A Man Not Famous But Notorious

Death and Its Meanings

Two prominent deaths more or less framed 1644 – those of John Pym and William Laud. Pym died at about 7 p.m. on 8 December 1643 and the details and meaning of his death were immediately contested. Mercurius Aulicus, the scurrilous royalist newsbook which had opened up earlier in the year, was in no doubt about its significance: ‘This I cannot say famous, but notorious man, loaded with other diseases, died this very day, chiefly of the Herodian visitation, so as he was certainly a most loathsome and foul carcase’. The ‘Herodian disease’ was ‘Phthiriasis or other loathsome skin disease’, recalling the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts xii, 23, a tyrant struck down by a hideous death. Clearly this had significance – a preacher in Warwick was reported to have prayed that Pym should not die of this disease ‘lest the Cavaliers should cry it up as God’s judgement’. This Aulicus did, with a devastatingly light touch. The judgement on Pym was part of a larger picture, now becoming clear. He was the ‘most eminent’ of the five members ‘so justly’ accused of treason in January 1642 and experience had vindicated the King: ‘the fruits whereof have been and are yet so visible to this distressed kingdom’. Noting that it was remarkable how Pym had died, he also observed that Hampden had died at Chalgrove ‘where he first appeared in arms to exercise that unjust and mischievous Ordinance of the Militia’; that Lord Brooke, ‘who loved not our Church, was slain [by a shot from the roof of] one’; and how ‘strange, if not wonderful’ that the two Hothams, ‘seeds’ of the present troubles, and Nathaniel Fiennes, ‘active and fruitful to this faction’, were now all ‘at their own bar… attending the sentence upon their lives [for treason]’.1

That Pym’s death was a divine punishment was a politically significant charge. The analogy between the health of the individual body and of the body politic was a popular one, and Pym himself had used the image in 1641, following the revelation of the Irish rising and the suspicion that it was promoted from within Charles’s circle of advisers: ‘diseases which proceed from the inward parts, as the liver, the heart or the brains, the more noble parts, it is a hard thing to apply cure to such diseases’.2 His own death naturally invited comment from his enemies. It was also common to make a connection between the physical sufferings of particular individuals and the judgements of God upon them. Judgements on individuals often took the form of a loss of mental faculties, and hideous outward afflictions – flesh falling away from the fingers, disfigurements of the skin, or the efflux of excrements from the wrong parts of the body.3

Parliamentarian newsbooks, at a disadvantage because of the timing of their editions, were on the defensive. The Parliament Scout noted that Pym’s enemies had been quick to ‘tell bad lies of him’ and Remarkeable Passages reported that those who could not blemish Pym ‘all his life, would have spotted his corpse now he is dead; but that 1000 are eye witnesses how clear a Coarse [sic] he is, to the shame of those that raise such wicked inventions’. The Weekly Account was more sober: ‘It is reported that he died of that loathsome disease which the Greeks call Ptheriasis… but the dead body exposed to the view of above a thousand witnesses did sufficiently convince the truth and malice of the report’. An Answer to Mercurius Aulicus put the figure at ‘many hundreds’.4

But the most remarkable riposte took the form of a short pamphlet collected by Thomason about three weeks after Pym’s death. It reported the verdict of experts, rather than an unidentifiable mass of eyewitnesses: Theodor Mayerne, the most famous physician of the day, and the President of the College of Physicians; four others who were present at the dissection of his body (including the next President); two of those who had been attending Pym during his illness; a chyrurgion (surgeon) and an apothecary, with their servants. Together they testified that his skin was free of any roughness, scabs or scarring, ‘much less Phthiriasis or lousy disease, as was reported’. There was no sign of poisoning and ‘he had his intellectuals and senses very entire to the last’, enjoying sufficient and quiet sleep for the most part. No raving death, then. His heart and lungs were fine and his lower organs also sound except for some discolouration, and his spleen seemed small. There was, however, such a large ‘abscess or impostume’ in his lower belly that it could be felt from the outside, and once opened could accommodate a fist. This affected the surrounding parts, and made it difficult for him to eat, so that he suffered loss of appetite and nausea. After a long languishment the abscess broke and he died.5

Pym’s supporters also marked his death with eulogy. The parliamentarian champion against Aulicus was Mercurius Britanicus, which devoted much of its weekly content to a detailed refutation of Aulicus’s reports, as did An Answer to Mercurius Aulicus, which contained a line-by-line refutation. The week of Pym’s funeral, however, Britanicus broke off from this feud, and limited its reporting of other events in order to make space for an elegy to Pym, which was commended by Remarkeable Passages. All the parliamentarian papers did the same, emphasizing Pym’s selfless service in the cause (even to the neglect of his own household, which Parliament was now taking measures to support). His ceremonial burial in Westminister Abbey on 15 December was crucial to this effort:

The Parliament so highly honours the memory of Master Pym, that they have ordered a monument to be erected in the Abbey at Westminster, where he is to be interred; and the House of Commons have appointed themselves to accompany the corpse to the grave, so highly do they value and esteem the merits and deservings of so good, so excellent a patriot, and commonwealths-man.6

Such ceremonies were also controversial of course and Bruno Ryves included this in his list of desecrations of the Abbey ‘not to be passed over in silence’: ‘the carcass of John Pym (as much as the lice left of it)’ was buried among dignitaries and with ‘usurped Ensigns of honour displayed over him’.

Twas pity, that he, that in his life had been the author of so much bloodshed, and those many calamities, under which this Kingdom yet groans, and therefore deserved, not only to have his death with the transgressors, and wicked, but afterward to be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn, and cast forth beyond the gates of the city [Jer 22 19] should after his death, make his sepulchre amongst the honourable, and mingle his vulgar, lousy ashes with those of Kings, Princes, and Nobles.

Ryves’s view was vindicated in the long run, of course: after the Restoration Pym’s remains were dug up and flung into a ditch.7 Outside academic circles he is now a more or less completely forgotten figure.

This public exchange reflected in microcosm the larger problem – the meaning of events, and the increasing numbers of deaths, was important but elusive; and more-elaborate efforts now had to be made to establish the pertinent facts. The subtitle of An Answer to Mercurius Aulicus is revealing in this context: His Communicated Intelligence from The Court to the rest of the Kingdom Faithfully trased through, to undeceive those who love the Truth. The week before Pym’s death The Parliament Scout had commented that ‘If there was ever need of making news, it is this week, for it hath afforded so little, that some have taken allowance to print more than is true’. His advice was sensible, but not that helpful: ‘Caveat Emptor’. A Perfect Diurnall was candid about the problem facing even the well-intentioned:

notwithstanding the most special care I ever had, and shall have in these relations to avoid untruths: yet considering, that from all parts of the Kingdom (where any act of hostility hath been) the many several relations are sent, as well to the Parliament as City, it is impossible but in some weeks some of those many relations may in some particulars fail.

All he could do was promise to correct them as they came to light.8 Confused and contradictory reports made the political scene even more difficult to interpret – firm grounds for judgements about the truth of reports and the meaning of the conflict were hard to establish. In the week of Pym’s death three of Thomas Case’s sermons had been published as The Quarell of the Covenant – an indication that all in the parliamentary alliance was not as well as Pym’s obsequies might suggest.

Laud’s death provided a similar rallying point a year later, when the parliamentary cause was much more openly fractious. Laud’s trial had opened in March 1644 but had dragged on until 11 October, partly because hearings were so infrequent. Accusations of treason and the promotion of popery were manifestly untrue and the prosecution sustained its case by unfair means: interfering with witnesses, failing to detail in advance the evidence which would be used to sustain the charges and giving Laud only a limited time to prepare answers before each hearing. Prynne, given access to voluminous private papers and driven by vengeance, was unable to substantiate the charges. Laud was not always straightforward in his answers, though: he was innocent as charged but less than candid in answer.9

With unpromising prospects of conviction the Commons resolved to proceed by attainder in an echo of the treatment of Strafford. An ordinance of attainder was moved on 31 October, which the Lords were reluctant to approve. A number of speakers revived the memory of the crowds that had bayed for Strafford’s blood, hoping that the fear of disorder would bring waverers onside. It was the Earl of Essex who posed the embarrassing question: ‘Is this the liberty that we promised to maintain with our blood? Shall posterity say that to save them from the yoke of the King we have placed them under the yoke of the populace?’ The Lords fought a losing battle to stay the execution, which was finally agreed in the first week of January. On 10 January, Laud was executed, having initially been refused the mercy of being beheaded rather than hanged.10 Laud’s death, three weeks before the Uxbridge negotiations opened, can have done little to make Charles interested in peace.

Public executions were intended to be instructive and convicted felons were expected to make good deaths. In scaffold speeches the condemned admitted the justice of their fate, turning their deaths into useful lessons for others. Strafford had refused to do this, as some plebeian criminals are known to have done, and so did Laud.11 But Laud embraced more fully the alternative – accepting his fate as a martyr to persecution. With pathos, the old man, now in his early seventies, asked for listeners” patience as he read his text, fearing that his failing memory would let him down: ‘Let us run with patience that race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the Throne of God’. He accepted his Cross, despised the shame and hoped for salvation.

I was born and baptized in the bosom of the Church of England in that profession I have ever since lived, and in that I come now to die… What clamours and slanders I have endured for the labouring to keep an uniformity in the external service of God according to the doctrine and discipline of the Church all men know, and I have abundantly felt.

In his commitment to the doctrine and discipline Laud was making appeal to the rhetoric of the defenders of the Prayer Book in 1641 and 1642: ‘the Pope never had a harvest in England since the Reformation, as he hath now upon the sects and divisions that are amongst us’.12

He also prayed that God would give grace of repentance to the bloodthirsty people of the nation, or defeat them in:

their devices… contrary to the glory of Thy great name, the truth and sincerity of religion, the establishment of the King and his posterity after him in their just rights and privileges, the honour and conservation of Parliaments in their just power, the preservation of this poor Church in her truth, peace, and patrimony, and the settlement of this distracted people under their ancient laws, and in their native liberty.

Here again, the echoes of 1642 were strong, in the paper-thin differences between the proclaimed positions of the ‘two sides’. Laud professed himself a champion of parliaments, although critical of some particulars, but ‘There is no corruption in the world so bad as that which is of the best thing in itself, for the better the thing is in nature, the worse it is corrupted’. This threat to Parliament lay in popularity, particularly in the City of London, not royal tyranny:

[in] this great and popular City, which God bless, here hath been of late a fashion taken up to gather hands, and then go to the honourable and great court of the Kingdom, the Parliament, and clamour for justice, as if that great and wise court (before whom come the causes which are unknown to many) could not, or would not do justice, but at their call and appointment; a way which may endanger many an innocent man, and pluck innocent blood upon their own heads, and perhaps upon this City also, which God forbid. And this has lately been practiced against myself.

Laud, on his own account, was a martyr to the cause of 1642 – security of the Church of England and the liberties of Parliament under the crown – something Charles himself was to embrace four years later. Clearly this was contentious, and even among sympathizers accounts of what he had said differed.13

Laud enjoyed one of the only advantages of execution by getting in first with the interpretation of the meaning of his own death: martyrdom to a cause defined clearly in 1642. The polemical counterpart of a claim to martyrdom was, of course, hypocrisy, a charge which was duly levied in a flurry of pamphlets. Laud had not moved in his opinion about the policies of the 1630s, and neither had his critics.14 Pym’s legacy was perhaps more ambiguous, since he had ended his life as champion of a cause changed by military escalation and formal military alliance with the Covenanters. A year later, at the time of Laud’s death, Parliament was in a strengthening military position, with further administrative improvements in hand. But this escalation was closely related to divisions within the coalition, which suggested that the political position was not improving as quickly as military fortunes did. What kind of military victory to pursue was a divisive issue, as was the nature of the post-Laudian settlement which the victory would allow to be imposed.

A week before Laud was executed, and apparently in the same spirit of vengeance, Carew and the two Hothams also lost their lives, unprotected from the workings of martial law against them for having considered handing over their military charges to the King. What did these deaths mean? These men died traitors” deaths, having abandoned what they thought was the cause of 1642 and having been left to the mercy of martial law.15 But had they really acted dishonourably? No-one wanted to lose the war, but it was not becoming any clearer, even to the central characters, what winning it would mean.


The executions of January 1645

Death was of course at the heart of war. Every death is a means of appreciating the significance of a life, and the questions raised by the high-profile deaths of Pym, Laud, Carew and the Hothams could be asked about all the victims of the slaughter in 1644. Marston Moor was the largest battle of the war and may have been the largest battle ever fought on English soil. Those responsible for burying them thought that 4,150 royalist soldiers had died on the field; many others died of their wounds subsequently.16According to the most authoritative estimate, 1644 saw the largest number of military engagements of the war. A massive research effort has enumerated 645 separate ‘incidents’ of armed conflict in England and Wales between 1642 and 1660, ranging from the large pitched battles such as Marston Moor to minor skirmishes which do not rate a mention in most military histories of the war. The vast bulk of these incidents, 555, took place between 1642 and 1646, and the two most eventful years were 1643 (156) and 1644 (191), and 1644 was also a particularly bloody year of the war. It has been estimated that around 62,000 men died in fighting between 1642 and 1646. Of these perhaps 23,000 men died in 1643 and 22,000 the following year. Together this is probably more than half of the total number of deaths in the wars of the whole period 1642–60.17 On 11 January 1645, the day after the execution of Laud, Charles ordered an attack on Abingdon, in which many men lost their lives: it was the harbinger of another very bloody year of fighting.18

These incidents, and the loss of life, were reported in a confused and partisan way, and newsletters did not locate them in a larger strategic context. This makes the statistics unreliable in detail, although the larger picture is probably reasonably accurate. Contemporaries, of course, confronted the same problem: the war was reported day by day, as it happened, with all the chance and contingency that such coverage applies. ‘The war is like a football play, where one side doth give the other a kind of overthrow, and strikes up another’s heels, but presently they rise up and give the other as great a blow again’, reported Mercurius Cambro-Britannicus.19 Newsletter readers were left to make sense of this as best they could, and it is clear that it was the fortunes of individual commanders that were easiest to follow, not the overall condition of the war. It seems likely that the political mood changed quickly, as a run of victories or defeats was reported, but the overall direction of the war would have been difficult to divine. Accompanying these uncertainties was an increasingly fractious public dispute among parliamentarians about the purpose of the war. What was it for, what did it mean and how would it end?

Such uncertainties were opportunities, of course, for people with a message to sell, metaphorically or literally. On 3 April 1644 ‘Sir R’ had a consultation with the astrologer William Lilly in order to ask ‘whether best to adhere to King or Parliament’.20 This was one of a rapidly growing flow of clients, which soon reached a peak near 2,000 per annum.21 From the brief note it is not clear what Sir R meant by ‘best’, but many of Lilly’s clients were concerned about personal and material well-being – illnesses, love, business ventures, fears of bewitchment or of evil spirits. These perennial concerns were regularly interspersed with enquiries about military affairs: ‘if good for son to go to war, and if return safe’; ‘A commander of his success into North Wales’; ‘the success between Sir William Waller and Hopton being then supposed to be in fight’; or ‘When will Essex advance on Oxford?’22

Lilly made precise observations of the heavens at the precise date, time and place of meetings in the course of the Uxbridge negotiations, and much of the business brought by his clients was topical: ‘by what death [Laud] should die, and when?’; ‘if any design to massacre parliament/if take effect/if near maturity’.23 But the personal and the military intertwined. A question about the outcome of the siege of Pontefract, for example, seems to have been connected to concern about rents due from lands in the area.24 A woman asked ‘if her husband was alive in the wars’; Mrs Poole if ‘her husband be dead or no?’ Other questions were less fraught: Lady Holborne asked ‘if best her husband come to parliament’, an anonymous client ‘if he should obtain what he desired of the committee?’25

Wartime uncertainties impinged on many areas of personal life, and Lilly was clearly meeting a significant demand. His real triumph was in print, however. In Supernaturall sights… seen in London, written the week after Marston Moor and published in August 1644, he made some bold predictions. Called into Somerset Yard, in London, he observed in the sky above London ‘a long yellowish apparition in form and shape almost like to be a serpent’. It appeared over south-west Kent and north-east Surrey and lasted much of the night, in which time it had moved past London and into the Midland counties: that is, probably, to Oxford. Unlike other reports of supernatural phenomena during the 1640s, Lilly’s pamphlet made a claim to a science (actually more an art) of interpretation. Based on precise observation of the location Lilly was able, as with his personal clients, to offer some firm opinions about the trend of events. In this case he claimed that this was a sign of a dissolution of a mischievous plot against the state and commonwealth, ‘A renting in pieces or mutinous disturbance of some Monarchy near at hand’.26 If this rather hedged his bets a predicted eclipse on 21 August foretold of Prince Rupert’s death or ruin. This was, in fact, the first year of the most successful publishing career of the decade.

Lilly’s art was an elaborate but imprecise one. Seventeenth-century astronomy was capable of discerning movement in seven celestial bodies, the sun, the moon and a number of planets of the solar system. These seven bodies seemed to move against an unchanging backdrop, which was divided into the twelve signs of the zodiac. The heavenly bodies, with their predictable movements, were thought to exercise an influence over the much more mutable and unpredictable ‘sublunary’ world, where change and decay were permanent features of existence. Astrology was the science by which these effects could be understood, and the art by which they could, perhaps, be predicted. All sublunary bodies were composed of combinations of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and these elements were emitted in different ways by the celestial bodies, effecting changes in the observable natural world. This reflects a common habit of thought in seventeenth-century Europe – seeking out the correspondences and sympathies which linked the various levels of the physical world together.27

Judicial astrology sought to make predictions about these influences – on the health of particular human bodies, on the weather and the fate of nations. There were four main areas of such predictions. General predictions, based on the movements of the heavens, related to effects on whole nations – the weather, the state of the crops, mortality and epidemics, war and politics. More immediate and personal predictions were possible in a number of ways. Nativities might enable predictions about the fate of individuals, based on a map of the heavens at the time of their birth. Elections offered advice about when best to undertake a particular project or action, in the light of the state of the heavens. Finally, astrologers might answer a particular question based on the exact time at which it was put to them – horary questions. This final category was very appealing to individuals, of course, and in dealing with horary questions astrologers gave advice about health, love and misfortune, including the likely identity of thieves and so forth. Its claims were considerable: ‘Astrology is more certain than physic, for it reasons from the cause to the effect’.28

Although astrology was a practice of very long standing, with an impressive technical literature and complex procedures, it was inevitably imprecise. Even if the heavens were mapped very precisely for any particular prediction, each planet and each sign had many different qualities. In interpreting the effects of the heavens on any particular sublunary body or enterprise, the astrologer had resort to elaborate rules of interpretation and accumulated practice, but in the last resort every reading depended on judgement, with the result that the more precise the prediction ‘the less likely it was to command unanimous assent’.29 The result was that astrologers in general, and some in particular, acquired a reputation for quackery, and they were armed with a battery of excuses, but they amounted to the same thing: as John Booker put it, ‘I confess that many superstitious and gross absurdities are practiced by the ignorant under colour of this most excellent art but this must not be charged on the art, but the artist’.30

Lilly was accused of quackery by many contemporaries, and he himself said that he had trained in seven weeks and that his move to London had been made for commercial reasons. Sceptical modern historians have also pointed to the commercially significant marriages that Lilly made. But Lilly also claimed that he worked for twelve, fifteen or eighteen hours a day, and his notebooks suggest that this may have been true.31 If the role of individual judgement invited accusations of quackery, it also made for the development of particular reputations: Lilly, for example, was clearly the parliamentary astrologer. We know that he had been sympathetic to the London crowds in 1640–42.32 He was persistently supportive of the parliamentary cause, during the 1640s, but was also a monarchist sceptical perhaps of Charles I as a king, sympathetic to him as an individual and very willing to predict the downfall of Prince Rupert. Part of his phenomenal success depended on what appeared to be an accurate prediction of the great parliamentary victory at Naseby in 1645.33 This was an immediate contrast with George Wharton, who had emerged as the royalist competition but made a notoriously inaccurate prediction about the same royal march in 1645. He was ridiculed by Booker for his poor Latin and his partial prediction, advising Wharton to get his ‘fellow liar Aulicus to English it [translate it] and then give your judgement upon another march’.34 Even as it offered certainties, astrology was politicized and its authority undermined.

Lilly did not normally make his own observations, and Supernaturall sights is in that sense unusual. Much of his published work took the form of almanacs, making general predictions for the year. But in publishing with as much success as he did, Lilly changed the market for astrology. These were English astrology’s halcyon days.35 The long tradition in which Lilly stood had enjoyed currency in aristocratic and royal circles since the fifteenth century at least. What was really remarkable about Lilly was his commercial success and the related claim that he democratized astrology. Earlier in 1644 he had published the first of a phenomenally successful series, Merlinus Anglicus Junior. It sold out in a week and the print runs in subsequent years were phenomenal: 13,500 in 1646, 17,000 in 1647 and 18,500 in 1648. His success was sustained throughout the following decade and in 1659, it was said, he was selling 30,000 copies. This was very big business, even at 2d per copy for cheap editions, and in a population of 5 million, with a relatively low literacy rate, this represents an amazing market penetration.36


Political astrology: George Wharton’s notoriously inaccurate prediction in May 1645

Although Lilly was the most successful astrologer of the 1640s, he was by no means alone. He and Wharton enjoyed good sales and their contemporary, John Booker, while less successful in print, had around 1,000 private consultations per year from 1648 to 1665.37 Lilly led the way in making astrology available to a wider market and was the most successful of a golden generation of astrologers. He also made another very distinctive contribution. In 1647 he published the methods of judicial astrology, in the first substantial English language text book, Christian astrology. It has been in use ever since. According to Lilly, the stars are divine signs, not physical causes, a position which allowed him to square astrology with Christianity, and explain failures: ‘we predict nothing but with this limitation, the hand of the Almighty God considered or not impediting or preventing nature, for in his alone breast is all learning, science, knowledge, power and dominion’.38

Lilly also published prophecies, which offered similar reassurances; indeed, many of his early titles gesture towards prophecy, or Merlin. A prophecy of Merlin had circulated with approval among Covenanting soldiers in 1640, and it is not hard to see the attraction of prophecy in wartime. Prophecy was potentially subversive since it was so obviously political, and in more normal times was regarded with considerable suspicion, but in the 1640s the brakes were off. Mother Shipton was said to be a contemporary of Cardinal Wolsey’s and her prophecies date from long before the war, but her career took off in 1641. It was then that her prophecies were first published, and they were published at least nineteen more times by 1700.39 There was a minor publishing war, with escalating numbers of ancient prophecies set out for the public. Lilly also dealt with Supernaturall sights and apparitions, and these too continued to get aired in print. But astrology offered a more consistent set of observations, with stricter rules of interpretation – it was continuous and more systematic about interpretation, and, crucially, offered predictions, for both individuals and nations.

Lilly’s success bears testimony both to the power of print and to the anxieties which the political crisis had fostered. Almanac sales, the flood of private consultations and the appetite to understand the method speak of a massive public appetite for certainty; some firm basis on which to judge what the future might hold. In Merlinus Anglicus Junior (1644) Lilly had gestured at this source of appeal in his predictions: Mercury ‘the father of lies and untruths, and scandalous pamphlets’ would be in a common sign during the coming year, ‘as if he intended all this whole year to vex us with flying reports, continual fears, false alarums, untoward speeches, contradictory news, lying messengers, and cozening Accomptants, Receivers, Treasurers, and the like’.40 But judicial astrology was an inexact and (in the 1640s, at least) partisan science. Uncertainty arose not just from the complexity of current events, but from the morass of conflicting claims in print about what it all meant, and that was an invitation to others to go to press with their certainties. But that was a source of further uncertainty. Print was a symptom, a cause and an opportunity; and it fed off itself.

Anxiety may have produced paralysis, but also creativity and activism. Lilly, Edwards, Williams and Milton all spoke to this uncertainty in creative ways. Many more were silent – undecided, passive or immobilized by doubt or circumstance. Efforts to convince and mobilize that silent body of opinion not only pedalled particular views, but made claims about authenticity. Expert, detailed witnessing helped to establish what had happened, as in the published autopsy of John Pym; on that basis it was possible also to try to establish a clear interpretation of the meaning and direction of events. Lilly did it with a science, Laud with a martyr’s death. The meaning of all the deaths was central to understanding the meaning of the war; and it created both anxiety and creativity.

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