Saturday, January 12, 2008

Star Wars

One of the most flamboyant quarrels in literary history was that between Elizabethan poets Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey but it was preceded by a much earlier quarrel involving Harvey's brothers Richard and John who were deeply interested in astrology. As it is less well-known than the Nashe/Harvey dispute, I am posting a short article I wrote recently about this astrological spat:

Star Wars

In the 16th Century astrology was taken seriously - so seriously that the Essex market town of Saffron Walden became the focus for one of the strangest quarrels in English history when a Saffron Walden astrologer predicted the end of the world.

The quarrel centred around two brothers from Saffron Walden - Richard and John Harvey - the sons of wealthy local rope-maker John Harvey, and brothers of the poet Gabriel Harvey. All three brothers went to Cambridge University, and developed an interest in astrology - a subject closely connected to both science and mathematics at the time.

In 1583 Richard Harvey provoked widespread alarm and controversy when he predicted that the world would come to an end on April 28th a day when “two superior planets” Saturn and Jupiter were in conjunction:

“A great sterility and barrenness of the earth shall ensue; there will be shipwerecks, burnings, and other fiery and watery calamites; much envy, hatred, quarrelling, and strife will spring up; ecclesiastical persons will be persecuted, and many great men and nobel personages will be treachersously entanged, to their overthrow, disgrace, and dishonour. It is quite possible that a fearful comet will follow, and the very frame of the worlde, cannot endure long after.”

Harvey incurred a considerable amount of public scorn for his predictions, and Bishop Aylmer preached against Harvey’s book at Paul’s Cross. But he was defended by his younger brother John, who although still only 19, published his own “Astrological Addition” in an attempt to answer Richard’s critics.

One of the first to challenge Harvey’s pediction of catastrophe was the renowned mathematician Thomas Heth who quickly published a book in which he attacked errors in Harvey’s calculations and the disasterous consequences that would result from the planetary conjunction.

After April 28th it was obvious to everyone that the Harvey brothers predictions had failed and Richard was subjected to a country-wide storm of ridicule. Several derisive ballads were written about him and he was mocked on the London stage.

Astrology itself became the subject of attack - particularly from Henry Howard, who wrote “A Defensative Against the Poyson of Supposed Prophecies.” Howard was a controversial man. He was the youngest son of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, and later inherited his house and lands at Audley End (near Saffron Walden). Following the execution of his father in 1552 and his brother in 1572 (both for treason), he became involved in the shady world of court conspiracies.

Soon after the publication of his “Defensative” he was was arrested, accused of “seeming heresies and treason” and confined in London’s Fleet Prison for several months.

The Harveys got off more lightly - Richard gave up astrology, and became a minister in the Church, while John Harvey pursued his interest and published several almanacs . But their failed predictions were not forgotten, and the Harvey brothers remained the target for some of the best known writers in Elizabethan England, including Shakespeare, who made them characters in some of his plays.

[first published in the Walden Local, January 9, 2008]