A Pagan Prince Meets the King of England (1363-4)
There was a time-honoured custom in England during the Middle Ages that kings should stand as sponsors to the Christian baptism of pagans, Jews and Muslims. The phenomenon typified both the religious obligations of kingship and the general reluctance of medieval English culture to acknowledge beliefs and practices other than those of orthodox Catholic Christianity.
In the winter of 1363-4 King Edward III of England acted as host to a kind of summit conference of contemporary rulers. Among the attendees was Peter I, king of Cyprus, who was on a tour the courts of Europe to recruit support for a proposed new Crusade in the Holy Land. Edward III, who was now in his fifties, was reported to have told Peter that he was far too old for such an adventure and would leave it to his sons: in the event, none of the princes took the hint, though some members of the English nobility did in due course sign up. The summit was suitably sumptuous: Peter I presented the English king with a leopard, which presumably found its way into the royal menagerie in the Tower of London; and Edward gave his guest various items of gold and silver plate. A legend later developed that the London vintner, Henry Picard, hosted a ‘feast of five kings’ in which Edward and Peter were joined by others gathered for this great conference: John II of France, David II of Scotland and Waldemar IV of Denmark.
In the midst of the ceremonies and feastings, Peter I pandered to Edward III’s fantasies of world domination by producing from his entourage two ‘pagan kings’, who were clearly intended to do obeisance to the English monarch. One was described in a contemporary chronicle as coming from Lecto, which is likely to refer to the last bastion of European paganism in Lithuania. The other was said to call himself ‘lord of Jerusalem’. We do not know what happened to the first. But the second – who, if the source is at all reliable, must have been a Muslim – was converted to Christianity, with the king of England standing as his godfather and bestowing on him his own name of Edward.
The royal sponsorship of baptism to Christianity provides us with one of the few reliable resources for the presence in later medieval England of converts from religious and racial minorities. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, official policy did not allow anyone who was not a baptised Christian to have the status of a free subject of the English crown. As a result, there is often an assumption that there were no further ethnic or religious minorities in England before the re-entry of Jews from various parts of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The case of the convert Edward reminds us that there was always a trickle of people of non-European and non-Christian origin through England in the later Middle Ages, but that their only hope of long-term residence and rights lay in their adoption of the religion of the host community. The ‘lord of Jerusalem’ was almost certainly a fleeting visitor to England; but other Muslims and Jews who converted under royal protection actually lived long-term in the so-called House of Converts, an important and enduring institution in London.
The case of the convert Edward also helps to explain why English society and bureaucracy was, at least officially, ‘colour-blind’. When the government started to collect systematic information towards the alien subsidies, or taxes on foreigners, from 1440 onwards, it never used labels that explicitly denoted racial or religious minorities, for the good reason that all persons were assumed to be Christian. Thus, in the very rare cases where taxpayers were labelled ‘of Inde’, it is very clear from their names that they had assumed Christian practice and identity. Literary convention at least also held to the view that Christian baptism involved a physical as well as a spiritual transformation that rendered the convert whole, perfect – and thus figuratively ‘white’.
C. L. Kingsford, ‘The Feast of the Five Kings’, Archaeologia 67 (1915-16): 119-26.
Henry Ansgar Kelly, ‘Jews and Saracens in Chaucer’s England’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer 27 (2995): 129-69.
W. Mark Ormrod, ‘John Mandeville, Edward III, and the King of Inde’, Chaucer Review 46 (2012): 314-339.