Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lilly, William

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LILLY, WILLIAM (1602–1681), astrologer, born 1 May 1602 at Diseworth, Leicestershire, was son of William Lilly, a yeoman farmer, by his wife Alice (d. 1618), daughter of Edward Barham of Fiskerton Mills, Newark. A rival astrologer, John Heydon [q. v.], insisted in his ‘Theomagia,’ 1664 (pt. i. p. 106), that Lilly's father was ‘a laborer or ditcher.’ In 1613 he was sent to the grammar school of Ashby-de-la-Zouch while John Brinsley the elder [q. v.] was chief master. According to his own story he learnt Latin, some Greek, and a little Hebrew, becoming an efficient writer of Latin verse and a good Latin conversationalist. When sixteen years old he was ‘exceedingly troubled in his dreams concerning his salvation and damnation.’ His father's circumstances compelled him to earn his own livelihood from an early age. On 3 April 1620 he left Diseworth for London, with a recommendation to Gilbert Wright, a native of Market Bosworth, who resided ‘at the corner house in the Strand.’ Heydon asserted that his first master in London was ‘Palin, a tailor.’ But there seems no reason to doubt Lilly's statement that Wright gave him immediate employment as a domestic servant. Wright lived on rents derived from house property in London, but could neither read nor write, and soon found the youth useful in helping him with his accounts. Wright's wife, a believer in ‘vigils,’ died in 1624, of a cancer in the breast, and Lilly acted as nurse and amateur surgeon throughout the illness. In the summer of 1625 he remained in London during the plague. In February 1625–6 Wright married again, but he died on 22 May 1627, and Lilly accepted an offer of marriage made him by the widow, whose maiden name was Ellen Whitehaire, in the following September. ‘The corner house in the Strand’ was thenceforth his permanent London residence. Next month he was made free of the Salters' Company, to which Wright had belonged, and, being well provided for by his wife, spent his time in angling, or hearing puritan sermons.

In 1632 Lilly first turned his attention to astrology. A friend introduced him to Arise Evans [see Evans, Rhys], an astrologer residing in Gunpowder Alley. Evans found Lilly an apt pupil. He bought books on the subject belonging to William Bedwell [q. v.], ‘lately dead,’ read them day and night, and within six or seven weeks could ‘set a figure.’ He came to know the chief astrologers of the day in various parts of the country, and gives many details concerning their modes of life in his autobiography. In October 1633 his wife died. In 1634 a scholar pawned with him for forty shillings a manuscript copy of the ‘Ars Notoria,’ which taught him the doctrine of the magical circle and methods of invocating spirits. Soon afterwards Davy Ramsey, the king's clockmaker, announced that much treasure was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, and obtained the permission of Dean Williams to make a search for it. Ramsey invited one John Scott, who ‘pretended the use of the Mosaical rods,’ and Lilly to assist him. One winter's night the three, with some thirty spectators, ‘played the hazel rod round about the cloisters; upon the west side the rods turned one over another.’ Labourers were ordered by Lilly to dig beneath the spot. A coffin was found at a depth of six feet, but it seemed to the operators too light to merit attention. On passing into the abbey a blustering wind arose, which threatened, according to Lilly, to blow down the west end of the church, but he managed to dismiss the demons, who were thus marking their displeasure, and nothing further followed. He attributed the fiasco to the irreverent laughter of the spectators. On 18 Nov. 1634 Lilly married a second wife, Jane Rowley, who brought him 500l. and a shrewish temper. The purchase soon afterwards of a moiety of thirteen houses in the Strand involved him in lawsuits. After teaching astrology to many promising pupils, and practising the art himself with success, he fell a victim to hypochondriac melancholy; removed in the spring of 1637 to Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, in Surrey, and remained there five years. In 1639 he wrote a treatise upon ‘The Eclipse of the Sun in the eleventh Degree of Gemini 22 May 1639,’ which he presented to his ‘bountiful friend,’ William Pennington (d. 1652) of Muncaster, Cumberland. In September 1641 he settled again in London, ‘perceiving there was money to be got’ there, and studied his astrological books anew. In 1643 he attended Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, M.P., during a severe sickness, and he claims to have foretold his patient's recovery. In April 1644 he published his first almanac, which he entitled ‘Merlinus Anglicus Junior, the English Merlin Revived, or a Mathematicall Prediction upon the affairs of the English Commonwealth’ (two editions), and sold the first edition within a week (cf. Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1645–7, p. 135). From this time he prepared an almanac each year until his death. In 1644 he also began the issue of a long series of pamphlets of prophecy. On 12 June 1644 appeared ‘The English Merlin Revived, or his Predictions upon the affairs of the English Commonwealth, and of all or most Kingdoms of Christendom, this present year 1644’ (London, 12 June 1644, 4to). Here Lilly's arts and divinations enabled him to foresee nothing more novel than ‘a troubled and divided court, an afflicted kingdom, a city neere a plague, and Ireland falling into discontent.’ In July there followed ‘Supernaturall Sights and Apparitions seen in London, June 30, 1644, interpreted.’ In the same year Lilly printed ‘A Prophecy of the White King and Dreadfull Deadman explained.’ The first part, drawn from an old manuscript in the Cottonian Library, was published by many other astrologers. The obscure sentences were paraphrased to apply to Charles I. The ‘Dreadfull Deadman’ was reprinted from the ‘Probleme concerning Prophecies’ (1588), by John Harvey [q. v.] the astrologer. A fuller commentary by Lilly on these predictions appeared in 1646 (cf. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 351). ‘England's Propheticall Merline, foretelling to all Nations of Europe untill 1663 the Actions depending upon the Influence of the Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, 1642–3’ (London, 16 Oct. 1644), was dedicated to Sir William Wittypoll. In 1645 Lilly appended to his ‘Anglicus or Ephemeris for 1646’ a nativity of Prince Rupert, whom he described as not born to be fortunate, and likely to die when twenty-eight years old.

In 1645 a rival almanac-maker, Captain George Wharton, attacked Lilly as ‘an impudent, senseless fellow.’ Wharton was a pronounced royalist, and in order to answer him with better effect, Lilly, who disclaims any earlier interest in politics, promptly became a parliamentarian. The quarrel lasted long, and in many pamphlets issued in 1647 and following years Wharton claimed to expose Lilly's errors. On the day of the battle of Naseby (14 June 1645) Lilly published his ‘Starry Messengers, or an Interpretation of that strange Apparition of Three Suns seene in London 19 Nov. 1644, being the Birth of Prince Charles.’ Some reflections there and in his almanac for 1645 on the commissioners of excise led to his being summoned before the parliamentary committee of examinations, over which Miles Corbet [q. v.] presided, but the charge was not pressed. In 1646 he published nativities of Laud and Strafford, and in 1647 the work which he chiefly prized, ‘Christian Astrology modestly treated in three Books,’ London, 1647, dedicated to Whitelocke. This book he made his text-book for his pupils. In the same year he defended himself from a charge of having brought about a marriage between John Grubham Howe and Annabella Scroope by undue means, in ‘The late Storie of Mr. William Lillie,’ London, January 1647–8 [cf. Howe, John Grubham]. He there asserted that his fame had reached to France, Italy, and Germany, and denied that he had received at any time money from the parliament. In 1648 H. Johnsen, ‘student in astrology,’ renewed, in his ‘Anti-Merlinus,’ the assaults on Lilly.

In 1647 a lady named Jane Whorwood, wife of Brome Whorwood of Halton, Oxfordshire, a devoted partisan of the king, consulted Lilly, according to his own story, respecting the possibility of the king escaping from Hampton Court and remaining concealed in any part of the country. Lilly suggested a place in Essex, twenty miles from London, and received 20l. (Wood, Life and Times, ed. Clark, i. 227). Fairfax seems to have suspected that Lilly was applying his art improperly, and sent for him and another astrologer, John Booker [q. v.], to come to him at Windsor, and entreated them to discontinue their practices unless they could convince themselves that they were lawful, and agreeable to God's word. Hugh Peters supported Fairfax's arguments, but their appeal did not prevent Lilly from procuring a saw and some aquafortis to send to the king, to enable him to escape from Carisbrook Castle, in 1648. In September 1648 Lilly claims to have rendered Charles further assistance.

Meanwhile Lilly was ostensibly serving the parliament. In 1648 he obtained political information from France, which the parliament rewarded with a gift of 50l., and the council of state with a pension of 100l., which was paid him for two years. He attended the king's trial, and on 6 Jan. 1648–9 he published ‘A peculiar Prognostication astrologically predicted according to art, whether or no his Majestie shall suffer Death this present yeare 1649: the Possibility thereof discussed and divulged.’

In August 1648 Lilly and Booker were ordered to attend the parliamentary army engaged in the siege of Colchester, so as to encourage the soldiers with predictions of speedy victory. In 1651 he excited new attention by his ‘Monarchy and no Monarchy,’ in which he asserted that ‘England should no more be governed by a king,’ and added sixteen hieroglyphical engravings, two of which he declared portrayed the plague and fire of London. An appendix included ‘Passages on the Life and Death of King Charles,’ which reappeared in a revised form in Lilly's ‘True History of King James the First and King Charles the First’ (1715). In 1652 he devoted 950l. to the purchase of a house and lands at Horsham. In his almanac for 1653 he declared that the commonalty and soldiery would quickly combine to overthrow the parliament. For this prediction he was summoned before the committee of plundered ministers, but the speaker, Lenthall, privately pointed out to Lilly the offensive passages, and Lilly was dexterous enough to present the committee with amended copies when he appeared before them. He was detained in custody for thirteen days, and then released (Commons' Journals, vii. 195). On 16 Feb. 1653–4 Lilly lost his shrewish wife, and ‘shed no tears.’ In October 1654 he married for a third time. His third wife's maiden name was Ruth Needham.

In 1652 Lilly had published his ‘Annus Tenebrosus, or the dark Year, together with the short Method how to judge the Effects of Eclipses,’ and had dedicated it ‘to the commonwealth of England.’ His bold claim to be treated as a scientific investigator roused Thomas Gataker [q. v.] in 1654 to vehemently denounce him as an impostor in his ‘Discours Apologeticall, wherein Lillies lewd and loud Lies are clearly laid open.’ Lilly retorted with similar frankness in his next year's almanac. In 1655 he was also indicted, on the suit of a half-witted woman, at the Middlesex sessions for having unlawfully given judgment respecting the recovery of stolen goods, and received half-a-crown, but he was acquitted, in spite of the presence among the magistrates of many presbyterians, to whom he was obnoxious on account of his expression of political opinion. In 1659 the king of Sweden acknowledged a complimentary nativity cast for him by Lilly in his almanacs for 1657 and 1658 by sending him a present of a gold chain and medal. The almanac for 1658 had been translated into German, and published at Hamburg. That for 1653 was translated into both Dutch and Danish. In 1659 ‘G. J., a lover of art and honesty,’ probably John Gadbury [q. v.], held Lilly up to ridicule in ‘Ψευδο-αστρολόγος or the spurious Prognosticator’ (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. x. 362, for an offensive mock epitaph written in 1651).

At the Restoration Lilly was taken into custody, and was rigidly examined by a committee of the House of Commons respecting his knowledge of the details of Charles I's execution (Commons' Journals, viii. 53, 56). He asserted that the executioner was Cornet Joyce, and he was soon set at liberty, but he was directed to attend the trials of many of the regicides. Pepys describes a convivial evening spent with Lilly and his friends at his house in the Strand on 24 Oct. 1660. Ashmole was present, with John Booker. The latter, in private conversation with the diarist, blamed Lilly for still ‘keeping in with the times, as he did formerly to his own dishonour, and not [working] according to the rules of art, by which he could not err as he had done’ (Diary, i. 116). In January 1660–1 Lilly was again arrested without any legal justification, but at once took the oaths to Charles II, and sued out a pardon under the broad seal at a cost of 13l. 6s. 8d. Lawsuits respecting his property occupied him in 1663 and 1664, and in the same years he became churchwarden of Walton-on-Thames, and set the parochial affairs in order. In 1665 he fled before the plague to his seat at Hersham. In October 1666 Lilly was examined by the committee appointed to investigate the causes of the great fire, and set forth in very obscure terms the grounds on which he had based a prediction of the fire in his hieroglyphics of 1651. At the trial, in April 1667, of one Rathbone and others who were charged with having conspired to set fire to London, it was stated that 3 Sept. 1666 was the day selected for the attempt, because Lilly had designated it in his published predictions ‘a lucky day’ for such a deed (Pepys, Diary, iii. 28). The fire of London broke out on 2 Sept. 1666. Thenceforward Lilly resided at Hersham, and studied medicine with such success that his friend, Elias Ashmole, induced Archbishop Sheldon to grant him a license to practise it on 11 Oct. 1670. After that date he combined the professions of physician and astrologer, and every Saturday rode over to Kingston, where ‘the poorer sort flocked to him from several parts.’ In 1677 Henry Coley [q. v.] entered his service as an amanuensis, and during the remainder of Lilly's life spent the summer with him in the preparation of his almanac. Lilly died of paralysis at Hersham on 9 June 1681, and was buried in the chancel of Walton Church, where Ashmole set up a black marble monument, with a Latin inscription to his memory. William Smalridge, then a Westminster scholar, afterwards bishop of Bristol, wrote at Ashmole's request an elegy in Latin and English.

Lilly's will, dated 5 Jan. 1674–5, is printed in ‘Wills from Doctors' Commons’ (Camd. Soc. pp. 131–2). To his wife Ruth he left his extensive estates, with remainder to Carleton, son of his friend, Bulstrode Whitelocke. All his personal property, including his books, went to his wife. To each of his six servants he bequeathed 20s.; 10l. he divided equally between the poor of Walton-on-Thames and of Hersham and Burwood. A brother Robert, a nephew William (Robert's son), and a sister Susan Beufoy, with a few friends, also received small legacies. On 29 Sept. 1681 administration was renounced by the widow, and was undertaken by Carleton Whitelocke. His astrological apparatus ultimately passed into the hands of John Case (fl. 1680–1700) [q. v.], the astrologer, who succeeded to his London practice. Before his death Lilly gave to Coley the copyright of his almanac, and Coley continued it under its original title, adding the words, ‘according to the method of Mr. Lilly.’ In 1683 Coley issued ‘The great and wonderful Predictions of that late famous Astrologer, William Lilly, Mr. Partridge, and Mr. Coley,’ for the current year. Lilly's library, with his letters and papers, his widow sold to Ashmole for 50l., and they are now among the Ashmolean MSS. at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. They include the original manuscript of his autobiography, his books of astrological practice, with the names of his clients (1644–9 and 1654–6), commonplace books of astrology, medical receipts, Lilly's letters to Ashmole, Booker, and Charles Gustavus of Sweden, and letters to Lilly from Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Richard Napier, Sir Edward Walker and many others.

Lilly figures as Sidrophel in Butler's ‘Hudibras’ (bk. ii. canto iii. ll. 105 sq.), and is described as one

That deals in destiny's dark counsels,
And sage opinions of the Moon sells.

His predictions were, as a rule, so vaguely worded as to be incapable of any practical interpretation, but comets and eclipses gave him opportunities of terrifying credulous patrons (cf. Evelyn, Diary, iii. 144), and he occasionally stumbled in his numerous prophecies on something that had plausible relations with the truth. Two printed letters addressed to him by clients—one from Roger Knight, jun. (8 Sept. 1649), inviting Lilly's opinion as to the success of a love-suit, and enclosing eleven shillings, and another (28 July 1650) from Vincent Wing [q. v.], the mathematician, making an inquiry respecting some stolen property, and begging one line of commendation for his ‘Harmonicon Celeste’ in the ‘Anglicus’ for 1651—curiously illustrate the confidence reposed in him (Letters from the Bodleian, ii. 151–8). Wood boldly describes him as an impostor (Lives and Times, ed. Clark, ii. 543). Pepys relates how he and his friends laughed at Lilly's prophecies (Diary, 14 June 1667, iii. 156). His published writings mainly consist of astrological predictions and of vindications of their correctness, in answer to the attacks made upon them by rival practitioners of his art, like Heydon, Wharton and Gadbury. His ‘Christian Astrology’ (1647) was long an authority in astrological literature, and was reprinted as an ‘Introduction to Astrology,’ with a preface by Zadkiel [i.e. Richard James Morrison, q. v.], in 1852. His chief non-professional work is his ‘True History of King James I and King Charles I’ (1651), which was reissued, with his autobiography, in 1715, as ‘Several Observations upon the Life and Death of Charles I, late King of England.’ It is a bare sketch of the events of the reign, with occasional excursions into astrology, and some interesting comments on the king's character. The bias distinctly inclines against the king, and Sir Edward Walker wrote ‘A full Answer’ at the Hague in 1652, which was first published in Walker's ‘Historical Discourses,’ 1705, pp. 227–87. In 1715 appeared ‘The History of Lilly's Life and Times,’ written by himself, and addressed to his friend Ashmole. It was prepared for publication by Charles Burman. It is a discursive account of his friends and foes, and has acquired more reputation than its intrinsic merits, either as literature or autobiography, deserve. It was reprinted in 1774, with Ashmole's life, and in 1822.

A picture of Lilly, æt. 45, is in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. An engraving by Marshall is prefixed to ‘Christian Astrology,’ 1647. Other engravings, some by Cross, Hollar, and Vaughan, appear in many of the almanacs (cf. those for 1650, æt. 48, 1653, 1667, and 1687).

Besides his thirty-six almanacs (1647–82) and the works mentioned, he published: 1. ‘Collections of Prophecies,’ 1646. 2. ‘The World's Catastrophe, or Europe's many mutations untill 1666,’ 1647; a ‘Whip for Wharton’ is added; some copies also include Ashmole's translations of ‘The Prophecies of Ambrose Merlin, with a Key,’ and ‘Trithemius, or the Government of the World by presiding Angels.’ 3. ‘An Astrologicall Prediction of the Occurrences in England for the years 1648, 1649, 1650,’ London, 1648, with Hamilton's nativity, and a dedication addressed to the House of Commons. 4. ‘Mr. Lillyes Prognostications of 1667, predicting the Prosperity … of the English and their glorious Victories … by Land and Sea,’ 1667. 5. ‘The dangerous Condition of the United Provinces prognosticated,’ 1672. 6. ‘Mr. Lillies late Prophecy come to pass concerning the present War and the late unseasonableness of the Weather,’ 1673. 7. ‘Mr. Lillies Prophesie of a General Peace,’ 1674. 8. ‘Mr. Lillies Prophecy, or a sober Prediction of a Peace between the French and the Dutch and their Allies,’ 1675. 9. ‘Anima Astrologiæ, or a Guide for Astrologers, being translated from Guido Bonatus, and Cardan's seaven Segments, with a new Table of the Fixed Stars, rectified for several years to come,’ 1676. 10. ‘Mr Lillies Astrological Predictions for 1677, proving the happy Condition of this our Nation for the Year ensuing,’ 1676. 11. ‘Mr. Lillies Prediction concerning the many lamentable Fires which have lately happened, with a full Account of Fires at Home and Abroad,’ 1676. 12. ‘Strange News from the East, or a sober Account of the Comet or blazing Star that has been seen several Mornings of late,’ 1677. 13. ‘Lillies New Prophecy relating to the Year, 1678.’ 14. ‘Fore-Warn'd, Fore-Arm'd, or England's Timely Warning in general, and London's in particular,’ 1682. 15. ‘Catastrophe Mundi, Mr. Lilly's Hieroglyphicks exactly cut,’ 1683, a reissue of the appendix to ‘Monarchy or No Monarchy,’ 1651.

Lilly's name has been unwarrantably affixed to many chapbooks dealing with fortune-telling, the interpretation of dreams, and the like. Of these the best known are the ‘Compleat and universal Book of Fortune,’ London, 1728, 12mo, and ‘A Groat's Worth of Wit for a Penny,’ Newcastle, n.d., 11th edit.

[Brayley's Surrey, ii. 325–6, 355–60; Lilly's Life and Times, and Life of Ashmole, 1774; Black's Cat. of Ashmolean MSS.; Butler's Hudibras, ed. Grey; Journals; Sibley's Astrology, ii. 879; Retrospective Review, ii. 51, 70.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.182
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
258 i 18 f.e. Lilly, William: for 1 May 1602 read 30 April 1602 (Sloane MS. 1707, f. 12 b).
ii 22 for Grace read Ellen