The Eildon Tree in ‘The Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’ (Thomas the Rhymer)

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Patron’s La Belle Dame sans Merci painting, photo taken by Sofi.

Species mentioned: One tree, not a hawthorn (mayflower; Crataegus sp.) as commonly thought. Possibly oak (Q. robur).

Source: The medieval ‘Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’, not to be confused with the later ‘Ballad of True Thomas’.

Date of Source: c.1350-1400.

Highlights: The shining lady that slimy Thomas of Erceldoune seduced under the Eildon tree turned out to be the Fairy Queen. She apparently took him seriously when he offered to stay with her forever, and drags him to her Otherworld realm as a paramour. Oops.

THE DATE

The main part of the ‘Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’ is present in four main manuscripts: The Thornton MS (Lincoln MS.91), dated 1419-50 A.D.; Cambridge MS Ff.5.48, and Cotton Vitellius E.x, dated c.1450 and Lansdowne 762, dated 1500-25. All manuscripts have essentially the same text with some additions and subtractions. Our extracts come from Lansdowne 762 which has a more modern orthography and vocabulary than the others (Murray, 1875, p.lvi-iii). All of the manuscripts are written in varieties of English, but the location of the text and certain words common to the three texts suggest it may have originally had a Scots origin (see Edwards, 2004).

Thomas of Erceldoune was a real historical figure, and lived in the late thirteenth century. He is given the epithet ‘Rhymer’ in a charter written in 1299, although it is uncertain if he was still alive at this point (Scott, 1803, p.245). Stories about him probably grew after his death and the romance itself was probably composed earlier than any of these manuscripts. We can assign it a fourteenth century date (Edwards, 2004; Murray, 1875, p.xxiii).

Oral ballads telling the story of ‘True Thomas’ were recorded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These remain quite popular, and are how most people first meet the story of Thomas of Erceldoune. They essentially tell the same story, and can be considered either adaptations of the ‘Romance’ or later oral iterations of the same material.

THE STORY

Thomas of Erceldoune our hero was a popular prophet in the late medieval period, said to be unable to tell a lie. He received this power as a curse to prevent him from speaking badly about the Queen at the end of his story, and his character at the beginning of the text suggests this was a wise precaution. Thomas’ hobbies are lazing around under greenwood all day, bird-watching and propositioning passing women.

One warm day in May Thomas managed to accomplish all three of these. He was lying ‘Vnder neth a semely tre’ when he saw a lady riding. Thomas thinks she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and takes her for the Virgin Mary. The authors take their time in describing the woman, who is actually shining with beauty, like a 60s Hollywood belle.

Thomas runs to intercept the lady under the Eildon tree. He kneels before her and greets her as the Virgin Mary. She corrects his assumption about her identity and explains she is just a lady from another land. This allows Thomas to proposition her, which he could not have done before.

The lady, who is never named turns him down. Thomas is not daunted. In fact he is so attracted to her that he makes her a very strong offer if she will only sleep with him:

Euer I wole withe the dwell
My trowche I plyght to the

At this she accepts his proposal with a very ominous answer:

A[h] Man of Molde! þou wolte me Mar[r]e
And yete þou shalte haue all thy wyll

This doesn’t put off Thomas and ‘Seuen sythes by hir he lay’ under the Eildon tree. The marring part of her speech is only explained in a comical scene after they have finished:

The lady now looks grey and old rather than young and fair. In medieval romances, beauty was directly correlated with nobility and purity of heart; a state of affairs still seen in Disney movies. Thomas takes the lady for a demon and conjures her by God to leave him alone.

Unfortunately for him she is not a demon. She reminds him that he swore to follow her, and takes him away under through a portal under the Eildon hill. She is the Queen of the Otherworld, the land between Heaven, Hell and ‘Midylle-Earth’.

After they arrive, Thomas finds the place to be a paradise. Sadly for him, he is only there three days before she explains it is time for him to leave. It has been three years in Earth-time. He doesn’t want to leave, but she tells him that demons will soon come to take some of the Otherworld dwellers to Hell. The queen declares she will never sell him to Hell, but instead will return him to the Eildon tree, where humans belong. This passage is one of the most poignant in the romance:

And forall the goode that euer myght be,
For hevene to the worldris ende,
Shalt þou neuer be bytrayed by me
þerefore I rede [order] the[e] with me wend [go].
she browght hym Ageyn to Elden Tre[e].
Vnder neth A grene wode spray [canopy];
In huntely bankes is man [meant] to be,
Where fowlis [birds] syngith nyght and day.

After Thomas returns home the main story finishes, and the remainder of the romance is spent exacting prophecies from the Queen about wars which were yet to occur.

I should point out at this point, that the ballad versions of our story are much tamer in content. The queen dares Thomas to kiss her, and as soon as he does, he is bound to her. The ballad calls the lady the ‘Fairy-queen’ since the beautiful people of the Otherworld had come to be called fairies by this time. The word ‘fairy’ has now changed to refer to tiny winged pixie-creatures and so I will call her the Queen for the rest of this article.

THE EILDON TREE

The Eildon tree died before our earliest records. Its place was apparently marked by the Eildon [tree] Stone, which was present by time Walter Scott wrote about it in 1802 (p.249). You can still visit the Eildon stone today.

Three main clues have suggested to writers over the last century that the Eildon tree was a magical hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) (e.g. Kendall, 2012):

  • Thomas and the Queen enter and exit the Otherworld underneath it.
  • Thomas first sees the Queen besides it, and knows he can meet her there.
  • The Queen could have taken Thomas’ speech there, and a pact can be made there.

In the modern period the hawthorn has been identified as a common folkloric portal between the earth and the Otherworld. The tree is especially magical when in flower during May, at the time our story is set.

The hawthorn seems to have stood as a symbol of carnal love in the medieval period (Eberly, 1989), and the identification of the Eildon tree as a hawthorn is therefore tempting. However it is unlikely to be the original intention for the author(/s) for three reasons: (i) I can find no reliable reference to the idea of hawthorn as a portal prior to the twentieth century. (ii) Ecologically the identification is unlikely as we shall see. Finally (iii) the identification probably stems from a misreading of one of the prophecies later attributed to True Thomas:

This thorn-tree, as lang as it stands
Earlstoun shall possess a’ her lands.

Most of Thomas’ prophecies were written by the Eildon tree, and so some have assumed Thomas was talking about that tree. However he was not. The thorn tree has been identified as the ‘Rhymer’s Thorn’ which was accidentally killed in 1814, whereas the Eildon tree was dead long before Scott wrote in 1802 (Scott, 1802, p.249; Murray, 1875, p.lxxxv). After Rhymer’s Tree died, the land was lost.

Actually in the fifteenth century the Cambridge MS version of the text makes a different identification. Not recognising ‘Eildon as a name, it changes the term to ‘eldryn’ (modern – ‘elder’ – Sambucus sp.) (Murray, 1875, p.lxxi). This is more possible ecologically, but there is no textual evidence to support this reading.

Here are the ecological considerations:

  1. The tree is ‘The’ Eildon tree. It is a landmark feature and therefore one which dominates the local area.
  2. It is growing in Melrose, southern Scotland.
  3. The branches are high enough that the queen can ride under it, probably meaning the woodland is being managed for underbrush scrub.
  4. The tree is found in a ‘greenwood’ in May.
  5. The tree is on a hill.
  6. The area under the tree is suitable for lying down.
  7. The greenwood has a ‘spray’ of branches, perhaps referring to a canopied roof.

The tree we are looking for was probably not being pollarded or coppiced or even grown for timber. It may have just contributed to the area as a landmark, or have been grown for fruit. It is likely to be long-lived and tall enough to ride under, as well as dominating the area. It is green and found in a woodland. To be suitable for romantic trysting it cannot have been prickly or borne large fruit or berries in May.

Hawthorn Tree

The hawthorn tree resembles a bush, with no room to pass underneath. Here the branches on the left have been cut back to allow people to pass underneath.
This picture of the hawthorn in flower taken in Cardiff by Lee Raye, May 2014.

Obviously there are several species of tree which could be indicated by these properties. However the properties do exclude the hawthorn (mayflower) which usually grows as a thick bush down to the ground and layers the soil underneath with prickles. They also exclude the elder which is close to the ground, bushy and relatively short-lived.

The most probable native species which does have these properties is the English oak tree (Quercus robur). This tree is long-lived, green, and grows in forests. It is the most common kind of tree in Britain but also dominates areas where it grows. It is the quintessential English ‘greenwood’ tree (Johnson, 2004, p.216).

Other likely suspects are the yew tree (Taxus baccata), although this is more associated with churchyards, and Scots pine tree (Pinus sylvestris), although the needles would make lying down uncomfortable. Neither of these trees are usually associated with greenwoods. The beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) does not naturally grow in southern Scotland (EUFORGEN, 2009). Willow (Salix sp.) and birch (Betula sp.) trees do not have a substantial canopy and are not known as greenwood trees.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Eildon tree is part of the texture of the story of Thomas the Rhymer. It was retained in all versions, and is even found in the later ballads. It appears to have been a vital part of the setting of the story. It is symbolic of the idyllic, lazy human world of the greenwood where birds sing all day.

The Eildon tree is unlikely to be hawthorn; it may be an oak tree. The common misidentification of this species is a cautionary tale for medievalists about modern interpretations. It is easy to think of scholars as detached observers of exotic happenings. This is not always true, and sometimes our worldview gets in the way of objective scholarship.

Environmentalists should take note that there is no secure basis for calling the hawthorn a portal to the Otherworld prior to the twentieth century. I am also unaware of any reliable witnesses to the idea that the hawthorn are especially beloved of the fairy queen prior to this period. The Eildon tree does seem to function as a gateway between dimensions, but it is not clear what kind of tree this is.

REFERENCES

Eberly, S. (1989) A Thorn among the Lillies. Folklore. 100:41-52.

Edwards, C. (2004) Thomas of Erceldoune. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford University Press).

EUFORGEN (2009), Distribution map of Beech (Fagus sylvatica ), European Forest Genetic Resources Program. [accessed 18/5/14].

Johnson, O. & More, D. (2004) The Tree Guide. (HarperCollins, London).

Kendall, P. (2012) Mythology and folklore of the Hawthorne. TreesforLife. [accessed:18/5/14].

Murray, J. (1875) Thomas of Erceldoune. (Early English Text Society, London).

Scott, W. (1802) Minstrelsy on the Scottish Border. vol. 2. (Kelso, London).

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