Where Did Prester John Live?
Nobody knows for certain and, indeed, nobody has ever succeeded in proving that Prester John ever lived. Prester John is a legendary Christian patriarch and king popular in European chronicles and tradition from the 12th through the 17th century. He was said to rule over a Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation lost amid the Muslims and pagans of the Orient.
The accounts are varied collections of medieval popular fantasy, depicting Prester John as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. At first, Prester John was imagined to reside in India; tales of the Nestorian Christians’ evangelistic success there and of Thomas the Apostle’s sub continental travels probably provided the first seeds of the legend. The legend of Prester John or John the Priest-Prester is a shortened form of Presbyter-dates from the Middle Ages.
According to these early legends Prester John was a mighty Christian potentate, a sort of King Priest of the Indies, of fabulous wealth and power. In the year 1165, the story goes, a letter was sent by Prester John, King of the Indies, to various European rulers in which he claimed to be a “lord of lords’ and hinted that he enjoyed a divine authority.
The land of John was apparently an earthly paradise flowing with milk and honey. Justice and peace ruled supreme. Envy, flattery, greed, theft-none of these evils existed in John’s Kingdom. Poverty, too, did not exist. So many people enjoyed high-sounding titles at John’s court, the letter claimed, that John himself used the plain title of Presbyter or Priest. Apparently John’s butler, in this fabled kingdom, was an archbishop and even his cook was a king.
The idea behind this alleged letter to the European princes was that they should feel humbled that one as mighty as John should use such a modest title. Really the letter was an ingenious forgery and a satire on the princes of Europe.
But the fable of a great Christian ruler lingered on. The crusaders loved the idea of this powerful Christian monarch ruling in the mysterious East. So the territories of Prester John were duly shown on medieval maps, although the boundaries were always vague.
In later centuries it was suggested that the land of John really lay in Ethiopia, and gradually this became the accepted version of the legend. John Buchan makes use of the famous story in his adventure novel, Prester John.