9 min read

Edward I and the monk from China

A tale of a Chinese priest meeting a medieval monarch sheds a different light on the extent of Christendom. Benjamin Sharkey tells the surprising tale of the historic Asian church.

Benjamin is a DPhil student in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. He is researching the experience of Christian communities in medieval Central Asia.

A medieval illustration of two sets of monks seated and facing each other. One gestures towards the sky
A 13th Century depiction of a meeting between Latin and east Syrian clerics.
AtlasAtlas des Croisades, Jonathan Riley-Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the summer of 1288, outside the city of Bordeaux in Gascony, a small group of travellers approached the city walls. The inhabitants of the city gathered, curious to meet this collection of strange looking clergymen who were clearly far from home. The strangers told them that they had come from ‘over the eastern sea’ with letters and gifts from the ‘Mongol kings’ and the Patriarch in the east. Such strange reports, from visitors emerging from the unseen world over the horizon, a world known only from fantastical stories, deserved the immediate attention of the king.  

Edward I, the Duke of Gascony and King of England had been resident in Bordeaux for the last two years, overseeing the affairs of his duchy. Assembling his court, he welcomed these visitors from the east. The leader of the travellers was a monk named Rabban Sawma. He was a Uyghur Turk from China. He presented to Edward letters and gifts from the Mongol ruler of Persia, the ilkhan, Arghun, a great-great-grandson of Genghis Khan, and from the patriarch, Mar Yahbalaha, the head of the Church of the East. 

As a young lord, Edward had taken the crusader’s oath to go and fight to attempt to regain Jerusalem for Latin Christendom from the rule of unbelievers. Jerusalem had fallen from crusader control in 1244 after the city had been sacked by a large force of Kipchak warriors, nomads from the Central Asian steppes who had been displaced by the expanding Mongol empire. Arriving in 1271, Lord Edward managed to break the siege of the port-city of Acre, one of the last cities held by the King of Jerusalem. Over the next two years, however, his small force accomplished little, mostly skirmishing with herdsmen and burning houses and crops. His time in Acre came ignominiously to an end when he was stabbed with a poisoned dagger by one of his Muslim courtiers leading to lengthy and painful surgery. He left the dream of reaching Jerusalem behind him. Returning from crusade, Lord Edward was greeted with the news of his father Henry III’s death, heralding the start of his own reign. It wasn’t until 1274 that he finally reached England for his coronation. There in Westminster Abbey, he was invested with the splendour of Christian kingship. He swore on the gospel books to uphold and dispense justice and, having been anointed, he was dressed by the bishops in priestly robes and given a sword for the defence of the weak and ‘constraining those who do wrong to the Church’. Now, here in Bordeaux, these new visitors represented something quite outside his experience.  

When we dig (literally, archaeologically), we consistently find the evidence of Christian communities that no text ever told us about. 

Edward would have been familiar with the stories of Prester John. Reports of a grand and mysterious figure, a Christian ruler somewhere in the east who was both a priest and king, had begun circulating in the mid-twelfth century and were still current in European imaginations, especially as they tried to make sense of the new world that was opening up to them through contact with the Mongols. While there was not really any great Christian king in the Mongol empire, this legend does reflect the (correct) sense of medieval Europeans that a whole world of Christianity was going on beyond their horizon. 

Many historians today believe that until perhaps as late as the fourteenth century there were more Christians outside than inside Europe. Yet, in our books of global church history these believers rarely get more than a slim chapter, unrepresentative of their large share of the historical Christian demographic and experience. Throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages there were significant numbers of Christians across Asia and Africa, in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt; Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia; India, Central Asia and China. Christians had been present in China as early as the sixth century, with significant numbers elsewhere much earlier. Meanwhile Egypt and many other areas of the Middle East had predominantly Christian populations until at least the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, which continued to makeup significant minorities into the twentieth century. In the Middle Ages these areas were global centres of population and development. Bordeaux was one of the largest cities in Europe at the time with a population of nearly 30,000 but cities like Alexandria, Baghdad, Merv (in present-day Turkmenistan) and Samarqand (in present-day Uzbekistan) were among the biggest in the world with populations in the hundreds of thousands, far larger than any in Europe. Present in the historical record of all these urban centres were Christian communities. We find them scattered across the textual record, although for many of these regions this record is far patchier than for medieval Europe, but when we dig (literally, archaeologically), we consistently find the evidence of Christian communities that no text ever told us about.  

Most Christians throughout history have lived outside Europe and North America, in pluralistic societies, ruled over by and living alongside non-Christians. 

By far the largest group of Christians outside Europe was the Church of the East. This church, once termed, inaccurately, Nestorian, was entirely distinct from the Eastern Orthodox churches but had rather grown out of those early churches that had been founded to the east of Judea, outside of the Roman empire in Persian ruled Mesopotamia. They soon rapidly grew to include communities across Asia, from Syria to China, and India to Mongolia. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, was the primary language of worship, prayer, and literature in these communities but the gospels, psalms and hymns were often translated into local vernaculars. Growing up outside the Constantinian revolution, which had seen the ushering in of the conception of Christian kingship with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and never succeeding in converting the Persian Shah or any other significant rulers, these eastern Christians had no experience of existing in a Christian state. Throughout the Church of the East, Christians always lived in pluralistic societies. The patriarch, the head of the church, was indeed for most of the Middle Ages based in Baghdad, also the seat of the Muslim Caliph, from where he oversaw the affairs of more communities than the Pope in Rome. 

By the time that Rabban Sawma made his journey to Europe, there were Christians throughout the Mongol empire (the largest empire until then ever seen). These included many Mongol queens, Khatuns, such as Sorqaqtani Beki, the mother of Kublai Khan, as well as many ordinary Mongols. Christianity had been present in Mongolia for at least a century by the rise of Genghis Khan in the early-thirteenth century and was very popular among many of the tribes he subordinated.  

Christianity for well over the first two thirds of its existence then was not a majority European faith and today it is again not majority western. Most Christians throughout history have lived outside Europe and North America, in pluralistic societies, ruled over by and living alongside non-Christians. The western experience is not just unrepresentative of Christianity today but unrepresentative of Christianity in the past. Christendom has been only a small part of the Christian experience. 

There in Bordeaux, near where the Garonne flows into the Atlantic, the king of England knelt as the monk who had grown up not far from the banks of the Yellow River began singing in Syriac. 

This was the experience of the monk who stood before Edward I. Rabban Sawma had grown up near Khanbaliq, ‘the city of the khan’ (present day Beijing). When still in his early twenties, out of ‘the love of his Lord’ he had become a hermit, living in a cave near a mountain spring, in the manner of many Chinese Taoist, Buddhist, poet and artist ascetics. People would regularly make the day’s journey from the city to come to hear him preach. He was later joined in his secluded life by another young man with a desire to lead a life for Christ named Mark. The two had lived together for some time when one day Mark shared with the older hermit his desire to visit Jerusalem. Together they set out on the long and perilous journey to see Jerusalem and all the sites of the life of Jesus. Like a reverse Marco Polo they travelled west across the Mongol Empire, sometime in the early 1270s, perhaps indeed at the same time as Marco Polo, taking the opportunity for long distance travel which the continent-spanning Mongol empire had made possible. 

When the two monks eventually reached Iraq they were told that fighting between the Mongols and the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, who then controlled Jerusalem, had made travelling the final part of the journey impossible. So they settled down in Iraq until the time might come when it would be safe to make the journey. Such a time never came but while they were in Iraq they became involved in the life of the church and when in 1281 the patriarch died it was with some surprise that Sawma’s young companion Mark found himself chosen by the bishops to be the new patriarch. He chose the new name Yahbalaha.[3] He was the first believer from the more eastern regions of the church to be chosen as patriarch, reflecting the greater involvement such believers were able to have in the life of the whole church under the Mongols. In 1287 the Mongol ilkhan Arghun, seeking to use the European desire to regain Jerusalem to coordinate attacks against his enemy in Egypt, asked Yahbalaha to provide a Christian messenger to go to Europe with gifts and letters for its Christian kings. Yahbalaha recommended his mentor Sawma, also providing him with his own letters of friendship for the Europeans. 

A year later, having visited the cardinals in Rome, who had quizzed him on his beliefs and been left perfectly satisfied that he shared the same beliefs as them, and in Paris the King of France, who had shown him around the rapidly expanding city with its sprawling universities, Sawma met the king of ‘Inglatar’. In their audience Edward’s attention was particularly caught by the reference in the ilkhan’s letter to Jerusalem, having again taken the crusading oath only the spring before. But Sawma was far more interested in using his trip to see artefacts associated with characters from the gospels, to hear stories of heroes of humility and of the miracles God had worked in the lives of saints, and to observe the novelty of life in a predominantly Christian society. 

In the evening Sawma was invited to lead the king in worship. There in Bordeaux, near where the Garonne flows into the Atlantic, the king of England knelt as the monk who had grown up not far from the banks of the Yellow River began singing in Syriac:

‘Teshbuhta l-alaha ba-mrawme’ ‘Glory to God in the highest…’

On the altar Sawma broke the bread and made the sign of the cross over the chalice of wine. As he broke up the bread he sang: ‘Abun d-ba-shmaya’ ‘Our father in heaven…’ Edward and some of his courtiers and clerics might have recognised the prayer and tried to repeat the strange words or to follow along reciting in Latin. The king and his courtiers approached and Sawma served them. The king of England and the Chinese monk together participating in the divine mystery of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. 


Further reading and notes 

For the text of Rabban Sawma’s journey to Europe:  

Borbone, Pier Giorgio. History of Mar Yahballaha and Rabban Sauma (Hamburg: tredition, 2021). 

Rabban means ‘our master or teacher’, a term related to Rabbi which was an honorific used for monks. Ṣāwmā means ‘fast’ and is a shortened version of the name Bar Ṣāwmā, meaning ‘son of the fast’, often given to a greatly longed for child, as was the case with Rabban Sawma. 

Mar meaning ‘Lord’ was a term of respect applied in the Church of the East to senior clerics and saints. 

Yahbalaha means ‘God has given’, with ‘alaha’ being the word always used in Syriac for God. As with Sawma it is a name given by parents in thankfulness for the child. Mark chose it as a name borne by two previous patriarchs, perhaps recognising his appointment as a gift from God. 


6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.