The Mysticism of Astrologers & Astronomers in the Late Renaissance

For the historical novel I’m currently working on, I’m researching all things Elizabethan. I also have a short fiction workshop starting in two weeks, and my research is giving me a lot of fodder for short stories. I’m amazed by how liberal Elizabeth I was in her beliefs in astrology, astronomy, and even alchemy. The Queen’s interest in “magic” and “mysticism,” as it was viewed at the time, is seen in how she chose the date of her coronation. John Dee, one of the most fascinating men of the Elizabethan Era, was an astrologer, alchemist, mathematician, and astronomer (among other things).

John Dee, 1527-1609

John Dee, 1527-1609

Dee forecasted Elizabeth’s horoscope and told her that January 15, 1559 should be her coronation date. That was, in fact, the day of her coronation. I’m assuming that Elizabeth’s Protestantism allowed her to explore scientific beliefs. But I’m a writer first and only an aspiring historian working towards a B.A. in History. Considering the European Renaissance was a “rebirth” that promoted forward-thinking, I can see how Elizabeth would be interested in mysticism and having her horoscope forecasted. Yet, when England was ruled under her half-sister, Mary Tudor, the devout Catholic queen who reigned before Elizabeth, such “magical” practices and books were banned. People were burned at the stake for owning books relating to astrology or for forecasting the future.

What’s more fascinating is that in Italy, Church officials sentenced Italian astronomer Galileo to life in prison.  And this was in 1633, thirty years after Elizabeth’s death.  Galileo resided in Catholic Italy and Elizabeth in Protestant England, but it’s thought-provoking to consider how religious divides affected the Scientific Revolution in different parts of Europe.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Giusto Sustermans

Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Giusto Sustermans

Galileo wasn’t even dabbling in magical subjects like alchemy, that I know of.  Nonetheless, I would think that scientific practices would’ve been more acceptable three decades later.  When Galileo visited Rome in 1611 with his telescope, authorities in the city wouldn’t even look through it.  Since a telescope showed things that weren’t visible to the naked eye, they considered it devil’s work and comparable to hearing voices and seeing apparitions.

I would love to hear others’ views on this topic.  It’s fascinating to see the differences between Protestant England, where Elizabeth employed John Dee, and yet, in Rome, the Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo for his research, writings,  and beliefs.