Prester John : The Phantom King
Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, it seems like every other day an email arrives from a troubled foreign prince or government official in distress. In return for your bank account details, they promise to give you a share of their vast wealth when they inevitably move their savings through your digital piggy bank. Of course, this never happens and those who fall for these tricksters inevitably find their savings raided and pilfered. It probably only adds salt to the wound to learn that rogues masquerading as foreign royalty asking for help have been getting up to it since long before the world wide web.
Dear Sir or Madam…
Meet Prester John – legendary ruler of the Three Indias. A great and Christian monarch, this priest king reigned over a wonderful kingdom, said to be in the, east that was crime-free and flowing in milk and honey. Alas all was not well in the east for upon Prester John’s boarded horded of heretics and infidels were rising laying siege to the land. Thus did he make an appeal for aid from the Christian lords of the west to send their armies to his aid.
There was only one problem – Prester John was a fake.
The Kingdom That Never Was
While Christian traditions had spread further east over the centuries, scholars today have long since consigned the idea of Prester John and his kingdom to the pages of history as an elaborate fraud. It was, however, a fraud that, for a time, held a powerful influence in the minds of Europeans who firmly believed, for hundreds of years, that in India a powerful Christian Kingdom lay.
Sadly for the Europeans there were complications, principally that, by the time that the Prester John myth was gaining pace as credible, “India” to them meant “Somewhere in the East”. What followed was a retrospectively embarrassing attempt to find a place on the maps suitable for the great and powerful Kingdom.
For example, during the 13th Century, word arrived during the crusades that King David, the son or grandson of Prester John, had risen at the head of three armies to join the crusaders in their war against the Muslims. To their disappointment, they found the Mongols, though this did not stop enthusiastic explorers continuing to seek the rivers of gold and fountain of youth reported to be within the Kingdom. Alas by the 14th century, emissaries and adventurers travelling through the, largely safer, roads of the empire, had confirmed that there was no legendary Kingdom here.
This, of course, did not stop those who believed the legend, who instead found other possible places where the Kingdom could be. In this time, Ethiopia was a great power to itself, though isolated from Europe due to geography and politics, with contact sporadic and rare. As a result, further expeditions from European courts made their way into Africa, though the legendary land of the Priest King was never found.
A Legacy of Exploration
The actual reason for the writing of the letters, or who wrote them, has never been discovered by history, though hundreds of examples, many beautifully described and fantastically illustrated, exist copied and spread across Europe. Like the scam artists of today, whatever rogue penned these texts in the past no doubt hoped they could get their hands on the gold of Emperors , Kings and Popes so that they could “take it back to Prester John”.
Whether they profited with it is unknown, but what is certain is that the legend of Prester John fired up an imagination in the hearts of European explorers and a desire to explore other lands. In the centuries that would follow, the European powers would expand across the world forming empires , building states and fighting wars to determine the fates of continents and the rest of the world. And though in time, the Kingdom of the priest king would vanish from the maps, in its place would rise many more.