David Plant

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