Skimble-skamble stuff

Merlinus, from the Nuremburg Chronicles (the same woodcut was used for other prophets)

The dreamer Merlin

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I Hotspur refers irritably to Owen Glendower’s tales “of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies … and such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff”. He leaves us in no doubt that Welsh divination is all “rambling” and “worthless” nonsense (as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable interprets it). Prophecies attributed to Merlin have had mixed reviews over the centuries, largely depending on the mindset of the audience. Have they any relevance now?

Trying to divine the future has been a human activity that long predates press horoscopes. The Old Testament had its prophets and its interpreters of dreams such as Joseph, and Insular Celts were no less keen on divination than other cultures. However, unlike the personal divination familiar to folk practices, most foretelling that has been recorded historically relates to the political fates of societies, peoples and their rulers. To this latter class belongs the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.

Ambrosius

One of the most famous of such political predictions was recounted in the early 9th century. This was in the tale of Emrys or Ambrosius from chapters 40-42 of the Historia Brittonum. Here the “child without a father” (even though he later declares that “My father is one of the consuls of the Roman people”) interprets the two fighting dragons as symbolic of the Britons and the English:

“the white one is the dragon of the people who have seized many peoples and countries in Britain, and will reach almost from sea to sea; but later our people will arise, and will valiantly throw the English people across the sea” (Morris 1980: 31).

Not until Geoffrey of Monmouth three centuries later was this boy Ambrosius identified with Merlin; here a folktale motif (no doubt influenced by the model of another boy-without-a-father, Jesus in the Temple doing “my father’s business”) is utilised to raise Welsh hopes against the migrants from the east.

That prophecies were taken seriously in the early medieval period we need not doubt. According to the 6th-century priest Gildas, even the Saxons were motivated by them a century earlier when they invaded Britain in their three ships:

“Favourable [were] the omens and auguries, which prophesied, according to a sure portent among them, that they would live for three hundred years in the land … and that for half [that] time … they would repeatedly lay it waste” (Winterbottom 1978: 26).

By the early 10th century the Wessex king Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, appeared to be reaching a rapprochement with Constantine, king of the Scots, and even with the princes of Wales. This did not suit all the Welsh, however, and around 930 appeared Armes Prydein, The Prophecy of Britain:

“Welsh and Saxons will come together on the bank, destroying and charging … Saxons before Britons will sing their lament …” (cited in Fulton 2005: 114; Tolstoy 1985: 82)

The Armes predicted the expulsion of the Saxons from Britain by a combined army of Welsh, Irish, Scots and Cornish and, significantly, a prediction was attributed to an individual, with the line dysgogan Myrdin, that is, “Myrddin foretells”. The soothsaying mantle of Ambrosius had now fallen on the person who was later to become known as Merlin, and it is clear from the lack of elaboration in the Armes that Myrddin’s association with prophecy was not in dispute.

Merlin’s prophecies

By the early 12th century there was enough of a body of prophecies attached to the name of Myrddin for Geoffrey of Monmouth to use as a basis for the seventh book of his Historia Regum Britanniae, a fantastical history of the kings of Britain. We must beware of believing that it is a translation into Latin of genuine predictions made by a 6th-century personage called Merlin (as Geoffrey calls him, to avoid any association with French merde). For a start, there are references to Normans and Normandy, a people and region which didn’t start to come into being until the 9th century at the earliest, and so must be nearly contemporary with Geoffrey himself.

However, the form and imagery of these alleged prophecies rely heavily on earlier models. Particularly striking is the use of animal imagery, applied (though not exclusively) by Gildas himself in his attack on the British Christian rulers of his own times.

The success of Geoffrey’s History encouraged the production and re-production of other political prophecies. Giraldus Cambrensis — Gerald of Wales — planned to include a Latin translation of an “old” Welsh book of Merlin’s prophecies, but it is either lost or he chose not to publish it. Some of these survive in his existing works, and it is clear that they post-date the putative Merlin by a good few centuries: one in particular refers to “a king of England and conqueror of Ireland”, which can only refer to the successors of William, especially Henry II (Russell 2006: 26-7). The poems attributed to Myrddin in The Black Book of Carmarthen have additions from the 12th and 13th centuries, whatever the date of the earlier core of these poems (Pennar 1989); and Les Prophécies de Merlin – a continuation of the Prose Lancelot at the end of the 13th century – contained generalised predictions of natural disasters and catastrophes as well as references to Venice, the Crusades, the papacy in the 12th and 13th centuries and corruption in the Vatican (Goodrich 1988: 251ff).

Welsh versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia and Wace’s Anglo-Norman Brut chronicle were all called brut (after Brutus, the supposed founder of Britain), and appeared soon after 1200. Indeed, in the later Middle Ages several Welshmen were described as interpreters of brud or brut, especially the translations of Merlin’s Latin prophecies (themselves based on earlier genuinely Welsh material) with “additions, revisions and inventions” (Fulton 2005: 117).

Owen Glendower

It is clear that, around 1405, Owen Glendower — Owain Glyn Dŵr — was inspired by a particular prophecy both in the Historia and the Bruts which referred to the idea that three streams emerging from Winchester would divide the country into three. This gave him authority to propose that the island of Britain ought to be shared out between England, Scotland and Wales, ruled respectively by Edmund Mortimer as king of England, the Earl of Northumberland Henry Percy and Owain Glyn Dŵr as prince of Wales, in an agreement which became known as the Tripartite Indenture. Earlier, in letters to the king of Scotland and the lords of Ireland, Owain refers to “the prophecy” and “the prophet” in contexts which can only mean the Brut and Merlin.

However, the Historia was just as popular in the rest of Britain, and gave rise around 1312 to a widely read prophecy attributed to Merlin known as the Six Kings to Follow John or Six Last Kings (Fulton 2005: 109). Using animal imagery, the prophecy has King John followed by the Lamb, the Dragon, the Goat, the Boar, the Ass and the Mole (or Moldwarp). By 1399 the Ass and the Mole were naturally identified with Richard II and the Lancastrian Henry IV. Owain Glyn Dŵr was then to follow.

Owain was later accused by chroniclers such as Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed (and ultimately Shakespeare) of following worthless pro-Yorkist propaganda (‘skimble-skamble stuff’), part of the popular anti-Welsh bias of the time. There is no evidence that Glyn Dŵr saw himself as a mab darogan, a hero prophesied to redeem the Welsh people like a Cadwaladr or an Arthur, but it’s clear that Henry Tudor subsequently exploited this trope at the end of the 15th century. It’s ironic however that the part-Welsh Tudors who took the throne of England also dashed Welsh hopes for self-determination by shifting political power to London, until devolution in recent years went part way to restoring it.

Jonathan Swift (writing as Isaac Bickerstaff) later satirised Merlin-type prophecy, and Bob Stewart (1986) tried to vindicate it in the 20th-century (eg Merlin “predicted” the Channel Tunnel); but Nostradamus and his predictions have now eclipsed the opposition. Such prophecies may enable you to see in a glass darkly, but more often it is only your own hopes that we see reflected.


• Helen Fulton (2005), “Owain Glyn Dŵr and the Uses of Prophecy”, Studia Celtica XXXIX.
• Norma Lorre Goodrich (1988), Merlin. HarperPerennial.
• John Morris, translator (1980), Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals. Phillimore.
• Meirion Pennar, translator (1989), The Black Book of Carmarthen. Llanerch Enterprises.
• W M S Russell (2006), “Gerald the Welshman, Arthur and Merlin (2)”, Pendragon XXXIII No 4
• R J Stewart (1986), The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. Arkana.
• Nikolai Tolstoy (1985), The Quest for Merlin. Hamish Hamilton.
• Michael Winterbottom, translator (1978), Gildas: The Ruin of Britain Phillimore.

Author: Calmgrove

Book review blogger and piano accompanist

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