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George Wharton

William Lilly

John Booker

Nicholas Culpeper

Elias Ashmole

Roger L'estrange

Francis Bacon

John Gadbury

John Partridge
A century of reform - the rise and demise of astrology in 17th and 18th century England by Deborah Houlding

The 1640s and 1650s marked a heyday in the history of astrology in Britain. Astrologers were openly consulted by prince and pauper, and such was their influence on daily life that on the 29th March 1652 it was reported "hardly any would work, none would stir out of their houses" because of an impending solar eclipse.[1] The excitement generated by the astrologers' predictions of doom led to reports of the rich fleeing from London, farmers driving their cattle under cover, and markets being postponed.[2] Astrology at this time was part of everyone's life, inherent in the language and prevalent in the customs of the period. The massive sale of astrological almanacs, which during this period outsold all publications except for the Bible, indicates the widespread accessibility and acceptance of astrological philosophy.

By the 1670s however, astrology began to fall into a serious decline. Astrologers were stripped of their right to make political statements affecting the Church or State and the public seemed to be losing interest. The educated and influential classes started to look upon astrology as, at worst, superstitious nonsense and dangerous propaganda, and at best, a study in dire need of research and refinement. Almanac sales slumped, and many previously successful and busy astrologers were noting a fall in the number of their clients. In 1672, Joseph Blagrave, an astrologer and physician from Reading complained:

I find that many, being unsatisfied concerning the legality of my way of cure, have refused to come or send unto me for help to cure their infirmities; and many of those who did come, came for the most part privately, fearing either loss of reputation or reproaches from their neighbours, and other unsatisfied people, and also fearing that what I did was either diabolical, or by unlawful means.[3]

The rapid collapse was the result of political, academic and sociological changes, plus a rare set of circumstances wherein astrology's own popularity was to contribute to its eventual decline.

England in the 17th century was precarious and unsettled. Scientific advances and discoveries were surfacing which challenged previously held notions of humanity's relationship with God and the universe. Political unrest and reform were sweeping across Europe, highlighted in England by the Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Before this time there had been strict censorship over all publications. In 1557 the Company of Stationers, working closely with the Church authorities, were granted governmental supervision for the production of almanacs. Anyone found guilty of making political, heretical, or treasonous statements faced severest penalties. Publications which did not meet with their approval, or were deemed to contain inappropriate material were withheld from public view.

Astrology and the Ecclesiastical Authorities often had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship. In general terms the Church was prepared to go along with a 'natural', or philosophical astrology, accepting Heaven's influence in a broad, cultural sense, but 'judicial' astrology, which dealt with individual predictions, met with staunch opposition; this was felt to undermine the supreme power of the Creator and the freewill of the individual to make the best of his circumstances. The Body of the Church held considerable power and wealth, so any tenet of faith that conflicted with their dogma exposed itself as a theological opponent and threat to the political scheme. Matters were hardly facilitated when, in 1631, an ambitious astrologer predicted the death of Pope Urban VIII, the effect being that many cardinals met to discuss who should succeed him whilst he was still alive and well. A Papal Bull condemning astrology was issued by the exasperated Pope, and the Church's tolerance with astrology fell to an all-time low. The monopoly of almanac publication had been renewed to the Company of Stationers by James I in 1603, and under the auspices of the government, they ensured that all published predictions were kept relatively tame and harmless.

The confusion and the political unrest of the events leading to the Civil War in 1642, however, created such disturbance that it became impractical to exercise and enforce many of those controls. With the Government's attention drawn elsewhere, astrologers were able to publish their predictions with a relatively free hand. Cheaper and easier printing procedures meant that, for the first time, many astrological publications were brought within the price range of the working man. Under such conditions new publications flourished and the sale of almanacs reached unparalleled proportions. It is estimated that during this period, an average one third of all families purchased an almanac annually.[4] Besides the astrological advice and forecasts, they also contained useful calendars of events and news of current affairs. Like a forerunner to today's newspapers they played a vital role in keeping the public in touch with political movements, and in an age of uncertainty they helped to satisfy a need for information, advice and reassurance.

The division of the country created an atmosphere of strong political tension, and people were able to purchase almanacs that were sympathetic to their views. The astrologers themselves were not unbiased, most aligning resolutely with one side or the other and often predicting success and failure where their own inclinations lay. George Wharton (1617-81) was at the forefront of the Royalist propaganda campaign and produced his own almanac in 1641 assuring victory for the king. William Lilly was a moderate parliamentarian (although he was also condoling to the Crown and is known to have given astrological advice to Royalists). In 1644 he produced his first almanac, Merlinus Anglicus Junior, which proved an immediate success and correctly predicted defeat for King Charles.

Together with John Booker (1602-67), Lilly encouraged the soldiers of the parliamentary forces, and condemned the statements of Wharton as incorrect. Wharton's retaliation attacked both the astrological skills of Lilly and Booker, and also the personal features and habits of the pair. Lilly, he claimed looked like a pig, over-roasted[5], whilst Booker was labelled Erra Pater ('Father of Lies'). This in turn led to Wharton's pseudonym 'Naworth' being amended by the Parliamentarians to 'No worth'; whilst the name 'Booker', according to one Royalist, was derived from an ancient Syrian word meaning a ranting rebel, who...deserves to be hanged![6]

At a later date Lilly claimed that it was the scathing criticism he received from Wharton that had nourished his Parliamentarian leanings. Instances such as these scarcely acknowledge the personal feuds and open enmity which flowed through the pages of the almanacs from one astrologer to another. There seems little doubt that such colourful — albeit unprofessional — behaviour added to the sales of the almanacs, the purchaser no doubt being voyeuristically entertained by such sensational and slanderous comments.

In 1643 Parliament appointed John Booker as 'the Official Licenser of Almanacs', and in thus appointing an experienced astrologer, gave unprecedented tolerance to the contents of their publications. The overall breakdown of government and Church control allowed the release of many books on the subject, which previously would have been suppressed. Ancient and contemporary European works were imported into Britain and found their way into the hands of an eager audience. In 1647 William Lilly, after translating and drawing on the works of 280 Latin authors, produced his classic 3 volume text, Christian Astrology, the first complete and detailed textbook on the whole art of astrology written in English. The book is remarkable to this day for its ease of language and masterful exponent of judicial astrology. In 1652, Nicholas Culpepper, a firm Parliamentarian, astrologer and physician, produced The English Physician, the first English handbook on astrological treatment of the sick, aimed at the general public — much to the disapproval of the College of Physicians, who felt that such knowledge was best served in the hands of a select and educated few.

Books such as these set the precedent for a rush of astrological literature, and under such circumstances judicial astrology prospered. Knowledge previously restricted to the educated and scholarly became widely available and extremely popular. The unfortunate consequence was that it enabled those who could be considered unskilled and uninitiated to set themselves up as astrological practitioners and administer medical advice, encouraging a fair amount of quackery in response to an ever growing public demand and interest. Even the astrologers saw the danger in this situation. Elias Ashmole, patron and friend to William Lilly, warned his contemporaries:

Astrology is a profound science. The depth this art lies obscured in, is not to be reached by every vulgar plummet that attempts to sound it. Never was any age so pestered with a multitude of pretenders, who would be accounted ...masters, yet are not worthy to wear the badge of illustrious Urania. And (oh to be lamented) the swarme is likely to increase, until through their ignorance they become the ridiculous object of the enemies of astrology...and eclipse the glory of that light, which if judiciously dispensed to the world would cause admiration, but unskilfully exposed becomes the scorne and contempt of the vulgar.[7]

His words were soon proved prophetic. As the populace became more enamoured and dependent, the Church worried that they set more faith in astrologers than priests, the Government despaired of astrology's political influence, and the 'educated elite' began to bemoan and ridicule public 'gullibility'. Over-exposure inevitably breeds disinterest, and whilst at a distance astrology was regarded as a scholarly, mystical and revered art, brought so freely to the common mass it lost much of its credibility. The same set of circumstances which with one hand had popularised astrology, worked with the other to strip it of academic respect and taint it with vulgarity and a lack of integrity. People began to poke fun. Mock almanacs were produced with tongue-in-cheek predictions aimed at satirising the genuine article, and eventually it no longer seemed prestigious (sometimes even respectable), to be known to be consorting with astrologers.

A simultaneous political blow came with the stabilising of power and the restoration of the Crown in 1660. The government had not been impervious to the threat that astrologers posed and their heavy dabbling in political propaganda had been tolerable only for as long as it suited their purpose. The Act of Uniformity in 1662 was introduced as a backlash to the tolerance of ideas in Cromwell's era, and reintroduced strong, effective censorship. The Parliamentarian Booker, for example, was now thought unsuitable for the role of 'Licenser of Books', and the appointment was first given to Wharton, then later taken over by a staunch Royalist and fervent Anglican, Roger L'Estrange. His warrant was to 'seize all seditious books and libels, to apprehend the authors, and to bring them before council'.[8]

Any incitement to public unrest or criticism of Church dogma were either omitted from publications or their authors found themselves facing serious charges and imprisonment. Lilly seems to have been particularly victimised by L'Estrange, (whom he referred to in his private correspondence as 'Old Crackfart'). Much of his original draft was deleted from the published article, and he complained that his work was macerated, obliterated, sliced and quartered.[9]

Almanacs were ordered to be stripped of their colourful, dramatic and violent prognostications; a fact which eventually lost them the interest of a public who had taken a somewhat morbid pleasure in the sense of impending doom and war mongering. The refined, reformed and censored almanacs certainly had less appeal and we can judge some measure of the affect of censorship by the sales figures of Lilly's almanacs, which fell from almost 30,000 in 1650 to a mere 8,000 in 1664.

Now viewed as politically impotent and subject to ridicule, some astrologers sought to restore the credibility of their study by turning away from the judicial branch (which appealed to the masses, but smacked of sorcery, magic and superstition), and argued for the development of 'natural' astrology, which catered to a more philosophical approach and attracted educated debate. Judicial astrology offered little scope for scientific argument, and although the translated classical and medieval texts must have seemed fresh, alive and exciting when made widely available in the 1640s, thirty years later there was nothing new on offer. Educated and inventive men sensed a lack of challenge, no new theories to be developed and no new advances to be made.

Success in judicial astrology largely depends on the skill and interpretative judgement of the astrologer. Natural astrology, however, offered unlimited scope for improvement, a barely trodden field, which through research and investigation might possibly offer some kind of scientific 'proof' or breakthrough. Fresh observation appeared to be the key and attempts were made to collect data to support a positive statement of astrology's validity. Francis Bacon, back in the 1620s, had been one of the first to advocate experiment and testing of astrology in order to support its affect upon weather, agriculture and plagues. His view, like that of Kepler before him, was that astrology offered tremendous potential for reliable prediction in such matters, but that it needed to be purified and filtered of all that was superstitious and frivolous. Traditional theories needed verification and proof, rather than acceptance at face value. Like Kepler, Bacon dismissed the use of 'houses' as unscientific, and placed the emphasis on the use of aspects, eclipses, and fixed stars.

The technical advances of astronomy, which had been pioneered by the work of Galileo and Copernicus, provided fertile ground and encouragement for such ideas, and argued that the works of men like Ptolemy, now 'incorrect' in their astronomical basis, need no longer be relied upon for their astrological theories. "Though astronomy be corrected, astrology remains yet uncorrected" stated Joshua Childrey, a great admirer of Bacon, who set out to verify astrology through his own experiments.[10] These ideas inspired and motivated a new band of astrologers, such as John Gadbury (1627-1704), who became one of the leading astrologers after Lilly's death and who saw the new scientific approach as the opportunity to restore a flagging art.

A few astrologers maintained a staunch resistance to 'improvements' or philosophical ideas, championed by John Partridge (1644-1715). He was opposed to any kind of diluted or purified astrology, which he viewed as a corruption of an established art whose rules were sacred and not to be tampered with. Partridge achieved considerable success in his astrological work, but ultimately his method of approach was against the tide of reform.

Judicial astrology particularly suffered because it appeared to be advocating the rule of fate. In an era so rich in technical and scientific discoveries, men were inclined to demand more control over their lives and destinies. The Civil War not only proved that men could be free from the rule of kings, it also freed their minds from the belief in a fated existence. If the rule of the Crown could be abated, after so many centuries of supreme power, why then, should men continue to be ruled by the stars ?

Gadbury led a movement to reject an astrology which was tainted with unproven facts, and focused on gaining approval from the academic establishment. In effect, they were attempting to inflate the 'Science' of astrology, and reject the 'Art'. But although the crude, statistical research conducted at the time seemed to be encouraging, it never provided the definitive, conclusive proof demanded by science in order to be embraced as one of its own.

The 17th century saw the divorce of astronomy and astrology at a time when astronomy was attracting all the excitement. The round art of astrology when squeezed into the square peg of scientific measurement failed to perform at its best and science has never since been willing to recognise the value of a study which relies upon a creative use of symbolism and refuses to bend to its limited criteria of 'testing'. In the present century astrology is experiencing a rebirth, perhaps it will never be as dynamic in England as it was 300 years ago, but if history has a lesson to teach us, it is surely that astrology has never really needed the popular acceptance or academic acclaim that many of its practitioners seek under its name.

Notes & References:

  1 ] Recounted in The Diary of John Evelyn, John Evelyn, p.144; Published by William Bray, 1879
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  2 ] Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, Geneva Publications, London, 1979, p.79/80
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  3 ] Joseph Blagrave, Astrological Practice of Physick, 1672, republished by Ascella Publications, Epistle (n.p.)
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  4 ] Capp, p.79/80
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  5 ] Ibid, p.75
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  6 ] Ibid, p.73
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  7 ] Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, Elias Ashmole, 1652
Facsimile copy available online at University of Pensylvania Library
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  8 ] Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power, Published by Polity Press, 1989, p.46
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  9 ] Capp, p.49
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  10 ] Curry, p.65
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© Deborah Houlding, Published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, Issue 14, May 1997