William Lilly and the Great Fire of London

350 years ago, the Great Fire of London consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral, as earlier predicted by William Lilly. The astrologer predicted the Great Fire in his pamphlet Monarchy or no monarchy in England, in 1651, published 15 years before the catastrophe took place. 

On 25 October, Lilly was called before the Commons Committee, as they suspected his involvement in a plot. Lilly admitted to having made the predictions but claimed that he had not known the dates. He was released without charge.

Lilly confessed to being extremely nervous about the interrogations by the Committe. In his autobiography, he told the reader that

“I was timerous of Committees being ever by some of them calumniated, upbraided, scorned and derided”

William Lilly’s predictions in Monarchy or no Monarchy in England were based on a number of woodcuts. The most famous one, concerned with the Great Fire, is shown below:


He only provided a cryptic explanation as to how he had arrived at his conclusions:

“Had the curtesie of the present times deserved it at my hands, thou hadst seene an Explanation of the sixteen Pages following, which in Aenigmaticall Types, Forms, Figures, Shapes, doth perfectly represent the future condition of the ENGLISH Nation and Commonwealth for many hundreds of years yet to come. I have borrowed so much time from my morning sleepe, as hath brought forth these Conceptions. You that read these Lines must know I doe no new thing, I doe herein but imitate the ANTIENTS, who so often as they resolved to concele their intentions from prophane hands, used HEIROGLIPHICKS, IMAGES, &C. The AEGYPTIAN PRIESTS were herein excellant, and their judgement commendable; our Savour also himself commandeth; NE DETUR SACRUM CANIBUS. If Providence shall hereafter assigne me a quiet life, and prolong my years, I may then perhaps leave unto the Sons of Art the several Changes of every Kingdome and Commonwealth in EUROPE, in such CARACTERS as these which now follow”.

For some years, I have repeatedly been asked questions in connection with Lilly and the Great Fire. Many astrologers were, and still are, wondering, how Lilly was able to make his prediction. There have also been quite a few rumours and unfounded anecdotes in circulation, which justifies to take a look at the extant source material.

One of the most frequent queries is concerned with the natural significator of London. Although he never published a foundation chart of London, Lilly is quite clear about this. In his England’s Propheticall Merline, published in 1644, Lilly writes

“Gemini being Ascendant of London, Aries of England” and, later in the text, also that “London and much of England is to Gemini”.

One year later, he reiterates this in his Starry Messenger, stating

“that Gemini is the ascendant of the City of London all authors agree”.

Maurice McCann has written an article wherein he provides the reader with his interpretation of the woodcut depicted above. McCann claims that Lilly hid the details of the chart for the Great Fire in the woodcut’s symbolism. (The interested reader can have a look at the chart suggested by McCann, following the link to the article here: http://www.skyscript.co.uk/fire.html ). McCann finds that,

“according to Lilly, London was ruled by the 14th degree of Gemini”.

Let us now look at Lilly’s own account. He writes in his Merlini Anglici for 1667:




This brings me to another important question regarding the prediction. Some authors claim that Lilly used a fixed star for his timing of the Great Fire. But as we will see, this theory is purely based on the claim that the Ascendant of London’s foundation chart would be 17*54 rather than the 13th or 25th degree. The most recent re-telling of this story I could find is in Benson Bobrick’s book The Fated Sky (New York, 2005). Below is the quote:


Here we note that suddenly the Ascendant of London’s foundation chart has shifted from the 13th or 25th degree to 17*54 Gemini. My suspicion is that this was backwards engineered to fit the conjunction to the Bull’s North Horn, also known as El Nath. Bobrick doesn’t provide a source for his claim, but I am quite certain to have found out where it all derived from.

Already back in 1915, John Hazelrigg wrote about the Great Fire, Lilly and the Bull’s North Horn in his Astrosophia.


It is noticeable how similar these two accounts are, but this also indicates to me that there must be an older, common source. Another thorough search produced what I believe to be the source of this theory; it is Zadkiel’s infamous Introduction to Astrology, (London 1852), the butchered edition of Christian Astrology. In his introduction, Zadkiel writes

“These celebrated predictions were made by means of the motions of the fixed stars, as is evident by the words of Lilly; who says, “the asterisms and signs and constellations give greatest light thereunto.” The Bull’s North Horn, a star which, Ptolemy says, is “like Mars,” was, in the year 1666, when the fire occurred, in Gemini 17° 54′, which is the exact ascendant of London. It was, no doubt, by this means Lilly judged the city would suffer by fire; for in his Almanac for 1666 he states, that the 19th degree of Gemini is London’s horoscope. Our Author was not very nice in his calculations; and it may be observed, that though it may be called the 19th degree, being within 6 minutes of it, yet, in reality, Gemini 17° 54′ is the true ascendant of London. It was that which ascended at the moment of driving the first pile of the new London Bridge.”

A thorough search through Lilly’s Anglicus Merlini 1666 did not produce any results. Where Zadkiel found the “19th degree Gemini” quote remains a mystery to me. Still, based on this non-existing quote, Zadkiel continues with his theory:

“The longitude of the Bull’s North Horn, 1st January, 1834: Gemini 20° 15′

Longitude of London’s ascendant: Gemini 17 54

Difference: 2 21

This difference of 2° 21′ is equal to 8460 seconds of longitude, which, divided by 50⅓” (the rate at which the fixed stars proceed yearly), gives 168.

From the year 1834 take away 168 = 1666″

It is, of course, up to the individual to form their own conclusions, but it seems to me that Zadkiel was the inventor of the fixed star theory.