Great Yarmouth’s Early Modern Astrology

Astrology, or using the stars to tell the future, has been a part of human society since prehistory and remains with us today in the form of horoscopes and readings.  For Early Modern people astrologers offered a chance to understand and control their future, be it almanacs that predicted the following year, horoscopes used to search for lost items, and the stars used to cure disease.  Great Yarmouth had a variety of astrologers in the Early Modern Period, from conjurors using their gifts, to a family publishing an almanac for over half a century, and the amateur astrologer Mark Prynne accused of witchcraft.

By the early seventeenth century astrology had become more of a science or art, and a mainstream interest for residents of Great Yarmouth.  The first half of the seventeenth century to the British Civil Wars was a golden age for astrologers.  The puritan minister John Booker, Nicholas Culpeper, William Lilly, Richard Saunders, John Tanner, George Wharton, and Vincent Wing all gained fame for their astrological skills.  The astrologer William Lilly was described as ‘the first astrological republican’ during the Civil Wars, and he had been taught by the father of Great Yarmouth’s puritan minister John Brinsley senior.[1]  During the British Civil Wars both the royalist, George Wharton, and parliamentarian, William Lilly, were producing rival almanacs, and the leading generals of Parliament’s New Model Army during the British Civil Wars consulted astrological predictions to inform their military strategy.[2]  The professionalisation of astrology meant that it was respectable and accessible to residents.

The Le Neve family provided the commonest form of astrology available to residents in Great Yarmouth during the first half of the seventeenth.  Geoffrey Le Neve compiled a series of annual almanacs published in the town from 1604, in which he described himself variously as a physician, a student in mathematics, and a gentleman, rather than a conjuror.  After his death in 1613, his nephew Jeffrey Le Neve continued the almanacs until the corporation dismissed him from the town in 1626, and his cousin John Le Neve took over writing the almanac between 1626-61.[3]  Almanacs were a popular form of astrology that was accessible to the public.  In them astrologers laid out the year’s predictions, including astrological events, the weather, and predictions of major political occurrences.  They were sold unbound on cheap paper, a mass-produced product aimed to be accessible to ordinary people in Great Yarmouth.  Publishers sometimes relied on families of astrologers to maintain their readership, such as the Wing, Gadbury and Le Neve families.[4]  For astrologers like the Le Neves, astrology was not a magic, but an art.  It was connected to mathematics and being able to accurately read the sky rather than conjuring with spells or magical equipment.  The Le Neves and their almanac were acceptable to the Stationers’ Company, the official publishers during the Stuart period who continued to print the almanacs for half a century and to the town’s residents who purchased their almanac for over half a century.

Shepherds’ Almanac,
courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Jeffrey Le Neve was a man of status and importance, showing how respectable astrology had become.  He had been an alderman in Great Yarmouth, had served as one of the town’s bailiffs, the equivalent of mayor, in 1620 and was a gentleman quarter waiter to the king.[5]  After his dismissal from Great Yarmouth in 1626 he studied for a medical degree in Leiden.  When he returned, Le Neve becoming part of the city’s astrological establishment.[6] In London, Le Neve’s reputation as an astrologer amongst his contemporaries was mixed, though likely based on personal politics due to Le Neve’s court connections.  The royalist astrologer John Gadbury described him ‘one of the best Astrologers that lived in his time’, while the parliamentarian William Lilly was more scathing, claiming Le Neve had only ‘some small smattering in Astrology’.[7]  His use of medical astrology had likely started in Great Yarmouth, and involved the use of horoscopes cast to diagnose the cause of illness and its ideal treatment.  His high status gave him a position to promote his continued career as an astrologer even after he left Great Yarmouth.

Mark Prynne was an amateur astrologer who used his skills in astrology to supplement his income and we know was practising between the 1630s and 1640s.  His importance is as an astrologer whose story was recorded by John Taylor, the so-called water poet for writing as a boatman in London, because of accusations of witchcraft made against Prynne. It remains unknown if he was connected to the Le Neves, but as far as we can tell Prynne was a self-taught astrologer, his skills originating in his collection of astrological works.  While little information survives on Prynne’s family and background, we know he was an educated man, and well-practised in astrology.  Prynne was notable for his collection of ‘Theologicall, Historicall, and Phylosophicall’books.[8]  This collection demonstrates Prynne’s educational status, and how his astrology was self-taught.  Prynne’s astrological skills were ascribed to his use of Moulsons Almanack, a ‘breefe of the fam’d fabulous Sheperds’, a fifteenth-century almanac that provided guidance on astrology.[9]  Prynne was also described as using a book of circles, ‘an old almanac’, likely The Greater and Lesser Keys of Solomon a more overtly magical text relating the spells created by King Solomon or The Picatrix, an Arabic guide to celestial magic.[10]  Prynne was employed by local residents to use astrology to help them find lost objects such as hats and pillows, and according to the satirist John Taylor ‘lost Cowe, Calfe, Horse or Cart, or silver spoone, or Bodkin, Knife or Ring, or Milstone, Windmill, Corke’.[11]  Prynne would craft a horoscope based on when the question was received and understood.  His astrological skills were also applied to medicine and the Great Yarmouth town corporation paid him 30s in 1645 for curing ‘one Tills a distracted man in Bridwell of the malady w[hi]ch was upon him’, likely using a horoscope to determine cause and cure (‘distracted’ refers to a form of mental illness).[12]  Thirty shillings was the equivalent of three weeks wages for a skilled craftsman, showing the high premium put on Prynne’s skills.  Prynne’s medical treatment was comparable to other contemporary astrological medical practitioners like Jeffrey Le Neve or the contemporaries Richard Napier and Simon Forman, and efficacious enough for him to be paid handsomely.[13]  Prynne provided a skill that was in demand from local residents and Great Yarmouth’s corporation

Great Yarmouth Assembly Book, NRO, Y/C 19/7 f62

Despite Prynne’s skills, he was accused of conjuring.  He was tried for witchcraft in both 1638 and 1645.  According to the poet John Taylor in 1638 there was ‘no proof but a Book of Circles found in his [Prynne’s] Study, which Miles [Miles Corbet, MP and judge] said was a Book of Conjuring’.[14]  The connection made between astrology and witchcraft was nothing new.  The contemporary astrologer John Gadbury blamed ‘pretenders’ for the connection that emerged between astrologers and magicians and necromancers.  William Lilly sought to reject the ‘darke Sentences of Oracles’ being put on astrologers, differentiating between inspired soothsayers and astrologers who relied on natural philosophy.[15]  Corbet sought to argue that Prynne’s power to prognosticate emerged from the magical use of ‘conjuring’ of spirits.  In 1645, Miles Corbet described another almanac discovered in Prynne’s household s as ‘damnable and dangerous’ because of its astrological content.  Corbet was fearful of astrological content such as ‘pictures of the Bull, Beare, Goat and Lyon’ and the ‘names of Lucifer, and of Oryon’ were demonic in nature.  Despite this, Prynne was found not guilty each time, defended by a local minister called Thomas Cheshire.  While astrology had grown in popularity and status in the century between Wycherly and Prynne, it still held an uncertain place in the community.

Miles Corbett after Unknown artist, published by William Richardson
line engraving, published 1810
NPG D30024
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Astrology offered a chance for ordinary people to glimpse into the future.  The residents of Great Yarmouth made use of almanacs published over fifty years that gave them foresight of the year ahead.  They called upon astrologers who gave them insights into the issues they faced.   They could pay an astrologer to guide them to find lost objects or diagnose their illnesses through a horoscope.  Astrologers were respected enough to earn a living in the town, employed by the town’s corporation and private citizens alike.    

[1] William Lilly, Mr. William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times (London: J. Roberts, 1715), 12; Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind, 63.

[2] Alison A. Chapman, “Marking Time: Astrology, Almanacs, and English Protestantism,” Renaissance Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2007): 1257–90; Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2013); Ann Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 47-9, 64-5.

[3] Bernard Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [hereafter ODNB]; Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Ashmole 418; Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs, 1500-1800 (London: Faber And Faber, 1979), 371.

[4] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 42-3.

[5] John K. Gruenfelder, ‘Jeffrey Neve, Charles I and Great Yarmouth’, Norfolk Archaeology, 40 (1988), pp. 155-63; Cust, ‘Parliamentary Elections in the 1620s’, pp. 188.

[6] Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653); Gruenfelder, ‘Jeffrey Neve, Charles I and Great Yarmouth’, p. 161.

[7] Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653); Lilly, Mr William Lilly’s history of his life and times, p. 26; John Gadbury, Collectio Geniturarum: Or, a Collection of Nativities (London, 1662), p. 179.

[8] John Taylor, A Briefe Relation of the Gleanings of the Idiotismes and Absurdities of Miles Corbet (London: n.p., 1646), 8.

[9] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 27.

[10] John Taylor, Persecutio Undecima: The Churches Eleventh Persecution: Or, a Briefe of the Puritan Persecution of the Protestant Clergy of the Church of England: More Particularly within the City of London, (London, 1648) 17.

[11] NRO, Y/S/1/2, ff. 194-6; Taylor, A Briefe Relation, 9.

[12] NRO, Y/C 19/7, f. 62.

[13] Michael MacDonald, “The Career of Astrological Medicine in England,” in Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996), 62–90.

[14] Taylor, Persecutio Undecima, p. 17

[15] Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind, 10.

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