Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Execution of Anne Boleyn: The Prophecy of Merlin fulfilled?

Today marks the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s death. The following account details her execution from a Spanish report:

Immediately the executioner did his office; and when her head was off it was taken by a young lady and covered with a white cloth. Afterwards the body was taken by the other ladies, and the whole carried into the church nearest to the Tower of London. …Thus, he who wrote this billet says that, according to old writings, he has seen the prophecy of Marlin fulfilled.(1)

The Prophecy of Merlin
The “prophecy of Marlin” refers to the prophecy of Merlin (16th century people couldn’t spell)*. These prophecies were printed in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Book of Merlin in his Historia Regum Brittaniae. The book first appeared in the 12th century and chronicled the history of the Britons and the predictions of the wizard Merlin from the Arthurian Legend. One of these prophecies foretold that Henry should take power from Rome, ‘root out from the land all the razored skulls;’ and should neither spare, “man in his rage nor woman in his lust.” (2)

Sibyllic prophecies
During the 16th century, prophecies in England existed in two major forms. The first was Sibyllic in which initials, numbers and puns represented someone’s name. An example of a popular Sibyllic prophecy was, ‘that A B and C should sit all in one seat, and should work great marvels,’ (3) The A and B supposedly stood for Anne Boleyn while the C stood for either Cromwell or Cranmer.

Another prophecy printed in a book of prophecies featured a poisoned ink drawing illustrating a male figure labeled as “H” and two female figures labeled, “K” and “A.” The H figure obviously stood for Henry while the K and A figures stood for Henry's two dueling wives, Katherine and Anne. Unfortunately the A figure was missing her head. (Anne saw the drawings, but dismissed them as “bauble”. )

Another example of a popular Sibyllic prophecy during Henry’s reign was:

When hempe is ripe and ready to pull,
Then, Englishman, beware thy skull.”

The word “hempe” was meant to signify the beginning initials of England’s monarchs. H represented Henry VIII, E represented Edward, M represented Mary, P represented Philip II who supposedly shared in the prediction by marrying Mary, and E represented Elizabeth.

Galfriedian prophecies
The second popular form of prophecy was called Galfriedian, and employed the use of animals and other living creatures to represent a person. An example of a popular Galfriedian prophecy (and far less flattering to Anne ) was:

when this Cowe rideth the bull
than priest beware thy skull.’

The cow represented Henry VIII and the bull represented Anne Boleyn.

The prophecy that came true (sort of)
Another popular prophecy might have come true if Henry had followed through with the harsher punishment for traitors of burning. This prophecy, whose origins are unknown, predicted that a queen of England should be burnt at the stake. After the honeymoon phase had ended with Henry and the happy couple started to bicker, Anne might have taken this prediction more seriously. In an argument with Henry she told her husband that it had been said that a queen of England would be burnt but, “even if I were to suffer a thousand deaths, my love for you would not abate one jot’. (5) I wonder is she would have still felt this way with her head missing?

Prophecies, like rumors, are interesting to dissect because they often reflect the people’s fears and hopes. Stay tuned for a future post on the predictions of Elizabeth Barton, The Holy Maid of Kent.

*ok, they could spell, but their spelling was not confined to an alphabet of 26 letters nor any strict spelling convention. If you were to step back in the 16th century and tell Elizabeth I that she couldn't spell she might say, God's teeth! and send you along your way as a crazy person. For a further description of the Tudor alphabet - Read the The Raucous Royals by yours truly.

(1) 'Henry VIII: May 1536, 16-20', Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536 (1887), pp. 371-391
(2) Mackay, p 281
(3) Dodds, p4
(4) Mackay, p 281
(5) Starkey, Kindle location 7161

Sources and Further Reading:
Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, New Yorkm, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1995.
Starkey, David. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Political Prophecies in the Reign of Henry VIII, Dodds, Madeleine Hope, The Modern Language Review, Voll 11, No. 3 (Jul., 1916) pp. 276-284.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.


ReginaB said...

I see you did do a blog on Anne's death. I have been wondering since yesterday's email I sent what you would write. And I have to say I was not disappointed. (I rarely am with your blogs.) Your blogs are always so interesting and at times funny. If I wasn't such a lover of history already, I would definetly be one after visiting your site. Where can we find out more about these prophecies? Like Merlin's or Nostradamous(spellcheck..lol)?

Passages to the Past said...

Fantastic post! I just love coming here and learning - history is the coolest! And you make it fun too!

Xtina said...

I know your audience for this blog is not Renaissnce scholars, but it's a little unfair to say that 16th Century people couldn't spell. Spelling simply wasn't stabilized into one system everyone agreed on because print was still pretty new.

Unknown said...

I have to agree with fantome14. Americans couldn't spell consistently either until Webster (who standardized our spelling in the first American dictionary...) And that was well past the 16th century :-)

Bearded Lady said...

Regina - thanks again for the reminder. I would have hated to miss Anne Boleyn's death.

Amy - As always, thanks for visiting.

fantome14 and kasandra – The spelling comment was a joke! I actually think most of the people who visit this blog have a basic understanding of the Renaissance and if they are younger...hopefuly they have read my book :)

My book (The Raucous Royals) explains how the Tudor alphabet worked and this site is designed to be enjoyed along with the book...sort of like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sure, some people eat jelly sandwiches and some people eat peanut butter sandwiches, but it’s a proven fact that you need both protein and carbs to develop full brain capacity and enjoy history blogs… so to heck with them!

But you are right. I don't want to confuse anyone. I will add one of my handy footnotes explaining my sarcasm.

Bearded Lady said...

speaking of decreased brain capacity...Regina I forgot to answer you questions. There are tons and tons of books on Nostradamus. The history channel did a really interesting biography on him too. (Make sure to get the recent one because historians have uncovered a lot of new information about him in the last 5 years).

The Merlin prophecies were really tedious to read but if you must....here is an online version:


I also recommend all the books and articles listed in my sources.

ReginaB said...

OMG! Can people not take a joke? LOL They must not read your blog very much if they don't get your jokes and sense of humor. Thanks for the info. I just find things like that interesting. Guess I am quirky that way.

Xtina said...

In my defense, I am new-ish to the blog and it's hard to tell sarcasm online, especially if you are not yet accustomed to a writer's style.

Bearded Lady said...

Fantone14- Seriously, No worries. Typically, I do usually try to footnote any sarcasm that might be misunderstood or just drop it out all together. My inner editor was a little rushed on this post. I just figured out yesterday the anniversary of Anne’s death was today so I had a mad scramble to collect my notes and come up with something sort of interesting.

btw, I always appreciate anyone bringing to my attention any writing that might be misunderstood. So thanks for your comment!

Lucy said...

What a fantastic post! I always learn so many details and interesting facts here- love it!

Unknown said...

Bearded Lady - I'm a great fan of your blog, and enjoy it immensely. I apologize for not discerning the sarcasm! Thank you for adding the footnote.

By the way, I found this page at the Ryedale Folk Museum Web site that compares the current alphabet with the Tudor alphabet:


Enjoy your humor!

Unknown said...

I should know by now to use tiny URLs in blog posts! Here's the link to the Ryedale Folk Museum's page showing the Tudor alphabet:


Bearded Lady said...

Hi Kassandra, Wonderful! Thanks for the link. I love the way they wrote. I think stylistically this is a great way to show kids how they formed letters, but one might get the impression from it that a Tudor alphabet can be neatly translated into our modern alphabet. I wish Palaeography was that simple. Words were often spelt phonetically. Vowel sounds were especially tricky. They further confuse with minims (spelling?)instead of forming letters neatly. I am certainly no expert on the subject and over the years, I have tried to pick up bits and pieces here and there but it still confuses me.

The best way to see how kids learned the alphabet is to look at hornbooks. Here is an example of one.

You will notice that there is no letter for “i.” (a “j” worked double time as an “i’ too.) The letters u and v were often used interchangeably and two “v”s were used to replace the “w.” (sigh) It gets kind of messy! But I am guessing that the Ryedale people tried to simplify it so that they wouldn’t give some poor kid a headache. Spelling in English is hard enough.

Bearded Lady said...

sorry...I just spelled your name wrong and there is no edit function (that I know of?) in the comments field.

See....haha I told you I couldn't spell.

Ana Sofía said...

Loved the post! A few days ago I was watching on youtube a part from an episode of season 2 when Anne finds the cards and one of them was sliced and I thought the profecy thing was fiction but wow this is so interesting!

Melisa Cabello said...

Great blog! I discovered this little jewel today (I don't remember how... from link to link to link to link) and I couldn't stop reading it! I can't wait to see more entries... maybe something about Spanish monarchs (Juana la Loca is a real treat!)

Thanks for the blog!

The Anne Boleyn Files said...

A fantastic blog post, as usual. You always manage to amaze me with new knowledge - that's so interesting about the prophecies. Thanks, Carlyn, you do a great job here.

Carrie K said...

Yup, excellent post and information as always!

They couldn't spell in the past and the future doesn't look good either. ;) R U w/me? Argh.

Fitzroy said...

Given the 500 year anniversary of Henry's ascention to the thrown is this year...what will you do celebrate?

ReginaB said...

That's very true CarrieK! Very true....and I'll admit I can't spell have the time either. If there are any doubts about that you can read my 1st comment on this particular blog. LOL I needed spellcheck!

Shako said...

My elder gave me a fiction? book on Nostradamus. And yah know? I haven't even read five pages in yet. From my understanding it begins with Nostradamus going hysterical and a king laughing at him and the mom of the king telling the king not to. I'll try and read more, I guess Nostro don't interest me as much as Napoleon...

Archie said...

Wow! It was so cool having to know this blog site. The information is very useful. Just like KimClement. Please visit KimClement.com because there's a lot information about prophecy, prophet, and etc.