“Then first in her distant journey did Répanse de Schoie find joy,
And in India's realm hereafter did she bear to the king a boy;
And Prester John they called him, and he won to himself such fame
That henceforward all kings of his country were known by no other name.
And Feirefis sent a writing thro' the kingdoms whose crown he bore,
And the Christian Faith was honoured as it never had been of yore.
(And Tribalibot was that country which as India here we know.)”
(Wolfram von Eschenbach, “Parzival”, around 1210)
Pope Alexander III was a resourceful man. Basically, a useful trait if one has something of a talent to antagonise almost all of the crowned heads of Christendom. A third crusade might have been a political way out of the quandary, but after the disaster of the second one in 1149, none of the said crowned heads was keen on risking life, limb and especially money abroad and especially not to do Alexander a favour. However, with Nur ad-Din unifying the Faithful and threatening the Crusader States and, naturally, Jerusalem, the situation in the Outremer was tense. And the last thing Alexander needed politically was a collapse of Christian rule in the Holy Land. Thus, it was quite fortunate that a letter from a wondrous new ally appeared, the Lord of the Three Indias, descendant of one of the Three Magi, a faithful Christian King, ready to lead a huge army against the Mussulmen from the East if only the western Princes would support him. The legend of Prester John had begun in earnest, and even though a few lettered contemporaries might have noticed that Prester John’s epsitle quoted the Alexander Romances verbatim, the ones about the ancient Conqueror, not the pope, of course, and borrowed heavily from Herodotus and other sources, a dream had begun that would be dreamed well into the 19th century. However, Prester John and a third crusade remained a dream during Alexander’s papacy while he finally managed to checkmate the Holy Roman Emperor and King Henry II of England and relieve himself of most of the political pressure. The Third Crusade set forth in 1189, almost ten years after his death, without any expectations of a relief from Prester John. Another dreamer, however, St Louis IX of France, undoubtedly a pious man and an inspiring leader, but a walking and talking military fiasco, dug out the idea of an alliance with Prester John in the East while he ruined the last hopes of the Crusader Kingdoms during his stay in the Outremer before and after the catastrophic Seventh Crusade around 1250. By then, there actually was a vast empire beyond the Euphrates threatening Muslim rule, that of Genghis Khan and his successors. But they were not exactly Christian princes.
|Jacopo Bassano "Portrait of a Franciscan Friar" (around 1542)|
|Mongol warriors pursuing their enemies, from an early 14th century Persian manuscript|
|Audience with Möngke Khan, from a 15th century Persian manuscript|
A modern translation of William of Rubruck’s travelogue, his “Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratia 1253 ad partes Orientales” can be found here:
and more about William of Rubruck on: