Several days after Christmas – the day which marks the birth of Christ – comes the Epiphany signifying the arrival of the three wise men at the stable. Known in England as ‘Twelfth Night’ when players called ‘mummers’ would perform. Up until the 19th century, Twelfth Night was as magical if not more so than Christmas Day itself. But given that the reference to the three kings is a passing paragraph in the gospel of Matthew, how did it come to have such a powerful hold on medieval minds?
Well, like many biblical stories, it underwent a certain amount of embroidering at later hands that most Christians today are unaware of and had nothing to do with the original gospel account. The casting of the three men as kings is largely the work of two early Christian scholars – Tertullian and Origen – whose writings were regarded as a bit suspect by the early church though they were hugely influential. Tertullian was keen to prove that the Jews were no longer God’s chosen people and the act of obeisance by the kings to Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy thereby proving he was the Messiah.
The naming of the three kings is not recorded in any document prior to the sixth century AD and first crops up in Alexandria. The kings were called:
Melchoir – King of Arabia – who brought gold – an old man
Balthasar – King of Ethiopia – who brought frankincense – a middle aged man
Caspar (or Jasper in England) – King of Tarsus – who brought myrrh – a young man
In medieval mystery plays, the story of the three kings got ever more convoluted. Words were put in to their mouths that had never existed in the bible. In the English city of Chester, the mystery plays depicted different parts of the bible and trades guilds would be assigned a particular story to tell. The drapers and hosiers did the creation of the world, the goldsmiths and masons enacted the slaughter of the innocents and it fell to the mercers and spicers to depict the three kings.
Somehow in the Middle Ages, the story of the Magi became bound up with Saint Helena – the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity at the start of the fourth century – starting a process that would take the empire from paganism to a new religion. Helena, in real life, was from Bithynia in modern Turkey and after her son took control of the empire, she bolstered his new found faith by miraculously discovering the true cross, the nails used in the crucifixion and the robe worn by Christ just before being put to death.
But in England, Helena’s story changed dramatically in the Middle Ages. She became the daughter of Coel the Old or ‘King Cole’ – first king of the British. He held court in Colchester where, the legend went, Helena was born….not in Bithynia. Furthermore, not only did she discover the aforementioned relics, but this British born saint went all the way to India and dug up the bones of the three kings bringing them back to the royal court in Constantinople. From there they went to Milan and eventually ended up in Cologne cathedral.
So convinced were the medieval English that Helena was a daughter of Colchester that she was venerated in the city with something of a cult developing around her. The city townsfolk said she was the most beautiful woman who had ever lived and in a well, she found three ‘golden heads’ of the Magi and they told her to look after them. In return they ensured that she was married to the greatest of kings.