The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Three Kings

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern(London: Richard Beckley, 1833), Introduction, pp. lxxxi-xc .

It was a very early practice with our Kings to make an offering at the high altar on this day, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, in commemoration of the offering of the three kings. Edward the First, in his 28th year, gave to the amount of one florin in gold, with frankincense and myrrh, besides oblations in money to the amount of 22s.75 Henry the Seventh made offerings to the value of £1. 13s. 4d.76 The practice has been continued to the present day. The same usage also prevailed on the Continent, but the customs there have been frequently varied by the numerous political changes of late years. The King of Spain formerly offered three chalices or communion cups, worth about three hundred ducats each. In one of them was placed a piece of gold, in the second incense, and in the third myrrh.

The legend of the three kings is supposed to have been taken from the 10th verse of the 72nd Psalm, a psalm wherein Solomon’s reign is considered as a type of Christ’s.—” The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Saba shall offer gifts;” or, as the Bee Hive of the Romish Church77 states it, “Kings shall come out of the Moor’s land to worshippe Christ.”

Oliver, “ On Initiation,” (p. 92—3.) citing Hyde, “Rel. vet. Pers.” states, that “the initiated in the religious mysteries of Persia are said to have had communicated to them as the last great secret, the important prophecy of Zeradusht, or Zoroaster, with which his early instruction under Daniel had acquainted him, that in future times a prophet should appear, the son of a pure virgin, whose advent should be proclaimed by a brilliant star shining with celestial brightness at noon-day. The candidates were enjoined to follow this star, if it should appear in their time, until they found the new-born babe, to whom they were to offer rich gifts, and prostrate themselves as to the Creator.”

Without, however, entering into the authenticity of this prophecy, it has been supposed that the celebrated prophecy of Balaam78 made a deep impression on the surrounding nations, and being handed down through successive generations, prepared the way for the appearance of the star which proclaimed to the Gentiles the birth of our Saviour. At the time of its appearance also there was a general expectation that the fulfilment of the prophecy respecting the birth of Christ was at hand. But this is matter of too serious a nature to be discussed in a work of the present description, which must treat of the traditionary history only of the three kings; and if some of my readers may surmise that part of it has the appearance of fable, in good sooth I cannot vouch for its veracity. It is as I found it.

The Venerable Bede, in the 7th century, is the first writer in this country who gives a particular description of them, which he probably took from some earlier tradition. Melchior, the first, was old, and had grey hair, with a long beard; he offered gold to Christ, in acknowledgment of his sovereignty. Gaspar, or Jasper, who was young and had no beard, offered frankincense, in recognition of the divinity of our Lord. Balthazar, the third, was of a dark or black complexion, as a Moor, with a large spreading beard, and offered myrrh to our Saviour’s humanity; according to these lines in “Festa Anglo-Romaria,” p. 7.

Tres Reges Regi Regum, tria dona ferebant;
    Myrrham Homini, Uncto aurum, thura dedere Deo.

Or, as Sandys gives them,

Three kings, the King of Kings, three gifts did bring;
Myrrh, incense, gold, as to Man, God, a King.
Three holy gifts be likewise given by thee
To Christ, even such as acceptable be.
For myrrha tears; for frankincense, impart
Submissive prayers; for pure gold, a pure heart.79

Bede also describes their dresses, &c.; and in numerous old pictures and popular representations, for which the offering of the Wise Men has been a favourite subject, his account is followed. They had other names besides the above; as the “Golden Legend” says, their names in Hebrew were Appellys, Ameryus, and Damascus, — and in Greek, Galagaluth, Magalath, and Tharath ; the Greek and Hebrew, however, appear to be transposed. Hone80 mentions three other names, Ator, Sator, and Peratoras. There are several old manuscripts relating to their history in the British Museum, from which much of the following particulars is taken.81

In the course of their journey, which lasted for twelve days, they neither took nor required rest or refreshment; it seemed to them indeed as one day. The nearer they approached to Christ’s dwelling, the brighter the star shone. Mehchior, the King of Nubia and Arabia, was of low stature; he gave a “rounde apple of gold and thirty gilt (i. e. golden) pens.” Baltazar, King of Godolie (or Sodalia) and Saba (or Sheba), was of mean (i. e. middle) stature, and offered incense. Jasper, King of Tarse and Egypt (or the Isle of Egristula), was a black Ethiop (and not Balthazar as mentioned by Bede), and presented myrrh.

The star was said to be as an eagle flying and beating the air with his wings, and had within it the form and likeness of a young child, and above him the sign of a cross. In “Dives and Pauper”82 is the following account of it:—“Dives. What manner sterre was it than? Pauper. Some clerkes tellen that it was an angell in the lykenesse of a sterre, for the kynges hadde noo knowynge of angellys, but toke all hede to the sterre. Some saye that it was the same childe that lay in the oxe stalle whiche appered to the kynges in the lykenesse of a sterre, and son drewe theym and ledde theym soo to hym selfe in Bethleem. And therefore holy chirche syngeth and sayth, Jacebat in presepio et fulgebat in celo, he laye full lowe in the cratche and he shone full bryght aboue in heuen. But the comon sentence of the clerkes is, that it was a new sterre newely ordeyned of God to shewe the byrthe of Cryste. And anone as it had done the offyce that it was ordeyned for it tourned ayen to the mater that it come fro.”

The history of the thirty pence, or pieces of gold, is curious, and shews the ingenuity with which some of these legends were dovetailed together. They were first coined by Terah, the father of Abraham, and taken by the latter with him when he left the land of the Chaldees. He afterwards paid them away to Ephron, with the purchase money for the field and cave of Machpelah. The Ismaelites then, according to one account, paid them back as the price of Joseph when sold by his brethren; but we may imagine them to have been returned for some other purpose, if we choose, as the money paid for Joseph was only twenty pieces, according to the usual version of the Scriptures. There is an old poem, however, by Adam Davie, who wrote about the year 1312, wherein it is said,

Ffor thritti pens thei sold that childe,
    The seller highth Judas,
IÞo Ruben corn him and myssed bias
    Ffor ynow he was.

However, the money was afterwards paid to Joseph by his brethren for corn during the scarcity. On the death of Jacob, Joseph paid them away to the royal treasury of Sheba, for spices to embalm him. The celebrated Queen of Sheba, in after times, gave them to King Solomon with many other presents. In the time of Rehoboam, when the temple was spoiled by the King of Egypt, the King of Arabia accompanied him, and received these pieces of money in his share of the plunder. In this kingdom they remained until the time of Melchior, who, as we have before seen, offered them to our Saviour.

Their history after the presentation to Christ, is not less singular. On the flight into Egypt, they were lost by the Virgin Mary, and found by a shepherd, who preserved them for many years, when, being afflicted by some disease incurable by mortal aid alone, he applied to our Saviour, who healed him, and he then made his oblation at the altar of these thirty pence. They were subsequently paid by the priests to Judas in reward for his perfidy, and when he, smitten with remorse, returned them and hung himself, the chief priests applied fifteen of them for the purchase of the potter’s field, and with the remaining fifteen they bribed the soldiers who guarded the sepulchre to say that the disciples came by night and stole the body of our Saviour. After this they were dispersed, and all traces of them lost. They were made of the purest gold, the term pieces of silver made use of in some parts of the Scripture in reference to them, being merely a common or generic name for money, as the word argent is now sometimes used in France. On one side was a king’s head crowned, and on the other some unintelligible Chaldaic characters; they were said to have been of the value of three forms each.

The three kings were baptized in their old age by St. Thomas, and on their deaths their bodies were taken to Constantinople by the Empress Helena, from thence they were subsequently removed to Milan, and afterwards carried to Cologne in the time of Reinaldus, Archbishop of that place, whence they are commonly called the Three Kings of Cologne. Their virtues did not end with their lives, as their bones were supposed to possess valuable healing properties. Their names written on parchment and hung about the patient’s neck, were considered to be preservatives from the falling sickness and madness: a simple remedy, but requiring much faith to be mixed with it.

The following charm was found in the purse of Jackson, a celebrated smuggler, convicted of murder in 1749: in his case it however did not prove effectual; as he died struck with horror just after being measured for his irons—

Sancti Tres Reges
Gaspar, Melchior, Belthazar,
Orate pro nobis, none et in hora
Mortis nostr

Ces billets ont touché aux trois têtes de S. S. Rois à Cologne.

Ils sont pour des voyageurs, contre les malheurs de chemins, maux de tête, mal caduque, fièvres, sacellerie, toute sorte de malefice, et mort subite.”

They were also made use of as terms of adjuration. Diccon, in “Gammer Gurton’s Needle,” swears by the “Three Kings of Kullain.”

One John Aprilius, when he was hanged, implored their assistance; and in consequence, when he was cut down, after having been suspended for three days, he was found to be yet alive. He thereupon went to Cologne half naked, with his halter about his neck, to return thanks.84

There is a story of Roprecht the robber somewhere, where the hero is also hung for certain peccadilloes, but his body disappears miraculously from the gibbet, whether by good or evil agency is doubtful; however in no long time he suddenly appears again ready hung, but with the addition of a pair of boots and spurs. As he is now very dead, the reason of his freaks remains a mystery to his countrymen, but the readers of the tale are informed in confidence by the author, that this same Roprecht is taken down from the gibbet by some passer by, who finds him still living, whether by aid of the Three Kings or otherwise does not appear, and maintains him for some time; but he returns to his old tricks, and takes off his benefactor’s horse; he is however pursued, and after some trouble replaced in the halter which he so well deserved, and this time the noose is effectually fastened.

Their history was a favourite subject for paintings and tapestry from an early period. Warton (vol. iii. p. 11.) mentions some at the convent of St. Swithin, at Winchester, in 1374; and Henry the Fifth had a piece with the same subject: many other instances might be given.

The early mysteries, as might be expected, frequently adopted so popular a legend, and some of the most recent continental ones have preserved it; it was also introduced into a puppet-show at Bartholomew Fair, in the time of Queen Anne, as before stated. Lebeuf mentions a Latin mystery of the Three Kings so early as the time of Henry the First of France in the 11th century, wherein Virgil is introduced accompanying them; and at the end of the adoration, he joins with them in singing a long Benedicarnus.85 The first feast of the Three Kings was celebrated at Milan, in 1336, by the convent of the friars preachers. Warton86 gives the following account. It is called in the ritual, The Feast of the Star.

“The three kings appeared crowned on three great horses, richly habited, surrounded by pages, body-guards, and an innumerable retinue. A golden star was exhibited in the sky, going before them. They proceeded to the pillars of S. Lawrence, where king Herod was represented with his scribes and wise-men. The three kings ask Herod where Christ should be born: and his wise-men having consulted their books, answer him at Bethlehem. On which, the three kings with their golden crowns, having in their hands golden cups filled with frankincense, myrrh, and gold, the star still going before, marched to the church of S. Eustorgius, with all their attendants; preceded by trumpets and horns, apes, baboons, and a great variety of animals. In the church, on one side of the high altar, there was a manger with an ox and an ass, and in it the infant Christ in the arms of his mother. Here the three kings offer their gifts,” &c.

When Henry the Sixth entered Paris, in 1431, as King of France, he was met at the gate of St. Denis, by a dumb show, representing the birth of the Virgin Mary and her marriage, the adoration of the three kings, and the parable of the sower.87 This legend afforded the subject of one of the Corpus Christi plays at Newcastle, of which many particulars are preserved in Brand’s History of that place. The earliest notice of them by him is in 1426, but they are considered of older date. Each company acted its own play. The glaziers, with plumbers, pewterers, and painters, and anciently consisting of goldsmiths, plumbers, glaziers, pewterers, and painters, maintained their play of “The Three Kings of Coleyn,” as appears by an order of their Society, dated Sept. 1st, 1536. In an old book of this company, is the following entry, dated 5th March 1598, relating to the players’ apparel.

Bye beards to the kynges three, and for the messoager one with theyr head hayres.

Item, three cappes, and thre septers, and thre crownes.

Item, one sterre and twey crownes.

Item, box with our ordenarie and oure playe book.”

About the beginning of James the First, these plays were suppressed in all towns of the kingdom.88

In an inventory of ornaments belonging to the church of Holbech, in Lincolnshire, in 1548, appears, “Item, for the coats of the iii kyngs of Coloyne, vs. iiiid.” evidently intended for some mystery or procession.89 Some of the earliest printed books were appropriated to their history, so popular does it appear to have been. Dibdin90 says that an edition was printed in his best manner by Güldenschaiff, in 1477; and W. de Worde, in 1521, also printed one. There are numerous manuscripts on the subject; amongst others, Harl. MS. 2407-13, containing an ancient song on the three Kings of Cologne, wherein the whole story is resolved into alchemy!

Notes From Sandys:

75. Wardrobe Account, published by Antiq. Society, p. 27. Return

76. Excerpta Historica, part p. i. p. 106. Return

77. London, 1623, 8vo. p. 193. Return

78. “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”—.Numbers, xxiv. 17, and see note on the subject in Townsend’s Arrangement of the Old Testament. Return

79. Sandys’s Travels, p. 141. Return

80. Every—Day Book, vol. i. p. 46. Return

81. MSS. Bibl. Reg. 5 F. xiv. 7. Ibid. 18 A. x. 8. Harl. MSS. 1704, 11. Return

82. Ed. W. de Worde, 1496, ciiii. Return

83. Warton’s History of Poetry, 8vo. ii. 51. Return

84. Hone’s Every Day Book, vol. i. p. 46. Return

85. Warton’s Hist. of Poetry, vol. ii. p. 68-9. n. Return

86. Warton’s Hist. of Poetry, vol. ii. p. 128. n. Return

87. Ibid. ii. 71. n. Return

88. Brand’s History of Newcastle, ii. 372. n. Return

89. Warton’s Hist. of Poetry, iii. 11. n. Return

90. Biographical Tour, vol. i. p. 177. Return

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