Prester John – the imaginary Christian king who never existed

"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)

Prester John was a fabled king who medieval chroniclers imagined ruled lands in the East or in deepest Africa (most likely Ethiopia).

He was a Christian, possibly a Nestorian, and some hoped he could be an ally against the Muslim realms. The fact that nobody had ever seen him didn’t deter fervent belief in his existence.

There were all sorts of fantastical ideas about this illusory monarch. His wealth was fabulous. He was descended from the Magi, the wise man who had showered gifts on the baby Jesus.

Prester John had discovered the fountain of youth and had a mirror through which he could see events happening at any place in his kingdom.

Reports of his existence first emerged during the Crusades after Christian Europe had stormed into the Middle East. Bishop Hugh of Gebal (modern Jbail in Lebanon) wowed the papal court at Viterbo in 1145 with stories of this Christian ruler.

As recorded by Bishop Otto of Freising in Germany, Prester John was said to have defeated the Muslim emirs of Persia and might have taken Jerusalem if he had been able to cross the mighty Tigris river. There were then confused tales about the Mongols and their wars with Persia and how Prester John might have been involved.

Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, believed that somebody called King David of India had inflicted a huge defeat on the Muslims. He was said to be the grandson of Prester John. In fact, some think this King David was actually Genghis Khan but in a world with poor communications and unreliable histories, the Khan morphed into Prester John’s grandson.

Alberic des Trois Fontaines, a 13th century chronicler, wrote that in 1165, Prester John had sent letters to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa and other kings of Europe declaring that he would soon come to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The Holy Sepulchre, sacred to the Templars, would be retaken.

Such was the willingness to believe in Prester John, that even Pope Alexander III penned a reply to the legendary king in 1177. He sent an envoy to try and track down Prester John but to no avail.

As the tide turned against the Knights Templar, it was claimed that Prester John had written a letter warning about the order stating that the Templars were enemies of Christ and had to be overthrown. This document was undoubtedly a forgery.

When the Knights Templar morphed into the Order of Christ in Portugal, the rebranded Templars set sail in the 16th century to resume the search for Prester John. But he proved to be impossible to trace.

 

 

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