Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Astrology and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England: King James II and the Almanac Men

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Astrology and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England: King James II and the Almanac Men

Article excerpt

The reign of James II was the only time between the reign of Queen Mary in the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century when Catholicism and Catholic religious propaganda operated more or less openly and even with state support. The growing strength and presence of Catholicism and Catholics and Catholic converts, whether opportunistic or otherwise, was felt in many areas of English life. Unfortunately, much of the immediacy of the Catholic presence has been lost due to the historiographical habit of treating the whole reign as a prelude to the Revolution of 1688, a habit which has led to the underrating of the strength of Catholicism during the reign. Examination of one such area, popular astrology, the kind of astrology presented in the omnipresent annual almanacs, reveals that the period was marked by the rise and increasing aggression of Catholicism. It also reveals that the reign was a key period in the history of English astrology, with consequences far beyond the Revolution of 1688.

The almanac was one of the most common forms of printed work in early modern England, and the monopoly on almanac publication possessed by the English Stock of the Stationers's Company was very valuable and zealously defended.1 During the Exclusion Crisis several astrologers and almanac writers had played a politically active role, mostly on the side of the Whigs.2 James's government had learned from this, and shortly after his accession continued and extended the repressive policies of the Tory reaction by banning astrological predictions from almanacs.3 The first set of almanacs produced under this ban would appear late in 1685 as almanacs for the following year.

English astrological almanac writers reacted to the prohibition in different ways. William Winstanley's The Protestant Almanac ceased publication altogether, less because of the prohibition on predictions - it carried few - than because its savage and salacious anti-Catholicism had become a liability. Some almanac writers, such as Henry Coley, the heir to William Lilly's famous Merlinus Anglicus, and the veteran William Andrews, author of News from the Stars, meekly acquiesced and simply recounted the positions and movements of the stars while refraining from drawing astrological conclusions. Others actively responded to the new situation by radically reshaping their almanacs. Of these, the most interesting and important were Richard Saunder, John Gadbury, and John Partridge.4

Saunder, a Leicestershire surveyor and teacher of mathematics, had the most intellectually radical response to the ban. Saunder had recently taken over the almanac of the deceased Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus (causing bibliographical confusion for centuries). Unlike many other almanac writers, including Saunders, Saunder was not an astrologer himself. This enabled him to sidestep the ban on predictions by renouncing astrology itself. In 1686, the first year of the ban, he converted Apollo Anglicanus into the first explicitly anti-astrological almanac.5 Saunder would continue to mock astrologers and astrology well into the eighteenth century.

Neither Gadbury nor Partridge, Londoners with active astrological practices who wanted to keep predictions as a fundamental aspect of their almanacs, could have followed Saunder's lead. Instead, both responded to the prohibition politically, taking opposite courses that extended the positions they had already established. John Gadbury, the elder and more established of the two, was unquestionably England's best-known living astrologer.6 Born in 1627, Gadbury was of Oxfordshire yeoman stock. His public astrological career stretched back into the Interregnum. Gadbury first attracted public attention during the infamous 'Black Monday' eclipse of 1652, and his first almanac had appeared in 1655.7 His spectacular feud with Lilly, who had once been his teacher, had dominated the English popular astrological scene at the Restoration. Gadbury had taken a consistently pro-monarchy line since the late Interregnum, while Lilly had been strongly pro-Parliamentarian. …

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