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William Lilly, Astrologer to Parliament
Filed under: DAMAGE
William Lilly was “unremarkable” in appearance, according to author Jessie Childs. “He had dark shoulder-length hair, a moustache and slightly river-blasted cheeks.” Lilly was in his 40s at the height of the English Civil War, when he began publishing almanacs of horoscopes. These “sold well to an anxious public,” Childs writes. England’s troubles were prolonged, and so was his popularity. Before the Restoration, Lilly produced Christian Astrology, still the most influential text in western astrology, the basic system underlying almost all horoscopes even today.
Lilly is a minor, but intriguing figure in The Siege of Loyalty House: A Story of the English Civil War, a new book by Childs. I wrote a paywalled review for Polemology.net last week. It will be available to free subscribers three weeks from this Wednesday.
In Chapter 15, “Figures Set upon Horory Questions,” Childs reminds the reader that Matthew Hopkins, “that other self-appointed seer of the occult,” was simultaneously riding through East Anglia hanging and torturing suspected witches. “In London, though, folk were more likely to take their troubles to the sprawling medical community or to William Lilly, the English Merlin in the Strand,” Childs says.
Trade was brisk. Lilly could get through a handful of consultations a day. He usually charged half a crown, less for the poor and significantly more for high-ranking clients, of whom he had several. In a few years he would start receiving £100 a year for secret services to Parliament. His querents were young and old, male and female, Roundhead and Cavalier. Some came in person. Others sent letters. Their questions ranged from the whereabouts of a lost handkerchief to ‘what death Canterbury should die and when’. One man asked if he should support the king or Parliament. Others wanted to know how they could get their jewellery back, or their health, or their boys who had gone to the wars.
If Lilly’s office sounds like a gentle island of distraction from the war, however, think again. During the captivity of Charles I on the Isle of Wight, there were a number of plots to break him out. “One scheme involved Charles dissolving his iron window bars with acid,” Childs explains in a footnote.
His courageous lover, Jane Whorwood, sought the advice of the astrologer William Lilly. He gave her a hacksaw and a bottle of aqua fortis and almost certainly passed the secret on to his paymasters in Parliament.
Whereas the hacksaw and nitric acid were a very long shot, Lilly informing Parliament of Whorwood’s plot — indeed Lilly informing Parliament of absolutely everyone’s dirty laundry all the time — seems like a sure thing.
Just from the above paragraph, we can imagine the “querents” who fell into this intelligence trap. Some came in person, but others were in the habit of sending letters. “Will Basing House fall?” seemed a popular question, according to Childs. Depending on what they wrote to Lilly, who knows how many Royalist Londoners compromised themselves, their plans, and their plots by asking his advice.
Lilly would have been privy to secret loyalties, secret doubts, and secrets of every kind in an England where secrets were a kind of currency. Spies abounded. Letters were hidden in hollow walking sticks to make their way through enemy-held territory. The landscape of the war is richly appointed with nests of intrigue, such as Basing House, the topic of Childs’s book.
None of this means that William Lilly was a bad person, the equal of a Jeffrey Epstein. As Childs notes, our primary sources show that he was very kind, though perhaps he was a bit of a showman.
In 1644 he interpreted the appearance of a triple sun (actually a rare meteorological illusion) on the king’s birthday as a harbinger of the death of “some great man.” Like all the best predictions, it was both sensational and nonspecific. His seeming success had the usual drawbacks, too. After the Great Fire destroyed London in 1666, Parliament investigated him over an etching in Christian Astrology that depicted a city on fire.
William Lilly seems a very human figure, not a magician at all, and therefore perfect as a historical person to serve as a minor, yet crucial character in someone’s epic costume drama about the English Civil War. I have little interest in astrology, but I like this astrologer a lot. Historiography exists, so I intend to work on his story this summer. Who knows what shall become of it here.
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