Who is Prester John?

Prester John is a legendary Christian patriarch in European tradition from the 12th to the 17th Century. He was reputed to rule over a Nestorian kingdom and Church.  Reports of a Christian monarchy besieged by Muslim and pagan adversaries gained wide circulation in Europe.  The location of the ‘Kingdom of Prester John’ was originally said to be in Central Asia or India.

Portuguese depiction of the mythical figure

In 1221, de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, returned from Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilised his forces against the Saracens.  He had already conquered Persia and was marching on Baghdad too.  However, this was most likely a legend intended to raise Christian hopes and to encourage European monarchs who by that time had lost interest in getting involved in costly crusades in a distant region.

The Bishop was correct in thinking that a great King had conquered Persia; however, ‘King David’ was in reality, the mighty warlord Genghis Khan.  The Mongol Empire’s rise gave Western Christians the chance to visit far-flung lands along the Empire’s secure roads.  Belief in a lost Nestorian kingdom existed in the East, or that the salvation of the hard-pressed Crusader states depended on alliance with an Eastern monarch was the reason for the quantity of the Christian ambassadors and missionaries despatched to the Mongols.

The link was elaborated over time until Prester John became identified with Toghril, Genghis’ foster father and King of the Keavites. Toghril, the man behind the myth was in fact a Nestorian Christian monarch defeated by Khan.  The major characteristic of Prester John tales form this period is that the mythical king was not an invincible hero, but merely one of many adversaries subdued by the Mongols.. As the Mongol Empire collapsed however, Europeans began to shift away from the idea that Prester John had ever really been a Central Asian King.

By the 14th Century, Africa became the focus of attention.  In 1306, a priest in genoa, Giovanni da Carigano interviewed a group of thirty Abyssinian clerics and recorded that the patriarch of their Church was ‘Prester John’.  This became the name by which Europeans knew the Kings of Abyssinia.  The Abyssinian never used the name. It was a European myth.  Despite their admonitions, the name Prester John continued to resonate across Europe and inspired the idea that he might be persuaded to wage a crusade against Islam.

It was on this background that on May 7th 1487, two Portuguese envoys, Pero da Covilha and Afonso de Paiva were sent travelling secretly overland to gather information on a possible sea route to India, but also to investigate Prester John.  They were well received but forbidden to leave the kingdom.  Covilha’s testimony of his experiences was conveyed back to Europe by an Abyssinian envoy, greatly increasing European interest in the secluded realm.

Ethiopia has been claimed for many years as the origin of the of the Prester John legend, but many modern experts believe it was simply adapted to fit that nation in the same fashion it was projected onto Mongolia and India in the 13th century.  There is nothing about the Prester or his country that would make Ethiopia a more suitable identification than another place, and there was no knowledge of this story in the Ethiopian hinterland before European contact.   

Prester John enthroned on a European map


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