The Yorkists were a hard-headed lot, basing their right to rule on bloodline. When their last king, Richard Plantagenet, was slain at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, his devastated Yorkist supporters--as well as the rest of the country--waited to hear what claim to the throne the victor, Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, would put forth.
It was a delicate question.
We can imagine there was a certain level of suspense as the country waited. Most assumed that the newly declared Henry VII would swiftly marry Elizabeth of York, oldest living child of the dead Edward IV, and attach his weak claim to her greater one. But he did not marry her right away.
When he invaded England with French-financed troops, Tudor had marched through his family stronghold of Wales, gaining support and men, under the banner of the red dragon: the battle standard of King Arthur and other Celtic leaders. Now it was announced that Henry Tudor was descended from Arthur himself through Cadwaladr and the Welsh chieftains who were ancestors of Owen Tudor. Genealogists had confirmed this, the skeptical court was informed. Henry's ascension was the fulfillment of prophecy.
Despite such grandiose claims, Henry married Elizabeth of York. But he did not drop the Arthur business. Far from it: He insisted that his first child be born in Winchester, sometimes identified as Camelot in legend. And when that baby boy was born, he was named...Arthur.
|Le Morte D'Arthur|
Henry VII would not be the first ruler to seize on the romance of Camelot to bolster his regime. But the direct connection of his legal claim to rule to a work of mythic entertainment is bold indeed--if not bizarre. It was as if, in 1977, the year Star Wars hit theaters, a president appeared who announced himself descended from Luke Skywalker.
But there were darker elements to this claim to Camelot. In legitimizing a mystical prophecy, Henry VII was unleashing a certain kind of power that would reach across the entire 16th century. Rebels against various Tudor regimes would repeatedly use their own prophecies to rally support. They effectively co-opted Henry VII's modus operandi, down to the symbolic banners. A frustrated Henry VIII sought to ban prophecy from his kingdom after he was nearly engulfed by seers, witches, and necromancers spouting predictions, many of them derived, allegedly, from Merlin and yet coded and obscure, open to many interpretations.
|The Pilgrimage of Grace, and its many banners|
Again and again, strange prophecies emerged in times of political distress. After a young nobleman named Anthony Babington was arrested for a treasonous conspiracy to murder Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots, a book of Merlin prophecies was found in Babington's London home.
|John Dee and Edward Kelley|
But just like her grandfather learned so many years before, prophecy was difficult to control.
This is the first part of a series on prophecy in the Age of the Tudors.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Crown and The Chalice.
To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com