In the Stars
Many believed Henry VII’s well-known interest in prophesy could have stemmed from his Welsh background as the Welsh “follow prophecies, affirming that they are true” (Tremlett 100) and have a “prophetic tradition” (Thornton 15). As discussed in a previous blog, King Henry VI, upon meeting the young Henry, Earl of Richmond, gave a prophecy that he would become king (Bacon, Vergil).
Henry VII did not have a formal Royal Astrologer but Gulielmus Parronus Placentinus, an Italian known in England as William Parron, came close. Parron is credited, according to an expert at the British Library, with bringing to England the practice of creating astrological almanacs for the nation (Pickup). Astrology almanacs were compilations of astrological data that was considered useful for physicians and other medical professionals as well as for the general public (Parker). Evidence shows that Parron received payments from the king, possibly for an early almanac, as seen in the king’s account books from 6 March 1499: “To Master William Paromis an astronymyre £1” (Macalister 301). After making several successful prognostications, Parron presented to Henry, De astrorum succincte vi fatali, (The Fateful Meaning of the Stars) completed on 15 October 1499. In this work Parron ingratiated himself by giving justifications for Henry’s actions on many fronts especially his treatment of Perkin Warbeck and the Earl of Warwick saying that people born under bad stars must die before infecting the country. A “satisfyingly closed logic, and it satisfied Henry’s conscience” (Penn 38).
Parron’s last known compilation for the Tudor family was a horoscope in late 1502 titled, Liber de Optimo fato Henrici Eboraci ducis et optimorum ipsius parentum, (The Book of the Excellent Fortunes of Henry Duke of York and his Parents). This was less than successful and perhaps why he disappears from official sources. It is supposed he left England in disgrace after predicting that Queen Elizabeth, Henry VII’s wife, would live until she was 80. She died shortly thereafter at the age of 37. As an aside, he also foretold that Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII would have a happy marriage and many sons (Carlin, Penn, Tucker).
The following illustrations are from Parron’s 1502 horoscope and almanac including the cover page, his dedication page and the illustration of Henry VII –note the Tudor roses in the border.
Parron was not the only astrologer and scientist to whom Henry offered his patronage. Dr. Janina Ramirez explained that “Henry VII saw himself as a patron of science and scholarship and in Tudor times astrology was held in high esteem” (Ridgway). At court was Lewis of Caerleon, physician to Margaret Beaufort, who was valued for his “astronomical and astrological skills, and he received considerable remuneration and generous favours from the monarch” (Pahta 50). Added to the list of astrologers were John Argentine who “assembled an extensive collection of astrological and astronomical treatises” and was “appointed physician and chaplain” to Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII (Pahta 50); and John Killingworth “perhaps the most important of fifteenth-century English astrologers” (Pahta 51). Killingworth’s scientific manuscript of planetary data and prophecies was written for Henry VII in 1490. Another example of Henry’s patronage was the sculptures on the ceilings at Merton College where Bishop Richard Fitzwilliam’s “astrological symbols were next to the royal arms of Henry VII, showing that Henry was ruling not just England but the cosmos. Astrology was the science of the day and was seen as important” (Ridgway).
The strong influence prophecy and astrology held over Henry VII did not diminish throughout the Tudor time-period and was as prominent with his granddaughter, Elizabeth Regina. Enter John Dee, astrologer, astronomer, mathematician, alchemist, and rumored neocromancer who found time “to dabble in the mysteries of the occult” (Brimacombe 143). He was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; an acquaintance to Continental academics, Abraham Ortelius, Gemma Frisius—Court Astrologer to Charles V— and Geradus Mercator; and, a friend to influential people— Roger Ascham, Robert Dudley and Lord Pembroke. In fact, Dudley and Pembroke introduced him to the 25-year old Elizabeth when she needed to set the date for her coronation. This auspicious occasion could not just be any day. It would be the birth date of the Elizabethan Age and had to be considered carefully (Bassnett, Brimacombe, Somerset, Watkins).
John Dee would become an influential member of Elizabeth’s circle (he was a cousin to Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s gentlewoman, and had been a member of the Duke of Northumberland’s household when Robert Dudley was a youth). By 1564 when he had returned from the Emperor’s Court, Dee was “appointed Royal Adviser in mystic secrets” (Bassnett 63), another way of saying Court Astrologer. Elizabeth offered him apartments at Court (something most people vied for their entire lives) and he turned her down fearing it would interfere with his studies. Supposedly he “applied himself to his studies with such diligence that he allowed only four hours for sleep, and two for his meals and recreation” (Nichols 414). He appreciated Elizabeth’s support and acknowledged it: “Whereupon her Majestie had a little perusion of the same with me, and then in most heroicall and princely wise did comfort and encourage me in my studies philosophicall and mathematicall” (Dee Autobiographical 19).
“In the sixteenth century, the borderline between science and sorcery was often perilously narrow” (Brimacombe 144). The role of natural magic cannot be ignored in the rise of experimental science . This reminds me of some experiments that science teachers demonstrated when I was in school. The exploding volcano bordered on magic! Some authors suspect “Sir Walter Ralegh and his circle of friends practiced sorcery at this infamous ‘School of the Night’ at his home at Sherborne in Dorset” (Brimacmbe 144) and others that it was a gathering to discuss all topics of learning especially religion (Marlowe Society). Dee was very much aware of the links between religious thoughts and the sciences “which fruite and gaine if I attaine unto, it shall encourage me hereafter, in such like sort to translate, and set abroad some other good authors, both pertaining to religion (as partly I have already done) and also pertaining to the Mathematicall Artes” (Dee Mathmatical iii).
Elizabeth, a highly educated, intelligent woman, frequently consulted Dee be it for explanations for comets, a toothache, diet and medicines, navigation (he is reported to have coined the term British Empire) and the dangers to be apprehended from a waxen image of her with a pin struck through its breast, which had been found in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Her faith in his abilities also earned him the role as a foreign spy “reporting, in code, to both the Queen and William Cecil on intrigues abroad. His coded letters were signed using the numerals 007” (Watkins 39).
When Dee was in England, she visited him at his home in Mortlake, Surrey, where he was reputed to have one of the largest private libraries in Europe along with his famous laboratories (Brimacombe, Hibbert, Lipscomb, Watkins). Although it was suggested in some readings that Dee built an astrolabe for Elizabeth, the only evidence found was one made for her by the Flemish instrument maker Thomas Gemini.
Astrolabe known to belong to Elizabeth with enlargement of the inscription.
Today we would call the Elizabethans superstitious*, not understanding the seriousness in which they took elements of magic, the occult and alchemy. In fact, I get the impression that many modern writers try to ‘excuse’ Elizabeth’s reliance on Dee by down-playing her interest or referring to her as impressionable. Elizabeth was in good company as there are letters that William Cecil wrote to Edward Kelley, Dee’s colleague for many years when they lived in Europe conducting experiments, to encourage him to return to England with his “powder that could transform base metals into gold” (Bassnett 63). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury responded to Elizabeth’s fears of assassination and assured her that no harm would come to her so long as her “birth sign, Virgo, was in the ascendant” (Hibbert 72).
Ironically, despite Elizabeth’s beliefs and interests, when it was predicted in 1572 there would be a series of catastrophes after the appearance of a comet, it was reported that “with a courage answerable to the greatness of her state, she caused the window to be set open and cast out this word, jacta est alea, the dice are thrown” (Malcolm 355). Added to this account was the following when there were prophecies circulating about the countryside. Elizabeth sent out a proclamation in which she “warns all not to be moved by murmurers and spreaders of rumours, the dissemination of which is to be punished as the spreading of sedition (Pollen 340).
Thus is another paradox of Elizabeth Regina: her pragmatic response to threats to her realm and her embracing prophecies. When in January 1603 John Dee cast her horoscope and warned her to “beware of Whitehall” (Sitwell 454) she moved to Richmond. She did so seeing it as a realistic response. Ironically, it was at Richmond that she died about two months later. Thus the tradition of the Tudors’ consultation with and acceptance of astrologer’s predictions was maintained.
*A consultation with an astrologer in the time of Queen Elizabeth was reported to last about “15 minutes and cost 2s. 6d” (Emerson 264).
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