Richard Alwin Fidler – A Brief History of Astrology in Britain

Modern Britain is arguably a very rational and secular culture in which, for the most part, astrology is viewed warily as a dubious superstition, while science is regarded as the ultimate authority in matters of knowledge. Even so, astrology, in a form we would recognize as such, has enjoyed a particularly rich and illustrious career in the British Isles for well over a thousand years; and to this day the contributions of British astrologers continue to invigorate this special branch of global human endeavour.

Star Gazers of British Prehistory

Stonehenge stands as the most iconic and famous example of what we can very loosely call archaeological evidence of ‘astrology’, or perhaps more accurately, a form of religious or culturally significant astronomy in Britain, reaching back into the very mists of time. To this day throngs of ‘New Agers’, as some would call them, gather at Stonehenge at the summer solstice to pay homage, if nothing else, to a long since vanished Druidic culture from a long forgotten age.

 

And Stonehenge is certainly not the only astronomically aligned monolithic site in Britain purported to have had some special astronomical relationship or purpose. Others such as Avebury in Southwest England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland have purported astronomical alignments that suggest possible use (even if it wasn’t their sole function) as astronomical devices or observatories.

 

This ancient evidence of a concern with celestial cycles takes us back to the time before the development of what is properly known as ‘horoscopic astrology‘; that is, the astrology of individual birth charts that incorporate the Ascendant and Midheaven, Planets, Zodiac Signs, and Houses. Many scholars consider this development in astrology to have come about, very approximately, around the dawn of the Common or Christian era, about 2000 years ago. The astrology, if we can call it that, which we may be encountering traces of in these ancient sites, must have been of a more primeval variety than what we encounter today; but the fact is, we have very little detail about it.

 

Although it is true that the original purpose and cultural significance of these British monolithic sites that are claimed to have some astronomical or astrological significance is a rather murky topic subject to plenty of academic speculation and disputation, we are confronted in these ancient relics with the fact that cultural or religiously motivated astronomical observations in Britain seems to be quite literally, and hauntingly, prehistoric!

 

Astrology and Religion in the Christian Era

The evolution and dissemination of astrology in Europe and Britain in the first centuries of the Christian era cannot be understood without reflecting on the consequential activities, and ever expanding reach during that period, of the Roman Catholic Church. And in this regard we need to remember that astrology in these early centuries of Christianity’s own development was widely cultivated and revered by the clergy. Several Popes were either patrons of the art or in fact trained and skilled therein. It was in fact the ‘men of the cloth’ attached to the Church, and the early educational institutions of the Church, that were to a great extent the custodians of astrological knowledge in Europe and Britain in the first centuries of the common era.

 

For example, we learn that in the 7th century CE ‘Saint Aldelm‘ (Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey and Bishop of Sherborne) received tuition in astrology in his formative years from ‘Hadrian the African’:

 

“In 668, Pope Vitalian sent Theodore of Tarsus to be Archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time the North African scholar Hadrian became abbot of St Augustine’s at Canterbury. Aldhelm was one of his disciples, for he addresses him as the ‘venerable preceptor of my rude childhood.’ … His studies included Roman law, astronomy, astrology, the art of reckoning and the difficulties of the calendar.” (1)

 

Receiving such an education would, in 7th century Britain, normally have been a privilege enjoyed only by nobility. Aldhelm’s father, Kenten, was of the royal house of Wessex.

 

The relationship between astrology and the church, and later between astrology and the secular scientific paradigm that was to supersede the authority of the church, underwent several tests over the centuries that followed. Even though the early church helped to preserve and spread astrological knowledge, it later became astrology’s most dangerous and powerful opponent. Even so, despite periods of severe suppression in which astrology was forced underground, astrology in Britain has never since been idle. In fact, Britain went on to produce, particularly after the regional scholastic revival of the 12th century, many of the world’s finest and most influential astrologers.

 

The illustrious astrologer Michael Scot (1175-1232) was considered one of the most learned men of his time. Born somewhere near the border of Scotland and northern England. There is little in the way of detail regarding his family and lineage, but it is assumed he must have been born into some measure of nobility and wealth, since he clearly received an excellent early education and had the wherewithal to study at Oxford university. From there he went on to study and translate important works in Arabic and Latin, at several universities throughout Europe, but particularly in France, Italy and Spain. He rapidly gained a wide reputation as being a mathematical genius, an astrologer and a wizard.

 

So legendary was he, in fact, that he features in Dante’s Divine Comedy (completed a century after Michael Scot’s death), as a denizen of a particular zone of hell reserved for sorcerers of his ilk. He was, however, apparently no heretic in the eyes of the Church in his own lifetime. On the contrary, it appears he was held in high esteem even by the Pope, despite his reputation as an occultist. Astrology was still arguably considered something of a sacred science by the learned clergy back then, albeit that in Dante’s later reference to him, a century later, we encounter a glimpse of the suspicion and acrimony that would eventually dominate the relationship between pious Christians and astrologers or wizards:

 

“It appears that he had also studied theology and become an ordained priest, as Pope Honorius III wrote to Stephen Langton on 16 January 1223/4, urging him to confer an English benefice on Scot, and nominated Scot as archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. Scot declined this appointment, but he seems to have held benefices in Italy…” (2)

 

Although he was indeed famously an astrologer and mathematician of the highest calibre, he gained an enduring legendary status as a powerful alchemist and wizard, with extraordinary, even miraculous powers:

 

“The legendary Michael Scot used to feast his friends with dishes brought by spirits from the royal kitchens of France and Spain and other lands… He is said to have turned to stone a coven of witches, which have become the stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters…”  etc. (2)

 

Fibonacci, the Italian mathematician, whose name will be familiar to those with an interest in the esoteric properties of numbers and mathematical ratios (not to speak of Forex and stock market traders who make extensive use of Fibonnaciratios in their technical analysis of market patterns), dedicated his book Liber Abaci to Michael Scot. He was a contemporary and apparently for a time a student of Michael Scot, and it has been suggested that Michael Scot played a significant role in the development of Fibonacci’s important contributions to number theory.

 

He served as court astrologer to the Emperor Frederick II and undertook great works under his patronage.

 

“Scot was a typical example of the polyglot wandering scholar of the Middle Ages—a churchman who knew Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. When he was about 50, Frederick II attracted him to his court in the Kingdom of Sicily, and at the instigation of the emperor he superintended (along with Hermannus Alemannus) a fresh translation of Aristotle and the Arabian commentaries from Arabic into Latin. There exist translations by Scot himself of the Historia animalium, of De anima and of De caelo, along with the commentaries of Averroes upon them” (2)

 

However exaggerated some of the legendary accounts of his magical feats may be, the real Michael Scot of accepted history was himself a formidable force of nature.

 

Astrology in the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

The astrological references we find in Geoffrey Chaucer’s delightful Canterbury Tales is more than just a novel bit of evidence that astrology was alive and thriving, among the more educated class at least, in 14th century Britain; much of it is uncannily familiar horoscopic astrology (albeit packaged in Chaucer’s inimitable humour and irony). It seems to suggest that a rather sophisticated level of astrological literacy was colloquial at the time.

 

For example, we find the lusty Wife of Bath, who in fact provides many of the choicest astrological aphorisms in Chaucer’s famous tales, lamenting:

 

“Myne Ascendant is Taur with Mars therein, alas! alas! that ever love was synne”

 

Having ploughed through a few marriages, and having inherited on each occasion wealth and lands from her old decrepit husbands, she ends up married to a scholar who loved to find misogynistic criticisms of women in the classical writings; but she had the last word (rendered here into a more modern English for readability):

 

“By God, if women had but written stories,

As have these clerks within their oratories,

They would have written of men more wickedness

Than all the race of Adam could redress.

The children of Mercury and of Venus

Are in their lives antagonistic thus;

For Mercury loves wisdom and science,

And Venus loves but pleasure and expense.

Because they different dispositions own,

Each falls when other’s in ascendant shown.

And God knows Mercury is desolate

In Pisces, wherein Venus rules in state;

And Venus falls when Mercury is raised;

Therefore no woman by a clerk is praised.

A clerk, when he is old and can naught do

Of Venus’ labours worth his worn-out shoe”

 

When Chaucer introduces the Physician among the variegated Pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales, I believe he is giving us a most intimate glimpse into just how deeply medicine and astrology were entwined in those days. Sadly, the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater in modern times:

 

“With us there was a doctor of physic;
In all this world was none like him to pick
For talk of medicine and surgery;
For he was grounded in astronomy.
He watched over his patients one and all
By hours of his magic natural.
He knew the cause of every malady,
Were it of hot or cold, of moist or dry,
And where engendered, and of what humour;
He was a very good practitioner.”

 

He was ‘grounded in astronomy‘, a good doctor was, in Chaucer’s 14th century world; and rightly so!

 

Chaucer is described as a poet, a student of alchemy, and a courtier. He was a member of parliament. It is clear he was an extremely astute and influential person in his own day and highly esteemed in the highest circles. He composed A Treatise on the Astrolabe for his young son Lewis, which would seem to attest to him having more than a passing familiarity with astronomical and astrological technicalities.

 

You’ll be hard pressed to find more eloquent and subtle astrology woven into literature in any age before or since. It has been truly said of Geoffrey Chaucer that, ‘Here is God’s Plenty‘.

 

In Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), a century or two later, we find again that, although Culpeper was something of a maverick even in his own time (a juicy topic for astrological conjecture for another occasion), astrological erudition was to be expected as integral to a good doctors’ toolkit.

His canonical ‘Culpeper’s Herbal‘ is peppered, as it were, with astrological correspondences, and is consulted to this day the world over by herbalists and students of traditional natural medicine.

His Astrological Judgement of Diseases from the Decumbiture of the Sick, published in 1655, is considered “one of the most detailed works on medical astrology in Early Modern Europe”. (3)

Manly P. Hall, in his book The Story of Astrology, shares the following example of Culpeper applying the astro-medical principle of the decumbiture; that is, a diagnostic horoscope created for the moment the patient ‘takes to their bed’:

“This anecdote was related by Rudyard Kipling to a select company of doctors, members of the Royal Society of Medicine, at the Hotel Mayfair in London: 

‘Nearly three hundred years ago, Nicholas Culpeper, an astrologer-physician, was in practice in Spitalfields, and it happened that a friend’s maid-servant fell sick, which the local practitioner had diagnosed as plague. Culpeper was called in as a second opinion. When he arrived the family were packing up the beds, preparatory to going away and leaving the girl to die. He took charge. There was no silly nonsense about taking or looking for the characteristic plague tongue. He only asked at what hour the young woman had taken to her bed. He then erected a horoscope, and inquired of the face of the heavens how the malady might prove. The face of the heavens indicated that is was not plague, but just smallpox, which our ancestors treated as lightly as we do. And smallpox it turned out to be. So the family came back with their bedding… the girl recovered…’”

Culpeper was in many respects a singularly unfortunate fellow in the early part of his life and suffered a number of major setbacks. His father died shortly before he was born, whereupon he was taken to the home of his maternal grandfather, the learned Reverend William Attersoll, who contributed significantly to the lad’s early education. We are told that it was his grandmother who “introduced him to the world of medicinal plants and herbs. He would go on, throughout his life, spending time in the countryside cataloguing plants”. **

He commenced his formal medical studies at Cambridge at the age of 16, after which he spent some years in apprenticeship to an apothecary, but “his master absconded with the money paid for the indenture, and soon after, Culpeper’s mother died of breast cancer”. (3)

His fortunes seem to have turned for the better when he married a young heiress in his mid-twenties, and this apparently enabled him to practice medicine with little regard for material gain. He was by all accounts generous to the poor, and a very practical, hands-on practitioner who was scathing in his criticism of his capricious money-grabbing medical contemporaries. He believed that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician”. His books were intended to empower common people to treat their own ailments whenever possible rather than allow themselves to be preyed upon by heartless orthodox physicians with their extortionate fees and toxic concoctions. Unsurprisingly, he was loathed by many in the formal medical establishment of the time. Even though he was accused of witchcraft and the Society of Apothecaries attempted to bar him from practising, he seems overall to have prevailed. Thanks to his bold pioneering spirit and his dedication to his work, his name can never be erased from the history of either astrology or medicine, whereas most of his contemporary detractors will remain forever anonymous, and by comparison (we’re sure he would agree), inconsequential.

 

John Dee (1527-1608), astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of magic and wizardry that has always cleaved in the popular imagination to the title of ‘astrologer’. No doubt Dee possessed a formidable intellect, but he was something of an extremist and delved deeply into such dark arts as necromancy:

“He was invited to lecture on Euclidean geometry at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. He was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, who trained many who would conduct England’s voyages of discovery.

Meanwhile, he immersed himself in sorcery, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Much effort in his last 30 years went into trying to commune with angels, so as to learn the universal language of creation and achieve a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind”

“As an antiquarian, he had one of the largest libraries in England at the time. As a political advisor, he advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a “British Empire”, a term he is credited with coining…” (4)

For a large portion of his career he could boast of the privilege of enjoying the patronage and trust of England’s Queen. However, he eventually died in bitter poverty. It seems his eccentricities and certain misadventures in foreign lands eventually proved too stringent for royal tastes, and he was  frozen out of the graces of the royal court.  

There are rumours he acted as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I during his forays in Europe, and that he signed his correspondence ‘007’; and so it is indeed a fact that there’s a piece of John Dee in Bond- that is, James Bond!

 

William Lilly (1601-1681) was a successful and prolific astrologer who gained substantial fame in his own time. He is credited with predicting the Great Fire of London that occurred in September 1666, for which he was hauled before the Commons Committee on suspicion that there was some sort of plot involved. He was released without charge.

His works are still highly regarded today. There is even something of a ‘Lilly movement’ in modern astrology which takes his work as supremely authoritative, or at the least as an outstanding example of ‘Traditional Astrology’.

His magnum opus, Christian Astrology (published in 1647), in its very title, perhaps, speaks of the challenge of squaring the circle as an astrologer practising in those times, on the fringes of religious heresy.

Lilly’s own mentor was a controversial ‘ill favoured astrologer’ named John Evans. A drunkard, whose chaotic house was ‘a wilderness’, but who nonetheless seemed to be proficient enough in astrology (as well as other magical arts) to be a worthy tutor, and provided Lilly with his formative initial training.

Despite him having cut his astrological teeth under the tutelage of such a scandalous guru, Lilly contributed positively to the respectability of astrology in his own day, and his works continues to be regarded as sound, useful and authoritative in ours.

 

Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) is an important and rather mysterious figure of British astrological history.

“Although he was one of the founding Fellows of the Royal Society, a key institution in the development of experimental science, his interests were antiquarian and mystical as well as scientific” (5)

Ashmole was an active politician, as well as a Freemason, and he is described variously as an antiquary, an officer at arms, an astrologer, and a student of alchemy. He was a wealthy and avid collector of art and cultural artefacts.

After receiving his Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Oxford he bequeathed to the university a vast amount of his collected treasures. And thus was born the Ashmolean Museum which to this day you can visit, free of charge, in the city of Oxford.

A contemporary and personal friend of William Lilly. It is rumoured his public or political stature, and arguably also his Freemasonic connections, were leveraged at times to keep Lilly out of trouble when he was called to account by the law for his controversial predictions and practices.

 

Charubel (John Thomas, 1826-1908) was a Welsh mystic who was of a generation prior to the likes of Alan Leo and co. who, in the first decades of the 20th century led an entirely new formulation of astrology; and, yet, he clearly made an impression on many of them.

While Charubel was indeed an astrologer (his book The Degrees of the Zodiac Symbolised is still referenced by astrology students today being one of the few books written on the subject), he was also something of a seer, healer and mage.

The venerable Alan Leo, who presents Charubel’s natal chart in The Art of Synthesis, was for a time a member of a certain ‘Society’ formed by Charubel, who all shared an interest in occult subjects:

“…each member of this Society was given a mythical kind of star name, a number and geometric symbol. ‘Charubel’ was Mr. Thomas’s own star name…” (6)

That’s perhaps a little more fantastic than most people would take seriously, but Alan Leo goes on to say:

“… his clairvoyance and other psychic gifts were genuine and unmistakeable, and he was always willing to use his seership in the interest of astrological research, which he frequently did with good results…” (6)

One gets the sense that Alan Leo, based on direct interaction and familiarity, and despite a healthy dose of scepticism (he notes that he was ‘not sufficiently interested in this Society to take a more active role in it’s work’), was here testifying to Charubel being someone endowed with extraordinary abilities and spiritual powers.

It is in fact quite moving to read this excerpt from a eulogy published in the ‘Shrewsbury News‘ soon after his death, which gives a vivid and intimate glimpse into the life of Charubel:

“While not a public man in the popular sense, yet he was well known throughout England, and especially in Wales. To him as “Julius Balsam” was linked a large and influential clientele. His services to them took the form of advice on stocks, diseases, disasters, difficulties, mysteries of the past, and previsions of the future. In fact, when doctors failed and outer science fell short, John Thomas, with his interior knowledge and higher science, proved indeed a ministering angel. Tumorous growths and rheumatism were his specialities, and not a few testify to a cure without ever seeing him. From a letter or article sent he sensed their condition, and healed them. Herbs were highly valued in his practice, but he relied for success mainly upon his power of transmitting psychic principles. Of horoscopes and talismans he made hundreds. These latter were drawn according to planetary influences and written on parchment, and worn upon the person for preservation, prevention, and cure, according to the case. So recently as four months ago were they supplied by him to clients. Throughout his long practice as an occultist he preserved an unbroken record of uniform benignity, and hundreds in Wales alone will silently bless his name and mourn his loss.” (6)

 

To be continued…

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