A recent cluster of books on the life of the great English astrologer, William Lilly, has been published in the past year or so, warming the dusty, antiquarian heart of this traditional astrologer. Books for those of us interested in older forms of astrology are as rare as hen’s teeth, and therefore any new edition to the field is welcome. The latest addition to the field is William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times, From 1602-1681, newly annotated. William Lilly is thought to have been the best and certainly the most famous English astrologer. He is famed not only for his astrological prowess, but also for his involvement in the highest circles of English society during the tumultuous decades spanning the English Civil War, the beheading of King Charles I, and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. Lilly was on the Parliamentarian (anti-monarchical) side, and there is some evidence that he helped elect the time for the king’s execution. Yet Lilly’s was a complicated role, as he is known to have frequently consulted with monarchists who were trying to help the king come to terms with Parliament in order to avoid eventual confrontation. But most famously, Lilly was the author of numerous astrological pamphlets and almanacs in which he took Parliament’s side, knowing that a famed astrologer’s word was invaluable in the propaganda war. As if this were not enough for one lifetime, Lilly also wrote Christian Astrology, an 800+ page treatise on horary and natal astrology for students, distilling his own decades of study of dozens of texts for contemporary English readers. His autobiography was only published in 1715, twenty-four years after his death, though it was written in the 1670s, perhaps due to the revelations it contained.
William Lilly is a witty, wry author, and he condenses an eventful life into a small, fast-paced book. He is not one to be accused of being unnecessarily intellectual or clever for cleverness’s sake. The man was a Taurus, and he writes a factual tale much like one would tell one’s friends around a rich dinner board. This makes his book highly entertaining and readable, and of course portable.
This new edition of William Lilly’s autobiography, by Rubedo Press, has several points to commend it to the reader. It was published in a rather auspicious year, as 2015 is the 300th anniversary of the book’s first publication. The reader will first notice the high quality of the paper and excellent design of the book, a standout among astrology books too often published without attention to aesthetics or durability. For those who enjoy their books with pictures, the Rubedo Edition does not disappoint, as it features a number of attractive portraits of the major players whose portraits have been preserved. It is touches such as these, including an antique font, that make the book a physical object of delight in a digital age.
Now, to the content: Wade Caves should be commended on his thorough job in introducing and annotating the text. The introduction spans over forty pages, and provides detailed context of the times in which Lilly lived and worked. My favorite aspect of the introduction is Caves’s use of astrological charts to illuminate and connect the dots of major historical events occurring during Lilly’s life. As a traditional astrologer, Caves is well-equipped to weave together history and astrology and he succeeds admirably. Caves then offers no fewer than 270 footnotes on interesting and obscure parts of the text, often focusing on the back stories of the people mentioned by Lilly. The footnotes also include those by the original editor, Lilly’s friend and patron Elias Ashmole (a wealthy renaissance man whose collection now makes up the famed Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University). The reader can appreciate how contagious the urge to footnote becomes when reading about such a web of famous, infamous, and simply interesting characters. There are few omissions among the detailed footnotes; the one notable lack is that there is no annotated discussion of Lilly’s famed prediction of the Great Fire of London of 1666, which Lilly published in a coded engraving in one of his almanacs and which is known as one of his predictive masterpieces even today. Yet, this is a rare omission and should not detract from the book’s value.
Rubedo Press seeks to produce works about astrology that deserve a place at the academic table, so it is clear that the target audience for this work is not only the astrological community, but the interested scholarly reader. We can attribute the thoroughness of the annotations and introduction to Rubedo’s high standards. If there is an astrological work that can show itself confidently in academia, this is surely it.
A pleasant surprise was Philip Graves’s foreword explaining the edition history of William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times and of Christian Astrology. Graves is the foremost historian of astrological publications today, and his succinct foreword appropriately places the Rubedo edition in context of a long lineage of prior editions. I am pleased that Rubedo Press showcased Graves’s expertise.
I highly recommend the Rubedo Press edition of the William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times to readers interested in astrology, history, and the history of astrology. This is a most fitting tribute to an extraordinary life and mind. No doubt William Lilly peered over the contributors’ shoulders more than once as they went about their work in bringing this edition to life.
Lilly, William. William Lilly’s History of his Life and Times: From 1602-1681, Ed. Elias Ashmole, ann. Wade Caves (Seattle: Rubedo Press, 2015)
15 USD. Available from Rubedo Press.
For those interested in reading another review of William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times, as well as two other recent books about William Lilly (one of them another edition of William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times), read Kirk Little’s comparative review on Skyscript.