Prophesy has always been a big deal here in Britain. In the run up to the Great Fire of London (and, of course, afterwards) the world was full of portents: In August 1666 the Spanish Ambassador claimed that a ‘deformed monster’ had been born in London. “[It was] horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of in yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of camel, a long body, and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse.”
This wasn’t the only horrendous thing born of woman in troubled times: Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire said that a ‘human monster’ was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, divided from the waist up with one half the upper body of a man and the other half the upper body of a woman (although this does sound rather more like a simple case of conjoined twins than anything in any way supernatural, especially since they became an accepted part of the community and lived until they were eighteen.) This unfortunate but mundane genetic abnormality/Satanic Hellbeast (probably the former) was seen as a portent of the Black Death.
An English poem form the time shows us the mood of the time:
“The rysing of the comuynes in Londe,
The pestilens and the eorthequake,
Teose threo things, I understand, betokenes the grete vengance and wrake,
That shulde falle for synnes sake,
As this clarkes canne de-clare,
Nou may we chese to leave or take,
For warnynge have we to ben ware.”
— A Warning to Beware, Anonymous, 1380.
Thomas Wimbledon preached at St. Paul’s Cross in 1388, saying that Armageddon would come in 1400, continuing a tradition stretching back to the earliest foundations of Christianity that the world was going to end really soon, and Christians would get the best end of it.
However, one of Britain’s most distinctive mythological figures was also a highly exported (Christianised) prophet of doom: Merlin Ambrosius.
Brought to life by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th Century cleric and ‘historian’ who wove together Celtic and early Christian narratives into his History of the Kings of Britain (giving us one of the early narratives of King Arthur.) According to Geoffrey, Merlin was the child of a Princess and a demonic Incubus. He was a magician who had brought Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain.
Geoffrey was probably recycling stories of Myrddin, the Welsh seer and magician who would be curiously missing from the later books of Welsh mythology that would eventually become known collectively as the Mabinogion, but even as the tradition of Arthurian Romances grew and Merlin got his job as King Arthur’s Court Wizard, the prophet Merlin Ambrosius seems to have kept his own identity. Geoffrey would even use some of the more authentic celtic material in his poem, The Life of Merlin, which showed Merlin as a Caledonian King who had gone mad and fled into the woods, gaining the gift of prophesy and magical powers, but Merlin Ambrosius, the pro-Christian Prophet had a life of his own.
Merlin Ambrosius is mentioned in The Sayings of Merlin from the last half of the 13th Century, Les Prophécies de Merlin from France in 1275, and the Book of Fiore from 1304. Merlin’s prophesies range from familiar tales, like the white dragon defeating the red dragon as prophesy that Vortigen’s Saxons would defeat the native British; messianic, where two generations of unnamed holy men will bring about revolution and topple their enemies in the name of god; and finally apocayptic with a Welshman wearing a crown of iron and destroy all heretics, even going as far as recapturing the holy land, and bringing about the reign of a single faith on earth.
As a Welshman, I’m quite partial to that idea, but unfortunately the Council of Trent’s efforts to put a cap on growing protestant heresies also had some words to say about Merlin, which ended his prophetic career outside the British Isles, although there were prophetic works attributed to him outside within the UK all the way up until 1750.
I’ll leave you all with my favourite Merlin Ambrosius quote…
“…there shall be no more wars and everyone shall be obedient to this Champion of all men… [and] If you wish to know,” said Merlin, “in what land he will be born, I tell you openly he will be from Wales…”– Les Prophécies de Merlin, 1275