Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Partridge, John (1644-1715)

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PARTRIDGE, JOHN (1644–1715), astrologer and almanac-maker, was born at East Sheen on 18 Jan. 1644. Aubrey states that as soon as he had learned to read and write he was bound apprentice to a shoemaker. He had, however, an inquisitive mind, and when he was eighteen years of age he found means to procure a ‘Lilly's Grammar,’ a ‘Gouldman's Dictionary,’ ‘Ovid's Metamorphoses,’ and a Latin Bible. With the help of these books he acquired Latin enough to read the works of astrological authors. He next applied himself to master Greek and Hebrew, and also studied medicine. For any oral teaching he received he seems to have been indebted to John Gadbury [q. v.] the astrologer. He probably resigned his shoemaker's last in Covent Garden about 1678, when the first of his many publications made its appearance. This was ‘A Hebrew Calendar,’ and it was followed at short intervals by his ‘Mικροπαναστρων, or Astrological Vade Mecum,’ ‘Ecclesilegia: an Almanack,’ and ‘Vox Lunaris, being a philosophical and Astrological Discourse of two Moons which were seen in London on 11 June 1679.’ These were all published in the year last mentioned, and were followed in 1680 by ‘The Nativity of the most Valiant and Puissant Monarch Lewis the Fourteenth,’ and ‘Prodromus: or an Astrological Essay upon those Configurations of the Celestial Bodies … compared with the nativity of the late damnable Plot.’ In 1682 he translated Hadrianus a Mynsicht's ‘Treasury of Physic,’ on the title-page of which he is described as sworn physician to his majesty Charles II, though there appears to be no evidence that he ever attended court or received any salary.

Partridge commenced issuing a regular almanac, under the title of ‘Merlinus Liberatus,’ in 1680, and the protestant alarmist tone that he gave to his predictions soon established him in popular favour. The accession of James II found his zeal against popery unabated, so that after the suppression of the rising in the west he had to seek refuge in Holland. John Dunton the bookseller met him in Rotterdam in 1686, and subsequently he passed to Leyden, where he found means to continue his medical studies, and where, if his epitaph is to be trusted, he obtained the degree of M.D. In 1689 he returned to England, and married a certain Jane Kirkman, who was said to have been the widow of one of Monmouth's tailors, and who possessed a small fortune. ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ was now regularly resumed, and was supplemented by numerous pamphlets and ephemerides of astrological or other occult tendency, such as ‘Mene Tekel’ and ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin’ (1689). Their avowed object was often subordinated to the abuse of adversaries and rivals and the advertisement of various quack medicines. In 1697 he issued ‘Nebulo Anglicanus, or the Black Life of John Gadbury,’ a most libellous account of his old preceptor, with whom, however, he appears to have been subsequently reconciled. A more embittered quarrel occurred in 1697 between Partridge and George Parker [q. v.] a rival astrologer, who had been at some pains in his ‘Almanack’ for that year to expose the ‘Errata Merlini Liberati.’ This elicited from Partridge his vivacious ‘Flagitiosus Mercurius flagellatus, or the Whipper whipped.’ In the same year he issued his chief work, ‘Defectio Geniturarum, being an Essay towards the reviving and proving the true Old Principles of Astrology, in four parts,’ which remains one of the most elaborate systematic treatises on the subject. By the end of the century Partridge had won a position at the head of his profession, and drew a substantial income from his almanacs, in which the phraseology of equivocation was carried to a pitch of rare perfection. His profits, however, were endangered by the unscrupulous publication of other almanacs in his name, and he frequently warned the public against such impostures.

His obtrusive methods of advertisement probably suggested him to Swift as a fitting scapegoat for the sins of the numerous charlatans and empirics who were practising in London at the time. If the public at large were too dense to appreciate an exposure of the knavery of such quacks, a laugh could at least be raised among the wits at Partridge's expense. Consequently when almanac time came round with the close of 1707, there appeared simultaneously with Partridge's ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ ‘Predictions for the year 1708 … written to prevent the people of England from being further imposed upon by vulgar almanack makers, by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.’ The writer professed it to be his aim to rescue a noble art from illiterate impostors, and with exquisite gravity contrasted the ambiguous methods of the latter with the detailed precision of his own prophetic utterances. He went on to apologise for the trifling character of his first prediction, which was the death of John Partridge the almanac-maker. ‘I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rule, and find he will infallibly die upon 29 March next, about 11 at night, of a raging fever.’ An equal particularity characterised the subsequent predictions, to which, said Swift, ‘I have set my name at length to be a name of infamy to mankind, if they find I deceive them.’ The name of Bickerstaff had caught Swift's eye over a locksmith's house in Longacre (Swift, Works, 1762, i. 105). These ‘predictions’ were followed by a provocative ‘Answer to Bickerstaff: some Reflections upon Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions for the year, by a person of quality,’ which was also written by Swift. The latter took good care that the expectations raised among the quidnuncs should not be disappointed. On 30 March duly appeared a small pamphlet entitled ‘The Accomplishment of the first of Mr. Bickerstaff's Predictions, being an account of the death of Mr. Partridge the almanack-maker upon the 29th inst.,’ in a letter purporting to be addressed by a revenue officer to a person of honour. The deathbed scene was here graphically depicted, and there were also given a confession by Partridge that he was an impostor, and many circumstantial details, such as the closeness of the room, and a demonstration that Mr. Bickerstaff was almost four hours out in his calculations. This little pamphlet, which was bought and read with avidity, prepared the way for Swift's broadside ‘Elegy on the Death of Mr. Partridge,’ concluding with the celebrated epitaph:

Here, five feet deep, lies on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack,
Who to the stars in pure good will
Does to his best look upward still:
Weep, all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks, or shoes.

The jest was now successfully launched. The company of stationers struck the dead Partridge from their rolls, and asked for an injunction against the continued publication of almanacs in his name. The fame of Bickerstaff extended over Europe; and the inquisition of Portugal, having heard of the verification of his ‘Predictions,’ ordered the book to be burnt, as an unmistakable emanation from the evil one.

Meanwhile, the indignant and perplexed ‘philomath,’ as Partridge called himself, was trying to convince the world that he was still alive; but the task proved beyond his powers. On 2 April he wrote to Isaac Manley, the postmaster of Ireland: ‘I don't doubt but you are imposed on in Ireland also by a pack of rogues about my being dead.’ The authorship of the report Partridge attributed to one Pettie, who was ‘always in a garret, a cellar, or a jail.’ Unfortunately, Manley happened to be an intimate friend of Partridge's unknown tormentor, so that the letter soon appeared in print and greatly heightened the amusement. Partridge next proceeded to advertise in the papers that he was ‘not only now alive, but was also alive upon the 29th of March in question.’ The grotesque earnestness of his endeavours to convince London that he was still alive elicited two of the most humorous skits in the language. The first of these, purporting to be by the injured philomath himself, was entitled ‘Squire Bickerstaff detected, or the Astrological Impostor convicted.’ It has been attributed to Rowe, to Steele, and to other wits of the day, but was probably mainly the work of Thomas Yalden [q. v.] Many of the happiest touches, however, were added by Congreve, while Swift himself was in all probability consulted about it. The second piece was Swift's own ‘Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., against what is objected to him by Mr. Partridge in his Almanack for the present Year, 1709.’ It is a masterpiece of grave, ironical expostulation, and pretends to convict Partridge of futile absurdity in arguing that he is still alive. There was a small aftermath of ‘predictions’ and squibs purporting to be by Bickerstaff, but none of these attracted, or deserved to attract, any special attention. When, however, on 12 April 1709, Steele started the ‘Tatler,’ he got Swift's permission to appropriate the now celebrated pseudonym of ‘Bickerstaff.’

Partridge was for a time apparently quite dazed by the storm of irony. No ‘Merlinus Liberatus’ appeared for 1710, nor for the three following years, though in 1710 and 1711 the Stationers' Company brought out a ‘Partridge's Almanac,’ which has been regularly issued until the present day. In 1710, moreover, appeared an opposition ‘Bickerstaff's Almanack: or a Vindication of the Stars from all the False imputations and erroneous assertions of the late John Partridge.’ In 1714 Partridge took heart and issued ‘Merlinus,’ with some reflections upon the character of the dean of St. Patrick's, from which it appears that he had at length divined the source of the satire upon his pretensions. He continued his astrological labours until his death at Mortlake on 24 June 1715. He was buried in Mortlake churchyard, where a monument, with a long Latin inscription, was erected to his memory. The ‘Miscellanea Lipsiensia’ for 1715 (ii. 1763) noticed among the deaths ‘ex ordine philosophorum, Joannes Partridge, astronomus et astrologus in Anglia famigeratissimus.’ By his will, proved on 26 July 1715, Partridge left 700l. to his wife Jane, and other legacies, amounting in all to over 2,000l. (will printed for E. Curll, 1716).

A portrait, engraved by R. White, was prefixed to his ‘Vade Mecum’ (1679), and there were several caricatures in squibs such as ‘The Infallible Astrologer’ (1700) and ‘Partridge and Bickastaf’ (1708), where he is depicted as startled by Bickerstaff while casting a horoscope (see Steeven's Cat. of Satirical Prints, ii. 138, 139, 267). Partridge had the undeserved honour of being mentioned in Pope's ‘Rape of the Lock’ as looking ‘through Galileo's eyes.’ He occasionally signed his name Patridge. He is thus described on the title-page to his ‘Prodromus;’ and this variant spelling was imitated by Swift in the course of his attacks.

[Partridge's Works in British Museum; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, passim; Forster's Life of Swift; Craik's Life of Swift; Gent. Mag. 1838, ii. 486; A Sketch of the History and Privileges of the Company of Stationers, 1871; Ashton's Social Life under Queen Anne, ii. 83; Dunton's Life and Errors; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. vol. viii.; Butler's Hudibras, ed. Zach. Grey; Arber's English Garner (reprints of several of the tracts), vi. 470; Chambers's Book of Days; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope; Graham Everitt's Doctors and Doctors, p. 244; Granger's Biogr. Hist. of England; Introduction to the Tatler; Aitken's Life of Steele.]