The Lost Kingdom of Prester John

"Preste" as the Emperor of Ethiopia,...
“Preste” as the Emperor of Ethiopia, enthroned on a map of East Africa in an atlas prepared by the Portuguese for Queen Mary, 1558. (British Library) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Prester John of the Indies
Prester John of the Indies (Photo credit: MoonToad NL)

Somewhere in the East – or maybe in Africa – there was a widespread belief in the Middle Ages that a Christian King called Prester John ruled.  He was extremely rich and in all likelihood, descended from the Magi that had visited Christ.  Indeed, his lands covered those that the Magi themselves had ruled.

Not that the Bible offers any clues as to where the Three Kings had their domains but a thousand years after the Nativity, many were sure Prester John was now the top man there.  There was even conjecture that he was one of those heretical Nestorians that had split from orthodox Christianity when the Eastern Roman emperor had expelled Nestorius from Constantinople eventually driving him in to the sands of Egypt.

So where to find Prester John?  Well, plenty of people wanted to seek him out from the Templars of the twelfth century through to the Portuguese discoverers of the sixteenth century.  But he seemed to be a very elusive character and his kingdom was…well….a bit invisible really.  Placed in Persia, Armenia, round about Mesopotamia, etc.  But as westerners began to explore these lands, they just couldn’t find him.

In 1163, a lot of excitement was aroused when an Epistola penned by Prester John himself was circulated to the crowned heads of Europe and even Byzantium’s very own Manuel I Comnenus.  The Supreme Eminency assured his audience that he most certainly did exist and his lands stretched to India.

One source claims that this or another letter around that time has Prester John warning that the Templars have allied with his brother against him and that these treacherous knights should be put to death.  I can’t help feeling this claim must have originated – or been put in to the mouth of Prester John – a lot later when the Templars were facing trial.  But I’m happy to be told otherwise.

In an excellent book called ‘The Atlas of Legendary Lands’ by Judyth McLeod, which comes with beautiful illustrations, the author details some of the more bizarre aspects of Prester John’s rule.  This includes the use of a mirror ‘guarded by 3000 men in which he could see events happening throughout his kingdom’.  Such was the credulity of the medieval mind with regards to this unseen monarch that McLeod relates how Pope Alexander III allegedly sent a letter to Prester John in the year 1177 requesting an alliance!

By the time the Portuguese got their teeth in to the story, that country’s famed navigators seem to have placed him in modern day Ethiopia – which of course did have a Christian church, though not in communion with Rome.  In 1557, the Portuguese sent Jesuits to Prester John’s kingdom – Ethiopia in other words – to convert them to the ways of Rome but with no success.

Needless to say – the opening up of the world has left few places for Prester John and his fabulous kingdom to hide away in.   Did he exist or was he a projection of medieval dreams and anxieties?  Was he a long lost disciple of Jesus, a Magi or a heretic?  All insights welcome!


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