Magazine article History Today

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

Magazine article History Today

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

Article excerpt

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.


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.


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. …

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