Please update your browser

You're using a version of Internet Explorer that isn't supported by Questia.
To get a better experience, go to one of these sites and get the latest
version of your preferred browser:

English Legends of the Three Kings: Alison Barnes Explains Our Special Fondness for the Christmas Legend

By Barnes, Alison | History Today, December 2007 | Go to article overview

English Legends of the Three Kings: Alison Barnes Explains Our Special Fondness for the Christmas Legend


Barnes, Alison, History Today


ALTHOUGH THE ACCOUNT in Matthew's Gospel of the 'wise men from the East' who were guided to the infant Jesus by the Star of Bethlehem (2:1-12) is so tantalizingly short and vague, it is a magical story whose unfathomable mystery has captured the imagination of Christians and others from the earliest times to the present day. And no country in the world possesses more legends about the Magi than England.

In these legends the Wise Men are almost always referred to as the Three Kings, an appellation derived not from Matthew but from two Roman authors, Tertullian (c. 160-230) and Origen (c.185-254). The former was the first person to call the Magi kings in his Adversus Judaeos, probably because of the prophecy in Psalm 72, verses 10-11, that kings would come to worship Jesus bearing gifts, and because of the costliness of the gold, frankincense and myrrh offered. The latter was the first to state that there were three kings in his Genesim Homiliae.

The names of the Three Kings, Caspar (often changed to Jasper in English legends), Balthasar and Melchior, are not found until the early sixth century, when they appear in a lost Greek manuscript which was included in the seventh-century Excerpta Latina Barbari in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

In the English folk-tale tradition, obtained originally from an eighth-century Irish manuscript, Excerpta et Collectanea, Melchior, King of Arabia, who presented gold, is considered to be an elderly, grey-haired man, Balthasar, King of Ethiopia, the giver of frankincense, is regarded as middle-aged, swarthy and bearded, and Caspar, King of Tarsus, who brought myrrh, is seen as a young stripling.

Most of the English stories about the Three Kings are linked to legends concerning St Helena, after whom countless towns, churches and holy wells in this country are named. Modern scholarship accepts that Helena was born c.250 in Drepanum (later Helenopolis) in Bithynia, and that her son Constantine the Great was born in Naissus in Moesia Superior in c.271-73.

Between 900 and 1900, however, it was believed throughout England that Helena was the only child of mythical King Cole, the supposed first British king, who held his court at Colchester; that she was born in the town, married the Roman general Constantius, and gave birth to Constantine within the city walls.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The earliest written account of this story occurs in Colchester's St John's Abbey Chronicle of 1120. Geoffrey of Monmouth repeated the legend in his Historia Britonum in 1139, adding that Helena was the most beautiful woman in England. The tale reappears in William Camden's Brittania of 1586, and in numerous other history books down to the Victorian era.

Helena probably married Constantius in AD 270, and it is not impossible that at some stage between that year and 293, when he became Caesar and divorced her to marry Theodora, she resided with him for a short while in the Roman colonia of Colchester. All we know for certain is that Constantius campaigned frequently in Britain from 296 until his death at York in 306 and that Constantine was then proclaimed Caesar Augustus in London and elsewhere in the country.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The English were eager to claim Helena as their own because, after she had been converted to Christianity by Constantine in AD 312, she went about building churches and ministering to the poor, and acquired a universal reputation for special saintliness. In c.325 she visited the Holy Land, where she was believed to have discovered the True Cross and the Three Holy Nails that fastened Christ thereon, and the veneration with which she was regarded increased a thousand-fold.

Even more exciting to many people than these two sensational finds, however, was the story in several Vitae of Bishop Eustorgius of Milan that, on leaving Palestine, Helena journeyed to India and there unearthed the bodies of the Three Kings, which she placed in a richly adorned chest and conveyed to Constantinople.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

English Legends of the Three Kings: Alison Barnes Explains Our Special Fondness for the Christmas Legend
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.