Back to top

Thomas of Erceldoune's Prophecy


1 When [a] man would rather have the goods of another than his own

2 When men make stables out of churches, and capture castles with ladders

3 When a quarter of moldy (?) wheat is exchanged for a colt of ten marks

4 When a Scot may not hide like a hare in its lair so that the English can't find him

5 When Scots flee so fast that for lack of a ship they drown themselves


Headnote: French reads, "The countess of Dunbar asked Thomas of Erceldoune when the Scots war should come to an end, and he replied and said." The Countess of Dunbar is probably Marjory, who surrendered Dunbar castle in 1296 (Turville-Petre). Both John Pinkerton and Sir Walter Scott believed that this Countess of Dunbar was Black Agnes, sister of Robert the Steward, who stoutly defended Dunbar castle in 1337 and of whom the Earl of Salisbury is reported to have said, when he besieged her castle for six months: "Came I early, came I late, I found Agnes at the gate." The poem and manuscript, however, were probably composed before Black Agnes's legendary defense.

1 When man. Murray translates: "When people have (man has) made a king of a capped man"; perhaps an allusion to Edward II. This line, and the poem's concept generally, anticipates Shakespeare's King Lear, especially the Fool's speech in III.ii (on which see The Prophecy of Merlin [Dublin MS], line 5 and note). Brandl puts quotation marks around lines 1-16, as if spoken by Thomas; 17a, by the Countess of Dunbar; and 17b-18, by Thomas.

3 Londyon. MS londyonus or loudyonys; Brandl Londyon; Turville-Petre Loudyon. This line may refer to Loudon Hill (Lothian) and its battle, 1307, when Robert Bruce defeated Aymer de Valence. Or it may refer to the city of London.

7 Rokesbourh. Roxburgh, one of the four boroughs of Scotland, which has a famous castle.

    Forweleye. MS and RHR fforweleye; Murray and Brandl Forwyleye. This place name has not been identified.

8 don notht. MS and RHR don noþt; Murray don (or dou) noþt; Brandl dou noþt.

9 Bambourne. The battle of Bannockburn, 1314, a stunning defeat for the English. Murray argues that the poem may have been composed "on the eve of the Battle of Bannockburn, and circulated under Thomas's name, in order to discourage the Scots and encourage the English in the battle" (EETS 61: xix). Murray also observes that "twenty wynter ant on" prior to 1314 was 1293, when Thomas was "still alive" (p. xix).

13 When a Scot. The syntax is difficult. Murray translates: "When a Scot cannot hide like a hare in form that the English shall not find him" (p. lxxxvi). The Scots were notorious for their abilities to vanish in battle and to escape detection. Brandl emends forme to forwe and reads sal for shal. See also Wynnere and Wastoure lines 12-13:
When wawes waxen schall wilde and walles bene doun,
And hares appon herthe-stones schall hurcle in hire fourme . . . .
For the text see Wynnere and Wastoure, ed. Warren Ginsberg (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), p. 13.
15 When laddes weddeth lovedis. Social climbing was a common complaint in "Abuses of the Age" poetry. See also Ercyldoun's Prophecy, line 7; Piers the Plowman's Crede, lines 748-49 note; The Plowman's Tale, lines 301-08; and Wynnere and Wastoure, lines 14-15:
And eke boyes of blode with boste and with pryde
Schall wedde ladyes in londe and lede hem at will . . . .
Thomas Bestul comments: "The poet's disgust in Wynnere and Wastoure at men of inferior birth who marry their betters is a frequent topic of complaint, but the Harley prophecy (and other examples) show that it is expressed in the conventional diction of political prophecy" (Satire and Allegory in Wynnere and Wastoure [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974], p. 61).
(British Library MS Harley 2253 fol. 127r)

La countesse de Donbar demanda a Thomas de Essedoune quant la guere descoce prendreit
fyn e yl la respoundy e dyt:
When man as mad a kyng of a capped man;
When mon is levere othermones thyng then is owen; 1
When Londyon ys forest, ant forest ys felde;
When hares kendles o the herston;
When wyt and wille werres togedere;
When mon makes stables of kyrkes, and steles castles wyth styes; 2
When Rokesbourh nys no burgh ant market is at Forweleye;
When the alde is gan ant the newe is come that don notht;
When Bambourne is donged wyth dede men;
When men ledes men in ropes to buyen and to sellen;
When a quarter of whaty whete is chaunged for a colt of ten markes; 3
When prude prikes and pees is leyd in prisoun;
When a Scot ne may hym hude ase hare in forme that the Englysshe 4
ne shal hym fynde;
When rytht ant wrong ascenteth to-gedere;
When laddes weddeth lovedis;
When Scottes flen so faste that for faute of ship hy drouneth hem-selve: - 5
Whenne shal this be? Nouther in thine tyme ne in myne.
Ah comen and gon with-inne twenty wynter ant on.
(see note)
a fool has been made a king; (see note)
and; field; (see note)
give birth; hearthstone
war against one another
Roxburgh; city; (see note)
old; gone; nothing; (see note)
Bannockburn; manured; dead; (see note)
pride gallops; peace
(see note)
churls wed ladies; (see note)
shall; Neither
But [this] shall come to pass

Go To Ercyldoun's Prophecy

Return To The Table of Contents