From premonitions to contact with the spirit world, from royal astrologers to ploughboys, the prophets and psychics of the past continue to intrigue and mystify. Here we look at nine of the most famous seers from the past five centuries.
1. Nostradamus – Hitler’s Rise
Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), known by the Latin form Nostradamus, was a leading Renaissance man whose work as an astrologer took him to the French royal court, where he did horoscopes for Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) and later became court physician.
The enduring popular image of Nostradamus is of the bearded medieval mystic sitting in his dark attic, quill in hand, looking into a bowl of water (scrying). Here the Frenchman foresaw some of the great events of history, including the rise of Napoleon and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
One prophecy from his 1555 book Les Prophéties, reads, according to one translation:
‘In the mountains of Austria near the Rhine / There will be born of simple parents,’
And then in another quatrain it says:
‘The greatest part of the battlefield / Will be against Hister’.
This has been interpreted by some to refer to Adolf Hitler. In fact, ‘Hister’ is another name for the Lower Danube. The Hitler interpretation was made by writer Erika Cheetham (1939-1998), and despite being heavily disputed by scholars has continued to hold sway in the popular imagination.
In 1983, French scholars published a wealth of the private correspondence of Nostradamus and demonstrated that most of the ‘prophecies’ of Nostradamus that have been espoused in the modern era are either misinterpretations or outright fabrications.
2. Robert Nixon – The Abdication of King James II
Known as the ‘Cheshire Prophet’, Robert Nixon was born into a poor farming family in 1467. Withdrawn and virtually mute, today there would be a much kinder diagnosis, but in the 15th century Robert was the ‘village idiot’.
One day the young man spoke up and eerily pointed at an ox, predicting its imminent death. Shocked farm hands then watched the animal keel over and expire in front of them. Powerful seer or budding vet? The local dignitaries, farmers, and Nixon’s family were intrigued and baffled in equal measure.
One night Nixon regaled drinkers in a local tavern with all the forthcoming events he had seen in a vision in the sky, such as the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the French Revolution.
Probably Nixon’s most famous prophecy concerned King James II. The Cheshire Prophet declared in the pub:
‘When a raven shall build its nest in a stone lion’s mouth on top of a church in Cheshire, a king of England shall be driven out of his kingdom to return nevermore.’
Two hundred years later, in 1688, a raven did reputedly build a nest in a gargoyle on top of a Cheshire church the day before James II was dethroned and exiled to France, where he died.
Nixon even allegedly predicted his own torturous death – dying of ‘thirst and starvation’ - which occurred after he was locked inside a wooden chest and forgotten about while a guest of King Henry VII.
3. Elizabeth Barton – The Death of King Henry VIII
By the mid-1520s word was spreading throughout England of a wondrous Benedictine nun named Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534). Her ‘miracles, revelations and prophecies’ earned her nicknames such as ‘The Holy Maid of Kent’.
By the early 1530s, Sister Barton was popular and influential. For a time, King Henry VIII and his most powerful aides were happy for Barton to have legitimacy as a public prophetess because her ‘visions’ encouraged Henry’s bloodthirsty purge of heretics and rebels. But the nun quickly fell out of royal favour after starting to prophesise that if Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, within a month he would ‘die a villain’s death’ after losing his kingdom.
Sister Elizabeth Barton was executed on 20th April 1534 along with five of her key allies. In January of that year, Sister Elizabeth had been attainted (being not just condemned to death but also stripped of lands and titles) for being a ‘false prophet’ that had conspired to topple the king.
4. William Lilly - The Great Fire of London
William Lilly (1602-1681), a farmer’s son from Leicestershire, walked to London at the age of eighteen to seek fame and fortune.
In 1647 he published his Christian Astrology, considered one of the most important works in western astrology. His 36 almanacs contained all manner of prophecies and predictions.
In his 1651 book Monarchy or No Monarchy, Lily drew pictures that appeared to accurately predict the coming Great Fire of London of 1666, which destroyed two-thirds of the capital. After the big blaze, these pictures were interpreted as an accurate forecast and Lilly was hauled before an investigative committee, accused of starting the inferno himself. He ended his days rather peacefully for a prophet, dying at the grand old age of 79.
5. The Brahan Seer – The Battle of Culloden
Kenneth Mackenzie was no ordinary farm labourer. Known as the Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar (‘Dark Kenneth’ in Scottish Gaelic), he was believed to have been born on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland in the early 17th century.
After acquiring a reputation as a local seer, he was taken on as a resident prophet by the lords of the Brahan estate near Dingwall on the Scottish mainland
Around six miles east of Inverness is Drumrossie Moor, site of the famous 1746 Battle of Culloden, where Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army was decimated by government forces under the Duke of Cumberland.
In 1630, Kenneth Mackenzie was said to have been walking across Drumrossie Moor when he suddenly went into a fervour, crying: ‘Oh! Drumrossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad I am that I will not see the day! Heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy shall be shown.’
Over a century later, Cumberland earned the nickname ‘Butcher’ by showing ‘no mercy’.
6. Jacques Cazotte – Madame Guillotine and the French Revolution
Jacques Cazotte (1719-1792) was a French author, occultist, and frequent guest at that great institution of 18th-century France: the salon. At one such dinner party in Paris in 1788, he shocked the guests by predicting that King Louis XVI would be executed in the coming revolution, as well as many aristocrats, including some present there that very evening.
In May 1789, the French Revolution began, and many nobles lost their heads, as Cazotte had predicted. It was a few years later, in January 1793, that his darkest prophecy came to fruition – when King Louis XIV was guillotined in front of a huge crowd in the centre of Paris.
Cazotte, too, had an appointment with ‘Madame Guillotine’. Whether he had foreseen his own death or not is unknown, but in September 1792 he was decried as a royalist by the revolutionary authorities and beheaded.
7. Emanuel Swedenborg – His own death
Enigmatic Swedish polymath Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) spent his early adult life travelling and studying around Europe.
Swedenborg claimed to have endured one night in his fifties a harrowing revelation from Jesus Christ, who informed Swedenborg of his new direct line to the spirit world.
Swedenborg went on to make many psychic revelations, including ‘seeing’ the disastrous Stockholm fire of 1759 happening while at a dinner party in Gothenburg, 250 miles away.
His most prophecy, however, concerned his own death.
In 1772 he wrote to John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, and asked to meet with him. When Wesley offered to meet him several weeks after that date, Swedenborg replied that he would be joining the ‘world of spirits’ on 29 March. Swedenborg indeed died on that date, while in London, where he was buried for nearly 150 years before being moved to Sweden.
8. Wolf Messing – Hitler’s Disastrous Russian Campaign
Born in Warsaw, mind magician Wolf Messing (1899-1974) travelled the world in his teens giving public performances of his psychic powers.
Famous for his legendary stunt where he found his way into Stalin’s private room unchallenged, Messing’s most chilling prophecy occurred before the outbreak of World War II. In a packed Warsaw theatre, he told the eager audience that: ‘If Hitler goes to war against the East, his death awaits him.’ He was also reputed to have predicted when the war would begin, being out by just a month, and even apparently told Stalin in the early years of the war that he had had a vision of Soviet tanks entering Berlin.
Was Messing a gifted psychic or simply a lucky guesser with a good grasp of history and international relations?
9. Jeane Dixon – The Death of JFK
American astrologer Jeane Dixon (1904-1997) claimed that as a young girl a fortune teller in a covered wagon told her that she would become a famous psychic.
A prolific predicter, Dixon was dubbed ‘the national seer’ by the press.
As early as 1952 she predicted that a ‘blue-eyed Democrat’ would be in the White House in 1960 and would be ‘assassinated or die in office’. This does accurately describe iconic US president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) - apart from his eyes, which were ‘greenish-grey’.
She later claimed that she would even envision part of the killer’s name and that she had pleaded with the president not to go to Dallas on that fateful trip.
Critics have pointed out that just before Kennedy won in 1960 Dixon changed her mind and backed Nixon to win, and that she got many predictions wrong, publicising the occasional forecasts she got right years after the ‘prophecy’.