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How William Lilly Rationalized the Restoration
Astrology at the birth of print media
Like the best frauds, the inventor of modern astrology often started his pitches by calling out his critics and rivals in the art of confidence to make himself seem the more reliable informant. In the opening of his pamphlet on monarchy in 1660, for example, William Lilly warns readers of a “Spirit-Mongring Mountebank-Quack” who “cheated Mr Birt of £100 under pretence of shewing him Faces in a Glass.” With scathing humor, a competitor in astrology is named “a true mongril of our own breed.” A former customer, presumably now undercutting his credibility, is said to have given him “£100 a yeer for our pimping under pretence of Astrologie for him.”
It is easy to see why William Lilly’s Christian Astrology almanacs and other pamphlets sold well. He shamelessly admitted after the fact to being on the parliamentary payroll during the English Civil Wars while simultaneously holding the confidence of Royalists in London. Jane Whorwood, mistress to an imprisoned King Charles I, once came to Lilly for advice on how to break him out; Lilly supplied her a bottle of acid and a hacksaw, then informed Parliament of the plot. Knowledge was power, and prominent people empowered Lilly through their trust in him.
Verbal fireworks and controversy made up for the lack of substance. His predictions were either inscrutable or commonsensical enough to entertain readers without pinning him down on too many details. Still, there were occasions when it became impossible to deny he had flubbed a prognostication and Lilly had to explain himself. Printed in 1660, when the Restoration of Charles II, the “Bastard Norman,” was already imminent, less than a year after it was published it was an embarrassment.
Recalling his prophecies of 1651 in an anti-monarchical tract, Lilly began his 1660 predictions with humblebrag to being “a little misled in the Fate of our Patron, the King of Sweden,” who had died in February. Defending the late Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, he still rubbished Royalist criticism. “We would fain hear of any of those strict Cavillers, or but one of them, that ever got one hundred pound a year, by any of their true Predictions, as we have done by our many hundred false ones,” he challenged his Cavalier critics.
Lilly had prophecied in 1651 that the Long Parliament “should never be overcome” and England would not be forced to “feed upon the Garlick and Onions of a Scotish Yoak,” namely Charles II. If he was misunderstood by his critics now, he said, it was due to “their own ignorance, or non-understanding of our Method.” Grasping for credibility, Lilly admitted to making different predictions in public and private. “If we do chance to interfere in our presages, and make them to justle one against the other, it is but that truth in our works might get the upper hand of errour and falshood; for you must understand we write both, that we may the better please all sorts of people.”
By the time Lilly wrote his pamphlet, the younger Charles was already in England. He would be crowned the next year. “But now all England are big with expectation of a King, I, and King Charles too: well, let them be so; we must keep close to our former Predictions,” Lilly wrote. Furthermore, his 1651 prediction applied to the Scottish uprising, put down by the New Model Army in 1652, Lilly explained. The Scots had tried to put Charles on the throne and failed. He had been completely vindicated and this was an entirely new situation.
As he could not foresee the eventual return of the prince, Lilly had sentenced Charles to “a wandering life” after the 1552 rebellion was crushed. In 1653, Lilly wrote, “we called him the pretended King of Scotland, and threatned him (without ground in Astrology, we readily acknowledge) with Poyson, Treachery, or a Stab; or something else as bad: and we solemnly profess, we are not yet ashamed thereof.” Now Lilly still described himself as “a Phanatique, and an utter enemy to Kingship” willing to hang alongside his “club-fisted friend John Booker” and “swing with him for company.”
“For Monarchie and we can't possibly stand together,” Lilly wrote. They were fighting words, but his attitude would change profoundly. In 1661, Lilly wrote a long, puffy introduction ascribing the “restauration” to “Acts above Nature,” that is, an act of God. Astrology had its limits for understanding the divine mind. Admitting this much, Lilly then turned to his topic, writing page after page of pseudoscientific astrological flummery that could mean anything to any reader. He was moving on, as fast as possible.
Of course, there are always some people who want to be fooled, who will even pay to be fooled. William Lilly’s publications sold well to the very end of his life. Indeed, controversy only seemed to inflate his legend. Nevertheless, he had his critics, and their words resonate with the work of more recent mythbusters and woo-debunkers.
“How full of lies and devillish malice this vile Wretch hath alwaies been,” reads a pamphlet printed for Daniel White in 1660. Lilly was “venomsome,” a man who would “do other hurt, which may be prevented if he were in hold [prison], for that the devill leaves his servants when they are secured.” It was the language of the witch-hunter in a land only recently haunted by witch-trials. The title emphasized Lilly’s nom de plume as the ‘English Merlin.’
During the civil wars Lilly “was the States Balaam,” the pamphlet says, referring to the biblical diviner, “who for hire would curse and bless for the Rump [parliament] and Oliver [Cromwell] according to their respective Instructions and Dictates, upon pretence of Art, wherein he hath no more skill than the Beast his Predecessor rid on.” The difference between “the two Wizards” Balaam and Lilly, the author says, is that “God was pleased to make the former an Instrument of blessing to the Children of Israel; but for our sins, he hath permitted this Pretender to be more Instrumental than any to bring upon the whole Nation the greatest curse that ever was.” Lilly had become a pincushion for all the long-suppressed Royalist rage in London.
Lilly was accused of “abusing the Nobility, That they were not to be trusted; The Clergy, calling them Baals Priests, Blind guides and Pseudo-Priests; and on the contrary extolling the Phanaticks and Red-coats, calling the one the Saints of the earth, and vaunting that the other had fought against two Kings, traversed the Heathen high-lands of Scotland, &c.” His “high Parasitical Elogiums to his new Prince Cromwel, saying, He is naturally, and supernaturally fitted to this great Work” contrasted with his efforts “on purpose trayterously to vilifie and asperse” Charles II, the pamphlet writer said.
At the height of revolution, the astrologer-author of Monarchy or No Monarchy had indicated that he knew the identity of the king’s executioner, saying “I have no permission to speak of such things; only thus much I say He that did it is as valiant and resolute a man as lives, and one of a competent fortune.” Such past statements were dangerous now, and because Lilly had made them in print, they could be used against him forever.
Lilly’s faith in the postwar regime was unwarranted. Infighting over the question of quasi-kingship set the political stage for the dissolution of the Commonwealth and the Restoration. London had produced the New Model Army (“Red-coats”) and won the civil wars, but the English state needed an executive, and no single man on England was up to the task. After Cromwell died, the constitutional tensions between Parliament and king that had carried over into his Protectorate collapsed into anarchy. A new Parliament was needed and it needed some sort of leader.
At this moment, many of the same men who had organized London for war — men far more guilty of actual crimes than Lilly — turned back to the exiled prince. Figures like John Fowke and Maurice Thompson, merchants whose trade policy carried over into the new order, were instrumental in bringing Charles II back to London and fared quite well afterwards. Elected in a campaign noted for its unusual level of mobilization, Fowke served in the 1661 Cavalier Parliament.
Direct involvement in the Regicide was punished in the Restoration kingdom, however. Hugh Peters, a prominent anti-monarchist and New Model Army preacher with longstanding ties to Fowke, was drawn and quartered for his prominent role on the jury. Fowke’s political partner Isaac Pennington died in the Tower of London for the same reason. By trying to magnify his own importance with supposed intimate knowledge of the king’s executioner, William Lilly had invited royal retribution.
The abrupt change in political climate caused an equally sudden shift in the tone of Lilly’s pamphlets. Where he had pledged his Puritan solidarity and dared the erstwhile court to have its vengeance on him in 1660, courage had deserted Lilly in 1661. He was moving on.
Daniel White, publisher and presumable author of the pamphlet attacking Lilly, was not moving on. He wanted Parliament to do something about the English Merlin. Yet there was little room for a criminal indictment of an astrologer. Self-aggrandizing statements aside, Lilly had done nothing material to further the trial or execution of Charles I.
Rather, White blamed Lilly for the dispiriting of Royalists in London, “he having seduced many thousands of people to their ruine, by his false and lying Predictions, in making them believe that the day of our deliverance should never come; and generally, all good people being much afraid that by his malice he may raise some wicked storms, or do other hurt” to England. Accused of psychic harm, Lilly was never put on trial.
Parliament did briefly investigate William Lilly for witchcraft after the Great Fire of London in 1666, however. An illustration in one of his almanacs had shown a city on fire filled with coffins. Publishing was new in the world and the press had only been ‘free’ for a quarter-century. The limits of responsibility for one’s own words and images in print, were still being discovered. Political prognostications are mostly made with polling data instead of star charts these days, but the art of spinning a record of past failures at prophecy is not new.
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