Thomas the Rhymer (fl. 1220)
Thomas the Rhymer (fl. 1220)
Scottish soothsayer (prophet) of the thirteenth century. It is impossible to name the exact birth date of Thomas the Rhymer, who is well known for figuring in a ballad included in Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
Thomas is commonly supposed to have lived at the beginning of the thirteenth century, that period being assigned because the name "Thomas Rimor de Ercildun" is appended as witness to a deed, whereby one "Petrus de Haga de Bemersyde" agreed to pay half a stone of wax annually to the Abbot of Melrose, and this "Petrus" has been identified with a person of that name known to have been living about 1220.
Erceldoune or Ercildun is simply the old way of spelling Earlston, a village in the extreme west of Berwickshire, near the line demarking that county from Roxburgh.
It would seem that Thomas held estates in this region, for he is mentioned as a land owner by several early writers, most of whom add that he did not hold his lands from the Crown, but from the Earls of Dunbar. Be that as it may, Thomas probably spent the greater part of his life in and around Earlston, and a ruined tower there, singularly rich in ivy, is still pointed out as having been his home, and bears his name, while in a wall of the village church there is a lichened stone with the inscription:
"Auld Rhymour's Race Lies in this Place."
According to local tradition, this stone was removed to its present resting place from one in a much older church, long since demolished.
Nor are these things the only relics of the soothsayer, a lovely valley some miles to the west of Earlston being still known as "Rhymer's Glen." It is interesting to recall that the artist J. M. W. Turner painted a watercolor of this place, and no less interesting to remember that Sir Walter Scott, when buying the lands that eventually constituted his estate of Abbotsford, sought eagerly and at last successfully to acquire the glen in question. Naturally he loved it on account of its associations with the shadowy past, and his biographer J. C. Lockhart stated that many of the novelist's happiest times were spent in this romantic place. Lockhart related that the novelist Maria Edge-worth visited it in 1823, and that thenceforth Scott used always to speak of a certain boulder in the glen as the "Edgeworth stone," the writer whom he admired so keenly having rested there. It seems probable, however, that the glen was named "Rhymer's Glen" by Scott himself.
It is thought that Thomas died in 1297, and it is clear that he had achieved a wide fame as a prophet, many references to his skill being found in writers who lived comparatively soon after him. A Harleian manuscript in the British Museum known to have been written before 1320 disclosed the significant phrase, "La Comtesse de Donbar demanda a Thomas de Essedoune quant la guere descoce prendreit fyn," but the lady in question was not a contemporary of the prophet. In Barbour'sBruce, composed early in the fourteenth century, we find the poet saying:
"Sekerly I hop Thomas Prophecy Off Hersildoune sall weryfyd be."
The historian Andrew of Wyntoun in the Originale Cronykil of Scotland, also mentions Thomas as a redoubtable prophet, while Walter Bower, the continuator of Fordun's Scoticronicon, recounts how once Rhymer was asked by the Earl of Dunbar what another day would bring forth, whereupon he foretold the death of the king, Alexander III, and the very next morning news of his majesty's decease was heard.
Blind Harry's poem Wallace, written midway through the fifteenth century, likewise contains an allusion to Thomas's prophesying capacities.
Coming to later times, Sir Thomas Cray, constable of Norham, in his Norman-French Scalacronica, compiled during his captivity at Edinburgh Castle in 1555, spoke of the predictions of Merlin, which like those of "Banaster ou de Thomas de Ercildoune … furount ditz en figure."
A number of predictions attributed to Thomas the Rhymer are still current, for instance that weird verse Sir Walter Scott made the motto of his novel The Bride of Lammermuir and also a saying concerning a family with which, as we have seen, the soothsayer was at one time associated:
"Betide, betide, whate'er betide There'll aye be Haigs at Bemersyde."
It will be observed that these lines are in poetic meter, yet there is really no sure proof that the soothsayer was a poet. It is usually supposed that he acquired the nickname "Rhymer" because he was a popular minstrel in his day, but the fact remains that "Rymour" had long been a comparatively common surname in Berwickshire, and, while it may have originated with Thomas, the assumption has but slight foundation.
Again, the prophet of Earlston has been credited with a poem on the story of Sir Tristram belonging to the Arthurian cycle of romance, and the Advocate's Library contains a manuscript copy of this probably written as early as 1300. However, while Sir Walter Scott and other authorities believed in this ascription, it is quite likely that the poem is only a paraphrase from some French troubadour.
For generations, however, the Scottish peasantry continued to be influenced by the sayings attributed to "True Thomas," as they named him, as evidenced by the continuing publication of books and chapbook pamphlets containing his prophecies until well into the nineteenth century. For a detailed study, see The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas Erceldoune, edited by J. A. H. Murray for the English Text Society, London, 1875.
A beautiful legend credits Thomas with obtaining his prophetic powers after visiting fairyland. The ballad of "Thomas Ryner and the Queen of Elfland" in its various forms is classified as no. 37 of the collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited by Francis James Child, published in five vols., 1882-98.