Northern Illinois University
Among the Folger's manuscripts are several copies of "Merlin's Prophecy," an early seventeenth-century poem concerning James I (and VI of Scotland). One of these appears on the title page of a printed copy of James' own works; one is on a single sheet in the hand of George More, John Donne's father-in-law; another is in a book of mainly parliamentary and political documents, written in a variety of hands from 1550 to 1650. There, one page begins with the rhymed "Merlin's Prophecy," written as continuous prose, followed by four more prose prophecies in the same hand; marginal notes to two of these indicate that they were written "by me, Thomas Gee."
These three versions are illustrated here. George More's, in a current italic hand ; Thomas Gee's, in a small, tidy secretary hand and that from the title page of James I's works, probably in the hand of Jean L'Oiseau de Tourval, the owner of the volume in 1626. Here I transcribe More's version.
Under the Tudor rulers, Arthurian legend, including Merlin, took on an important role in unifying a nation recovering from civil wars. The Tudors claimed descent from the ancient British kings, and Henry VIII named his oldest son Arthur to recall the famed sovereign. Writers such as Spenser retold or re-used the old stories in newly self-conscious, literary ways, in contrast to the older chronicles and romances. In the seventeenth century, however, the literary popularity of Arthur lapsed, not to recover until the nineteenth century took a new (and often nationalist) interest in the Middle Ages. The Puritans took a dim view of frivolous, old romances suffused with papistry; the Restoration found inspiration elsewhere; the Enlightenment, again, frowned on time-wasting fantasies about the legendary past.
Although high literary culture generally disdained Arthur and Merlin through these centuries, their popularity survived in more modest places. A series of almanacs with titles referring to Merlin appears at least through the eighteenth century; such printed books often became diaries or anthologies of sorts, in which owners noted quotations, kept accounts, or entered other material they wished to retain. And prophecies also kept the name of Merlin alive. In at least some cases, these prophecies remain in manuscript because their inscriber feared the consequences of publication. In his manuscript Tract on the Succession to the Crown, written in 1602, Sir John Harington says, "I write to my dearest freind, and am afraid that my study walles may accuse me. But . . . as long as I do not printe nor publishe it I break no lawe, for I have redd and double redd the Statute . . ." (39).
Among the information that Harington considers is a prophecy translated from Welsh (he gives the original as well as a translation), which he characterizes as "elder than my great grandfather. . . 1, a babe crownd in his cradle; 2, markt with a lyon in his skyn; 3, shall recover againe the crosse; 4, shall make the ile of Brutus whole and unparted; 5, and to growe hence forward better and better" (120). The first two elements of Harington's prophecy, though unrhymed, correspond precisely to the beginning of the verse "Merlin's Prophecy"; the other three might be read into it by a sympathetic reader.
As advisor to King Arthur, Merlin has long figured prominently in Arthurian legends. Welsh legends tell of a bard with the gift of prophecy who lived in the sixth century. Nennius, in the ninth century, includes the story of a fatherless boy with magical powers outstripping those of King Vortigern's magicians. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the twelfth century, associates this story with Merlin and adds the details of his begetting by a demon on a human woman, thus explaining his prophetic and other powers. Writers since the twelfth century have accepted and elaborated on Geoffrey's version, which he claimed to have based on a Welsh book. No phrases in Geoffrey precisely match those of the seventeenth century rhymed prophecy, arguing against a direct connection, but the riddling language of each shows continuity in the genre of prophecy.
Coote, Lesley. "Merlin, Erceldoune, Nixon: a Tradition of Popular Political Prophecy." New Medieval Literatures 4 (2001), 117-37.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. Histories of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Sebastian Evans. London: Dent, 1963.
Harington, John. A Tract on the Succession to the Crown. Ed. Clements R. Markham. London: Roxburghe Club, 1880.
Jansen, Sharon L. Political Protest and Prophecy under Henry VIII. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 1991.
Kugel, James L., ed. Poetry and Prophecy: the Beginnings of a Literary Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.