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Gadbury's Early Life
Gadbury & Lilly
Gadbury & The Royal Society
Gadbury & Partridge
Nativities of Gadbury & Partridge
Notes & References
About the Author

Cromwell's Nativity: Gadbury verses Partridge
The Bickerstaff Papers
A Century of Reform
Life & Work of William Lilly

John Gadbury on Thefts, Fugitives & Strays. Click here to view

John Gadbury: Politics and the Decline of Astrology by David Plant

Gadbury's Early Life

There was apparently some scandal surrounding the marriage of Gadbury's parents. His father, William Gadbury, was a farmer. His mother, whose name isn't known, was the daughter of Sir John Curson, a prosperous Oxfordshire gentleman and a Roman Catholic. It may be that William Gadbury eloped with Curson's daughter; at any rate he disapproved of the match and disinherited her. [1] John Gadbury was born in the early hours of 1st January 1628 (OS) at Wheatley in Oxfordshire. As a youth he was apprenticed to a tailor until about the age of sixteen when reconciliation with his wealthy grandfather enabled him to be educated at Oxford.

He was in London during the turbulent period following the execution of Charles I (1649) when England became a republic. Radical ideas were in the air. Gadbury, then in his early twenties, became a follower of the Levellers - a political movement spread by the victorious soldiers of the New Model Army who demanded liberty of conscience, the redistribution of wealth and a democratic constitution. Amongst the flourishing religious sects he found inspiration in the Family of Love, whose charismatic leader Abiezer Coppe advocated drinking, smoking and free love as viable routes to spiritual liberation.

During this heady period Gadbury first met William Lilly, 25 years his senior and firmly established as England's leading astrologer. Encouraged by Lilly, Gadbury returned to Oxfordshire in 1652 and settled there to study astrology. His tutor was the mathematician and astrologer Nicholas Fiske.[2] Within three years Gadbury had set up his own astrological practice in London. The first of his long-running annual ephemerides appeared in 1655 and the following year he published An Emendation of Hartgil's Astronomical Tables. The bickering astrological community - split by ideological and political differences - united in admiration of Gadbury's improved tables. They were dedicated to Elias Ashmole and contained a Preface by Lilly. The royalist George Wharton and the republican John Booker were among the astrologers who contributed laudatory verses.

Other works of Gadbury' s early career follow the general pattern of the astrological literature of the period. His Coelestial Ambassador (1656) predicted "the grand Catastrophe that is to befall most of the Kingdoms of Europe". His textbook The Doctrine of Nativities and the Doctrine of Horary Questions appeared in 1658 and was warmly commended by Lilly.

Gadbury and Lilly

Gadbury's first published work was "... a Vindication of Mr. Culpeper, Mr. Lilly and the rest of the Students in that noble Art" (1651), a refutation of an anti-astrological pamphlet by William Brommerton. Just a few years later, Gadbury was attacking Lilly in print at every opportunity, accusing him of plagiarism, incompetence and fraud and gleefully drawing attention to any of his predictions that went wrong. The reasons for Gadbury's hostility were partly political. During Cromwell's Protectorate of the 1650s, Gadbury - the former Leveller and follower of wild-eyed prophets - swung across to what today we would call the political right and became a dedicated royalist. In his astrological biography The Nativity of the Late King Charles (1659) his sympathies were clearly with the king. He welcomed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the following year published Britain's Royal Star, or an Astrological Demonstration of England's Future Felicity, based upon the time of the proclamation of Charles II. His famous Collection of Nativities (1661) was published under the imprimatur of Lilly's old rival, the Cavalier astrologer, George Wharton. In its pages, Gadbury's new-found zeal for the royalist cause found full expression in his comments on Oliver Cromwell's nativity and he frequently attacked Lilly, dismissing him as "Oliver's creature" - a dangerous accusation at a time when Lilly was doing his best to play down his past glories as astrologer to the Commonwealth.

Lilly was taken aback at the vehemence of Gadbury's reaction against him. He certainly seems justified in describing him in his autobiography as "a monster of ingratitude". After the Restoration, Lilly prudently avoided any further involvement in politics. From the mid-1660s he was able to live quietly in the country and still publish his almanacs and pamphlets. In 1674, at the age of 72, Lilly launched a satirical attack on Gadbury by casually remarking in one of his pamphlets that anyone born with Scorpio rising was bound to be a criminal, a traitor, a lecher, &c. Lilly mentioned no names but Gadbury rose to the bait and published in reply Obsequium Rationabile, or a Reasonable Service Performed for the Coelestial Sign Scorpio against the Malitious and False Attempts of that Grand (but Fortunate) IMPOSTER, Mr. William Lilly.

Gadbury addressed his fellow 'Scorpionists' in thunderous tones:

Sirs! Be ye dignified or distinguished by what Names or Titles soever, it is ye that are rendered by Mr. Lilly... the most wicked, vile and dangerous People in the whole World. Ye are the hated Generation that he hath advised all people to beware of... and this merely for the sake of your innocent Horoscope... Ye are all equally included (with me) under Mr. Lilly's egregious Scandal against Scorpio, yet I have great Reason to believe that Mr. Lilly hath levelled his malitious and envious Dart against me in particular

He then produced "20 remarkable Genitures" in defence of "that glorious but stigmatized Horoscope". Delighted at Gadbury's blustering, Lilly issued a pamphlet under the unlikely pseudonym 'Bentivolio Philo-Huff-Lash'. He solemnly declared:

When first I saw J. Gadbury's Pamphlet, his rhetorical outpourings to all persons of the Tribe of Scorpio... made me apprehend some horrid Plot on foot. I applauded his good nature in warning them against such unknown and ghastly dangers.., but upon a calm and impartial examination I find our Author is only Don Quixoted with pride and malice.., so that I dare assure all Scorpionists... that if they will but keep the King's Peace and have a competent dose of right Reason about them, they may still... live in safety and die in their own beds without putting themselves to the trouble of cutting their own throats...[3]

Gadbury and the Royal Society

It's easy enough to sympathise with Lilly's desire to get even with Gadbury for his malicious ingratitude and to laugh along with him at Gadbury's pomposity. Beneath the blustering, however, Gadbury was a deeply committed astrologer, acutely aware that he was living in an age when the art itself was falling into disrepute. So here is another reason for Gadbury's hostility: as he saw it, Lilly was part of the problem.

The Restoration of Charles II marks the beginning of the end of the 17th century flowering of English astrology. The new regime brought a new intellectual climate in which it was important to be seen to be 'politically correct'. Because of its great popularity during the Civil War and Interregnum, astrology was indelibly tainted with an aura of subversion. Lilly's prophecies had played an important role in spurring the Roundheads on to victory over the Cavaliers and - as Gadbury was so eager to remind everyone - Lilly remained a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell throughout the Protectorate.

Furthermore, Lilly had 'democratised' astrology by publishing in 1647 the first major astrological textbook to be written in English rather than Latin. Thanks to Christian Astrology and the stream of English texts that followed in its wake, astrology was no longer the exclusive preserve of university-educated doctors and divines. John Heydon complained in 1664 that the revolutionary decades of the 1640s and '50s "admitted stocking-weavers, shoemakers, millers, masons, carpenters, bricklayers, gunsmiths, porters, butlers, &c. to write and teach astrology and physic."[4] Following Lilly's lead, Nicholas Culpeper annoyed the elitist College of Physicians by writing books on medical astrology and herbalism in plain English for the benefit of ordinary people.[5] Gerard Winstanley, a leading light in the True Leveller movement and one of the most progressive thinkers of the age, advocated opening the universities to everyone, male and female, rich and poor. In Winstanley's idealised system of education, astrology would have been part of the core curriculum.[6]

No wonder then that when the king, nobles and bishops returned to power in 1660, astrology was associated with the 'levelling tendency' that had shaken their traditional authority to its foundations. Steps were taken to ensure that it never happened again. In 1661 Charles II granted a charter to the 'Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge' - the first scientific research institute. The primary aim of the Royal Society was to establish an official body of knowledge based upon objective facts. Its 'hidden agenda' was to impose intellectual orthodoxy and discourage subversive ideas.[7] John Gadbury spent the rest of his life labouring to prove that astrology was a legitimate field of study worthy of taking its place alongside the embryonic scientific disciplines which began to emerge under the aegis of the Royal Society.

Gadbury's first step was to distance himself from the disreputable practices of the populist astrologers. "The coelestial orbs," he declared, "Disown all anti-monarchical, disloyal and rebellious principles."[8] Thus he reiterated the belief that the hierarchy of the planetary spheres was a natural blueprint for the monarchical social order. Reacting against his own youthful 'enthusiasms', he became severely critical of the radical sects that had participated in the overthrow of the monarchy - especially those which claimed to be guided by supernatural visions and revelations. The Fifth Monarchists, for instance, believed that the beheading of Charles I was a necessary prelude to the second coming of Christ. Although Lilly was never associated with any of the radical sects, he had freely mixed his astrology with ancient prophecies to spell out the king's doom.[9]

Gadbury realised that doctrines of this kind would not be tolerated in post-Restoration England. Along with charms and talismans, crystal-gazing and the invocation of spirits, he dismissed astrological prophecy and mystical revelation as "cheats and shifts to gull the sillier sort of people."[10] In line with the Royal Society's new agenda, Gadbury proposed that astrology was a rational science whose truth could be demonstrated through an objective study of cause and effect. "One real experiment," he declared, "Is of greater worth and more to be valued than one hundred pompous predictions."[11]

Natal astrology was Gadbury's chosen field of specialisation. He called for the accurate recording of birth data and co-operation between astrological researchers as vital first steps towards establishing a reputable science of nativities. His Collection of Nativities - the first of its kind to be published in English - contained detailed analysis of 150 horoscopes of famous or unusual personalities. As Gadbury explains in his Epistle to the Reader, he intended it as "a commentary or exposition upon the whole genethliacal part of Astrology, explaining (almost) every Aphorism and Rule therein and giving proper Examples thereon."

Several founder members of the Royal Society were supportive of Gadbury's efforts to make a systematic science of astrology. Among them Elias Ashmole, who gave secret astrological advice to Charles II over his dealings with Parliament and seems to have befriended all the leading astrologers of the day regardless of their rivalries or political views. Another was the mercurial John Aubrey, who was perversely delighted when Henry Coley cast his horoscope and discovered that he had "from his birth till of late yeares been labouring under a crowde of ill directions" - thus explaining why Aubrey had failed to complete any of the numerous academic projects he had undertaken and why he was always short of money. Like Gadbury, Aubrey became a keen collector of birth data. He compiled A Collection of Genitures Well-Attested from his wide circle of friends and acquaintances, which included such luminaries as Christopher Wren, John Dryden and Edmond Halley.[12]

Other astrological researchers associated with the Royal Society included John Goad, who made daily weather observations for over 30 years in an attempt to prove a link with planetary configurations, and Joshua Childrey, archdeacon of Salisbury Cathedral, who produced the first English heliocentric ephemeris and proposed a new approach to astrology based upon the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Kepler.

As the 17th century drew to a close, however, it became clear that the would-be scientific reformers of astrology were fighting a losing battle. Childrey died in 1670, Goad in 1689 and Ashmole in 1692. There was no-one to carry on their work. The difficulty of reconciling astrology's arcane rules and procedures with the new scientific methodology, and its lingering association with the superstitions of the 'ignorant masses' made it an unattractive proposition to the intelligentsia of the Age of Reason. A telling illustration of astrology's abrupt decline in status concerns John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal. When the foundation stone for the Royal Greenwich Observatory was laid on 10th August 1675 (OS), Flamsteed followed the tradition of casting a horoscope for the inaugural moment. Accompanying Flamsteed's chart, however, was his scribbled comment in Latin: risum teneatis, amici - 'can you help laughing, friends?'

Gadbury and Partridge

As well as the growing scepticism of the scientific establishment, Gadbury had to contend with opposition from within the ranks of his fellow astrologers. His acrimonious dealings with William Lilly at the beginning of his career were mirrored almost exactly in his dealings with John Partridge a generation later. Partridge was born on 18th January 1644 (OS) at East Sheen in Surrey. He worked as a shoemaker but managed to teach himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew by studying primers, textbooks and dictionaries in his spare time. He then applied himself to mastering astrology and physic.[13]

By 1678, Partridge had given up shoemaking and set up as an astrologer in London. His almanac Merlinus Liberatus (whose title imitates Lilly's Merlinus Anglicus) first appeared in 1680, the year before Lilly's death. From the outset, Partridge's political and religious views were diametrically opposed to Gadbury's.

During the latter part of the 17th century, as Crown, Parliament and Church struggled to reach a settlement, political opinion polarised into two opposing camps - the Whigs and the Tories - which formed the basis of the confrontational party political system still with us today. The Tory party supported the interests of the monarchy, the nobility and the Anglican Church, while the Whigs represented the growing middle class of merchants, industrialists and untitled landowners. The spectre of Roman Catholicism loomed over the Tory party. Ever since the days of the Spanish Armada and Gunpowder Plot, English Protestants had viewed the Vatican in much the same way that western capitalists viewed the Kremlin during the Cold War. Dissenters and nonconformists looked to the Whigs to oppose what was seen as a drift towards Catholicism in the monarchy and the established Church. Gadbury and Partridge occupied extreme poles of this ideological divide.

Gadbury was an affirmed royalist who had moved so far to the right that he was widely suspected of being a Catholic. When details of an alleged Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II were revealed in 1679, Gadbury was accused of giving the conspirators astrological advice regarding the best time to carry out their plan. He spent two months in prison then stood trial before the king himself. King Charles - the 'merry monarch' - is said to have asked the famous astrologer if he could predict which prison he would end up in. Gadbury was eventually acquitted, however, and received £200 compensation for 'wrongous imprisonment' - but not before an angry Protestant mob had burned him, along with the Pope, in effigy.

Meanwhile, Partridge was making a name for himself on the strength of the alarmist Whig tone of his almanacs. Gadbury, with his Tory politics and Catholic leanings, was a sitting target whom Partridge attacked without mercy. When James II - an avowed Catholic - succeeded to the throne in 1685, Partridge fled to Holland. He continued to issue prophecies, however, and predicted the downfall of King James and Catholicism in England. His reputation was enhanced with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when, at the invitation of Parliament, William of Orange marched on London and James was forced into exile. The crowning of William and Mary ensured a Protestant succession and established the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy. Partridge returned to England in triumph - for the time being at least.

The political and religious chasm between Gadbury and Partridge was reflected in entirely different approaches to astrology. Both were aware that the art was in crisis, but Partridge poured scorn on Gadbury's dream of a scientific reform. In his Opus Reformatum (1693), Partridge announced his intention of "reviving the True and Ancient Method laid down for our Direction by the Great Ptolemy." Thus the paradoxical situation arose where Gadbury, the arch-conservative, was advocating methods which, in principle, anticipate the modern statistical researches of John Addey and Michel Gauquelin, while Partridge, the political firebrand, was attempting to initiate a traditional Ptolemaic revival.

The explanation lies in Partridge's acceptance of a Whig doctrine, inherited from the Civil War radicals, which maintained that the Norman Conquest of 1066 had brought a tyrannical foreign aristocracy to power over the native English. Whig ideologists looked back to Anglo-Saxon England as a golden age of justice and equality before the imposition of the repressive 'Norman yoke'. Partridge's Ptolemaic revival was the astrological equivalent of this doctrine. Ptolemy represented a pure, uncorrupted form of astrology, but the art had steadily degenerated as astrologers wandered further from the straight-and-narrow path of Ptolemaic rationality.[14] This, Partridge argued, was why by the end of the 17th century astrology was looking more and more "like a dead Carkass".

John Gadbury died in 1704, so never witnessed Partridge's humiliation at the hands of Jonathan Swift in the famous 'Bickerstaff' satire of 1707.[15] Despite their bitter differences, it is doubtful that Gadbury would have derived much satisfaction from it, for it wasn't only Partridge who was made a laughing-stock by Swift's caustic wit; the whole art of astrology was exposed to ridicule. As for Gadbury, his poignant reflections in his almanac for 1703, the last he ever wrote, convey the disappointment he must have felt as he came to terms with the realisation that his longed-for reformation of astrology had failed to come about:

I am very much ready to part with any Errors upon an assured Conviction they are such: yet I shall not, cannot, wholly Renounce or bid Good Night to Astrology: Lest in so doing I should espouse a far greater Error than any I am willing to part with. For Astrology is the language of the Heavens; and the Royal Psalmist says, The HEAVENS declare the GLORY of GOD. Howbeit, for my Greater Creator's Honour, the Welfare of the Church and Nation, and Benefit of true Philosophy, I wish this Noble Art were well corrected. [16]

Nativity of John Gadbury

Nativity of John Partridge

Gadbury's horoscope is calculated from data given in his Collection of Nativities p.190. Partridge's date and place of birth is given in The Dictionary of National Biography. I found the time of 2.27 p.m. in a list of astrologers' birth data in Alan Leo's Astrologer's Magazine dating from 1890 (vol.1 p.60). Since this list is more than a year in error regarding Gadbury's data, however, Partridge's birth time should be regarded as uncertain until it can be verified from a more reliable source.

Notes & References:
  1 ] In The Dictionary of National Biography she is described as William Gadbury's 'stolen wife'.
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  2 ] Both Gadbury and Lilly held Dr. Fiske in high esteem but as a sly dig at Gadbury, Lilly remarks in his autobiography, "... very unhappy [Fiske] was that he had no Genius in teaching his Scholars, for he never perfected any ..."
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  3 ] This exchange is quoted in full in Familiar to All: William Lilly and Astrology in the 17th Century by Derek Parker, 1975. p.252-5; now available as a reprint by Ascella Publications.
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  4 ] Christopher Hill: The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, (Peregrine, 1984), p.298.
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  5 ] Dylan Warren-Davis: Nicholas Culpeper: Herbalist of the People, TA #5, p.10-16.
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  6 ] Hill, op cit. p.289
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  7 ] Patrick Curry: Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England, (Polity Press, 1989), p.57 et seq.
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  8 ] Ibid. p.73
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  9 ] See Ann Geneva: Astrology and the 17th Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester University Press, 1995).
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  10 ] Quoted by Keith Thomas: Religion and the Decline of Magic, (Peregrine, 1978), p.760.
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  11 ] Curry, op cit., p.75.
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  12 ] Aubrey's data collection has never been published, though it formed the basis of Brief Lives, his acclaimed collection of biographies. The standard modern edition of Aubrey gives only one full birth time, that of John Milton: "borne the 9th of December 1608, die Veneris, half an hour after 6 in the morning, in Bread Street in London." (Aubrey's Brief Lives, edited by Oliver Lawson-Dick, Mandarin 1992, p.200.)
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  13 ] The Dictionary of National Biography states: "for any oral training [Partridge] received he seems to have been indebted to John Gadbury."
Patrick Curry, however, says, "His astrological tutor was one Dr. Francis Wright about whom we know nothing more." (Prophecy and Power, p.79)
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  14 ] Like Gadbury, Partridge condemned what he called astrology's "magickmongers, sigil-merchants, charm-broakers, &c." and dismissed horary as an Arabic superstition. Partridge's friend and colleague James Whalley published the first English translation of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos in 1701.
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  15 ] See Jonathan Ledbury: The Bickerstaff Papers.
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  16 ] Quoted in Prophecy and Power, p.76.
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David Plant is a respected scholar of the history and traditional practice of astrology. He is also an expert on the English Civil War period and the life and work of the 17th century astrologer William Lilly. He runs two very reputable websites: the English Merlin site, which is devoted to all aspects of the life and times of William Lilly and his contemporaries; and the British Civil Wars and Commonwealth site, which explores the turmoil of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, and the constitutional experiments of the Commonwealth and Protectorate period of the 1650s.
Both sites are leading points of reference for their fields and a visit is strongly recommended.

© David Plant, 1996. Reproduced online 2004
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 11, Winter 1996