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Astrology in Britain Before the Normans

This article was first published as ‘Astrology in England Before the Normans’ in Astrology: The Astrologers’ Quarterly, Summer 1982, Vol. 56 no 2, pp 51-8. Footnotes have been added reflecting work in the area since then.

1. Introduction

There is a general assumption amongst historians and astrologers that Britain was an astrological backwater in Medieval times, and that astrology only flourished after the twelfth century with the rediscovery of classical learning.(1) Like all general historical assumptions this deserves to be challenged, and my purpose in this article is to show that although Anglo-Saxon England contained little that we would recognise as either astrology or astronomy, it may have contained the seed which was later to produce some of the finest astrological minds in Europe. My argument is that in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 there existed two separate conditions for subsequent astrological growth. The first was the existence of a general climate of opinion which placed great importance on astronomical observances and planetary symbolism, and which we may call an 'astrological viewpoint'. The second was the presence within monastic libraries of sufficient astrological texts and references for a literate person to be able to study the subject formally.

I will concentrate on the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, which extended roughly from 550 to 1066 A.D., but I will also refer to previous eras and so have called my period the 'Pre-Norman' in order to present a unified case. No such division of history exists, but the scarcity of historical sources makes it possible to consider the history of astrology in this way. Historical source material for the period in Europe between the fifth and tenth centuries is very limited, and historical theories of the period contain more than the usual amount of inference based on little evidence. This is a characteristic which this article shares, but it does so with all the standard works on this period.

It is inevitable that discussion of the early material much include a degree of speculation, but I would prefer to be honest about this than disguise opinion as fact.

II. The Existence of an 'Astrological Viewpoint' in Britain Before the Normans

The inhabitants of England in the centuries before the Norman invasion were the inheritors of several distinct races and cultures, and if we look at each we may see the evidence of astrological concerns. The main influences were Celtic and Germanic, but Pre-Celtic and Roman influences were also of major importance.

A) Pre-Celts and Celts

The evidence of the megalithic stone circles indicates that the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain may have been the possessors of a highly sophisticated intellectual system by about 3,000 B.C. As the work of Alexander Thom has shown, these people may have placed incredible importance on the observation of celestial cycles, although we do not know how they used their findings for they left no written remains.(2) The history of planetary observation in north western Europe may therefore date back at least 5,000, and possibly 6,000 years.

Megalithic culture appears to have been in decline around 1500 BC, if we take the apparent abandonment of Stonehenge as evidence. There is a severe gap in our knowledge between then and the arrival of the Celts, with their Druidic priesthood in the second and first centuries BC. We do know that Druidic astronomers were highly respected, for many classical scholars refer to their skill, and we must assume that they were aware of the developments taking place in astrology through their trading links between Britain and the eastern Mediterranean.(3) It was not until the time of Christ that we hear of a Druid visiting the east, when the arrival of a Druid named Abaris in Athens was recorded by the geographer Strabo. Abaris created quite a stir among the Greeks, and no doubt they would have explained to him the system of creating a map of the heavens as a system of divination.

One of the Druids' most favoured method of divination was to analyse the shape of the clouds, and the Celtic word for this, naladoracht, appears also to have been applied to astrology (we are reminded of the eighth century BC Babylonian omen collection, the Enuma Anu Enlil, in which meterological and celestial omens are considered together) Presumably they adjusted to the climate looking at the stars when they could, and observing the clouds when they couldn't. Certain references, which have been assumed to apply to astrology, exist in the Celtic literature of Ireland. One such story relates how a diviner scans the heavens and tells the father of St. Columkille that the time is propitious for his son to begin his lessons. The references are to Ireland, however, and such practices may well have been influenced by the Romans during their long occupation of England and Wales.(4) On the other hand, Irish practices may have been representative of a Celtic tradition that influenced Roman practices. This is at least a possibility worth considering.

B) The Romans, 43 - 410 AD.

Roman culture began to influence south-east England around the time of Julius Caesar's raids in 55 and 54 B.C., and became dominant with the Roman occupation from about 43 A.D. to 410 A.D. The Romans introduced their divinatory practices to Britain with the first legions, for every Roman army was accompanied by its soothsayers, and from this time on there may have been practicing astrologers in this country. Their numbers were probably few, for Britain was an outpost of the Empire, and outside the south-east most of the new inhabitants were soldiers living in military garrisons who would have had less use for a personal astrologer than the cosmopolitan Italians. The Romans also introduced the worship of planetary gods and goddesses, setting up temples dedicated to Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the Sun god, Apollo, all of whom were worshipped alongside existing Celtic deities.

In the following centuries Roman soldiers from the east introduced some of the new mystery cults, chief among which was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun-God, to whom a shrine was established at Corbridge in Northumberland in 162-3 A.D. The astrological component of such religions is uncertain, but may have been substantial.

The most highly organised religion in later Roman Britain also had strong associations with Sun worship and had a popularity which extended to all classes of people, rich and poor. This was the cult of Mithras, the Persian god of Zoroastrian origin. Mithras was sometimes portrayed as wearing a crown of Sun-rays and sometimes as being accompanied by the Sun, and many of his temples were rich and impressive. One shrine, at Housesteads, made a specific link with astrology, presenting Mithras against a background of solar brilliance, and enclosed within a circle of the signs of the Zodiac.

The Romans ruled in Britain for approximately 350 years and it is inconceivable to imagine that their concern both for astrology and for planetary worship had no lasting effect on the native peasant population of the country, as well as on those scholarly traditions which survived the intellectual decline of the subsequent centuries.(5)

C) The Early Medieval Period 410-1066 A.D.

After the Romans finally departed around 410 A.D. there followed first approximately a century of British independence and then a hundred years of Anglo-Saxon migration and expansion, after which we may talk about Anglo-Saxon England - as distinct to the still Celtic areas of Scotland and Wales. It is important to realise that there was no great catastrophe after the Romans left, no sudden destruction of civilisation and descent into a 'dark age'. What took place was a gradual process of decentralisation during which the focus of the economy shifted away from the towns to the countryside, and political units followed suit, becoming much smaller. The Germanic invasions formed part of this process, and so while in 490 A.D. the semi-mythical Arthur may well have been king of much of southern Britain, by 600 A.D. there were probably about a dozens kingdoms occupying the same area. Communication became much slower, and with the shift back to a peasant economy the society became almost illiterate. Learning was concentrated in a few monastic libraries, but did not disappear, while in the countryside there was a shift in tradition from Celtic to Germanic. We therefore have ample ground for assuming a cultural continuity first from Roman to Romano-British times, and from these to the period of the Anglo-Saxons.

It is certain that the British leaders of the fifth century, about whom we know so little, Vortigern, Aurelius Ambrosianus and Arthur, would have been familiar with astrology, and that the people they ruled were quite familiar with the worship of the Sun and the Moon, and possibly other planetary deities, as Christianity had by no means removed all pagan beliefs - and for Christians astrology was unambigously pagan. Before much of Britain succumbed to restored paganism (this time, illiterate) under the Anglo-Saxons, Christianity was introduced into Ireland following Palladius' mission in 431 and Patrick's in 432. The result was the remarkable flowering of Celtic Christianity, the marriage of Hellenistic and Classical learning with the wisdom of the Irish Celts, which had never been subject to Roman control. The first great school was founded by Eudo (c.450-540) at Aranmore and in the seventh and eight centuries Irish clerics exported Irish scholarship to northern Europe, establishing foundations across northern Europe, including Luxeuil, Gall, Wurzburg, Salzburg, Tarantum and Bobbio and founded a diocese of the Celtic Church in Galicia. The possible astrological/astronomical component in the learning of the Celtic Christians has so far not been the subject of rigorous scholarship.(6) What we do know, though, is that Irish Christianity, having been founded by the British, was the vehicle by which what was left of classical learning was reintroduced to England in the eighth century.

In Britain itself there may have been a smooth transition between Celtic and Romano-British practices and those of the Germanic tribes, who observed the soli-lunar cycle and were accustomed to holding their assemblies on the lunations, even though the collapse of literacy meant that the study of classical texts would also have virtually died out. Traditions of Sun and Moon worship were very strong in this country, and survived beyond the prohibitive laws of King Cnut after 1013 (7) and well into the seventeenth century.(8)

There were many different varieties of divination practiced in Anglo-Saxon England. As far as we know, astrology as we understand it was not included, but much divination was based on planetary correspondence with numbers, with days of the week and with plants and herbs (for medicine and agriculture). In addition a great emphasis was placed on the observation of celestial phenomena, such as comets, a rare event, eclipses and lunar phases.(9) A general regard for the movements and significance of the celestial bodies does not constitute the horoscopic astrology, but it does indicate both the existence of an 'astrological view-point', and the presence of receptive ground in which astrology proper might take root and grow.

i). The Existence of Astrology in Anglo-Saxon Learning

If horoscopic astrology existed in Anglo-Saxon England, even only as theory rather than practice, then its preservation would have been secured through the monasteries, the only centres of learning at this time. These institutions contained vast libraries, together with monks who made the copying of ancient texts one of their major tasks, and formed part of an international organisation which supported intellectual communication between England, the rest of north-west Europe, and the countries of the east. Until the Arab invasions of the seventh century the Christian east included Egypt, and any theologian lecturing in Alexandria would have had his work read by monks in Glastonbury. Among the debates of the fifth and sixth centuries was that concerning the relationship between astrology and Christianity, and the discussion as to the compatibility of their respective philosophies. Such discussions extended throughout the entire church, including the monasteries of England.

In the seventh and eight centuries the English scholars Bede and Alcuin told of the existence in England of sizeable libraries of which we now have no trace, for they were destroyed during such upheavals as the Danish invasions and the Reformation.(10) The largest of these libraries was in Glastonbury, and was probably founded during the fifth century when Roman culture still flourished, but was later destroyed by fire. The monks who started this library may have been hostile to astrology, but even Christians who condemned astrology regarded pagan learning as worthy of preservation, St. Augustine being a notable example. Thus it's likely that the collection included at least one work on astrology. These monasteries, such as Glastonbury and Iona, survived the Germanic invasions, reflecting the external change in their submission of Celtic independence to Catholic control, but behind their doors maintaining intact their systems of learning. Lynn Thorndike, for example, claims that there was much copying of classics by monks in the eighth and ninth centuries, classics which may well have contained astrological references. What is certain is that even if these libraries contained no works on astrology, they at least included texts which contained references to astrology. Chief amongst these would have been the Etymologiae of Isdidore, who was bishop of Seville, and lived from around 560 to 656 A.D. The Etymologiae was an encyclopaedia which listed all the principal methods of divination, including astrology. Although Isidore followed the ex-astrologer St. Augustine in condemning natal astrology as the work of the Devil, he repeated the traditional planetary qualities and supported the use both of Medical astrology and of a simple Mundane astrology. He did this so enthusiastically that it was possible for later commentators to portray him as a supporter of astrology. Indeed, Michael Scot, the great thirteenth century English scholastic astrologer, presented both Boethius and Isidore as astrological authorities.(11)

These works were well known in Anglo-Saxon England and the seventh century chronicler Bede refers to them. Yet were literary contacts the only ones which English scholars had with astrology? Theodore Wedel assumes that they were(12) and that those who repeated Isidore's condemnation of astrology did so merely because this was the custom. One such condemnation was that found in the Homilies of Aelfric Vol. 1, p.111.(13)

We read that:

'we are also to know that there were some heretics who said that every man is born according to the position of the stars, and that by their course his destiny befalls him, and advised in support of their error, that a new star sprang up when the Lord was corporally born, and said that the new star was his destiny. Let this error depart from believing hearts …. Man is not created for the stars, but the stars for man'.

This condemnation is an apparent reference to past errors but the declaration that 'No Christian man shall practice anything in the way of divination by the Moon', is a more explicit reference to practices which were probably contemporary. If Aelfric had no worries about the practice of astrology in England at the time then why did he make these statements?

Bede, who lived between 671 and 735 A.D., and was the greatest English scholar of his time, actively observed the Heavens. He was much influenced by both the Roman scholar Pliny, and by Isidore, whose condemnation of astrology he echoed. Yet in spite of this condemnation, his De Natura Rerum draws on Pliny, describing Saturn as cold, Jupiter as temperate, and Mars as glowing. He only stops at repeating the assertion that Venus was the nourisher of all things on Earth for this would have denied that duty to God. Bede also repeated statements on thunder divination, relating it to the four points of the compass, the seven days of the week, and the twelve months of the year. His greatest interest, however, was in comets, and in the De Natura Rerum he repeats Isidore's claim that comets were evil omens. In the Ecclesiastical History chapters 4 and 5, he demonstrates a practical application of this assertion by associating the comet of 729 A.D. with the incursions of the Saracens into Gaul and the death of King Osric of Northumbria.

We have in Bede at least one example of a scholar who looked at the heavens and made a corresponding observation of an event on the Earth, but we must also consider the evidence that astrology of a more sophisticated variety existed in Anglo-Saxon England.

ii). Astrological Practice in Anglo-Saxon England

The earliest reference we have to the practice of astrology in Anglo-Saxon England comes in a passage in Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth century chronicle, The History of the Kings of Britain. In book twelve Geoffrey relates the story of Pellitus, an 'astrologus' employed by King Edwin of Northumbria who reigned from c.616 to 632 A.D., some eighty years after the probable date of the death of Arthur. Geoffrey's work is often highly romanticised, but usually contains a core of truth, and the story is well worth repeating. Pellitus came to England from Spain, which was at that time still ruled by the Visigothic kings, and, according to Geoffrey, he was 'extremely knowledgeable about the flight of birds and the courses of the stars'.(14) Edwin was at that time engaged in a war with a British confederation led by the Celtic leader Cadwallo, and Pellitus offered his services to the Northumbrian king. Using Pellitus' skills Edwin anticipated Cadwallo's movements and was able to surprise him, defeating his army and sinking his navy. Pellitus's success was such that he appears to have taken direct command of Edwin's army, but he was assassinated by Brian, Cadwallo's nephew, around 631 AD. The death of Pellitus appears to have been such a morale booster for the British that they attacked and defeated Edwin, killing him in battle in 632 AD. Could Geoffrey's story be true? We just don't know, for while Geoffrey clearly embroidered many of his stories there is no reason why an ambitious monarch such as Edwin should not have regarded it as a necessary status symbol to have employed an astrologer.

There are, however, no contemporaneous accounts of skilled astrologers in England until we come across the figure of Alcuin in the eighth century. Alcuin was born in England in 735 A.D., the year of Bede's death, and was to become the pupil of Bede's pupil, Egbert. Sometime in the 770s Alcuin met Charlemagne, King of the Franks and first Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne persuaded Alcuin to join him and become his tutor, which Alcuin did, becoming not only chief advisor to the Emperor, but also working from his position as Abbot of St Martin (near Tours), the greatest teacher of his time in western Europe. We read about Alcuin in the biographies of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, and while Einhard described him as 'the most learned man anywhere to be found',(15) Notker praised him as 'a man more skilled than any other person in modern times'.(16). Einhard further reports that 'under him (Alcuin) the Emperor spent much time and effort in studying rhetoric, dialectic and especially astrology (my emphasis). He applied himself to mathematics and traced the course of the stars with great attention and care'.(17) The implication is that by 800 A.D. astrology in the hands of an English monk, was recognised as one of the major intellectual disciplines, and that its study went beyond the records of eclipses and sunspots which we know from the Annales regni Francorum were collected at the time. Alcuin must have had access to enough references to astrology to be able to bring them together to form a body of knowledge recognised as a separate study. We can only speculate as to what classical texts he may have seen. We know that the future Pope Sylvester II studied the works of the Roman astrologer Firmicus Maternus in Spain before 1,000 A.D., yet his access to this text was probably through the Arabs. What, then, lay behind Alcuin's study of astrology?

Most histories state that astrological texts did not exist in Europe before the twelfth century, yet Thorndike states that astrological learning was the first branch of study to revive in the ninth century following the intellectual stagnation of the Merovingian period (up to c. 750 AD.). It is clear that the English monk Alcuin was crucial in this revival, for his school was the intellectual centre of western Europe and astrology was one of his most favoured subjects. We must ask ourselves what astrological texts Alcuin studied while in England, texts which cannot have been translated from the Arabic, but which must have been preserved from the Roman era.

The period of Charlemagne and Alcuin marked a watershed in the study and practice of astrology: it has been argued that within a very short time every Carolingian prince, duke and count had his own astrologer. Kings, councils and bishops recommended the study of astronomy to the clergy, the results of which according to Goujet (Histoire Litteraire de la France, 1737) was an enormous increase in the number of astrologers. Through the political function of these priestly astrologers as clerks to kings and princes, astrology thus entered the realm of the ninth century court.(18) Astrology began its revival almost two hundred years before the first texts were translated from the Arabic, and if this was the case in France then it must have been so in England, for the proximity of the two countries meant that the Church, the carrier of knowledge, recognised no boundaries.

To what extent this revival took hold in England we cannot be sure, for it is only after the demise of the Anglo-Saxon Kings that we find a king of England with a chaplain who was also an astrologer; it was said of Gilbert Naminot, bishop of Lisieux and chaplain and physician to William the Conqueror, that he would rather spend his nights watching the stars than sleeping.(19) No doubt he observed the comet of 1065 which heralded the final collapse of the English Saxon monarchy.

III. Conclusion

Out of the many forms of divination practiced in Anglo-Saxon England astrology existed only in a crude form. The society was mainly non-literate and agricultural, and divination tended to be based on easily observable phenomena, such as thunder, wind or clouds, or in the case of the sky, comets, eclipses and lunar phases. Planetary correspondences, days of the week and times of the day were considered important, but there was no unified system such as the horoscope, in widespread use, to bring them all together.

Astrology suffered from two limitations; the absence of a literate class outside the monasteries, and the general hostility of that class to a practice which they saw as threatening their belief system. The condemnation of these monks was, however, directed only at natal astrology, and they were all sympathetic to the use of 'natural astrology', the interpretation of natural phenomena through astrology.

The evidence for the practice of horoscope astrology in Anglo-Saxon England is negligible, yet we cannot ignore the case of Alcuin, the monk from Iona whose work in Germany and France provided the catalyst for an astrological revival which preceded the Arabic translations. Alcuin's work must have been based on texts surviving in monastic libraries. Indeed Alcuin may be seen as the first of a line of great English scholars who were to elevate the study of astrology on the continent, and who were to include Adelard of Bath, Michael Scot, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. This one man makes it certain that astrology existed in pre-Norman England as a direct continuation of an earlier learning.


1. Tester, Jim, A History of Western Astrology, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press 1987, p 113, also, pp 114-148.

2. See Thom, Alexander, The Stone Circles of Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1967, and Ruggles, Clive, Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1999 for a recent academic survey of archaeoastronomy in Britain and Ireland.

3. See Chadwick, Nora K., The Druids, Cardiff: University of Wales Press 1966

4. Joyce, P.W., A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 2 vols., London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1903, Vol. I p. 229, 230, 233, 435.

5. Richmond I. Roman Britain, Harmonsworth, Middlesex: Penguin,1955 p.189, 210, 211

6.. See Marina Smythe, Understanding the Universe in Seventh Century Ireland, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press 1996.

7. Wedel T. The Medieval Attitude to Astrology, Especially in England 1920, p. 42

8. Thomas K. Religion and the Decline of Magic, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1971. p. 458.

9. Thorndike L. History of Magic and Experimental Science 1958, New York: Columbia University Press. Vol. I, p.678-9.

10. Poole R. Medieval Thought, p.19, 21.

11. Thorndike. Bk. 5, Chap. 51.

12. Wedel. p.30.

13. Bonser W. The Medical Background to Anglo-Saxon England 1963, p. 156.

14. Geoffrey of Monmouth. History of the Kings of Britain, Book 12, Chapter 4, trans Lewis Thorpe, Harmondsworth Middlesex: Penguin 1965.

15. Einhard. Life of Charlemagne, Book 2, Chapter 25.

16. Notker the Stammerer. Life of Charlemagne, Book 1, Chap. 2.

17. Einhard, Book 2, Chapter 25.

18. Thorndike. Vol. I p.672-3.

19. Thorndike, Vol. I, p.673.

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