Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Erceldoune, Thomas of

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1153898Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17 — Erceldoune, Thomas of1889Henry Richard Tedder

ERCELDOUNE, THOMAS of, called also the Rhymer and Learmont (fl. 1220?–1297?), seer and poet, occupies much the same position in Scottish popular lore as Merlin does in that of England, but with some historical foundation. His actual existence and approximate date can be fixed by contemporary documents. The name of ‘Thomas Rimor de Ercildun,’ with four others, is appended as witness to a deed whereby Petrus de Haga de Bemersyde agreed to pay half a stone of wax annually to the abbot and convent of Melrose for the chapel of St. Cuthbert at Old Melrose (Liber de Melros, Bannatyne Club, i. 298). The document is undated, but the Petrus de Haga cannot be he who witnessed the signature of Richard de Moreville, constable of Scotland, about 1170 (Liber S. Marie de Dryburgh, Bannatyne Club, 1847, p. 269), and must be identified with the person of that name who lived about 1220 (ib. pp. 94–6), as two of the four witnesses mentioned above were Oliver, abbot of Dryburgh (c 1250–68), and Hugh de Peresby, viscount of Roxburgh, alive in 1281. In the chartulary of the Trinity House of Soltra, preserved in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, is a deed conveying to that house all the lands held by inheritance in Erceldoune by ‘Thomas de Ercildoun filius et heres Thome Rymour de Ercildoun.’ The date has been usually quoted 1299, but Dr. Murray gives it accurately for the first time as 2 Nov. 1294 (Thomas of Erceldoune, 1875, Introd. x–xi). ‘The superiority of the property called Rhymer's Lands, now owned by Mr. Charles Wilson, Earlstoun, still belongs to the Trinity College Church in Edinburgh,’ says Mr. James Tait (‘Earlstoun,’ in Proc. of Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, 1866, v. 263). The area of the lands has been the same, nine acres and a half, for the last three hundred years. They seem to have been held by Thomas and his son, not from the crown but from the Earls of Dunbar. An ancient water-mill, known as ‘Rhymer's Mill,’ was situated on the property.

Robert Manning of Brunne (in English Chronicle, written c 1338, ll. 93–4) says:—

I see in song, in sedgeyng tale
Of Erceldun and of Kendale.

Sir Thomas Grey (c. 1355, in Scalacronica), Barbour (c. 1375, in The Bruce, bk. ii. v. 86), Androw of Wyntoun (c. 1424, in Orygynale, bk. viii. c. 31), Walter Bower (d. 1449), and Mair also speak of Thomas of Erceldoune. Harry the Blind Minstrel calls him ‘Thomas Rimour.’ Hector Boece is the first who uses the title ‘Thomas Leirmont’ (Scotorum Historia, Paris, 1575, lib. xiii. 291). Alexander Nisbet, following Boece, extends the title to Thomas Learmont of Earlstoun in the Merss. ‘Rymour was a Berwickshire name in those days, one John Rymour, a freeholder, having done homage to Edward I in 1296’ (Tait, ut supra, p. 264). Robert Learmont, the last of a family of that patronymic claiming descent from Thomas of Erceldoune, died unmarried about 1840. The Russian poet Michael Lermontoff (1814–41) believed he had an ancestor in the Rhymer.

Erceldoune or Erceldoun, also written Ercheldun, Ersylton, and Ersseldoune, is the modern Earlstoun or Earlston, a village in Berwickshire about thirty miles from Berwick, situated on the Leader, a northern tributary of the Tweed. The name of Erceldoune was not altered into Earlstoun but supplanted by it. It was a place of considerable importance in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and is connected with the Lindesey family and the Earls of March. Cospatrick, earl of March, took the surname of Erceldoune, and the castle at the east end of the village, said to have been owned by that family, was probably the place where David I signed the foundation charter of Melrose Abbey ‘apud Ercheldon’ in June 1136. Part of ‘Rhymour's Tour,’ which tradition assigns to Thomas, still exists at the west end of the village. A stone in the church wall in Earlstoun bears the inscription

Auld Rhymer's race
Lies in this place.
Tradition says that this stone, which was defaced in 1782, was transferred from the old church.

The reputation of Thomas as a prophet is connected with the date of 1285 and the death of Alexander III predicted in that year to Patrick, eighth earl of Dunbar. It is Walter Bower (d. 1449), the continuator of Fordun's ‘Scotichronicon,’ who first mentions that Thomas, when visiting the castle of Dunbar, and asked by the Earl of March what another day was to bring forth, replied: ‘Heu diei crastinæ! diei calamitatis et miseriæ! qua ante horam explicite duodecimam audietur tam vehemens ventus in Scotia, quod a magnis retroactis temporibus consimilis minime inveniebatur’ (lib. x. c. 43). The intelligence of the king's death was duly received before noon the next day. The story is repeated by Mair and Hector Boece. Sir Walter Scott prosaically reduces it to a false weather forecast: ‘Thomas presaged to the Earl of March that the next day would be windy; the weather proved calm; but news arrived of the death of Alexander III, which gave an allegorical turn to the prediction, and saved the credit of the prophet. It is worthy of notice that some of the rhymes vulgarly ascribed to Thomas of Erceldoune are founded apparently on meteorological observation. And doubtless before the invention of barometers a weather-wise prophet might be an important personage’ (‘Sir Tristrem,’ in Works, v. 12). The incident occurred in 1285, and Harry the Minstrel associates Thomas with a critical passage in the life of Wallace in 1296 or 1297, when seized by English soldiers and left for dead at Ayr.

Thomas Rimour in to the faile was than.

As the son of Thomas had already in 1294 devised the paternal estate, it seems natural to suppose that Thomas was dead three years later, but Dr. Murray inclines to the theory that he was still alive in retirement at the Faile or Feale, a Cluniac priory near Ayr (Introduction, p. xvi).

The reputed sayings of Thomas were proverbial soon after his death. Barbour (c. 1375) refers to a prophecy concerning Robert I. After Bruce had slain the Red Cumyn at Dumfries in 1306 the Bishop of St. Andrews is introduced (Bruce, bk. ii. v. 85–7) as saying:

I hop Thomas prophecy
Off hersildoune sall weryfyd be.

Androw of Wyntoun affirms that ‘qwhylum spak Thomas’ of the battle of Kilblane fought by Sir Andrew Moray against the Baliol faction in 1335 (Orygynale, bk. viii. c. 31). Sir Thomas Grey, constable of Norham, in his Norman-French ‘Scalacronica,’ written during his captivity at Edinburgh Castle in 1355, alludes to the predictions of Merlin, which, like those of ‘William Banastre ou de Thomas de Erceldoun … furount ditz en figure.’ But there is yet earlier evidence of the popular belief in his prophetic gifts. Among the Harleian MSS. (No. 2253, l. 127) in the British Museum we find a prediction written before 1320, with the superscription, ‘La countesse de Donbar demanda a Thomas de Essedoune quant la guere descoce prendreit fyn.’ The answers to this question are given in seventeen brief paragraphs in a southern (or south midland) dialect, and probably by an English author. They describe the various improbabilities which are to take place before the war shall come to an end within twenty-one years. From one vaticination, ‘when bambourne [Bannockburn] is donged Wyth dedemen,’ it is highly probable that the piece was composed on the eve of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and the forgery circulated under the name of the national seer in order to damp the courage of the Scots and to give good omen to the English. Twenty-one years back was 1293, when Thomas may have been alive. The lines were first printed by Pinkerton (Ancient Scottish Poems, 1786, i. lxxviii), who is followed by W. Scott (Border Minstrelsy, iv. 130) in assuming the Countess of Dunbar to be the famous Black Agnes, the defender of Dunbar Castle in 1337; but this is not possible from the age of the Harleian MS., and the countess is no doubt meant as the wife of the earl to whom Thomas predicted the death of Alexander III (Murray, Introduction, p. xix).

The earliest composition attributed to him in his double character of seer and poet, the romance of Thomas and the ‘ladye gaye,’ which is, of course, a work long posterior to his date, may be placed shortly after 1400. He is represented as meeting the lady on Huntly Banks by Eildon Tree, as making love to her, and being carried to her country, which is not in heaven, paradise, hell, purgatory, or ‘on middel-erthe,’ but ‘another cuntre.’ There he lives for three years or more. The time comes when the customary tribute to hell has to be paid, and, so that he should not be chosen by the fiend, the elf-queen conducts him back to earth. She gives him the power of prophecy as a token, and in compliance with repeated wishes furnishes him with a specimen of her own art in a prospective view of the wars between England and Scotland from the time of Bruce to the death of Robert III in 1406. The poem is in three fyttes, and has come down to us in four complete copies. The earliest is the Thornton MS. at Cambridge, written 1430–40. All the copies are in English, and speak of an older story, Scottish, possibly the actual work of Thomas. The opinion of Professor Child is that the original story ‘was undoubtedly a romance which narrated the adventure of Thomas with the elf-queen simply, without specification of his prophecies. In all probability it concluded, in accordance with the ordinary popular tradition, with Thomas's return to fairyland after a certain time passed in this world. For the history of Thomas and the elf-queen is but another version of what is related of Ogier le Danois and Morgan the Fay’ (Popular Ballads, pt. ii. 1884, 319). Dr. Murray considers that as a whole the prophecies flow naturally from the tale, and have not been tacked on by a subsequent writer. ‘The poem in its present form bears evidence of being later than 1401, the date of the invasion of Scotland by Henry IV, or at least 1388, the date of the battle of Otterbourne’ (Introd. pp. xxvi, xxiv). Brandl is of opinion that the writer was an Englishman. The whole of the events under fytte ii. can be identified, and, with one exception, are arranged in chronological order. Most of the predictions in the third fytte appear to be old legends adapted to later requirements. The first fytte was printed by Scott as an appendix to the modern traditionary ballad in the ‘Border Minstrelsy,’ and the whole by Jamieson (Popular Ballads and Songs, Edinburgh, 1806), by Dr. Laing (Select Remains, 1822, new ed. 1885), and by Halliwell-Phillipps (Illustr. of Fairy Mythology, 1845). The most complete edition is that of Dr. J. A. H. Murray, ‘The Romance and Prophecies printed from Five MSS., with illustrations from the Prophetic Literature of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’ (E. E. T. S., 1875), with valuable introduction and notes. A. Brandl also edited the romance in 1880 at Berlin. Professor Child gives several texts of the first fytte with an introduction (Popular Ballads, pt. ii. 1884, 317–29).

‘During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries,’ says Chambers, ‘to fabricate a prophecy in the name of Thomas the Rhymer appears to have been found a good stroke of policy on many occasions’ (Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1870, p. 212). Collections were made of these forebodings by various persons, generally in alliterative verse. The earliest printed edition is ‘The whole Prophesie of Scotland, England, and some part of France and Denmark, prophesied bee mervellous Merling, Beid, Bertlington, Thomas Rymour, Waldhaue, Eltraine, Banester, and Sibbilla, all according in one,’ R. Waldegrave, 1603, sm. 8vo. This was collated with an edition of 1615 and reproduced by the Bannatyne Club (1833). Numerous reprints in chapbook form have appeared down to quite recent times. Certain predictions of Thomas were printed by the Rev. J. R. Lumby from a manuscript of the early part of the fifteenth century (Bernardus de Cura Rei Fam., with some Early Scottish Prophecies, E. E. T. S., 1870). At the time of the accession of James VI to the English throne the reputation of Thomas as a successful prophet was renewed. The Earl of Stirling and Drummond of Hawthornden, in dedicating to the king their respective works, ‘Monarchicke Tragedies’ and ‘Forth Feasting,’ refer to the ‘propheticke rimes’ of Thomas foreshadowing the event. Archbishop Spottiswoode speaks of Thomas ‘having foretold, so many ages before, the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland in the ninth degree of the Bruce's blood’ (History of the Church of Scotland, Spottiswoode Soc. 1851, i. 93). The sayings were consulted even so late as during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. The name of Thomas of Erceldoune was reverenced in England as well as in Scotland. He is always coupled in popular lore with Merlin and other English soothsayers, and it is remarkable that all the texts of his romances and predictions are preserved in English transcripts. More or less plausible explanations of his sayings are still applied to modern events.

To Thomas of Erceldoune is attributed a poem on the Tristrem story, belonging to the Arthurian cycle of romance, which has reached us in a single copy, the Auchinleck MS. in the Advocates' Library, transcribed by a southern hand about 1450 from a northern text written probably between 1260 and 1300. It commences with a reference to Thomas, and there are other allusions (ll. 397, 408, 2787). Robert Manning of Brunne connects the romance with the name of Thomas. Scott and Irving considered the poem the undoubted work of Thomas, but Warton, Wright, Halliwell, G. Paris, Murray, and Kölbing agree in thinking that when the unknown translator from the French original found a Thomas mentioned he himself inserted the designation of Erceldoune. The latest editor, Mr. McNeill, contends that ‘the reasonable probability is that Robert Mannyng of Brunne was right when he ascribed the poem to Thomas of Erceldoune’ (Sir Tristrem, p. xliv). It was printed for the first time by Sir W. Scott, ‘Sir Tristrem, a metrical romance of the 13th century, by Thomas of Erceldoune, called the Rhymer,’ London, 1804, large 8vo. A second edition appeared in 1806, a third in 1811, again in 1819, and in the collective editions of the poetical works of Scott. The first issue of Scott's text swarms with errors; some are corrected in the later editions, which are still very inaccurate according to Kölbing. Scott's 1806 text with a German glossary is reprinted in ‘Gottfried's von Strassburg Werke, herausg. durch H. von der Hagen,’ Breslau, 1823. A considerable portion of the text from Scott's ‘Poetical Works,’ v. 1833, is reproduced with introduction and notes by E. Mätzner (Altenglische Sprachproben, i. 231–242). The first critical text is that of E. Kölbing (Die nordische und die englische Version der Tristansage, Heilbronn, 1882, vol. ii.), with an elaborate introduction and complete glossary. The text has been again thoroughly edited by Mr. G. P. McNeill (Scottish Text Soc. 1886), with introduction, notes, and glossary. The numerous local traditions about ‘True Thomas’ are recorded by Scott (Minstrelsy, vol. iv.), in the ‘Proceedings of the Berwickshire Naturalists' Club,’ by R. Chambers (Popular Rhymes, 1870), and Murray (Introduction). Huntly Bank and the adjoining ravine, the Rhymer's Glen, were ultimately included in the domain of Abbotsford.

[The best account is given by Dr. J. A. H. Murray in his edition of The Romance and Prophecies (E. E. T. S., 1875), which may be supplemented by Thomas of Erceldoune, herausg. von A. Brandl, Berlin, 1880. Kölbing (1882) and Mr. G. P. McNeill (Scottish Text Soc. 1886) may be consulted in their editions of Sir Tristrem. See also Lord Hailes's Remarks on the Hist. of Scotland, 1773; Pinkerton's Ancient Scottish Poems, 1786; Jameson's Popular Ballads and Songs, 1806; Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Poetical Works, i–iv., 1833, &c., and Sir Tristrem, ib. v.; Henderson's Popular Rhythmes of Berwickshire, in Hist. of Berw. Nat. Club, 1837; Madden's Notes on Sir Gawayne, 1839, p. 304; Warton's Hist. of English Poetry, 1840; Halliwell's Fairy Mythology of a Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare Soc.), 1845; Life by D. Laing in Encyclopædia Britannica, 8th ed. xxi. 228; Irving's Hist. of Scottish Poetry, 1861; R. Chambers's Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1870; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. 1873, xi. 70, 5th ser. 1874, i. 5; Wilson's Poets and Poetry of Scotland, 1876; J. Veitch's Hist. and Poetry of Scottish Border, 1878; Guest's English Rhythms, by Skeat, 1882; Ward's Catalogue of Romances in British Museum, 1883, i. 328–38; Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1884, ii. 317, &c.]

H. R. T.