The Legend Of Prester John

On May 7th, 1487, two travellers left the town of Santarem in Portugal on a dangerous and secret mission which had been entrusted to them at their suggestion by John II of Portugal, in whose service they had been for some years. They were Pedro de Covilham (sometimes known as Pero Covilha), a diplomat of some distinction, who had spent much of his life in the courts of Castille and had only returned to his native Portugal on the outbreak of war with Spain; and Alfonso de Payva, who had won no little fame both as a merchant and as a soldier and was a trusted friend of the king.

They were under orders to explore “the Levant, and all those regions of Africa and Asia thereto adjoining” for the purpose of discovering possibilities for the extension of their country’s trade. They were to seek with especial care for those lands where “cinnamon and like spices” were to be found; and they were also charged to discover with God’s aid the kingdom of Prester John.

Before we follow these two brave men on their scarcely credible adventures—for they rank almost with the Polos in the romantic daring with which they faced the unknown—some account had best be given of this strange Emperor whose land they were seeking. For they were not alone in their quest. Bartholomew Diaz had been sent on the same mission. He was to discover a sea route to Prester John’s country while Covilham and de Payva were to travel overland.

To-day Prester John is almost always referred to as a legendary character, but it by no means follows that he never existed. In one of his most illuminating flashes, G. K. Chesterton warns his readers not to confuse the legendary with the mythical. Most people, he says, think that Hengist and Horsa existed while King Arthur and his Knights did not. They base this opinion on the fact that all the details on record concerning the two petty chiefs are ordinary and quite credible, while a good many of the stories that have been written about King Arthur are clearly colossal lies.

But does this prove that King Arthur never existed? On the contrary, says G. K. Chesterton, it merely proves that while Hengist and Horsa were such ordinary fellows that no one ever thought it worth while to lie about them, King Arthur was so great a man that for centuries after his death any story-teller with a bigger lie than usual to tell naturally took the Arthurian story as a suitable setting for his large-scale mendacity.

Accepting this theory, which is at least a useful corrective to the attitude adopted by so many historians when they are faced by a legend, it soon becomes clear that if the size of the lies inspired by his memory is a measure of Prester John’s reality he must have been very real indeed.

The whole story starts with the appearance before Pope Calixtus II in the early part of the twelfth century of an Oriental ecclesiastic concerning whose credentials only the most meagre and puzzling details are available. In the account of one chronicler he appears as ‘John, the patriarch of the Indians,’ while another reference describes him as an Archbishop of India. Now it is quite possible that this strange figure may have come from India, and it is also possible that he was a complete imposter, a suggestion rendered more probable by some of the stories which he is alleged to have told. It might be credited, for instance, that miraculous cures had taken place at the shrine of “St. Thomas” in India, but it is hard to believe that the saint rose from the dead and distributed the sacramental wafer with his own hands.

It is some years before there is any further mention of any priestly character from the East with the name of John, and then the story appears in much more circumstantial form in the chronicle of Otto, Bishop of Freisingen, who states that while he was at Rome attending the papal court in the year 1145 he met with a Bishop of Gabala who had a remarkable story to tell. This story was to the effect that in the regions beyond Persia and Armenia there reigned John, a Christian monarch, rex et sacerdos, who not many years before had made war on the pagan nations surrounding him and had won many notable victories. Presbyter John, as he was called, was a Nestorian—the significance of which statement we must return to later—and he had hoped to advance on the holy city of Jerusalem to fight for the Christian Church. When he had reached the Tigris, however, he had found it impossible to get his huge army across. Hearing that to the northward the river froze in winter he had marched many miles along the bank in that direction, but having waited several winters for the frost to come he was at length compelled to return to his own country.

In seeking for the motive which prompted the telling of this curious tale it must not be forgotten that the bishopric of Gabala was in Syria, the birthplace of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, whose doctrine that God could not be born from a human being and that therefore the Virgin Mary could not be the Mother of God, had divided the whole Christian Church in the early part of the fifth century and had, as we have seen, been denounced as erroneous at the rowdy Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 431. The vanquished Nestorians had nevertheless managed to spread their doctrines through the east and had established themselves as a powerful and tolerated minority among the peoples of Islam, which position they still held in the early twelfth century, the time of the Bishop of Gabala’s narrative. Doubtless the Bishop had Nestorian sympathies and thus was attracted by the tale of a powerful army under a Nestorian emperor hovering in the background at a time when it was clear that the gains of the first Crusade had to a large extent been lost, so that a second Crusade was already contemplated to restore them. This army of Presbyter John was a powerful argument in favour of concessions to the Nestorian point of view.

But whether the Bishop of Gabala was an astute intriguer spreading the tale for purposes of his own or whether he was merely a good fellow with an excellent taste in tall stories, the fact remains that as soon as Otto of Freisingen quoted him the ball was set rolling and the legend of Presbyter John began to grow.

In 1165 comes the next chapter in the queer business. A letter is passed round among the Christian churches addressed to Manuel, Emperor of Byzantium, and supposedly sent by Presbyter John—“Presbyter Joannes, by the power and virtue of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords.”

This letter, though obviously a fraud, is a remarkable document. Presbyter John claims to be the mightiest emperor in the world, ruling over no fewer than seventy-two lesser monarchs whose kingdoms extend to farthest India (“where lies the body of St. Thomas”), to the mountains where the sun rises and to the ruins of Babylon and the tower of Babel. When he goes to war thirteen huge crosses made of gold and all inlaid with precious stones are carried before him on great wagons, and behind each of these strange standards follow ten thousand knights and ten times that number of footmen. Seven kings wait on him at one time, together with sixty dukes and 365 counts. When he sits in state there are twelve archbishops on his right hand and twenty bishops on his left. In a huge mirror set up on a pedestal before his tremendous palace he can observe all that takes place in every part of his dominions. If any conspire against him he straightway discerns them in the mirror and is able to forestall their plots. There is not in all his territories any man in poverty; nor is there any miser. There are no thieves, no liars, no rebels; neither does any man flatter another. Vices there are none.

Do you ask why, though ruling in such magnificence, he styles himself only ‘presbyter’? That is his humility. Besides, he adds with delightful naivete, since his lord chamberlain is a king and his head cook a bishop he can hardly take a rank comparable with these!
The Emperor Manuel (whose long and dazzling but highly unprofitable reign was spent mostly in war) was presumably too busy fighting against Raymond of Antioch and the Turks of Iconium, or in joining with Amalric of Jerusalem in an attack on Egypt, to pay much attention to this letter even if it reached him; but the Pope Alexander III apparently answered it, though it is difficult to be sure of this. This much is certain—in September, 1177, the Pope, who was at Venice, addressed a letter to “Our dearest son in Christ, John, the illustrious and magnificent, King of all the Indies.”

From the text of this letter it appears that one Philip, physician to the Pope, while travelling in the east had met certain other travellers who had told him that they came from a Christian kingdom beyond the great deserts. That the Pope considered the monarch of this kingdom to be the writer of the famous letter of ‘Presbyter Joannes,’ is held by some students of the matter to be extremely probable since Alexander gives a solemn warning against boastfulness to his royal correspondent!

It is hard to believe that the able and clear thinking Pope, who outmanoeuvred the great Barbarossa, caused Henry II of England to do penance for the death of Thomas a Becket, laid the foundations of the system of voting by which the Pontiff is to-day elected, did not hesitate to apply the dreaded interdict to Scotland, and intrigued in masterly fashion against the anti-pope Innocent III set up by his enemies, should have been deceived by the faked Prester John letter. Probably he wrote his reply in much the same spirit as that in which the Chinese sage is said to have prayed—if there were any Gods it was just as well and if there were not it didn’t matter; but assuming that the letter was sent in all seriousness the question arises where could it possibly have been sent?

There appears to be no reason to doubt that the physician Philip was telling the truth, in which case it seems only right to assume that however much they may have exaggerated, those with whom he had spoken concerning the Christian monarch, were really the subjects of such a ruler. They are even described as ‘honourable persons’ who had some sort of authority to speak for their king. They had said that he wished to be re-united with the Catholic Church and that he wished for a church to be erected in his name at Rome and an altar to be set aside for him at the Holy Sepulchre. They can hardly have been Nestorians, and the only other possibility is that they were members of the Ethiopic Church, natives of Abyssinia.

This is all the more likely when it is recalled that confusion between Ethiopia and India was common still in Europe and had been since before the time of Virgil, who is several times guilty of that error. Doubtless Alexander III had the haziest notions of geography, but the King of Abyssinia was the only possible person to whom he could have sent his letter.

But the spurious Prester John letter with its catalogue of marvels had captured the imagination of Europe. It was copied with all sorts of embroideries and several versions of it exist in old German verse. It definitely pointed to Asia as the land of Prester John, and it was several hundred years before the dream of a great Asiatic Christian kingdom vanished from European minds.

Other amazing things were told of the great Prester John. His wealth came from mines so rich that the mind of man could scarce picture them. Out of a magic mountain within his territories a river of rubies flowed, the precious stones so thickly clustering that from afar it seemed the mountain bled. Gold was so common none considered it. Serpents had emerald eyes. The king hunted not lions but dragons, protected from their breath by robes of salamander skin. In these he passed through fire to the amazement of all beholders.

The legend of the salamander, the lizard that lives in flame, is one of the strangest stories that the human mind has produced. But the robes of salamander skin are thought by some students of the eastern myths to have perhaps a rational explanation. It is related that Charlemagne had a magic tablecloth which when soiled by a feast was flung into the fire and emerged unharmed and cleansed. Guests, it is said, were stricken dumb with wonder at this marvel. This could only be asbestos—which an ancient historian refers to as “Carpasian linen”—the fibrous mineral found at Carpasius in the isle of Cyprus. It is unlikely that this was found in the realm of Prester John, for it is not a common deposit; but every marvel of fact or imagination seems at one time or another to have clustered round the Presbyter’s name.

In Ethiopia the story takes curious forms having been heard perhaps from European sources. But it is part of the national tradition, and the king is always thought of as a conqueror who leads his Christian subjects against the infidel, seated upon a white horse and preceded by the Holy Cross.

Early in the thirteenth century there was a rumour that David, grandson of Prester John, had risen against the Moslems and was destroying their hold upon the East. It was a pleasant thought to the Europeans that their hated enemies were being taken in the rear. The origin of the rumour was, however, the colossal achievements of Jenghis Khan, who, when he died in 1227, ruled a vast Empire which extended from the Caspian to the Pacific. Jenghis Khan was no Christian, but it was his fixed rule to respect religious beliefs and he never made war in the name of any creed. There were pagans, Christians and Moslems among his counsellors, and he dealt fairly with them all. The Christians were Nestorians, but they had changed so much in character with the passing of the years that at the time of Jenghis Khan they had little if anything in common with the West. They were excellent fighters, but far from aiding in the defence of the Holy Sepulchre would probably have been only too delighted to have pillaged all Europe. They had neither any central church nor any demarcated territory, and though their existence contributed to the Prester John legend, so that Marco Polo identified him as Unc Khan, forerunner of the great Jenghis, they were never a nation in any real sense of the word. They disappeared almost completely from Central Asia by the close of the fourteenth century, only surviving in India, where under the name of Syriac Christians they still exist to-day.

The existence of these Syriac Christians in India probably explains the identity of the Archbishop John who appeared before Calixtus II. Cosmas Indicopleustes (whose works we have already considered) mentions that he found them in Ceylon as early as 535. But they were not even a separate people, let alone a great nation, and there is little in their history to give any grounds for the magnificent legends concerning Prester John, though perhaps the tales of Golconda and Gondophar have been borrowed by romance.

As Asia was gradually penetrated and her secrets in part revealed it became more and more difficult to name any real king east of the Oxus as the legendary monarch. For a while the Turkish Christians, the Keraits, were considered to be his nation, but during the confused struggles which marked the reign of the great Asiatic conqueror Timur, this people, sometimes mentioned as being led by Prester John, were overwhelmed and their identity completely submerged. Marco Polo says that the descendants of Prester John drifted north and settled beyond Pekin, but it is difficult to understand what basis of fact explains this story. Friar Odoric, who reached Pekin about the year 1325 by way of Persia, India, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Canton, states that on his return journey (through Central Asia) he passed through the Land of Prester John, of which he gives a description; but there is nothing of special magnificence recorded and it is probable that Odoric had no real evidence for his statement. This is the last trace of an Asiatic Prester John, though as late as 1492 Martin Behaim, who, on the strength of rather vague stories of his travels, was commissioned by his fellow townsmen of Nuremberg to construct a globe, labels a somewhat indeterminate region between Tibet and India with the words ‘Prister Johan.’ This is, however, only one of Martin Behaim’s many flights of imagination and has no significance. Blank spaces had to be filled in somehow.

Although Marco Polo went so far astray in his placing of the elusive kingdom of Prester John, he provides elsewhere in his writings an interesting clue as to the real source of all the stories, for he states that about the year 1270 the King of Abyssinia sent ambassadors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem to make offerings on his behalf. This is clear evidence that the Ethiopic Church of that day considered itself as bound to Western Christendom, and there is no reason to doubt that the emissaries whom Philip the Physician encountered a century earlier were from the same kingdom.

Gradually Abyssinia becomes the land of Prester John. One of the old maps (Fra Mauro: 1460) pictures a great city in that region. Here, says the rubric, Preste Janni has his royal palace. Thus it was towards Abyssinia that Pedro de Covilham and his companion, the envoys of John II of Portugal, made their secret journey.

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