Tuesday, 27 September 2016

An Ancient Prophecy of England

Edward the Confessor was the last Anglo-Saxon king to have a full reign, from 1042-1066. As most people will know he was succeeded by King Harold but Harold’s reign ended quickly and abruptly at the Battle of Hastings so it does not stretch the truth too far to say that Edward was the last real English king.

But Edward was not only a king, he was also a saint and it is in this capacity that we should take his prophecy about the future of England. Made (like many good prophecies) on his deathbed, it is to be found in the Vita Ædwardi Regis which was a biography of the king commissioned by his wife Queen Edith, and written almost immediately after his death. The original text still survives in a manuscript dating to around 1100 which is kept in the British Library. So this prophecy has a genuine pedigree, something that can’t always be said in similar cases. 

Here it is rendered in contemporary English. I’m afraid I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the translation but this seems to be the accepted version:

The green tree which springs from the trunk
When thence it shall be severed
And removed to a distance of three acres
By no engine or hand of man
Shall return to its original trunk
And shall join itself to its root
Whence first it had origin
The head shall receive again its verdure
It shall bear fruit after its flower
Then shall you be able for certainty
To hope for amendment.

Like many prophecies this is somewhat obscure and so is susceptible to a variety of interpretations. For example, it was quoted by someone called Ambrose Lisle Phillipps in a letter to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1850. These men were both Catholics and chose to interpret the prophecy in the context of the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850. But the letter is most interesting for the context it gives to the prophecy. 

"During the month of January, 1066, the holy King of England St. Edward the Confessor was confined to his bed by his last illness in his royal Westminster Palace. St. Ælred, Abbott of Rievaulx, in Yorkshire, relates that a short time before his happy death, this holy king was wrapt in ecstasy, when two pious Benedictine monks of Normandy, whom he had known in his youth, during his exile in that country, appeared to him, and revealed to him what was to happen to England in future centuries, and the cause of the terrible punishment. 

They said: 'The extreme corruption and wickedness of the English nation has provoked the just anger of God. When malice shall have reached the fullness of its measure, God will, in His wrath, send to the English people wicked spirits, who will punish and afflict them with great severity, by separating the green tree from its parent stem the length of three furlongs. But at last this same tree, through the compassionate mercy of God, and without any national assistance, shall return to its original root, reflourish and bear abundant fruit.' 

After having heard these prophetic words, the saintly King Edward opened his eyes, returned to his senses, and the vision vanished. He immediately related all he had seen and heard to his virgin spouse, Edgitha, to Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, and to Harold, his successor to the throne, who were in his chamber praying around his bed."

You can see that the prophecy is given in a slightly different translation here, and in prose rather than verse, but the elements are the same.

So we have the prophecy and we have corroboration as to its authenticity. What we need now is an interpretation. Some people say, quite reasonably given the historical framework of the prophecy, that it refers to the Norman Conquest and the fact that it took 300 years (3 acres) before the ruling hierarchy of England really began to be English again. But for Catholics, while the green tree represents England, the trunk from which it is severed is the Catholic Church. Again the distance of three acres symbolises the three centuries during which the tree or shoot is separated from its trunk. After this period the shoot is reunited with the trunk and flowers afresh, and this is held to refer to the return of the Catholic episcopacy in 1850, three hundred years after the Anglican Church broke away from Rome during the English Reformation. The belief in this scenario is that the fruit that follows the flowering will come with the  full-scale reconversion of the English to Catholicism, supposed to happen at some time in the future.

Assuming for the sake of interest (a big assumption, I grant) there is anything real in the prophecy what can we say about it now?  First of all, I think we have to say that a prophecy of this nature is more of a symbol than a fact. That is, the prophet perceives an image in his imagination and expresses it as best he can. But this image is not an actual observation of a future event. It is something like a visionary representation of an idea that exists more in an abstract form than a concrete one, perhaps expressed through the medium of something familiar to the prophet like the two monks in this instance. So it is a symbol. Now one of the most interesting things about symbols is that they have different levels of interpretation, and a genuine prophecy may be the same. It may refer to different things and this is especially so if you believe that different events in the physical world can play out in similar ways. So Edward’s prophecy can potentially refer to many things that happen to England. It could be the perception of a pattern that works itself out in different forms at different times  So the Norman Conquest interpretation could be true and the Catholic interpretation could also have some truth to it (though not, I would say, in the over-optimistic and literalist way they choose to see it), and there might be other ways to interpret this prophecy too.

All this is highly speculative, of course, but I intend it more as food for thought or fuel for the imagination – just like a prophecy, in fact. So what, acting on this principle of cyclical recurrence, or different outer events unfolding according to similar inner patterns, can we look to this prophecy for now? Might it be predicting a true Christian revival in England focussing on the reality of Christ, the original trunk or root, three centuries after its loss? Which would be when? Some might say the 20th century when fewer and fewer English people practised religion, but others might point to the 19th which, though ostensibly Christian, was still thoroughly materialistic. This was also when the theory of evolution supposedly provided a theoretical framework for the rejection of Christianity. But I am tempted to go further back to the 18th century and the time of the Enlightenment when science began to poke holes in religion, and what religion there was became increasingly a matter of externals. Clearly there is no single moment as the loss of religion was an ongoing process but if you are looking for a point at which the balance shifted, and Christianity began to lose its power, then the 18th century, the age when reason overtook faith, is pivotal. 

It might be objected that this sea change didn't only affect England but England played a central role through its scientists and philosophers of the time. It might also have been more deeply affected because its Protestant religion, though strong in a moral sense, was so spiritually dry. Besides, the prophecy doesn't just mention loss but also restoration, and was given in the context of England anyway.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Interesting - I didn't know about this.

Furlong is more likely than acre - because furlong is a distance while acre is an area.

An acre being one furlong X one chain - = the lenth an ox team could plough without turing and resting X the width of a strip - conventionally 220 yeards X 22 yards = 4840 square yards; although the actual medieval lengths and areas varied several fold according to the type of soil.

But according to Wiki, a furlong was sometimes called an acre's length, which may explain the confusion in reporting.

This may give a clue to the symbolism - if a furlong/ acre's length is how far you could go before you needed-to/ ought-to turn around and come back...?

William Wildblood said...

You may well be right about the furlong. Unfortunately I've no idea what the original is though it may be online somewhere.

What I mainly take from this prophecy is the idea that there is a spiritual loss but eventually a return to truth comes about, though this is more down to God's mercy than anything human beings do on their own. This may be a constant pattern.

Nathaniel said...

Could it also refer to America? In that case something later this century?

William Wildblood said...

Anything's possible with a prophecy! However that would be stretching things rather too much, I think. The prophecy refers to England and its separation from the truth so must be seen in a spiritual context I believe.

Nathaniel said...

@William - I think you are right, but as an American I may hope! If I take the first lines literally...

The green tree which springs from the trunk
When thence it shall be severed
And removed to a distance of three acres

Plymouth, UK to Cape Cod, MA is just a little over 3,000 miles - and I think it would be fair to call America a a "green tree which springs from the trunk" that was severed. It has also been a source, or place of preservation, for many Christians - and grew to material power while the Empire fell apart. Culturally we're not too distant still (for better or worse). We're coming closer to 300 years separated, but it does feel like we're coming to an end soon as *the* world superpower. Perhaps this timing could somehow be connected to a spiritual revival in the West.

William Wildblood said...

THat's a very interesting thought, Nathaniel, and you could well be right. I can't see a political union but a sort of joint spiritual coming together might be just what the world needs. It might certainly benefit both countries which are surely still close cousins. I believe there are some predictions about this.