The approach to Christmas brings us a very different, lesser-known anniversary: the birthday of Nostradamus, who came into the world on 14 December 1503. The Frenchman became famous in his own lifetime for publishing a long series of prophecies which continue to mystify, intrigue and (frankly) exasperate us to this day. The fact that he wrote in enigmatic poems, or quatrains, means that his words can be endlessly reinterpreted to fit historical events. This makes trying to assess his 'accuracy' a notoriously tricky thing to do. But what if we really squint and give him the benefit of the doubt? Did Nostradamus get anything right?
1 The Death of Henry II
Henry II of France was a personal acquaintance of Nostradamus, who once addressed him in a letter as 'The most invincible Henry King of France'. Unfortunately, Henry actually turned out to be very vincible indeed, and came to a horribly painful end aged just 40. A passionate sportsman fond of hunting and jousting, Henry’s active nature proved his undoing when, in the summer of 1559, he held a tournament to celebrate a recent peace treaty. During a joust with one of his young soldiers, the latter’s lance shattered, driving splinters into the king’s eye and skull.
A slow and painful death from sepsis followed, and many believe it was foretold by Nostradamus. The quatrain in question tells us 'the young lion will overcome the older one', that he will 'pierce his eyes through a golden cage', and that 'two wounds' will ensure a 'cruel death'. Uncanny? Perhaps. Although critics have pointed out the quatrain also says the killing occurs 'on the field of combat in a single battle', while Henry was accidentally slain during a playful joust.
2 The Great Fire of London
It’s worth quoting the alleged Great Fire of London quatrain in full, because it’s one of the most mysterious prophecies of all.
'The blood of the just will commit a fault at London,
Burnt through lightning of twenty threes the six:
The ancient lady will fall from her high place,
Several of the same sect will be killed.'
It’s tantalising if you interpret, as some do, “twenty threes the six” as 66 (20 x 3 + 6). Add to that the mention of London and references to deaths, and you can see why it’s believed to be a prophecy of the Great Fire of London in 1666. As ever with Nostradamus, ambiguities make it hard to be definitive. The Great Fire was set off by a flame in a bakery, not by 'lightning', and what does the 'ancient lady' signify? Perhaps London itself? This is one to puzzle over, even by Nostradamus’ standards.
3 The Coming of Adolf Hitler
Nostradamus has been credited with quite a few 20th Century predictions, and the rise of Adolf Hitler is often cited as one of them. And, to be fair, his writings do provoke a slight chill of recognition.
'From the depths of the West of Europe,' Nostradamus wrote, 'A young child will be born of poor people'. And what does this child do? He will 'by his tongue… seduce a great troop', and his fame will spread far beyond Europe. Another quatrain of possible significance mentions fighting 'close by the Hister' – which is either a loose reference to Hitler, or a more mundane mention of the old name of the Danube river. Depending on your point of view.
5 The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombs
'Within two cities,' Nostradamus wrote, 'there will be scourges the like of which was never seen.' That description would certainly apply to what occurred in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were devastated by atomic bombs at the end of World War Two.
The quatrain paints an increasingly bleak picture, foretelling 'famine within plague' (potentially a reference to radiation sickness and the lasting disruption of war) and 'people put out by steel', which may point to the planes which dropped the bombs. Of course, this may well have been Nostradamus talking about a literal plague affecting any potential cities, given that the man himself had first hand experience of treating plague patients. But, again, it depends on how much you really want to believe.
5 The Kennedy Assassination
The killing of President John F. Kennedy was one of the pivotal moments of the 20th Century, so it’s not surprising that many have scoured the works of Nostradamus for any hint of a prophecy. A commonly quoted contender is the bit that reads 'From on high, evil will fall on the great man' – perhaps a reference to the fact he was shot from a distance by a sniper (or snipers).
Tellingly, the quatrain continues with 'A dead innocent will be accused of the deed' – is this Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin who was himself shot dead soon after, and has long been regarded as an innocent fall guy? As if that wasn’t enough to convince us, Nostradamus assures us the true guilty party will 'remain in the mist' – a sentiment which countless JFK conspiracy theorists will surely agree with.