Book Review: The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner


The Magick of Master Lilly tells the story of the English Civil War from the perspective of William Lilly, an influential astrologer in an age when magic and witchcraft were increasingly held in mistrust. Beginning with a summons to read the King’s star chart, the book takes in a secret cabal of astrologers, a forbidden love affair, and the bloody conclusion of the War.

Sandwiched between the colourful Tudor and Restoration periods, the first half of the 17th century and the Civil War are comparatively neglected by historical novelists. Yet the era is of pivotal importance in English history and in Tobsha Lerner’s hands it becomes a fascinating period in its own right. What I liked best about this book was the picture it built up of mid-17th century England. London in particular is shown as a place of fear and confusion and rumour, where death roams the streets and food is often in short supply. Elsewhere suspicion rules the cities and the countryside is lawless. The witchfinder is hard at work, and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans are intent on stamping out Catholicism, idolatry and magical practices. Pleasures of every kind seem to be threatened.

Central to the story is William Lilly and his craft. The book is a fascinating exploration of magic and astrology, although Lilly seems to succeed as much through politics and guile as by magic, and he is not above trickery on occasion. He is at pains to point out that the stars are just a guide – “it is important that the Philomath must perform his art with morality and discretion” – and that there are limitations to magic.

The politics of the time are interesting. The members of Lilly’s secret society of astrologers have different allegiances but are united in their desire for peace and in their need to protect their profession from persecution. Lilly himself is inwardly Puritan but outwardly bipartisan, whereas his lover Magdalene – also a member of the society – is a Catholic. The author makes frequent use of masks, both in the society and at masked balls, to illustrate the need to hide both inner thoughts and public identity.

I would occasionally have liked a bit of explanation, for instance of the witchfinder’s bodkin. And I found the slightly archaic language a bit irksome. But these are minor quibbles: The Magick of Master Lilly is recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about life during the Civil War, or about 17th century magic.

The Magick of Master Lilly is published by Sphere, 2018. ISBN 9780751562132

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