Astrology and the 17th-Century Mind; & Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts

  • Astrology and the 17th-Century Mind
    Ann Geneva - Manchester University Press, 1995 - xxii + 298 pp. - £40
  • Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts
    Vaughan Hart - 1994 - xiv + 266 pp. - £50

According to its book jacket, Vaughan Hart's book addresses the question: ‘What role did magic play in the downfall of the Stuarts?’. In practice, this issue is hardly addressed by Hart, but it is actively considered by Ann Geneva, whose book jacket correctly states that she is reviewing the writings of William Lilly to demonstrate the manner in which the entire arsenal of astrology was deployed to justify resistance to Charles I, and ultimately his defeat and execution.

Vaughan Hart is primarily concerned with the exploitation of the arts for propagandistic purposes by James I and Charles I. In particular he investigates the part played by lnigo Jones, the brilliant Surveyor of the King's Works. The strengths of this book lie in his patient and ingenious accounts of Jones' contributions to the royal masques, his speculations about Stonehenge, and especially his restoration of St Paul's Cathedral and building schemes at Whitehall, and his plan for a processional route linking these two foci of architectural and cultural significance.

Not only are design and architectural issues discussed in technical detail, but Hart also provides an impressive amount of contextual information relating to the general cultural climate of Stuart London. Perhaps the most satisfying feature of this book is Hart's account of the interconnectedness of the diverse endeavours of Inigo Jones.

It was hardly necessary to adopt 'magic' as the explanatory basis for this exercise, but Hart makes a spirited case for the prevalence of magical devices in the efforts by Inigo Jones to glorify his royal paymasters. Jones was in fact following a well-worn path. Hart draws attention to immediate precedents of the Medicis or Escorial in Spain. In fact, these were themselves imitations of the modes of legitimation employed by such earlier rulers as Maximilian I, who like the Stuarts revived chivalry, took advantage of humanistic recovery of knowledge about hieroyglyphics and emblems, sponsored ambitious architectural projects, including his bizarre Triumphal Arch and Triumphal Procession, and even fancied that he was a reincarnation of King Arthur.

Inigo Jones was therefore drawing on a rich treasury of precedent in his co-option of pagan mysteries to reinforce the authority of the Stuart monarchy. Natural magic and esoteric lore were integral to this exercise in legitimation.

Hart's approach is heavily indebted to such authors as Yates, Strong and Rykwert. Likc them, Hart characterises the dominant intellectual mood of Jones and his co-workers as Neoplatonism. As with Yates, there is also much vagueness about the use of this category. Particular phenomena are described as Neoplatonic, Platonic-Pythagorean, Hermetic, Cabbalistic, alchemical, or even Paracelsian, without clear justification. Hart inclines to lump too much into the Neoplatonic category, even tangentially co-opting such eminences as Francis Bacon or William Harvey. Although both could be made to connect with themes developed in his book, the few words on these figures are unconvincing.

Perhaps the most unsatisfactory feature of Hart's work is the suggestion that the Neoplatonic conception of nature was essentially connected with the culture of the court, and that once the power of the king was removed, countervailing forces also eliminated Neoplatonism and magic, which of course is very much the opposite of the truth, as indicated by the brilliant study by Ann Geneva.

Both Hart and Geneva cite the tract by John Bainbridge on the comet of 1618. This piece of ‘celestial hieroglyphics’ potentially represented a chilling prospect for the princes, but Bainbridge, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, reassured the monarch that this comet was a propitious omen, which provoked a marginal note from Lilly that 'this was an arrogant lye'. Lilly reverted to the more customary interpretation of comets, insisting that this was an omen of the change of monarchies. He predicted in 1644 that a leading monarch in Europe would be overthrown by 1648. On this occasion, the annotation was added by Elias Ashmole, an unrepentant Royalist, who conceded that Lilly’s forecast was an accurate prediction of the execution of Charles I, which occurred on January 30th, 1648/49.

In the course of her meticulous reconstruction of the career of Lilly, based on voluminous and intractable archival sources as well as his numerous publications, Ann Geneva explains why Lilly was able to rise from humble origins to become the foremost astrologer of his day, and indeed arguably the most celebrated English astrologer of all time.

Lilly's combination of technical competence, gift of lucid exposition, and shrewd understanding of the political process, rendered him an enormous asset as propagandist. In the hands of Lilly, magic survived as a powerful political force, and the parliamentarians were grateful to have him on their side. This book demonstrates that Lilly's partisanship was much greater than is customarily suggested. Lilly therefore not only monitored and predicted, but actually contributed actively to the fall of kings.

Readers of these studies by Geneva and Hart may well be tempted to believe that some melancholic forces arc still at work in the heavens, among other things being responsible for generating these pertinent retrospective enquiries into kingship, on the eve of the millennium and at a point in British history when the future of the monarchy is again provoking much reflection in the public mind.

CHARLES WEBSTER is the author of the forthcoming Official History of the National Health Service Vol II: Government and Health Care for HMSO.

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