Manuscripts of "A Prince out of the North"

Article excerpt

"A Prince [or "A King"] out of the North shall come" is a fifty-line verse prophecy about James I and VI, which survives in seventeen manuscripts. Until recently, it was misunderstood as a medieval work, in part because most manuscripts attribute it to Merlin. A Manual of the Writings in Middle English includes these lines among "Unpublished Merlin Prophecies," although in fact they were published by Hales and Furnivall in 1868. (1) The original Index of Middle English Verse and New Index of Middle English Verse both included "A Prince." (2) The electronic iMEV, however, remedies past errors by omitting this early modern piece. (3) Topical references and manuscript contexts both fix "A Prince" firmly in the 1620s, with some antiquarians collecting or copying it later in the seventeenth century.

Alastair Bellany and Andrew McRae include this prophecy in Early Stuart Libels, where they discuss it as a response to the Spanish Match (the proposed union between Prince Charles and the Infanta of Spain). (4) Early Stuart Libels and the Union First Line Index of English Verses between them list fifteen copies of "A Prince" held in five libraries. To these, I can add two more: Washington, DC, Folger MS L.b. 670, a single sheet in the hand of George More, (6) and Cambridge, Cambridge University Library MS Ee.V.36, a small manuscript volume that collects several pages of prophecies. (7) The More manuscript appears in the Folger's card file of first lines. Its omission from the Union First Line Index is surely an oversight. The Cambridge University Library manuscript, however, appears to have gone unnoticed by collectors of verse libels.

Bellany and McRae note that "A Prince" had "an uncertain status in manuscript culture" and consider that some of its readers, like John Rous, "took the poem seriously as prophecy," rather than treating it as a political libel. (8) The seventeen manuscripts containing this verse vary their placement of the poem: some accompany it with political libels, some with prophecies, and some with other popular verses, while others combine it with collections of loose sheets that may have been the original "separates" on which this and other verses circulated. The Cambridge manuscript is another that seems to take the prophecy seriously, and like John Rous, its scribe corrects it with reference to other copies.

Cambridge, CUL Ee.V.36 measures 210 x 160 mm, with a dark green marbled binding. It has forty-six numbered folios and two flyleaves. The main hand is small, neat, partly cursive italic with some secretary forms, which inscribes a variety of prophecies on the first eight folios. "A Prince" appears on folio one, with a marginal note: "fathered on Merlin but how true I know not." Below it appears a Latin prose prophecy ("Surget Rex ex natione illustrissimi Lilij"). The first eight leaves contain a variety of prophecies in English and Latin. Many have either dates in the 1620s or clear topical allusions to events of that decade. After folio 8v, the pages are blank through folio 46r. On folio 46v, a very current hand records a recipe involving fine castor sugar and flour. The page is darkened in places, as ifthis had been the outermost page for some time. It appears that this writer compared his collected prophecies to other versions, because on 8r, the writer indicates that two entries have been copied from others' manuscripts: John Rous and T. Greenwood.

John Rous (c.1584 tol644), known as a diarist and Suffolk clergyman, studied "A Prince" with a scholar's care, recording it in London, British Library, Additional MS 28640, with annotations and notes on the two other copies he had seen. In his marginal notes, Rous spells out the initials CJS appearing in line 4: "Charles James Stuart" (f. 101). He also indicates variants in the text, gives additional lines from other copies, and comments on the need for changes: "this staffe is lame you see," he says of line 37 ("the seas and being past"). …