Thomas of Erceldoune [called Thomas the Rhymer]
- Cyril Edwards
Thomas of Erceldoune [called Thomas the Rhymer] (fl. late 13th cent.), supposed author of poetry and prophecies, is the subject of a romance dating from the fourteenth century and of a celebrated border ballad, both describing his dealings with the fairy queen. The contemporary evidence relating to him, however, is limited to two charters.
The historical evidence
In the first, undated, charter (Cartulary of Melrose, BL, Harl. MS 3960, fol. 109a), 'Thome Rimor de Ercildun' is the last of the named witnesses when Peter de Haga, lord of Bemersyde, promises to pay half a stone of wax annually to the chapel of St Cuthbert of Old Melrose. The hand is of the second half of the thirteenth century, corresponding to the dates of other personages in the charter. Peter de Haga was probably the third of that name, attested 1240–80; a date for the charter between 1260 and 1280 seems likely. Ercildun—there are innumerable variant spellings—is now known as Earlston, a village north of Melrose (Borders), close to the Eildon Hills; in the romance Thomas of Erceldoune the tryst between Thomas and the queen takes place at the Eldo(u)ne tree, as it does in some versions of the ballad.
The second charter, from the cartulary of the Trinity House of Soutra (NL Scot., Adv. MS 34.4.1), states that 'Thomas de Ercildoun, filius et heres Thome Rymour de Ercildoun' cedes all his heritable property in Earlston to Soutra, and is dated 2 November 1294. It may be that the elder Thomas of Ercildoun is now dead, or he may conceivably have entered a monastery, having renounced his property.
Given that neither charter accords Thomas the title miles, it may be assumed that Thomas was below the rank of knight. Alexander Nisbet in 1702 (Nisbet, 157) is the first to refer to Thomas as a knight: 'Sir Thomas Learmont (who is well known by the Name of Thomas the Rymer, because he wrote his Prophesies in Rhime)'. The surname Learmont (Leirmont, Lermont) is first given to Thomas in Hector Boece's Scotorum historiae (1527). The second charter suggests that Thomas's son and heir did not inherit the byname Rymour. Opinion is divided as to whether Rymour is an ordinary surname or refers to poetic prowess. From 1229 onwards the word is well attested both as a surname and as denoting a profession or ability.
For Thomas's abilities as a poet no certain evidence survives. He has, however, been associated with the Middle English romance Sir Tristrem, which is thought to have been written late in the thirteenth century. It survives only in the Auchinleck manuscript (NL Scot., Adv. MS 19.2.1.), compiled c.1330–1340. The dialect of the poem remains problematic; while Sir Walter Scott thought it was composed in a Scottish dialect, it has been suggested that it is in a northern English or even non-northern dialect. Thomas is mentioned five times as the source of the story. The most detailed allusion occurs at the beginning of the poem:
I was at ErtheldounWith Tomas spak y there;Ther herd y rede in rouneWho Tristrem gat and bare … Bi yereTomas telles in tounThis aventours as thai ware.
NL Scot., Adv. MS 19.2.1, 1ff.This personal encounter with Thomas may be an invention to affirm the veracity of the author. Chronologically, that Thomas should be the source of a late thirteenth-century romance is not inconceivable. However, Sir Tristrem is generally regarded as a truncated adaptation of the Anglo-Norman romance of Tristan of Thomas of Britain (fl. c.1150?–1175); it may be that the author confused two Thomases.
Thomas of Erceldoune is associated with Sir Tristrem by Robert Mannyng of Brunne in the prologue to his English Chronicle (completed in 1338). The passage begins:
I see in song, in sedgeyng taleof Erceldoun & of Kendale.
Story of England, lines 93–4The latter poet is referred to later in the same work as Thomas of Kendale. Mannyng praises the 'geste' of Sir Tristrem as a superlative work:
if men it sayd as made Thomas;but I here it no man so say.
ibid., ll. 100–01The lines are obscure; it is not certain whether the Thomas referred to is Thomas of Erceldoune, nor whether Mannyng believes him to be the author of the poem.
In the later middle ages Thomas gained a reputation as a prophet as well as a poet. The origins of his prophetic gifts are described in the romance entitled Thomas of Erceldoune, thought to date from 'not earlier than the first half of the fourteenth century, and probably rather later' (Nixon, 2.45). It survives in five manuscripts: 1 the Thornton manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, formerly A.5.2), in a hand which is in all probability that of Robert Thornton of Ryedale in the North Riding of Yorkshire (d. 1456×65)—watermarks place the manuscript between 1419 and 1450, 2 CUL, MS Ff.5.48, mid-fifteenth century, 3 BL, Cotton Vitellius MS, E.x, mid-fifteenth century, 4 BL, Lansdowne MS, 762, first half of the sixteenth century, 5 BL, Sloane MS, 2578, c.1547. Some independent value attaches to a version resembling the Sloane text printed in London in 1652, Sundry Strange Prophecies of Merlin, Bede, Becket and Others.
The three fifteenth-century manuscripts are all in English dialects. There is however a northern substratum in all the texts, with a number of words mainly or exclusively Scottish in origin; Nixon concludes that the romance is of northern provenance, the evidence pointing to the eastern border country.
The romance consists of three sections, or 'fyttes'. On a May morning Thomas sees a huntress, whom he takes to be the queen of heaven. The lady informs him she is from a different country, whereupon Thomas asks leave to lie with her. He is warned that she will forfeit her beauty in consequence, but Thomas persists, promising eternal constancy. He lies with her seven times, and then the woman is transformed into the Loathly Lady. She tells Thomas to take his leave of middle earth for a year and takes him through a secret entrance in ‘Eldone Hill’. For three days they travel through dark floods, until they arrive at a garden, where Thomas is forbidden to eat the fruit, lest the devil seize him. Thomas has a vision of the four ways that lead to heaven, paradise, purgatory, and hell. A fifth way leads to the lady's own country. The lady is afraid of what will happen if the king finds out that Thomas has lain with her, and imposes a taboo: Thomas is to speak to no one in the land but herself. She is then transformed back into her beautiful self. They enter the castle, and behold great revelry. The lady informs Thomas that she must take him back. He believes he has been there only three days, but she assures him that it has been three years or more (in the Cambridge manuscript, seven years). The following day the fiend is to 'feche his fee', and she is afraid he will choose Thomas because of his size and beauty. She takes him back to the Eldone tree.
In the second fytte, Thomas asks the lady for a gift, a token of their encounter. She gives him the gift of the tongue that will never lie, and prophesies a series of events, which take up virtually the whole of the second and third fyttes. The events referred to in the second fytte are historical, ranging in date from the battle of Falkirk (1298) to the battle of Otterburn in 1388. The events referred to in the third fytte cannot be linked satisfactorily with historical data. Repeatedly the lady desires to take her leave, but Thomas detains her with his thirst for knowledge. Finally Thomas takes pity on the weeping queen. With a promise to return if she can, she blows her horn and leaves.
The prolixity of motifs in the first fytte of Thomas of Erceldoune is such that it cannot be traced back to a single literary source; the fairy mistress theme, the disappearance into fairyland, the Loathly Lady, and the miraculous passage of time are widespread motifs, particularly in Celtic literature. Perhaps the first fytte was intended as a poetic justification of the prophecies that follow; however, the manuscripts all preserve three fyttes.
In the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas Rymer (Child, 37), the hero is called True Thomas. Child printed five versions of varying length, the oldest of which were collected by Scott and Jamieson from Anna Brown of Falkland (Child, 1.317–29; 4.454–5). Mrs Brown learned her ballads before 1759 from her mother's side of the family. There has been much dispute as to the priority of the ballad and the romance Thomas of Erceldoune, part of a wider debate concerning the communal or individual origins of folksong.
The ballad closely resembles in plot the first fytte of the romance. Thomas, lying on a 'grassy bank' or 'Huntlie bank' espies:
a lady fair,Coming riding down by the Eildon tree.
He takes her to be the queen of heaven, but she tells him she is 'but the queen of fair Elfland'. He mounts up behind her and they ride off, Thomas promising to serve her for seven years. They ride over land and water for forty days and nights, until they come to a 'garden green'. In most versions Thomas is not permitted to eat of the fruit, which is accursed, but, in a version printed by Scott, Thomas eats of an apple which 'will give the tongue that can never lie'. The queen shows Thomas 'fairlies three', the roads that lead to heaven, hell, and to Elfland, whither they are bound. There Thomas is forbidden to speak, at the risk of not returning to his own country. The ballad ends abruptly with a description of Thomas's green uniform and the statement that he was not seen on earth until seven years passed. The return of Thomas and his fairy mistress to earth is not described in the ballad. In the twentieth century the ballad has been collected from the oral tradition in Scotland and in North Carolina. Duncan Williamson (b. 1928), an Argyll traveller now settled in Fife, concludes his performance of the ballad with prophecies relating to the world wars and the construction of the Caledonian Canal.
Prophet and poet
Although no sources contemporary with Thomas's lifetime attribute prophecies to him, during the fourteenth and fifteenth century his dual reputation as prophet and poet became well established. In Sir Thomas Gray of Heaton's Scalacronica (c.1362) Thomas is coupled with Merlin. Blind Hary the minstrel, in his Schir William Wallace (c.1470–1480), describing the rescue of Wallace from prison in Ayr in 1296 or 1297, says that Thomas Rimour was then at Fail, a Trinitarian priory nearby, and attributes prophecies concerning Wallace to him. Fail, however, is not attested before 1335.
A further source dating Thomas to the late thirteenth century is Walter Bower's Scotichronicon, written in the 1440s: in 1285, 'that rustic seer Thomas, he of Ersildon' (Bower, 5.428–9) predicted to Patrick, seventh earl of Dunbar (d. 1308), the violent death of Alexander III, prophesying the arrival before noon the next day of a calamitous wind that would affect all Scotland. The story is repeated by John Mair (Scotus, Historia majoris Britanniae, 1521) and by Boece in his Scotorum historiae (1527).
A number of the prophecies told to Thomas by the fairy queen in the romance have fourteenth-century analogues. British Library, Harley MS 2253 (southern or south-western dialect, c.1340) attributes on folio 127 some seventeen prophecies to Thomas de Essedoune, who had been questioned by 'La countesse de Donbar', perhaps the wife of the earl of March to whom Thomas prophesied in 1285, possibly ‘Black Agnes’ (d. 1369) who defended Dunbar Castle in 1337. One of the prophecies, 'When laddes weddeþ louedis', is echoed in the Sloane and Cotton manuscripts of the romance (ll. 650–56), and in British Library, Arundel MS 57 (completed in 1340, in Canterbury), which on folio 8 attributes a number of obscure sayings to Thomas de Erseldoune.
The prophetic legend
In the centuries that followed, Thomas of Erceldoune became a convenient peg on which to hang predictions. Nixon lists five manuscripts of the fifteenth–seventeenth centuries which have some prophecies in common with the romance, and four further manuscripts containing variants. The process of expansion culminates in BL, Sloane MS 1802 (c.1600), which bears the title 'The haill Prophecie of Scotland, Ingland, and su(m part) of France and Denmark. Prophecyit be Meruellous Merling, Reid, Berlingtonn, Thomas Rymour, Waldhaue, Eitraine, Benester, and Sibilla all according in one, conteining mony strange and meruellous things'. This manuscript is closely related to the earliest printed version, published by Robert Waldegrave in 1603. There were twelve further editions between 1680 and 1786; chapbook versions were published in 1820 and 1840.
In the witch trial of Andro Man (1598), Andro is assured by the queen of Elfin that he will know all things 'as Thomas Rymour did' (Chambers, 220). Bessie Dunlop, tried in 1576, is taken to meet the queen of Elfame by her medium Thom Reid, who died at the battle of Pinkie (1547). The queen is said by Bessie to be Thom's mistress. Perhaps, under torture, Bessie confused her Thomases. The witch trials are the first dated sources to identify Thomas's mistress as the queen of Elfin.
Seventeenth-century sources add to the legend: Patrick Gordon's rhymed history of Bruce (1615) refers to Thomas Rymour's death in old age in 1307. Thomas Dempster's unreliable Historia ecclesiastica gentis Scotorum (1627) records that Thomas drew inspiration from Eliza of Haddington (north of Berwickshire), a nun and poetess, who was blessed with visions because of her devotion to the Virgin Mary, and wrote a book of poetic prophecies. Thomas not only knew her writings but consulted her. Dempster dates her to 1284.
Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) records a host of local traditions and prophecies relating to Thomas the Rhymer. Further traditions are noted by Chambers, Murray, and Geddie. These are by no means confined to the borders area, but were extant in many parts of the highlands and Aberdeenshire; some oral traditions persist among the Scottish travelling people to this day. The legend of Thomas and his otherworld sojourn continues to inspire authors, among them Theodor Fontane (whose ballad was set to music by Carl Loewe), Rudyard Kipling, James Branch Cabell, W. H. Auden, Nigel Tranter (True Thomas, 1981), and Ellen Kushner (Thomas the Rhymer, 1990). A family called Learmont claiming descent from Thomas existed in Berwickshire until c.1840; the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841) believed that he was descended from Thomas the Rhymer.
- Thomas of Erceldoune, ed. I. Nixon, 2 vols. (1980–83)
- J. A. H. Murray, ed., The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, EETS (1875)
- F. J. Child, ed., The English and Scottish popular ballads, 5 vols. (1882–98)
- A. Lupack, ed., ‘Lancelot of the laik’ and ‘Sir Tristrem’ (1994)
- R. Chambers, Popular rhymes of Scotland, new edn (1870)
- J. Russell, The Haigs of Bemersyde (1881)
- W. P. Albrecht, The Loathly Lady in ‘Thomas of Erceldoune’ (1954)
- D. Buchan, The ballad and the folk (1972)
- J. G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott [2nd edn], 10 vols. (1839)
- W. Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish border, 2 vols. (1802)
- J. Geddie, The Rhymer and his rhymes (1920)
- Melrose cartulary, BL, Harley MS 3960
- Soutra cartulary, NL Scot., Adv. MS 34.4.1
- NL Scot., Auchinleck MS Adv. MS 19.2.1
- Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91
- CUL, MS Ff.5.48
- BL, Cotton Vitellius MS E.x
- BL, Lansdowne MS 762
- BL, Sloane MS 1802
- BL, Sloane MS 2578
- BL, Harley MS 2253
- BL, Arundel MS 57
- A. Nisbet, An essay on additional figures and marks of cadency (1702)
- H. Boece, Scotorum historiae a prima gentis origine (Paris, 1527)
- The story of England by Robert Manning of Brunne, ad 1338, ed. F. J. Furnivall, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 87 (1887)
- Sundry strange prophecies of Merlin, Bede, Becket and others (1652)
- Scalacronica, by Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, knight: a chronical of England and Scotland from ad MLXVI to ad MCCCLXII, ed. J. Stevenson, Maitland Club, 40 (1836)
- Hary's Wallace, ed. M. P. McDiarmid, 2 vols., STS, 4th ser., 4–5 (1968–9)
- W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vol. 5
- Joannes Major Scotus, Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521)
- The whole prophecie of Scotland, England, and somepart of France and Denmark (1603)
- P. Gordon, The famous historie of the renowned … Prince Robert, surnamed the Bruce (1615)