English Astrologers by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

A belief in judicial astrology can now only exist in the people, who may be said to have no belief at all; for mere traditional sentiments can hardly be said to amount to a belief. But a faith in this ridiculous system in our country is of late existence; and was a favourite superstition with the learned.

When Charles the First was confined, Lilly the astrologer was consulted for the hour which would favour his escape.

A story, which strongly proves how greatly Charles the Second was bigoted to judicial astrology, is recorded is Burnet’s History of his Own Times.

The most respectable characters of the age, Sir William Dugdale, Ellas Ashmole, Dr. Grew, and others, were members of an astrological club. Congreve’s character of Foresight, in Love for Love, was then no uncommon person, though the humour now is scarcely intelligible.

Dryden cast the nativities of his sons; and, what is remarkable, his prediction relating to his son Charles took place. This incident is of so late a date, one might hope it would have been cleared up.

In 1670, the passion for horoscopes and expounding the stars prevailed in France among the first rank. The new-born child was usually presented naked to the astrologer, who read the first lineaments in his forehead, and the transverse lines in its hand, and thence wrote down its future destiny. Catherine de Medicis brought Henry IV., then a child, to old Nostradamus, whom antiquaries esteem more for his chronicle of Provence than his vaticinating powers. The sight of the reverend seer, with a beard which “streamed like a meteor in the air,” terrified the future hero, who dreaded a whipping from so grave a personage. One of these magicians having assured Charles IX. that he would live as many days as he should turn about on his heels in an hour, standing on one leg, his majesty every morning performed that solemn gyration; the principal officers of the court, the judges, the chancellors, and generals, likewise, in compliment, standing on one leg and turning round!

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It has been reported of several famous for their astrologic skill, that they have suffered a voluntary death merely to verify their own predictions; this has been reported of Cardan, and Burton, the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy.

It is curious to observe the shifts to which astrologers are put when their predictions are not verified. Great winds were predicted, by a famous adept, about the year 1586. No unusual storms, however, happened. Bodin, to save the reputation of the art, applied it as figure to some revolutions in the state, and of which there were instances enough at that moment. Among their lucky and unlucky days, they pretend to give those of various illustrious persons and of families. One is very striking.–Thursday was the unlucky day of our Henry VIII. He, his son Edward VI., Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, all died on a Thursday! This fact had, no doubt, great weight in this controversy of the astrologers with their adversaries.[1]

Lilly, the astrologer, is the Sidrophel of Butler. His Life, written by himself, contains so much artless narrative, and so much palpable imposture, that it is difficult to know when he is speaking what he really believes to be the truth. In a sketch of the state of astrology in his day, those adepts, whose characters he has drawn, were the lowest miscreants of the town. They all speak of each other as rogues and impostors. Such were Booker, Backhouse, Gadbury; men who gained a livelihood by practising on the credulity of even men of learning so late as in 1650, nor were they much out of date in the eighteenth century. In Ashmole’s Life an account of these artful impostors may be found. Most of them had taken the air in the pillory, and others had conjured themselves up to the gallows. This seems a true statement of facts. But Lilly informs us, that in his various conferences with angels, their voices resembled that of the Irish!

The work contains anecdotes of the times. The amours of Lilly with his mistress are characteristic. He was a very artful man, and admirably managed matters which required deception and invention.

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Astrology greatly flourished in the time of the civil wars. The royalists and the rebels had their astrologers, as well as their soldiers! and the predictions of the former had a great influence over the latter.

On this subject, it may gratify curiosity to notice three or four works, which hear an excessive price. The price cannot entirely be occasioned by their rarity, and I am induced to suppose that we have still adepts, whose faith must be strong, or whose scepticism but weak.

The Chaldean sages were nearly put to the rout by a quarto park of artillery, fired on them by Mr. John Chamber, in 1601. Apollo did not use Marsyas more inhumanly than his scourging pen this mystical race, and his personalities made them feel more sore. However, a Norwich knight, the very Quixote of astrology, arrayed in the enchanted armour of his occult authors, encountered this pagan in a most stately carousal. He came forth with “A Defence of Judiciall Astrologye, in answer to a treatise lately published by Mr. John Chamber. By Sir Christopher Heydon, Knight; printed at Cambridge, 1603.” This is a handsome quarto of about 500 pages. Sir Christopher is a learned writer, and a knight worthy to defend a better cause. But his Dulcinea had wrought most wonderfully on his imagination. This defence of this fanciful science, if science it may be called, demonstrates nothing, while it defends everything. It confutes, according to the knight’s own ideas: it alleges a few scattered facts in favour of astrological predictions, which may be picked up in that immensity of fabling which disgraces history. He strenuously denies, or ridicules, what the greatest writers have said against this fanciful art, while he lays great stress on some passages from authors of no authority. The most pleasant part is at the close, where he defends the art from the objections of Mr. Chamber by recrimination. Chamber had enriched himself by medical practice; and when he charges the astrologers with merely aiming to gain a few beggarly pence, Sir Christopher catches fire, and shows by his quotations, that if we are to despise an art, by its professors attempting to subsist on it, or for the objections which may be raised against its vital principles, we ought by this argument most heartily to despise the medical science and medical men! He gives here all he can collect against physic and physicians; and from the confessions of Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna and Agrippa, medicine appears to be a vainer science than even astrology! Sir Christopher is a shrewd and ingenious adversary; but when he says he means only to give Mr. Chamber oil for his vinegar, he has totally mistaken its quality.

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The defence was answered by Thomas Vicars, in his “Madnesse of Astrologers.”

But the great work is by Lilly; and entirely devoted to the adepts. He defends nothing; for this oracle delivers his dictum, and details every event as matters not questionable. He sits on the tripod; and every page is embellished by a horoscope, which he explains with the utmost facility. This voluminous monument of the folly of the age is a quarto valued at some guineas! It is entitled, “Christian Astrology, modestly treated of in three books, by William Lilly, student in Astrology, 2nd edition, 1659.” The most curious part of this work is “a Catalogue of most astrological authors.” There is also a portrait of this arch rogue, and astrologer: an admirable illustration for Lavater![2]

Lilly’s opinions, and his pretended science, were such favourites with the age, that the learned Gataker wrote professedly against this popular delusion. Lilly, at the head of his star-expounding friends, not only formally replied to, but persecuted Gataker annually in his predictions, and even struck at his ghost, when beyond the grave. Gataker died in July, 1654; and Lilly having written in his almanac of that year for the month of August this barbarous Latin verse:–

Hoc in tumbo jacet presbyter et nebulo!
Here in this tomb lies a presbyter and a knave!

he had the impudence to assert that he had predicted Gataker’s death! But the truth is, it was an epitaph like lodgings to let; it stood empty ready for the first passenger to inhabit. Had any other of that party of any eminence died in that month, it would have been as appositely applied to him. But Lilly was an exquisite rogue, and never at fault. Having prophesied in his almanac for 1650, that the parliament stood upon a tottering foundation, when taken up by a messenger, during the night he was confined, he contrived to cancel the page, printed off another, and showed his copies before the committee, assuring them that the others were none of his own, but forged by his enemies.

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[Footnote 1: “Day fatality” was especially insisted on by these students, and is curiously noted in a folio tract, published in 1687, particularly devoted to “Remarques on the 14th of October, being the auspicious birth-day of his present Majesty James II.,” whose author speaks of having seen in the hands of “that genera scholar, and great astrologer, E. Ashmole,” a manuscript in which the following barbarous monkish rhymes were inserted, noting the unlucky days of each month:–

JANUARY Prima dies menses, et septima truncat ut ensis.
FEBRUARY Quarta subit mortem, prosternit tertia fortem.
MARCH Primus mandentem, disrumpit quarta bibentem.
APRIL Denus et undenus est mortis vulnere plenus.
MAY Tertius occidit, et septimus ora relidit.
JUNE Denus pallescit, quindenus foedra nescit.
JULY Ter-decimus mactat, Julii denus labefactat.
AUGUST Prima necat fortem prosternit secunda cohortem.
SEPTEMBER Tertia Septembris, et denus fert mala membris.
OCTOBER Tertius et denus, est sicut mors alienus.
NOVEMBER Scorpius est quintus, et tertius e nece cinctus.
DECEMBER Septimus exanguis, virosus denus et anguis.

The author of this strange book fortifies his notions on “day fatality” by printing a letter from Sir Winstan Churchill, who says, “I have made great experience of the truth of it, and have set down Fryday as my own lucky day; the day on which I was born, christened, married, and I believe will be the day of my death. The day whereon I have had sundry deliverances from perils by sea and land, perils by false brethren, perils of lawsuits, etc. I was knighted (by chance unexpected of myself) on the same day, and have several good accidents happened to me on that day; and am so superstitious in the belief of its good omen, that I choose to begin any considerable action that concerns me on the same day.”]

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[Footnote 2: Lilly was at one time a staunch adherent of the Roundheads, and “read in the stars” all kinds of successes for them. His great feat was a prediction made for the month of June, 1645–“If now we fight, a victory stealeth upon us.” A fight did occur at Naseby, and concluded the overthrow of the unfortunate Charles the First. The words are sufficiently ambiguous; but not so much so, as many other “prophecies” of the same notable quack, happily constructed to shift with changes in events, and so be made to fit them. Lilly was opposed by Wharton, who saw in the stars as many good signs for the Royal Army; and Lilly himself began to see differently as the power of Cromwell waned. Among the hundreds of pamphlets poured from the press in the excited days of the great civil wars in England, few are more curious than these “strange and remarkable predictions,” “Signs in the Sky,” and “Warnings to England,” the productions of star-gazing knaves, which “terrified our isle from its propriety.”]

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