He received a tolerably good classical education at the school of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but he naïvely tells us what may perhaps have some significance in reference to his after career, that his master never taught logic. In his eighteenth year, his father having fallen into great poverty, he went to London and was employed in attendance on an old citizen and his wife. His master, at his death in 1627, left him an annuity of £20; and, Lilly having soon afterwards married the widow, she, dying in 1633, left him property to the value of about £1000.
He now began to dabble in astrology, reading all the books on the subject he could fall in with, and occasionally trying his hand at unravelling mysteries by means of his art. The years 1642 and 1643 were devoted to a careful revision of all his previous reading, and in particular, having lighted on Valentine Naibod's Commentary on Alcabitius, he "seriously studied him and found him to be the profoundest author he ever met with." About the same time he tells us that he “did carefully take notice of every grandaction betwixt king and parliament, and did first then incline to believe that as all sublunary affairs depend on superior causes, so there, was: a possibility of discovering them by the configurations of the superior bodies." And, having thereupon "made some essays," he "found encouragement to proceed further, and ultimately framed to himself that method which he ever afterwards followed."
He then began to issue his prophetical almanacs and other works, which met with serious attention from some of the most prominent members of the Long Parliament. If we may believe himself, Lilly lived on friendly and almost intimate terms with Bulstrode Whitlock, Lenthall the speaker, Sir Philip Stapleton, Elias Ashmole and others. Even Selden seems to have given him some countenance, and probably the chief difference between. him and the mass of the community at the tame was that, while others believed in the general truth of astrology, he ventured to specify the future events to which its calculations pointed.
Even from his own account of himself, however, it is evident that he did not trust implicitly to the indications given by the aspects of the heavens, but like more vulgar fortune-tellers kept his eyes and ears open for any information which might make his predictions safe. It appears that he had correspondents both at home and in foreign parts to keep him conversant with the probable current of affairs. Not a few of his exploits indicate rather the quality of a clever police detective than of a profound astrologer.
After the Restoration he very quickly fell into disrepute. His sympathy with the parliament, which his predictions had generally shown, was not calculated to bring him into royal favour. He came under the lash of Butler, who, making allowance for some satiric exaggeration, has given in the character of Sidrophel a probably not very incorrect picture of the man; and, having by this time amassed a tolerable fortune, he bought a small estate at Hersham in Surrey, to which he retired, and where he diverted the exercise of his peculiar talents to the practice of medicine. He died in 1681.
Lilly's life of himself, published after his death, is still worth looking into as a remarkable record of credulity. So lately as 1852 a prominent London publisher put forth a new edition of Lilly's Introduction to Astrology, "with numerous emendations adapted to the improved state of the science."
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.