William Lilly Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.