Heavenly chaos, where astrologers thrive

Armistice Day next week finds several countries still mired in devastating civil wars.

There is something particularly horrifying about a nation turned violently upon itself.

As with Afghans, Kurds and Rwandans, the dislocation felt in mid-17th century England had as much to do with the world being turned upside down as it did with the fact of fighting on home soil. As the touchstones of daily life disintegrated, with neighbours and even families finding themselveson opposing sides, people turned to irregular sources for guidance. Yet even the astrologers were at sword's point.

The heavenly sphere was thought to serve as a giant billboard on which the Creator signalled intentions to his creatures - if they knew how to decode the messages. This is where the astrologers came in. Phenomena such as comets and eclipses provided some assurance that God was still in his heaven, even if all was wrong with the world.

During the English Civil War the best selling political propaganda was written by astrologers, who conducted a pamphlet war in parallel with the military camps of roundhead and cavalier. Surprisingly, the most gifted astrologers sided with Cromwell. This could be put down to far- sighted prophetic ability on their part, but the truth is, they were staunch Puritan and republican supporters. Only one loyal astrologer, George Wharton, accompanied the King to Oxford, issuing royalist pamphlets from a portable press as they marched.

There is no evidence that either Cromwell or the King believed in astrology, but both recognised its propaganda value. It was said at the time that Parliament's chief astrological propagandist, William Lilly, was worth several regiments. When Wharton published a pamphlet based on a map of the heavens for the time the royalists began their march from Oxford, Lilly quickly used the same starry paradigm for a feat of astrological virtuosity. Recruiting the time-honoured emblem of the sun to symbolise the King, and insisting that all heavenly portents augured his defeat, Lilly's pamphlet appeared on the very day the decisive Battle of Naseby was fought. Thus are spin doctors born.

Later in the Civil War, the 1648 siege of Colchester provided a dramatic astrological scenario. Inside the besieged royalist garrison, the astrologer John Humphrey was frantically assuring the town's governor that relief troops would soon save the day. To counter this and boost the attacking soldiers' morale, Lilly and another astrologer sympathetic to the Parliament were sent for. They assured the general and troops that the town would soon be surrendered, "as indeed it was," noted Lilly.

All wars generate prophets, whether poets, foreign office experts, spies, historians, arms dealers or soothsayers. Amid the chaos we grasp at anything that promises to bring order.

The current exhibition of Rubens' landscapes at the National Gallery shows his ecstatic response to the peaceful, sunny countryside of Flanders, liberated after many years of war. Would that such a regal sun flood the world on the next Armistice Day.

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