Lilly, William (1602–1681)
One of the most famous early English astrologers. Born
April 30, 1602, at Diseworth, Leicestershire, he was the son of
a yeoman farmer, although a rival astrologer John Heydon
later insisted that his father was ‘‘a laborer or ditcher.’’ In 1613
Lilly began his education at the grammar school of Ashby-dela-Zouch,
studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
In 1620 he traveled to London and worked as a servant,
helping with his master’s accounts. He also nursed his master’s
first wife, who died of cancer in 1624. The following year, his
master remarried but died in 1627. Lilly accepted an offer of
marriage from the widow, who was able to provide for him
comfortably for the rest of his life. He was made a freeman of
the Salter’s Company and spent his time in angling or listening
to Puritan sermons.
Lilly became interested in astrology in 1632 and pursued
his study by reading many books on the subject and contacting
the leading astrologers of the day. Soon after the death of his
wife in 1633, Lilly studied the famous Ars Notoria grimoire,
and he took part in an occult ceremony with hazel rods to locate
treasure said to be buried in the cloisters of Westminster
Abbey (see divining-rod). In this case, however, only a coffin
was found.
In 1634 Lilly married a second time. He now began to teach
astrology to pupils and to write astrological texts. His first almanac,
Merlinus Anglicus Junior The English Merlin Revived; or,
A Mathematical Prediction upon the Affairs of the English Commonwealth,
and of All or Most Kingdoms of Christendom, this present year
1644, was published June 12, 1644. This was followed by other
books of predictions. Although ostensibly a parliamentarian,
Lilly was several times in trouble with the authorities for apparently
helping the royalist cause.
Some of his prophecies also got him into difficulties, notably
the engravings in his Monarchy and No Monarchy, (1651) which
illustrated the Great Plague and the Fire of London. In 1666
Lilly was called before the committee set up to investigate the
cause of the great fire, predicted in the hieroglyphics of his
book five years earlier. In the trial of conspirators charged with
having set the fire, it was stated that the date of September 3,
1666, was selected because Lilly had designated it a ‘‘lucky day’’
(the fire actually started September 2).
A few years later Lilly studied medicine, and through his
friend the antiquary Elias Ashmole was granted a license to
practice. From 1670 onward he became celebrated as a physician
as well as an astrologer. He published 15 major works on
astrology as well as 36 almanacs and was consulted by famous
individuals of the time. He died June 9, 1681. His posthumous
autobiography was published in 1715.
Lilly, William. The History of Lilly’s Life and Times. N.p., 1715.