Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe

Prester John appeared to be the ideal Christian king and a champion against the Muslims who were ready to retake Jerusalem when reports of him came to Europe in the mid-twelfth century. Even though the reports were later found to be fabricated, his legend grew steadily over the next three centuries.

Summary of Event

Twelfth century Europe saw disillusioning political setbacks that caused widespread anxiety. European princes fought each other, and the Byzantine emperor, the pope, and Holy Roman Emperor were at loggerheads. In addition, the Muslim Saracen armies were poised to retake the territory in Palestine conquered by the First Crusade in 1099 and possibly drive Christians from the Holy Land altogether. It is no wonder, then, that when reports came of a great ruler in the Far East who was coming to the rescue, Europeans were eager to believe in him. He was Prester (or Presbyter) John, a king who was also a priest. Christianity;Islam and
[kw]Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe (c. 1145)
[kw]John Myth Sweeps Across Europe, Prester (c. 1145)
[kw]Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe (c. 1145)
[kw]Europe, Prester John Myth Sweeps Across (c. 1145)
Prester John (legendary)
Europe (general);c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Middle East;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Africa;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
India;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Central Asia;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Exploration and discovery;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Literature;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Religion;c. 1145: Prester John Myth Sweeps Across Europe[1890]
Otto of Freising
Alexander III (1105-1181)
Polo, Marco
Genghis Khan

The first reports may have referred to actual events, if imprecisely, but as time passed, Prester John became ever more a figure of fantasy, the subject of hoaxes, literary exaggeration, and wishful thinking. The first recorded mention of him occurs in 1145 in a chronicle by Otto of Freising Otto of Freising . Bishop Otto relates the testimony of Hugh, bishop of Jabala in Syria. According to Hugh, a Christian priest and king named John, a descendant of the biblical Magi, led an army against the Persians in a three-day battle. Prester John’s forces prevailed, and he intended to lead them on to Jerusalem to preserve the city for Christianity but was unable to cross the Tigris River.

Bishop Otto’s report may have been partly propaganda, since Bishop Hugh made it after a scouting mission in support of a second crusade, but modern scholars, such as Charles F. Beckingham, have found supporting evidence in other medieval historians. In 1141, an immense battle took place between forces of the Persian prince Sanjar Sanjar and those of Korkhan (or Ku-Khan, Corchan) of China. The Chinese obliterated the 100,000-man Persian army, welcome news indeed for the Christian rulers of Palestine.

Bishop Hugh’s Prester John belonged to the Nestorian Nestorianism sect, which believed that Christ’s human existence on earth was distinct from his divine nature. Although Nestorianism was heresy Heresy;Nestorianism to the Roman Catholic Church, Prester John was still a Christian and a potentially powerful ally. However, the mysterious Eastern potentate might have remained little more than an encouraging rumor had not a letter from him, written sometime around 1165, reached Pope Alexander III Alexander III . The letter, addressed to Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus Manuel I Comnenus , boasted at length about Prester John’s wealth and splendor.

It was an outrageous forgery, yet because of it, the Prester John legend assumed a life of its own and grew. The letter claims that Prester John dominated the “three Indias” where milk and honey flowed and where there was an abundance of gems of every kind and gold; he lived in a palace built of ebony and precious stones, where daily his tables fed 30,000 people and his retainers included 7 kings, 62 dukes, 365 counts and an equal number of abbots and bishops. Prester John, it says, received tribute from 72 kings. When minstrels and storytellers learned the contents of the fabulous letter, they were quick to include Prester John in their performances. Soon his legend expanded in magnificence by incorporating episodes from tales about Alexander the Great and from miracle stories about the Apostle Saint Thomas during his mission in India.

The legendary Prester John is shown as the head of a Tartary tribe in Cesar Vecelli’s Degli Habiti Antichi e Moderni (1560), a book on clothing and fashion.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Pope Alexander III was clearly skeptical of the letter. Yet he was so worried about Christianity’s political straits that he dispatched an aide, Philippus, to Prester John with a reply. While admonishing Prester John for the irresponsible self-glorification, the pontiff made overtures for an alliance with the Nestorian as if he really existed. Philippus left on his mission in 1177 and vanished from history.

The legend spread. Marco Polo, Polo, Marco and others, confidently but wrongly identified Unc-Khan, a rebellious vassal of Genghis Khan Genghis Khan who died in battle fighting the great Mongol emperor, as Prester John. Polo’s account of his visit to the Mongol court had a wide readership and enhanced the legend’s authenticity. So when it eventually became apparent that Prester John could not possibly have been a khan of Central Asia, hopeful Western princes and scholars simply looked elsewhere, sure that his realm existed. To find it, they took clues not only from the letter, which steadily grew longer with embellishments by copyists, but also from reports by other travelers, however doubtful. India was next thought to be Prester John’s home, although the exact location was vague. To Europeans “India” denoted a poorly defined region somewhere east of Palestine and west of Cathay (China). Armenia and the Caucasus were also considered.

Finally, based on reports by captured Africans and diplomatic missions from African kings to European princes in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries, King Henry IV Henry IV (king of England) of England, Prince Henry the Navigator Henry the Navigator, Prince , and King John I John I (king of Portugal) of Portugal convinced themselves that Prester John was the emperor of Ethiopia, which was believed to be somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Expeditions were dispatched to find him during the fifteenth century. However, as explorers made contact with the major kingdoms of Africa, including Ethiopia, it became clear that Prester John had never ruled there either. By the seventeenth century, the legend had lost its attraction.


The belief in pending help from Prester John had harmful military and political consequences. The fall of Jerusalem to the great Ayyūbid Dynasty general Saladin Saladin in 1187 and the failures of the Third Crusade Crusades (1191), Fourth Crusade (1199), and Fifth Crusade (1218-1221) to retake it made Christians overeager to look for help. When reports came that a mighty King David, the heir of Prester John (who also styled himself Prester John), was on his way to Palestine, rejoicing spread through Europe. A great army was indeed approaching but not led by any Prester John. It was the army of Ghengis Khan. Rejoicing turned to alarm as the Mongols Mongols not only crushed and plundered the Muslims but also Christians, Jews, and everyone else in their way. Soon Europe, lulled by the legend of Prester John and unprepared for common defense, found itself besieged and escaped conquest only because Ghengis Khan died.

Contact with the Mongols disabused many Europeans of their faith in an ideal Eastern Christian monarch, but the legend still held powerful allure, and it led to practical benefits. The Catholic Church renewed its interest in Nestorians and sent missionaries to India and China. Reports from the missionaries greatly increased knowledge of the East, as did the accounts of traders who wanted to profit from Prester John’s reportedly vast wealth.

European leaders continued trying to make contact when attention turned to Ethiopia as the site of Prester John’s kingdom. The attempts furthered the exploration of Africa and surrounding seas. For example, both Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage up the eastern coast of Africa and on to India came in part from the search for Prester John.

The legend found its way into the literature of many lands, not only travelogues like those of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville but also great epics. In his Parzival (c. 1200-1210; English translation, 1894), the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-c. 1217) referred to Prester John, the first such mention in a chivalric romance, and three centuries later, Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471) made similar use of it in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). In this courtly literature, Prester John represented a perfect blending of the roles of priest and king, bringing modesty, justice, and piety to government. His ideal commonwealth contrasted sharply with the actual European kingdoms of the times. Indeed, some modern scholars, such as Leonardo Olschki, believe that Bishop Otto’s 1145 description of Prester John may itself have been an attempt to shame Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III from their bitter power struggles by inventing a virtuous monarch who united spiritual and temporal authority.

Further Reading

  • Beckingham, Charles F. “The Quest for Prester John.” In The European Opportunity: The European Impact on World History 1450-1800. Vol. 2. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. Discusses the sources of erroneous reports of Prester John and the political considerations that led Western rulers to seek him in Asia and Africa.
  • Beckingham, Charles F., and Bernard Hamilton, eds. Prester John and the Ten Lost Tribes. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1996. This scholarly collection contains two sections: one of ancient texts about Prester John in Latin and German, and one of articles interpreting the texts, with particular attention to historical references and the development of the legend.
  • Relaño, Francesc. “Prester John: The Migration of a Legend.” In The Shaping of Africa: Cosmographic Discourse and Cartographic Science in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Discusses the role of the Prester John legend in shaping Europe’s idea of Africa.
  • Silverberg, Robert. The Realm of Prester John. 1972. Reprint. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996. A prolific popular author provides a readable, judicious, wide-ranging study of the Prester John legend, its origins, and its historical and cultural milieu, based upon extensive review of original sources and scholarly studies.
  • Westrem, Scott D. Broader Horizons: A Study of Johannes Witte de Hese’s “Itinerarius” and Medieval Travel Narratives. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 2001. This analysis of travel narratives discusses voyages made in search of Prester John.