Wouldn’t it be fantastic to predict the future? Humans have devoted plenty of time to learning the mystic arts. You could read the stars, tarot cards, playing cards, or tea leaves in an attempt to know the future. Or you could listen to the predictions of others, like Thomas the Rhymer and Mother Shipton.
Unlike many of the folklore figures featured on the blog, Thomas the Rhymer has some basis in fact. Some versions of this story call him Thomas Rimor de Ercildoun or Thomas Learmont. Many agree the real Thomas was born somewhere around 1220. He pops up in a charter from 1260-80, and another in 1294.
So why are we looking at him during Fairy Month? It’s thanks to his claim that his gift of prophecy came from the Queen of Fairyland herself…
As always, hit play to listen to the podcast episode or keep reading!
Back to the Beginning…
As a young man Thomas enjoyed walking in the countryside of the Scottish Borders. According to the legend, he often sat under a tree, which may or may not have been a hawthorn. Some believe the Eildon Hills, Thomas’ favourite view, act as the gateway to Fairyland. Plenty of legends swirl around these three peaks, one of which involves a man who finds King Arthur’s court sleeping inside one of the hills.
Why Is The Hawthorn Significant?
A range of legends and superstitions cling to hawthorn trees. Often associated with the Celts, the ancient Romans and Greeks also used hawthorn to represent ‘home’.
It appears in Christianity as the ‘thorn’ of Christ’s crown of thorns. Elsewhere, Joseph of Arimathea (he who allegedly brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury) carried a staff made of hawthorn. Hence the hawthorn tree on Glastonbury Tor.
But for our purposes, hawthorn marks a gateway to Fairyland. In some legends, fairies actually live inside hawthorn trees. Cutting them down incurs their considerable wrath.
Westminster stands on a marshy, boggy part of London (I won’t make any comments about the political nature of that). Apparently, a “sacred stand of thorn trees” once stood on the site of Westminster Abbey, then called Thorney Island (Trees for Life).
According to superstition, you never bring hawthorn blossom into the house, or you bring sickness with you. As Trees for Life point out, scientists confirm that hawthorn blossom contains trimethylamine, a chemical also found in decaying animal tissue. That probably explains why medieval people thought the blossom smelled like the Great Plague.
OK. So Back To Thomas the Rhymer.
While sat under his hawthorn one day, he saw the Queen of Elfland, otherwise known as the Queen of the Fairies, riding her white horse. Some say he met her after falling asleep. Others believe he was simply enjoying the view when she rode past.
The first point is the Queen of the Fairies is not Titania. Some people name her Mab, but there’s no real evidence the fairy queen ever had a name. If she did, traditional folklore doesn’t tell us what it is. Calling her Titania is testament to Shakespeare’s huge influence with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I have a theory that no one knows the Queen’s name purely because she never told anyone. Remember Rumpelstiltskin – knowing someone’s name gives you power over them!
The stories tend to vary at this point but one common factor is Thomas’ subsequent trip to Fairyland. The Queen dared him to kiss her. He complied, so she asked him to spend seven years as her servant. A condition was attached but he agreed. The condition?
Thomas couldn’t speak while he was there or he’d be stuck in Fairyland forever.
Some people think he only had to keep quiet about their relationship so the Fairy King didn’t find out. Others think he couldn’t speak at all. It resembles many other stories about both Fairyland and the Underworld – don’t eat anything from that realm or you’ll be trapped there.
Thomas became the Queen’s servant. When he returned to real life after seven years, he possessed the ability to tell the future. How? In one version of the story, he kept his silence for seven years as promised. The Queen gave him an apple as wages (which seems a bit harsh for seven years’ worth of work). Though this was no ordinary apple. It granted “the tongue that cannot lie”.
Thomas the Rhymer returns to ‘ordinary life’.
The stories vary at this point. In some of them, Thomas the Rhymer returned to the world of humans where he could only tell the truth. In other tales, he started issuing prophecies and became a celebrity. Other legends claimed he disappeared into the forest and was never seen again. In these stories, he returned to Elfland.
The earliest known version of the story dates to just before the mid-15th century. The part of the story including Elfland comes from ‘The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer’. Scholars think they’ve traced this ballad back to the late 13th century, which puts it into Thomas Learmont’s lifetime.
Three more followed though they all talk about an older story. Some think Thomas himself wrote the very first version as an autobiography but no copies exist as far as anyone knows. Sir Walter Scott made the story famous in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Scott even bought the land where Thomas apparently met the Fairy Queen. He identified with the prophet, so you may question how objective his poem might be.
Many believed this special gift from the fairies explained his ability to predict key events in Scottish history. Some take the story further and turn Thomas into a ‘king in the hill‘ figure. That is, someone who will return when Scotland needs him.
The stories that claim he returned to Elfland follow this pattern. In these, Thomas the Rhymer will return when Scotland needs him.
Are His Predictions True?
Yes and no. If you spout enough nonsense, eventually some of it is bound to come true. Look at Nostradamus. In my opinion, a prediction should make sense before the event. If it only makes sense after the event? Not very useful.
But a host of Thomas the Rhymer’s predictions get linked to a range of events, including;
- King Alexander III’s death in 1286
- Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the Scottish victory
- Robert the Bruce’s ascension to the throne
- King James IV’s defeat at Flodden in 1513
- Mary, Queen of Scots’ defeat in 1567
Trouble is, some people associated what they did with his predictions to lend them weight. Who knows how many of these prophecies are essentially political hogwash?
Without the prophecies, Thomas the Rhymer may have just been another person who claimed to have been taken by the fairies. Women tortured for information during the witchcraft trials often gave similar stories to Thomas’.
The difference? They didn’t make predictions that many believed were accurate.
And by the time of the witchcraft trials, his story was already around 400 years old. People held a different view of witchcraft and fairies by then.
Will Thomas the Rhymer return?
It’s unlikely. These stories always say the hero returns when the country is at its darkest hour. Who is to say what and when that dark time will be?
Perhaps we’ve already survived it – in which case, Thomas the Rhymer didn’t come back, as far as we know.
Or perhaps it’s yet to come…
What do you think?
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