Crusades and the Search for the Kingdom of Prester John Part 1

About the search for the Kingdom of Prester John, history of the missing kingdom during the Crusades.



The mysterious lost kingdom of Prester John may have changed the course of history. For 400 years the hope of finding it led Europeans to explore the world, contact remote peoples, and establish trade routes, thereby gaining spin-offs of knowledge, wealth, and influence.

In the 12th century, when stories about Prester John began to circulate, Europeans were risking life and limb for their Christian faith. Their crusading armies swept to the Holy Land in nine waves from 1095 to 1290 in an effort to seize it, then defend it from the encroachments of the Muslim Turks. The struggle for Christian supremacy proving more difficult than anticipated, it was widely hoped that Prester John would come to the embattled crusaders' aid.

Prester John was said to be a Christian priestking, dwelling in a vast kingdom far to the east. His ideal theocracy, without crime or injustice, was reputed to be enormously wealthy and powerful. But no one knew its location.

It was thought to be in India, a name then applied to all lands stretching eastward from the Nile and Tigris. This area had been closed to travelers until the 13th century, when Genghis Khan consolidated his empire and opened the immense region to Western scrutiny. Although cut off from the greater Christian world, some Christian communities were living there. They were Nestorians, least known of the three branches of Christianity (the other two being Roman and Byzantine). They took their name from Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople anathematized in 431 A.D., but they claimed St. Thomas the Apostle, reputed to have died in India in 53 A.D., as their actual founder. They had taken the lead in proselytizing from Syria eastward across Asia and lived, usually on peaceful terms with Muslim neighbors, in India, Persia, and Mongolia, the very regions where Prester John's kingdom was thought to lie.

Clues for the Hunt

The first known reference to Prester John occurred in 1145. Historian Otto of Freising learned of him from Bishop Hugh of Gebal, an Eastern churchman who brought the pope news that Edessa in Asia Minor had fallen to the Turks. Hugh reported that Prester John, a "Christian but Nestorian" priest-king, whose vast kingdom was "in the uttermost East, beyond Persia and Armenia," had hoped to take Jerusalem after victories over the Medes and Persians, but, unable to transport his troops across the Tigris, had returned home.

More spectacular evidence of Prester John's existence appeared in 1165. A Latin letter of mysterious origin, signed "Prester John, King of India," was circulated to Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and Pope Alexander III. After a 12-year delay, the pope actually answered it, but his messenger, Magister Philippus, never returned. The original Latin letter has been lost. Surviving versions are apparently traceable to a copy of the letter received by the Byzantine emperor.

The letter states: "Our Magnificence rules in the three Indias and our lands extend until the Far India, where the body of the Holy Apostle Thomas has been laid to rest." The writer then describes his virtuous government and his marvelous possessions--a palace furnished with gems, a magic mirror, a fountain of youth, and a fiery mountain containing cloth-spinning salamanders. He claims that horned, one-eyed, and dog-headed people inhabit the kingdom, along with griffins, centaurs, and dragons.

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