Tuesday, May 19, 2009
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)
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.” (4)
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.
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.