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William Lilly's War Charts

By David Plant


If his Excellency Robert Earl of Essex should take Reading, having then surrounded it with his army?

Christian Astrology, p.401.

Besides being a definitive work on traditional astrology, William Lilly's Christian Astrology is a fascinating book for anyone with more than a passing interest in history. It comes to life with the full flavour of 17th century England, mainly because many of the charts used to demonstrate Lilly's methods relate to the particularly dramatic period of the English Civil War. Here David Plant continues his study of the political and historical background to these charts and Lilly's interpretative style.

The siege of Reading in April 1643 was perceived by both sides as a preliminary to a major Roundhead assault on the King's headquarters at Oxford. Reading is situated roughly halfway between Oxford and Parliament's stronghold of London. Strategically, it was a potential advance base from which to strike at the enemy's capital. It also commands the passage of the River Thames and the main road from London to the west of England.

When the question was asked, the siege was already under way. Parliament's Lord-General, the Earl of Essex, appeared with his army before the walls of Reading on April 14th and demanded the town's surrender. The Royalist Governor, Sir Arthur Aston, defiantly declared that he would rather die or starve. On the 15th, the Roundheads swept around the southern outskirts of Reading and seized Caversham Bridge, a few miles upriver, in order to prevent an anticipated Royalist relief force from crossing the Thames and lifting the siege. By the 16th, Reading was encircled. Essex's artillery began battering its walls; the defenders responded with fierce musket and cannon fire. Roundhead siege-trenches crept closer each day, tightening the noose on the beleaguered garrison.

In London, news from the battlefront was eagerly awaited. The querent, whom Lilly describes as 'a man of honour', could not wait for reports to filter back and resorted to astrology to learn the outcome. The judgement is complicated because Lilly has several factors to take into account: firstly, the besieging army and its commander, who is specifically mentioned in the question; secondly, the town of Reading and its ability to withstand a siege, and thirdly, the Royalist relief force, which Lilly apparently surmised from the chart itself.

Earl of Essex and the Siege of Reading

Lilly's choice of significators makes an interesting comparison with the 'Prince Rupert' horary, where the querent was asking about an enemy leader who was also a nobleman. 17th century social distinctions were rigidly observed, even by the Roundheads' favourite astrologer, and Prince Rupert was represented by the 10th house. In this present chart, similar signification might be expected. 'His Excellency the Earl of Essex', supreme commander of the Roundhead armies, should certainly be entitled to 10th house status in the context of the question, but Lilly appointed the Ascendant ruler to represent Essex, and reserved the 10th house for the King himself. With the royal sign Leo on the MC and the Sun in the 7th house of open enemies, Lilly evidently allowed the symbolism to speak for itself. He informed the querent that 'his Majesty would oppose what he could, and send Forces to relieve the Towne with all vigour and resolution'.

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If his Excellency Robert Earl of Essex should take Reading,
having then surrounded it with his army?
C.A. p.401.
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See original chart presentation

As in other judgements of this kind, the querent is identified with the cause he supports, and here the association is extended to include the Roundhead army in the field and its commander, the Earl of Essex, upon whom all hopes are pinned. With Scorpio rising, Essex is signified by Mars. To assess the condition of Reading, Lilly looks to the 4th house, which traditionally represents cities, towns and castles. The sign on the 4th cusp, Aquarius, signifies Reading while its ruler, Saturn, shows Reading's governor. The town's resources - its stores of ammunition and provisions - are shown by the 5th house (i.e., the 2nd house from the 4th). With Venus exalted on the 5th cusp, Reading looks well prepared to withstand a siege.

Lilly's description of the Earl of Essex's significator as 'excellently fortified' seems surprising with Mars in its sign of fall, but this is based upon a full evaluation of its dignities and debilities. Mars is in a sign of its own triplicity, in its own term and in mutual reception by face. These minor dignities collectively outweigh the disadvantage of being in fall. It is also direct and swift in motion, clear of the Sun, and in a moderately powerful house. Its 'accidental' dignities outweigh its debilitating Square to Saturn and its occidentality. While not ideally placed, Mars is better fortified than the Sun, whose only dignity (apart from a mixed reception with the Moon) is its angularity. This suggests to Lilly that the Earl of Essex has little to fear from the King's relief force. In fact, when the Cavaliers arrived on April 25th and stormed the Roundhead outpost at Caversham Bridge, they were repulsed by a force so inferior in numbers that Puritan soldiers in Essex's army proclaimed it as a clear example of Divine intervention in their favour.

Although there seems to be little danger from the King, Lilly was not convinced that the Earl of Essex would be able to bring the siege to a successful conclusion. His significator is the natural ruler of war (Lilly stresses the importance of Mars being 'friendly to the querent' in questions of this kind, as it is here with Mars trine the Ascendant), but this is not enough to guarantee victory. Lilly looks to the Moon as a co-significator, and finds contradictions. The Moon is void-of-course, which suggests that nothing had been achieved when the question was asked. It is about to enter Virgo where it will perfect a Sextile to Mars. This looks more hopeful, but there is a technical complication in that Virgo and Cancer are signs of long ascension. In Lilly's view, the applying Sextile should really be considered a Square, indicating a difficult struggle for the Earl of Essex. Then again, there is a mutual reception, with Mars in the sign of the Moon, and the Moon in the term and face of Mars. The balance is tipped decisively in favour of the Earl of Essex, however, by the Moon applying to conjunction the fixed star Regulus. The fixed stars bring exceptional results and, despite the conflicting testimony of the Moon and Mars, Lilly predicted that Reading would fall and the Earl of Essex would gain honour and glory thereby.

Reading's defences, as indicated by the 4th and 5th houses, are strong, but the chink in the Royalist amour is indicated by the weakness of Saturn, which as Lord of the 4th represents the town governor, the defiant Sir Arthur Aston. Saturn is badly placed in Aries, the sign of its fall, and afflicted by its conjunction with the South Node. With the uncertainty surrounding the Earl of Essex, Lilly concluded that the best way to bring about Reading's surrender would be to 'set division amongst the principal Officers and to incense them against their Officer-in-Cheife'. If this could be achieved, the town could be in Essex's hands within eight days (the Moon being 8° from its Sextile to Mars). Lilly states that he 'sent somebody word' of this situation, which suggests that the judgement was made in his semi-official capacity as astrological advisor to Parliament.

Seeds of division were certainly sown amongst the officers of Reading. On April 17th, Sir Arthur Aston was struck on the head by a falling brick dislodged by a cannon shot, which is aptly described in the chart by Saturn conjunct the south Node in Aries. The blow dazed Aston and rendered him speechless. (Cynics have noted that his inability to speak conveniently ensured that the dishonour of surrendering went to someone else). With Aston struck dumb, the governorship of Reading passed to Colonel Richard Fielding. According to the conventions of 17th century warfare, if a besieged town was taken by storm the defenders could expect no mercy and the invading troops were free to plunder and pillage without restraint. Fielding decided to negotiate an honourable surrender, and raised a flag of truce on April 25th. That same day, the ill-fated Royalist relief force arrived at Caversham Bridge. Hearing gunfire, Fielding's officers demanded that a force be sent from the town to help them, but Fielding refused to break the truce. On April 27th, terms for surrender were agreed. The Royalist garrison marched out the following day, and Essex's soldiers occupied the town. Lilly notes that although Reading did not surrender until three days after the time predicted by him, treaty negotiations began eight days after the question was asked, as indicated by the application of the Moon to Mars.

Having recovered his voice, Sir Arthur Aston was appointed governor of Oxford, but Colonel Fielding was court-martialled for surrendering Reading. Royalist opinion was divided; some said that he acted honourably in observing the truce, others considered him a traitor. There were rumours that Parliament's agents had bribed him to surrender, so perhaps Lilly's suggestion that intrigue rather than military force would ensure a Roundhead victory was acted upon.

For his part, Fielding was sentenced to death. He was led out to the scaffold then reprieved at the last minute when Prince Rupert intervened on his behalf. He lost command of his regiment but continued to fight for the King. It is not known for certain whether he accepted the bribe suggested by Lilly to the 'man of honour' who asked the question.

Recommended for further reading:
1643: The Siege of Reading & Chalgrove Field

David Plant studied the methods of 17th century astrology under Olivia Barclay and was assistant editor of the Traditional Astrologer Magazine between 1993 and 1999. He now runs the British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate website, a widely-acclaimed resource for students of the Cromwellian era.

© David Plant. This article first appeared in the Traditional Astrologer Magazine, Issue 3, Winter 1993; pp.16-18. Published online: October, 2008. Image of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex is adapted from the graphic made available at Wikimedia Commons (Oct, 2008).