Popular Culture, Providence and Prophecy

Francis Bacon, from Essay XXXV: Of Prophecies

(written c. 1597)

... Henry the Sixth of England said of Henry the Seventh, when he was a lad, and gave him water, This is the lad that shall enjoy the crown for which we strive. When I was in France, I heard from one Dr. Pena, that the Queen Mother, who was given to curious arts, caused the King her husband's nativity to be calculated, under a false name; and the astrologer gave a judgment, that he should be killed in a duel; at which the Queen laughed, thinking her husband to be above challenges and duels: but he was slain upon a course at tilt [jousting], the splinters of the staff of Montgomery going in at his beaver. [the movable face part of a helmet.] The trivial [common.] prophecy, which I heard when I was a child, and Queen Elizabeth was in the flower of her years, was,

            When hempe is spun
             England's done:


whereby it was generally conceived, that after the princes had reigned which had the principal letters of that word hempe (which were Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth), England should come to utter confusion; which, thanks be to God, is verified only in the change of the name; for that the King's style [i.e. title] is now no more of England, but of Britain. There was also another prophecy, before the year of '88, which I do not well understand.


        There shall be seen upon a day,
        Between the Baugh and the May,
        The black fleet of Norway.
        When that that is come and gone,
        England build houses of lime and stone,
        For after wars shall you have none.


It was generally conceived to be meant of the Spanish fleet that came in '88: for that the king of Spain's surname, as they say, is Norway.
The prediction of Regiomontanus,

    Octogesimus octavus mirabilis annus [the eighty-eighth, a year of wonders]

was thought likewise accomplished in the sending of that great fleet [i.e. the Armada], being the greatest in strength, though not in number, of all that ever swam upon the sea.

...

That that hath given [predictions] grace, and some credit, consisteth in three things. First, that men mark when they hit, and never mark when they miss; as they do generally also of dreams. The second is, that probable conjectures, or obscure traditions, many times turn themselves into prophecies; while the nature of man, which coveteth divination, thinks it no peril to foretell that which indeed they do but collect. ... The third and last (which is the great one) is, that almost all of them, being infinite in number, have been impostures, and by idle and crafty brains merely contrived and feigned after the event past.