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William Lilly
Portrait of Lilly, aged 45, now housed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford
Born1 May 1602
Died9 June 1681(1681-06-09) (aged 79)
Hersham, Surrey, England
Occupation(s)Astrologer, author, translator astrological consultant
Known forProphecy, astrological prediction, propaganda of English Civil War

William Lilly (11 May [O.S. 1 May] 1602 – 9 June 1681) was a seventeenth century English astrologer. He is described as having been a genius at something "that modern mainstream opinion has since decided cannot be done at all" having developed his stature as the most important astrologer in England through his social and political connections as well as going on to have an indelible impact on the future course of Western astrological tradition.[1]

Born the son of a yeoman farmer in Leicestershire, Lilly travelled to London as a youth to take up a servant's position. Seven years later he secured his fortune by marrying his former master's widow, allowing him the leisure to study astrology. In 1644, during the English Civil War, he published the first of many popular astrological texts,[2] and in 1647 he published Christian Astrology, a huge compendium of astrological technique. This was the first of its kind to be printed in the English language rather than Latin, and is said to have tutored "a nation in crisis in the language of the stars".[3] By 1659, Lilly's fame was widely acknowledged and his annual almanac was achieving sales of around 30,000 copies a year.[4]

Lilly's autobiography, published towards the end of his life in 1681, at the request of his patron Elias Ashmole, gives candid accounts of the political events of his era, and biographical details of contemporaries that are unavailable elsewhere.[5] It was described, in the late 18th century, as "one of the most entertaining narratives in our language", in particular for the historical portrayal it leaves of men like John Dee, Simon Forman, John Booker, Edward Kelley, including a whimsical first meeting of John Napier and Henry Briggs, respective co-inventors of the logarithm and Briggsian logarithms,[6] and for its curious tales about the effects of crystals and the appearance of Queen Mab.[7] In it, Lilly describes the friendly support of Oliver Cromwell during a period in which he faced prosecution for issuing political astrological predictions.[8] He also writes about the 1666 Great Fire of London, and how he was brought before the committee investigating the cause of the fire, being suspected of involvement because of his publication of images, 15 years earlier, which depicted a city in flames surrounded by coffins.[9]

Lilly was a controversial character who was both aided and abetted by powerful friends and enemies. He attracted the attention of many members of Parliament, through the support of Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, (to whom he dedicated his Christian Astrology),[10] but also accused Members of Parliament of engineering charges against him in 1651.[11] To his supporters he was an "English Merlin"; to his detractors he was a "juggling wizard and imposter".[12]


Early life

Lilly was born on 1 May 1602 in the small village of Diseworth, Leicestershire;[5] the thatched cottage his family lived in still stands near the village church.[a] It was a substantial house for its time, although Lilly's father, (also called William), struggled with the cost of running his farm.[13] By the time Lilly came to school age, his mother, Alice, complained about the family's back-slidings and decayed estate, yet she determined to give her son the best education the family could afford.[14]

Lilly was fortunate in receiving a classical education at the Grammar school of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, under John Brinsley, one of the finest teachers of his time. Brinsley was strict in discipline but advocated encouragement and praise, and by the time Lilly left the school in 1619, he was excellently educated and excelled at Latin. This was to serve him well in his later astrological studies, since almost all astrological textbooks were written in Latin at that time.[15]

Lilly's hopes of attending Cambridge University were dashed by his father's increasing poverty.[5] His biography records his disappointment at being denied the opportunity that all of his fellow students enjoyed, even though he describes the knowledge of most of them as "defective":

[A]ll and every of those scholars who were of my form and standing went to Cambridge ... only poor I, William Lilly, was not so happy; fortune then frowning upon father's present condition, he not in any capacity to maintain me at the university.[16]

A lesser opportunity came through his father's attorney, who recognised Lilly's level of education and recommended him to Gilbert Wright, Master of the Salters' Company and resident of the Strand in London (but formerly of Market Bosworth, Leicestershire). Wright was looking for a literate youth to act as his secretary and general servant, and at that time Lilly's father (then in prison for debt) was very happy to be rid of him, considering that since his son was no good around the farm, he was "good for nothing".[17] With his letter of recommendation and just a few shillings, eighteen-year-old Lilly walked to London alongside a carrier's cart, later recounting "it was a very stormy week, cold and uncomfortable: I footed it all along".[18]

Lilly received a warm welcome from Gilbert Wright, and worked as his servant until Wright's death in 1627. His biography recounts how, during these seven years, he was happy to perform all manner of menial tasks for his master; how he nursed Gilbert's wife through breast-cancer, until she died of the illness in 1624; how he survived the Great Plague of London in 1625; how his master married again in 1626 (a widow named Ellen Whitehaire), and then settled upon Lilly an annuity of £20 a year, before his death in May 1627.[19]

Within months of Wright's death, the newly widowed Ellen made it clear that, having married twice for money, she was now looking to marry someone who would be loving and look after her, regardless of her suitor's status. Lilly took the "audacious" step of proposing himself, and despite her initial protestations that at 25 years of age Lilly was too young, they married in September of that year, keeping their marriage secret from her friends and family for two years.

Lilly describes a contented marriage with Ellen, which continued for six years.[20] Upon her death she left everything to Lilly, of which he reports "it was considerable, very near to the value of one thousand pounds".[21]

Astrological career

The comfortable lifestyle and fortune that Lilly inherited from Ellen, gave him leisure time to frequent sermons and lectures in London society.[2] In 1632, shortly before Ellen's death, he began to study astrology, reading all the books on the subject he could fall in with, and occasionally trying his hand at unravelling mysteries by means of his art. The years 1642 and 1643 were devoted to a careful revision of all his previous reading, and in particular, having lighted on Valentine Naibod's Commentary on Alcabitius, he "seriously studied him and found him to be the profoundest author he ever met with." About the same time he tells us that he "did carefully take notice of every grandaction betwixt king and parliament, and did first then incline to believe that as all sublunary affairs depend on superior causes, so there, was: a possibility of discovering them by the configurations of the superior bodies." And, having thereupon "made some essays," he "found encouragement to proceed further, and ultimately framed to himself that method which he ever afterwards followed."

Lilly's most comprehensive book was published in 1647 and was entitled Christian Astrology. It is so large that it came in three separate volumes in modern times, and it remains popular even today and has never gone totally out-of-print. It is considered one of the classic texts for the study of traditional astrology from the Middle Ages, in particular horary astrology, which is mainly concerned with predicting future events or investigating unknown elements of current affairs, based on an astrological chart cast for the time a particular question is asked of the astrologer. Worked examples of horary charts are found in Volume 2 of Christian Astrology.

He then began to issue his prophetical almanacs and other works, which met with serious attention from some of the most prominent members of the Long Parliament. Lilly was on intimate terms with Bulstrode Whitelocke, William Lenthall the speaker, Sir Philip Stapleton, Elias Ashmole and others. Even John Selden seems to have acknowledged him, and probably the chief difference between him and the mass of the community at the time was that, while others believed in the general truth of astrology, he ventured to specify the future events to which he referred.

In 1650, Lilly wrote a preface to Sir Christopher Heydon's An Astrological Discourse with Mathematical Demonstrations, a defence of astrology written about 1608 which was first published posthumously, largely at the expense of Elias Ashmole.

Retirement and death

City of Westminster Green plaque, (given to "people of renown who have made lasting contributions to society") marking Lilly's London residence in the Strand.

After the Restoration he very quickly fell into disrepute. His sympathy with the parliament, which his predictions had generally shown, was not calculated to bring him into royal favour. He came under the lash of Samuel Butler, who, making allowance for some satiric exaggeration, has given in the character of Hudibras' Sidrophel a probably not very incorrect picture of the man; and, having by this time amassed a tolerable fortune, he bought a small estate at Hersham in Surrey, to which he retired, and where he diverted the exercise of his peculiar talents to the practice of medicine. He died in 1681. In 2003 a commemorative plaque was placed next to the disused Aldwych tube station on the Strand. Lilly lived in a house on the site from 1627 to 1665.[22]

Influence and works

The publication of a facsimile of the original 1647 edition of Lilly's Christian Astrology in 1985 by Regulus Publishing Company Ltd., in the UK, brought about a renaissance in astrological scholarship in North America and Europe, and also a transformation of the techniques of modern astrology. Olivia Barclay and other British astrologers began to unearth Lilly's astrological work, and were influential in the eventual re-publication of Christian Astrology.

Besides his 36 annual almanacs published between 1647 and 1682, Lilly's published works also include:

  • Merlinus Anglicus Junior, 1644.
  • Supernatural Sights and Apparitions seen in London, June 20th 1644, 1644.[23]
  • The Prophecy of the White King, 1644.
  • England's Prophetical Merlin, 1644.
  • Collections of Prophecies, 1646.
  • Christian Astrology, 1647.[24]
  • The World's Catastrophe, or Europe's many mutations untill 1666, 1647; which includes 'A Whip for Wharton'; some copies also include Elias Ashmole's translations of The Prophecies of Ambrose Merlin, with a Key, and Trithemius, or the Government of the World by presiding Angels.
  • 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.
  • Monarchy or No Monarchy, 1651.
  • Mr. Lillyes Prognostications of 1667, predicting the Prosperity … of the English and their glorious Victories … by Land and Sea, 1667.
  • The dangerous Condition of the United Provinces prognosticated, 1672.
  • Mr. Lillies late Prophecy come to pass concerning the present War and the late unseasonableness of the Weather, 1673.
  • Mr. Lillies Prophesie of a General Peace, 1674.
  • Mr. Lillies Prophecy, or a sober Prediction of a Peace between the French and the Dutch and their Allies, 1675.
  • Anima Astrologiae, 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.[25]
  • Mr Lillies Astrological Predictions for 1677, proving the happy Condition of this our Nation for the Year ensuing, 1676.
  • Mr. Lillies Prediction concerning the many lamentable Fires which have lately happened, with a full Account of Fires at Home and Abroad, 1676.
  • Strange News from the East, or a sober Account of the Comet or blazing Star that has been seen several Mornings of late, 1677.
  • Lillies New Prophecy relating to the Year, 1678.
  • William Lilly's History of His Life and Times by William Lilly, 1681.[26]
  • Fore-Warn'd, Fore-Arm'd, or England's Timely Warning in general, and London's in particular, 1682.
  • Catastrophe Mundi, Mr. Lilly's Hieroglyphicks exactly cut, 1683, a reissue of the appendix to Monarchy or No Monarchy, 1651.


  1. ^ A photograph of the cottage is included in the Leicester Mercury report (see 'Star man Lilly's magic life' 5 March 2013). The report explains that during restoration of the cottage in the 1950s, "a wealth of hieroglyphics and astrological signs were revealed".


  1. ^ Lewis 2003, p. 414-5.
  2. ^ a b Bayle 1738, p. 82.
  3. ^ Kassell 2007, p. 72.
  4. ^ Capp 1979, p. 44.
  5. ^ a b c Geneva 1995, p. 55.
  6. ^ David Stuart & John Minto in "Account of the Life of John Napier of Merchiston", The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany (1787) Vol.6
  7. ^ Lilly 1681, p. iii-v.
  8. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 163.
  9. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 215.
  10. ^ Houlding 2010, p. 1, see footnote 1.
  11. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 158.
  12. ^ Dunn 2012, p. 119.
  13. ^ Parker 1975, pp. 22–25.
  14. ^ Parker 1975, pp. 24–25.
  15. ^ Parker 1975, pp. 26–29.
  16. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 9.
  17. ^ Parker 1975, pp. 31–32.
  18. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 9-10.
  19. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 11-26.
  20. ^ Parker 1975, pp. 41–42.
  21. ^ Lilly 1681, p. 45.
  22. ^ "Westminster City Council Green Plaque". Westminster City Council. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  23. ^ Lilly, W. "Supernatural Sights and Apparitions" (PDF). Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  24. ^ Lilly, W. "Christian Astrology" (PDF). facsimile of 1659 edition. Astrologia Medieval. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  25. ^ Lilly, W. "Anima Astrologiae" (PDF). Astrologia Medieval. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  26. ^ Lilly, W. William Lilly's History of His Life and Times. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 19 September 2013.


External links

12 Annotations

First Reading

Paul Brewster  •  Link

It's truly amazing the kinds of folks that SP meets during his life and my goodness what a wealth of sites concerning this 17th century astrologer:

Here's the biographical sketch:…

Other sites (only the first page of a Google):


Paul Brewster  •  Link

Just noticed a clever subtle dig from the Enc Brit:
"He received a tolerably good classical education at the school of Ashby-dela-Zouche, but he na

Kevin Donovan  •  Link

William Lilly the astrologer is a fascinating character. However, he is not the William Lily/Lyly/Lilly who compiled the standard published English grammar during the Tudor and Stuart periods. (That he is not the same person is evident from Pepys's reference to a Catholic edition, presumably from the reign of Queen Mary, or perhaps earlier, though no editions of the grammar before 1540 have survived.) The _Oxford DNB_ gives "1468?-1522/3" as the dates for Lily the grammarian and schoolmaster. He was the grandfather of the Elizabethan dramatist John Lyly. There is a very useful note on the various editions of "Lily's Grammar . . . the authorized school text from 1540 on," in the revised 2nd ed. of the _Short-Title Catalogue_ (1976).

Michael Robinson  •  Link

The Pepysian Library contains:

Lilly, William, 1602-1681.
Monarchy or no monarchy in England. Grebner his prophecy concerning Charles son of Charles, his greatnesse, victories, conquests. The northern lyon, or lyon of the north, and chicken of the eagle discovered who they are, of what nation. English, Latin, Saxon, Scotish and Welch prophecies concerning England in particular, and all Europe in generall. Passages upon the life and death of the late King Charles. Ænigmaticall types of the future state and condition of England for many years to come. By William Lilly, student in astrology.

London : printed for Humfrey Blunden, dwelling at the sign of the Castle in Corn-hill, 1651.

4to., [8], 119, [1], 20 p. : ill. (woodcuts). Annotation on Thomason copy: "Aug: 6th".

Wing (2nd ed.), L2228; Thomason, E.638[17]

PL 1112 (2)

Bound in 'Penny Merriments I' - PL 362

A groatsworth of wit for a penny, or, The interpretation of dreams. By Mr. Lilly 1. How a man or a maid by their dreams may k[n]ow whether they shall have them they love or no. 2. How a man may obtain the love of his mistriss. 3. How a man may get money in hard times. 4. How a man may make choice of a loving wife. 5 How they shall continue in amity and ne’r be poor. 6. How to know an honest woman from a whore. 7. How young-men and maids may discover the realty of their lovers. 8. How they may know what planets they are born under, what their fortune will be, and which shall die first either man or wife. 9. How a man may know for each day in any month of the year, whether himself, wife, child, or friend, that waxeth sick shall live or die. 10. What the appearing of a comet or blazing-star signifies: and how you shall continue a night-spell to catch thieves

[London] : Printed for W[illiam]. T[hackeray]. and sold by Ionah Deacon at the fign [sic] the Angel in Guilt-spur-street without Newgate, [1671?]

8vo., 16 p. : ill. ; Place and date of publication, and publisher’s name from Wing. In line 10 of title, word "may" printed with ’m’ upside down.
Wing (CD-ROM, 1996), L2224
PL 362 (49)

Bound in 'Penny Merriments II' - PL 363

Mirror of natural astrology: or, A new book of fortune· Shewing, the nature of planets, how any one may know what their fortune is, born under such a planet. Written by Mr. Lilly.
[London] : Printed for W[illiam]. T[hackeray]. and sold by J[onah]. Deacon, at the Angel in Guilt spur-Street, [1675?]

8vo., [2], 14 p. ; Sig.: A⁸.
Wing (CD-ROM, 1996), L2226A
PL 363 (10) -- only cited extant copy in ESTC.

Lilly’s new Erra Pater. Or, A prognostication for ever. Whereby any man may learn to give a true and certain judgment of the weather throughout the whole year; so as to foretel whether rain, snow, hail, vvind, or thunder, shall happen in any moneth of the year, or day for ever, with aboundance of ease, delight, and satisfaction. Whereby also any may fore-know or prophesie of peace, or vvar, health or sickness, want or plenty, or death of corn or cattel, that may befal in any year, according to Haly, Guidobonatur, Ptolomy, and Lilly. With most excellent and approved rules for preserving the body in health. To which are added sundry very useful and profitable observations in husbandry, according to the twelve moneths of the year. VVith allowance.
[London] : Printed for J[oshua]. Conyers at the Black Raven in Fetter-lane, [1695?]

12mo., [24] p. ;
Wing (CD-ROM, 1996), L2228B
PL 363 (19) -- only cited extant copy in ESTC.

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

LILLY, WILLIAM (1602-1681), astrologer; wrote a treatise on 'The Eclipse of the Sun in the eleventh Degree of Gemini, 22 May 1639,' 1639; published his first almanac, 'Merlinus Anglicus Junior, the English Merlin revived,' 1644, and henceforth prepared one every year till his death; began to issue pamphlets of prophecy, 1644; published 'Christian Astrology modestly treated in three Books,' long an authority in astrological literature, 1647; while ostensibly serving the parliament endeavoured to aid Charles I, 1647-8; claimed scientific value for his 'Annus Tenebrosus, or the dark Year, together with a short Method how to judge the Effects of Eclipses,' 1652; studied medicine; granted a licence to practise, 1670. His published writings consist mainly of astrological predictions and vindications of their correctness; his chief non-professional work is his' True History of King James I and King Charles I,' 1651.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

In the 17th century, Bishops granted licenses to midwives and for the practice of physic. To show the extent to which astrology was recognized as a “hand-maid" or associate of medicine, it is interesting to note that in 1670 Archbishop of Canterbury Sheldon, at the request of Elias Ashmole (who was an acknowledged devotee of astrology), granted a license to practice physic to William Lilly (who for over 25 years had been famous as an astrologer and almanac-maker, and the subject of extensive gossip) as compiler of the "nativities" of celebrities in Church and State.

For more info see…...

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

L&M Companion: William Lilly (1602 - 1681) The most prolofoc writer of his day on astronomy. A supporter of the popular party, he forecast victories for parliament in every campaign during the Civil Wars, and prophesied on behalf of every successive regime from the outbreak of the troubles to the Restoration. In 1670 he turned to the practice of astrological medicine.

L&M note for 24 October, 1660: "Lilly was mercenary by his own admission (see his 'Hist. of his life and times' 1822, esp. page 88) and was suspected of having been in the pay of every successive government of the past 20 years. Certainly, his popular almanacks adjusted to each change of regime. He claimed the government pension he had been given in 1649 was only for 2 years, and for foreign intelligence, not astrological prophecy (pages 145-146). In 1660 his almanacs lay under some disrepute because of his failure to foresee any of the changes in English government in 1659-1660 or the defeat and death of his foreign patron, Charles Gustavus of Sweden."

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

It's hard for us 21st century beings to understand how the magical thinking of astrology was so accepted as fact in the 17th century. But the most educated did believe their fate was 'written in the stars':

Galileo Galilei made some major scientific strides in his time, particularly in the field of astronomy. He discovered 4 of Jupiter’s moons and the stars of the Milky Way, and determined that the surface of Earth’s moon isn’t smooth. Most famously, he vehemently believed, as Nicolaus Copernicus proposed before him, that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around — even as the Catholic Church labeled him a heretic for it. Despite his reputation as a skeptic, his cosmic beliefs included a little of what is now considered pseudoscience, too.

He was one of Europe’s most sought-after astrologers in his time, and wrote horoscopes for Italy’s elite. Some of his astrological tools are on display at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy

Galileo, a Pisces, practiced judicial astrology, which concerns human circumstances rather than just natural phenomena; clients consulted him for guidance on illness, travel, love, and other major events. He also wrote birth charts, including for himself and his children. Before he was tried by the church for his belief in heliocentrism, he was investigated for telling his clients that the stars governed their fates — although the church didn’t pursue the matter far.

Galileo’s faith in the zodiac may sound surprising, but at the time, it wasn’t unusual for astronomers to practice this kind of cosmic divination. Some patrons would even judge whether a scientist was worthy of their support by their astrology skills.
Other astronomers held in high esteem today, including Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Copernicus, also studied astrology.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.