Charting the lurid and dangerous feuds between celebrity astrologers in seventeenth century London.
A plaque on the wrong wall. An obsolete station. A fake ruin. A blocked thoroughfare. Westminster Abbey. A pert statue. A branch of Fitness First.
These are not the co-ordinates for a disappointing Blue Guide walk. They are the sparse markers of a spectacular London feud that raged for half a century. A battle royal between a generation of astrologers that included wild claims of magic, murder, treason, fraud, and adultery.
And actual specimens of drunkenness, spying, exile, arrest, and personal ruin. It drew kings, cobblers, satirists, the Stationers Company, Parliament, publicans, the Church, and Sweden into its orbit.
Back to the plaque. It’s high up on a wall by the entrance to King’s College London, on the side of the disused Strand station, where it’s almost impossible to see. It marks the spot where William Lilly, ‘Master Astrologer’ (1602-1681) lived.1 .Westminster City Council’s plaque appears to be the only one dedicated to an astrologer in London. London Remembers has a discussion about its location. As Lilly ended up buying nearly all the property on Strand Lane it may well be that one of his houses was near the spot.
Except that it probably doesn’t. He is more likely to have lived at the bottom of nearby Strand Lane, closer to the Thames. This is no longer a through-road but a closed off access lane for the College.
Strand Lane has a Roman Bath halfway up it, which is not really Roman at all, but the remains of a seventeenth-century cistern. It is looked after by English Heritage and there is an interesting article about its history on their site. But in order to see it for real, you have to give a week’s notice to Westminster Council and pass a personality test.
I unwittingly broke these rules in 2018 when out walking with a friend. We talked the bemused security guard into opening the gate and letting us see it. It advertised itself as a ‘Roman Bath’ quite blatantly on the sign. Close up, it did look more like a cistern.
It’s interesting to see Lilly described as a ‘Master Astrologer’, as if this were an esteemed occupation, like master butcher or mariner. But it was Lilly’s effort in the field that did much to establish astrology as a recognised, if not respectable, profession in the seventeenth century.
I predict a riot
Lilly took an ancient art, that had long blended magic, prophecy, and medicine, and welded onto it a consulting practice that was available to all classes of people (servants and the low-paid often had their fees waived), and helped to popularise the annual almanac.
His own Merlinus Anglicus was selling around 18,000 copies a year by the end of Charles I’s reign, and double that during the Interregnum. People lapped up its vague insights. Here is a typical entry, from May 1653:
‘O Save all, save all, save all; never more need; for the month seems to begin with bloud; and some eminent Gentlemen are expos’d to the mercy of the merciless.’.2William Lilly, Merlinus Anglicus: or England’s Merlin. Prophetically fore-telling, the admirable events, and wonderful effects, that shall befall the king of Scots, the states of Holland, and the Parliament of England, in all their consultations, warlike actions, and naval designes, both by sea and land, for the year of our Lord, 1653. London, 1652.
Lilly’s forecasting was dominant in the period 1645-1660, and reflected the tumult of the times, which in turn fed a craze for certainty and clarification. He called on the magic elements of previous decades, and fused them with a mercantile interest in earning a living and making himself useful to those in power.
Lilly mainly dealt in predictive or ‘judicial’ astrology’, which unlike the more sober and respected ‘natural’ astrology’ didn’t confine itself to observations of natural phenomena.
The most celebrated astrologers of the time used judicial astrology shamelessly, to preach politics and religion, to curry favour with authority, and increasingly to go to war with one another. 3The classic study of seventeenth-century astrology, and other forms of popular belief, is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971). Also, Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800 (London: Faber, 1979), and Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).
Lilly’s path towards London and fame followed a trajectory common to other astrologers. Born in Diseworth, Leicestershire, his fairly humble background and family puritanism thwarted his studies, and by 1620 he was apprenticed to a merchant called Gilbert Wright of Strand Bridge, where the locked alley is now situated.
Strand Bridge was the name given to the area between the road and the Thames. The original bridge carried the Strand over a lane and stream, until it was demolished in 1549 to make way for the building of Somerset House.
Lilly described his tasks: ‘ to attend my master when he went abroad; to make clean his shoes; sweep the street,‘ but he did much more than this. He became invaluable, first to the illiterate Wright, helping with his accounts, and then to the septuagenarian Mrs Wright, who married the young apprentice rather swiftly after being widowed.4Lilly’s words throughout are from his autobiography, William Lilly’s History of his Life and Times, from the Year 1602 to 1681, London 1715; which was completed by Elias Ashmole after Lilly’s death. It’s a mixture of fascinating personal and historical insight, and tedious self-justification.
Theirs was a charming courtship. She was ‘corpulent, of but mean stature, plain, no education, yet a very provident person’, who seems to have been delighted with Lilly’s proposal: ‘ I said nay; what I had not in wealth, I would supply in love’, and they were (by his account) happily married until her death five years later.
She left Lilly a sum big enough to buy a number of houses in Strand Bridge, and to study astrology full time. After a false start with an alcoholic magician for a tutor (more on that in part 3) he set up an astrology business from one of his houses, and began to build a lucrative practice.
He married again in 1634, but not for the better. Despite bringing £500 to the union, his second wife ‘was of the nature of Mars’.
It seemed a pre-condition of astrologers to pick a side in the Civil War and the Interregnum, and to use the stars to do battle against their rivals. Lilly aligned himself with moderate Parliamentarians. He enjoyed the patronage of William Pennington MP, for whom he became something of a ‘fixer’. His tasks included halting a paternity suit, and discrediting enemies of Pennington, such as a parson called Antrobus.
Lilly’s tactic in such cases was extreme defamation. He was able to ‘prove’ of the parson:
- ‘I. That Antrobus baptized a cock and called him Peter.
- II. He had knowledge of such a woman and of her daughter viz of both their bodies, in as large a manner as ever of his own wife.
- III. Being drunk a woman took a cord and tied it about his privy members unto a manger in a stable.’
To what extent he brought his astrological skills to bear on this task is hard to tell.
He was later retained by Keeper of the Privy Seal, Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, after prognosticating on his health from a urine sample (another service commonly offered by astrologers). In return for his services (and possibly, for a little spy work), Lilly received a pension from the Parliament to add to his growing wealth.
Lilly reached the heights of renown during the Civil War, apparently predicting Roundhead victories at Naseby and Colchester.
But he was no supporter of regicide, and gave advice through emissaries to Charles I, even providing him with a bespoke saw to escape his prison in Hampton Court. The King supposedly got halfway out of window with it before losing his nerve.
A shared interest in astrology led to an initial friendship between Lilly and new neighbour John Gadbury, from Oxfordshire, who was apprenticed to a Strand Bridge tailor.
Gadbury’s early opportunities seemed to have been curtailed because his mother’s choice of a farmer husband led to a disinheritance. He made up for it with an enthusiastic tour of the popular factions of the seventeenth century – the Levellers, the Independents, and the very strange Family of Love.
Gadbury graduated from all this with a swerve towards staunch Royalism and High Anglicanism that got him into hot water in later life.
His first work, The Doctrine of Nativities, was endorsed by Lilly, and took the same approach as the former’s textbook, Christian Astrology. The guiding principle was to provide the reader with extensive means to practise astrology. 5William Lilly, Christian Astrology, Modestly Treated of in Three Books. London, 1647. John Gadbury, Genethlialogia, Or, the Doctrine of Nativities Containing the Whole Art of Directions and Annual Revolutions : Whereby Any Man (Even of an Ordinary Capacity) May Be Enabled to Discover the Most Remarkable and Occult Accidents of His Life. London, 1658.
Both explained how to cast birth nativities, and dealt with ‘elections’ – answering specific questions by reference to nativities – and ‘horary’ questions, which were resolved by reference to the position of the heavens at the time of asking. This latter was controversial, because it didn’t rely on even the minimal ‘evidence’ of a person’s birth chart, and so was open to abuse.
Lilly’s book listed some typical questions, with the methods used to calculate answers:
- ‘If Rumours be true or false’
- ‘To find a thing hid or mislaid’
- ‘Whether a Woman be with child or not’
- ‘Whether a Damosell be a Maid or not’
- ‘A Figure for a Dog missing’
- ‘Of dreams. whether they signifie anything or not’.
Stars as Weapons
The friendship between Gadbury and Lilly was short-lived. As the Restoration drew close, their political and religious differences led to a battle fought with astrological charts.
In The Novice Astrologer Instructed, Gadbury pulled apart Lilly’s almanac for 1659, mocking loose statements like: ‘The many turnings, and windings, and changes of Government in England in 1659. What Man or Angel could predict’.6Neophuto-astrologos -The novice-astrologer instructed in a New-Years-gift to Mr. William Lilly; occasioned by the scurrility, scandal, ignorance, and flattery of his Merlin for the ensuing year. London, 1659.
Lilly ‘ knows nothing of Astrologie, but the name; ‘ fumed Gadbury, ‘which he makes use of, as a Cloak to cover his Ignorance! That knows neither how to take, or to make an Argument! That complies with any Government, so that he may be thought the State-Astrologer!’
Gadbury was finally driven to verse to convey his disgust:
‘Oh! William! William! monstrous William Lilly!
How cam’st thou here, to shew thy self so silly?’
A particular bone of contention was Lilly’s use of his ‘Parasiticall Pen’ to cast a favourable nativity for England’s Protestant ally the King of Sweden, for which he earned a gold watch.
For his part, the more established astrologer, with the ear of the Government, declined to react, although in his autobiography Lilly referred to Gadbury as ‘that monster of ingratitude, my quondam taylor’. Lilly seemed to have overlooked his similar humble origins.
Gadbury’s opposition was not all personal. He was trying to get astrology onto a more ‘rational’ footing, collecting vast numbers of nativities and constantly observing natural phenomena, while Lilly was republishing the prophecies of Mother Shipton and Merlin, and invoking angels and fairies.
Gadbury was now living in Brick Court off the Dean’s Yard in Westminster. Neighbouring Westminster Abbey had been Lilly’s chosen venue, some years earlier, for a bizarre treasure hunt which shows the gulf in thinking between the two rivals.
After a midnight search using divining rods, Lilly and the other treasure seekers dug up a cloister floor, but lost their will when they reached a coffin. Then:
‘Upon a sudden […] so fierce, so high, so blustering and loud a wind did rise, that we verily believed the west end of the church would have fallen upon us ; our rods would not move at all; the candles and torches, all but one, were extinguished, or burned very dimly […] I gave directions and command to dismiss the dæmons which when done , all was quiet again, and each man returned unto his lodging late, about twelve o’clock at night.’
No such supernatural visions disturbed Gadbury, as he confidently built up his practice, bolstered by the more favourable (to him) political environment of the Restoration.
Lilly by now was seen as a bit of a relic. ‘Thence we read and laughed at Lilly’s prophecies this month, in his Almanack this year!’ Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1667. Lilly had long left London for Hersham with his third wife (number two had died in 1654 and Lilly had ‘shed no tears’)7The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B Wheatley (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), entry for Friday 14 June 1667. Pepys was quite happy to enjoy Lilly’s hospitality even while traducing his reputation:. After one such evening: ‘I home by coach, taking Mr. Booker with me, who did tell me a great many fooleries, which may be done by nativities, and blaming Mr. Lilly for writing to please his friends and to keep in with the times’ (Wednesday 24 October 1660).
Lilly was still producing almanacs, and helping the locals out with elective questions and a bit of medicine, but he was never far from controversy. He had been summoned before Parliament throughout the 1650s, when one or another faction took exception to prophecies in his almanac.
Lilly was not a dedicated Republican – he called Oliver Cromwell ‘Royal Highness’ and advocated his taking the Crown – but he was definitely on the wrong side after the Restoration.
So it was that Lilly’s name was linked to a dramatic plot to assassinate Charles II. (The intended date, 3rd September 1666, ‘was pitched on for the attempt, as being found by Lilly’s Almanack’.) Although this charge was baseless, it brought Lilly’s name back into the public eye.8 .The ‘Rathbone Plot’ to assassinate King Charles II was recorded The Gazette, issue 48 April 23rd-26th, 1666.
And in the febrile aftermath of the Great Fire, attention was turned to Lilly’s supposed 1651 prophecy, in words and images, of both the Fire and the Plague. A committee looking into the causes of the Fire summoned him to answer the question, ‘whether there was no treachery or design in the business’.
Lilly, supported by his friend Elias Ashmole, was able to shake off any accusation of malice, while gaining a new appreciation for his prophetic skills.
He certainly remained an irritant to Gadbury, who fired a vicious salvo in 1675, a few years before Lilly’s death. Gadbury believed that Lilly’s general dislike of those born under the sign of Scorpio was intended just for him.
Gadbury’s response , Obsequium Rationabile, was perhaps the only work ever written in defence of a zodiac sign. He railed vigorously against the ‘IMPOSTER, Mr William Lilly’ who fashions those born under the sign as ‘Children of Darkness, and Heirs of Hell it self.’ 9John Gadbury, Obsequium Rationabile, or, A Reasonable Service performed for the Celestial Sign SCORPIO. London, 1675.
Having paid tribute to a number of Scorpions (including Edward III), and trounced Lilly’s astrological skills, Gadbury then alleged self-defence. It was Lilly who was to blame for breaking the friendship, when he decided to attack him on party lines.
Gadbury pulled no punches: ‘Mr Lilly may please to Review his Daring, False, Wicked and mutinous Judgements’; but he did recognise the damage that all such in-fighting produced:
‘How the Duellists (like the Roman Gladiators) doe evermore make sport for others in such quarrels, and instead of solving their Reputations, thereby, do make greater breaches therein, than their envious Adversaries had been any way able to give them.’
The feud ended with Lilly’s death in 1681. He was buried in St Mary’s Church, Walton-on-Thames, where his memorial survives in the chancel. His annual almanac was continued by his successor, the astrologer Henry Coley, until the latter’s death in 1704.
With the death of Lilly, the old style of magical, prophetic, astrology was also moribund, and the way was clear for Gadbury’s scientific approach to predominate.
But a new battle front was about to open. And Gadbury’s next nemesis, a former shoemaker from East Sheen called John Partridge, would be the most hostile of opponents. His violent invectives would tear apart the very firmament of astrology.
- William Lilly. Etching by W. Hollar. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0.
- Map of Strand Lane, London from William Morgan’s Map of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark (1682). Retrieved from Layers of London December 2020. Attribution CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
- Title page from William Lilly. The Starry Messenger, London, 1645. Despite exhorting his students of Christian Astrology to ‘Give not Judgment of the Death of thy Prince’, he did just that in this pamphlet published on the day of the battle of Naseby; crediting the arrival of a solar eclipse in time for the king’s birthday with ‘some famous King or Prince his Exile or Banishment, his restraint of liberty, or Captivity, whether you will; as also, his Slaughter.’
- John Gadbury by Thomas Cross. Line engraving, published 1658 NPG D29138. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
- Engravings of Lilly and Gadbury, from A new and complete illustration of the celestial science of astrology … / [E. Sibly]. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
- ‘Great Fire’ Hieroglyph from Lilly’s Monarchy or No Monarchy, (London, 1651). A lengthy revisit of prophecies surrounding the Crown and Commonwealth, it is notable for this and other figures that seem to anticipate the Great Fire and the Plague, however vaguely.
- Astrology: signs of the zodiac, Scorpio. Coloured engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
- Hogarth, William. “Hudibras Beats Sidrophel and His Man Whacum.” Wove paper. London, England: G. and J. Robinson (Paternoster Row, London, England), June 1, 1802. Science History Institute. Philadelphia. In Samuel Butler’s mock-heroic poem Hudibras, the corrupt astrologer Sidrophel is based on Lilly.
- All other pictures by me.