William Lilly Essay - Critical Essays

Lilly, William


William Lilly 1602–1681

English astrologer and autobiographer.

Lilly was the most respected and sought-after of the seventeenth-century English astrologers. He was consulted by a variety of people, from poor farmers to royalty, who solicited his advice on almost every topic imaginable. Lilly's writings frequently sparked political controversy and involved him in legal proceedings on more than one occasion; the exceptional accuracy of his predictions at times caused some of his clients to accuse him of lying or of manipulating events to coincide with his forecasts. However, Lilly defended himself by denying complete responsibility for his prophecies, adopting the credo "non cogunt," that is, "the stars incline, they do not compel." Lilly's astrological writings are now mainly studied for their historical value, and his autobiography, William Lilly's History of His Life and Times (1715), continues to attract scholarly interest.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known of Lilly's life comes from his autobiography. He was born in 1602 in Diseworth, a town in which his family had been established for many generations. His father, like his grandfather, was a yeoman, and Lilly mentions that "the free-hold land and houses, formerly purchased by my ancestors, were all sold by my grandfather and father; so that now our family depend wholly upon a college lease." Lilly's mother, aware of her husband's financial failure, became determined that her son would be a scholar, and in 1613 sent young Lilly to Ashby de la Zouch, where he studied Latin, Greek, and theology. When Lilly's mother died in 1619, he was forced to leave school due to his father's poverty. He lived at home for about a year, constantly at odds with his bankrupt father, until he received a letter from a Mr. Gilbert Wright inviting him to come to London to work as a servant. Lilly gladly accepted and worked there for seven years, during which time Wright lost his wife, remarried, and died in 1627; that same year, Lilly married Wright's widow. While Lilly had begun to study astrology in 1632, it was not until after his wife's death in 1633 that he devoted himself completely to his studies. He married again in 1634 and continued to devote most of his time and energy to the study and practice of astrology, at which he was extremely successful and respected. In 1651 he was brought before Parliament and stood trial for his bold predictions, published in Merlinus Anglicus (1644-81), which were deemed blasphemous. Lilly was jailed for thirteen days, until (thanks to the influence of several of his extremely powerful friends) it was agreed that he would be released and a committee from Parliament would examine the

questionable material. He married his third wife in 1654, and in 1665 left London for Surrey, where he studied and practiced medicine. In 1674 he became ill, remaining in poor health until his death in 1681.

Major Works

Lilly's almanac, Merlinus Anglicus, was first published in 1644 and continued to appear annually for several years. His An Introduction to Astrology was denounced by both Presbyterians and Cavaliers upon publication in 1646 for its allegedly heretical content. The next year Lilly published Christian Astrology, which firmly established him as a serious astrological scholar, bringing him a great deal of admiration, and attracting a following of clients. In this three-volume set Lilly outlines how to use an astrological chart and explains the characteristics of the zodiac signs and planets, then poses over two hundred sample questions and demonstrates how to answer them using astrology. In 1651 Lilly wrote Monarchy or No Monarchy in England, which contained several hieroglyphics. One hieroglyphic—showing three bundles, one exposing an emaciated corpse, with four ominous birds flying over a church in the background—was believed to forecast the 1665 plague in England. Another, depicting men throwing water onto a large bonfire as the Gemini twins (the zodiac sign associated with London) fall into it, was supposed to predict the Great Fire of 1666. Written in 1668, Lilly's autobiography was not published until 1715; the critic C. Lord has praised it as one of the most interesting of its period, "not so much for the information it contains regarding its writer, as for the curious picture it presents of the domestic life of his era."

Critical Reception

From his own era onward, scholars have considered Lilly one of the ablest astrologers of his time. Despite that reputation, however, some modern critics have questioned whether Lilly's prophetical talent was perhaps a product of keen judgement and insight concerning events in the present rather than genuine foresight. They point out that his hieroglyphics prophesying plague and fire, for example, are depictions of two common occurrences in the seventeenth-century, and are not necessarily predictions for specific instances. Regardless of whether or not commentators have agreed about Lilly's ability to foresee the future, they have acknowledged that his writings have provided great insight into the ideals and thought of seventeenth-century society, as well as valuable information about the development of the science of astrology.

Principal Works

Merlinus Anglicus (almanac) 1644-81

Christian Astrology Modestly Treated in Three Books (treatise) 1647

An Introduction to Astrology (treatise) 1647

Monarchy or No Monarchy in England (prophecies) 1651

William Lilly's History of His Life and Times (autobiography) 1715


William Lilly (essay date 1647)

SOURCE: "An Epistle to the Student in Astrology," in An Introduction to Astrology, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1923, pp. 10-12.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1647, Lilly defines some appropriate considerations for the disciple of astrology.]

My Friend, whoever thou art, that with so much ease shalt receive the benefit of my hard studies, and doest intend to proceed in this heavenly knowledge of the starres; In the first place, consider and admire thy Creator, be thankfull unto him, and be humble, and let no naturall knowledge, how profound or transcendant soever it be, elate thy mind to neglect that Divine Providence, by whose al-seeing order and appointment all things heavenly and earthly have their constant motion: the more thy knowledge is enlarged, the more doe thou magnify the power and wisdome of Almighty God: strive to preserve thyself in his favour; for the more holy thou art, and more neer to God, the purer judgment thou shalt give.

Beware of pride and self-conceit: remember how that long agoe no irrationall creature durst offend man the Macrocosme, but did faithfully serve and obey him; so long as he was master of his own reason and passions, or until he subjected his will to the unreasonable part. But, alas! when iniquity abounded, and man gave the reins to his own affection, and deserted reason, then every beast, creature, and outward harmfull thing, became rebellious to his command. Stand fast (oh, man) to thy God: then consider thy own nobleness; how all created things, both present and to come, were for thy sake created; nay, for thy sake God became man: thou art that creature, who, being conversant with Christ,...

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Jurors for the Lord Protector of the Common Wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (essay date 1654)

SOURCE: An indictment filed against Lilly, in The Last of the Astrologers, 1715. Reprint by The Folklore Society, 1974, pp. 106-07.

[The following is the text of the indictment filed against Lilly in 1654, charging him with unlawfully giving judgement on some stolen goods.]

The Jurors for the Lord Protector of the Common Wealth of England, Scotland and Ireland & c. upon their Oaths do present, That William Lilly, late of the Parish of St. Clements Danes, in the County of Middlesex, Gent. not having the Fear of God before his Eyes, but being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, the 10th Day of July, in...

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William Lilly (essay date 1668)

SOURCE: "How I came to Study Astrology," in The Last of the Astrologers, The Folklore Society, 1974, pp. 21-3.

[In the following excerpt from his autobiography, written in 1668, Lilly outlines how he came to be introduced to astrology.]

It happened on one Sunday 1632, as my self and a Justice of Peace's Clerk were, before Service, discoursing of many Things, he chanced to say, that such a Person was a great Scholar, nay, so learned, that he could make an Almanack, which to me then was strange: One Speech begot another, till, at last, he said, he could bring me acquainted with one Evans in Gun-Powder-Alley, who had formerly lived in...

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George Smalridge (poem date 1681)

SOURCE: "An Elegy upon the Death of William Lilly the Astrologer," in The Last of the Astrologers, The Folklore Society, 1974, pp. 105-06.

[Below is the epitaph written by Smalridge, then a scholar at Westminster, on the occasion of Lilly's death in 1681.]

Our Prophet's gone; no longer may our Ears
Be charm'd with Musick of th' harmonious Spheres.
Let Sun and Moon withdraw, leave gloomy Night
To shew their Nuncio's Fate, who gave more Light
To th' erring World, than all the feeble Rays
Of Sun or Moon; taught us to know those Days
Bright Titan makes, followed the hasty Sun

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E. Walford (essay date 1884)

SOURCE: "Walford's Antiquarian: Astrology and William Lilly," in Antiquarian Magazine and Bibliographer, Vol. 10, No. 59, 1884, pp. 147-52.

[In this essay, Walford details the historical background and significance of astrology, leading up to Lilly.]

Astrology, which Mr. [G. O.] Fisher defines as "the Science of the Stars," is generally accepted as meaning the art of foretelling future events from the aspects and conjunctions of the heavenly bodies; and it is tolerably ancient, if there is truth in the tradition that Adam was the first who practised it. Josephus tells us that Seth, having learned from his parent that everything on earth should perish either by fire or...

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C. Lord (essay date 1893)

SOURCE: "A Seventeenth Century 'Zadkiel'," in Book-worm, Vol. 7, Nos. I and II, 1893 and 1894, pp. 265-72, 297-302.

[Here, Lord summarizes Lilly's life and career, stating that he "may be considered as the last of the 'scientific' astrologers."]

It is not for the present age, with its belief in hypnotism, mesmerism, and the like, to scoff at the superstition of a previous era; and yet it is strange to remember that little over two centuries ago "astrology" held rank as an actual "science," and was believed in by some of the most enlightened men of the time. The Life of William Lilly, Student in Astrology, wrote by himself in the 66th year of his age, is one of...

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Katherine M. Briggs (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Last of the Astrolgers by William Lilly, The Folklore Society, 1974, pp. vii-xii.

[In the following excerpt, Briggs gives a brief biographical overview of Lilly.]

Every century is a period of change, but the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England saw greater revolutions of thought and social structure than any before them since those two crucial periods when the Roman eagles left Britain and when the Normans conquered England. They are only comparable to the changes that the older ones amongst us have witnessed in the present age. If the sixteenth century saw the Tudor succession, the impact of the New Learning, the Reformation,...

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Derek Parker (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Some That Have Writ Almanacks," in Familiar to All: William Lilly and Astrology in the Seventeenth Century, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1975, pp. 69-116.

[Below, Parker assesses Lilly's works, from his first almanacs to his later books.]

The first of Lilly's own almanacs, the Merlinus Anglicus of June 1644, was a relatively slender affair of only twenty-two pages and something like 10,000 words; later that year, his second publication was much more ambitious: England's Prophetical Merline, which came out in October, had 126 pages and over 60,000 words. The title-page advertised Anglicus as 'The English Merlin revived: or, His prediction upon the...

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Patrick Curry (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "William Lilly and 'Democratic' Astrology," in Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England, Polity Press, 1989, pp. 28-34.

[In the essay below, Curry discusses Lilly's primary role in establishing judicial astrology in mid-seventeenth-century England.]

Two men in particular acted as the focus for judicial astrology in mid-seventeenth century England: William Lilly (1602-81) and Elias Ashmole (1617-92). From them, the nexus spread out to take in virtually the entire active astrological community. The one who commanded most attention from his contemporaries was Lilly. Born in the Leicestershire village of Diseworth and educated in the local grammar...

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Further Reading

Josten, C. J., ed. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). 5 vols. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1966.

Includes a collection of letters written by Lilly to his friend Ashmole.

McCaffery, Ellen. Astrology: Its History and Influence in the Western World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942, 408 p.

Places Lilly within the context of the history of astrology.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971, 716 p.

Chronicles the magical, religious, and scientific beliefs of English...

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