A King, a ring, and an apostle
A King, a ring, and an apostle

Popular novels often have an element of truth in them that makes them at least semi-believable. They use real places, persons, historical events, or myths that let the reader believe that even if it’s fiction, it could have happened.

How about a legend involving an 11th Century English King, his ring, and a still living apostle? This little known story is preserved in Westminster Abbey art and a stained glass window in a nineteenth century church in a London borough. Recently I had a chance to observe the artifacts commemorating this legend first hand.

Near the end of the Gospel of John is an intriguing interchange between Jesus and Peter, online drug store, that actually sparked a rumor among first century believers—a rumor that John would remain alive until the return of Christ. Although the gospel goes on to discount that interpretation, interesting myths and facts perpetuate it.

One of the most fascinating legends of a living John involves Edward the Confessor, King of England, canonized as a saint in 1161. According to ancient stories the King was stopped by an old man asking for alms. Edward had no money on his person so he took off a large ring and gave it to the beggar.

Years later two English pilgrims in Jerusalem met a man who gave them a ring and asked them to give it to the King with a message: That in six months he would be in heaven. When they asked the man who he was he told them he was the apostle John.

When they returned the ring to the King he recognized it as the one he gave to the old man years before. Edward fell ill on Christmas Eve and died twelve days later on January 5, 1066 the eve of the Feast of the Three Kings. The king is entombed in The Shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor—considered to be the center of Westminster Abbey. The ring returned by the apostle was removed from his body in 1163 and subsequently lost.

There are two sets of fascinating art related to the legend in Westminster Abbey. First, the stone screens at one end of the shrine, directly behind the high altar, indicate the story in three parts:

Although the carvings have deteriorated over the centuries, they provide an interesting visual of the legend.

Edward gives ring to apostle John
Edward gives ring to apostle John
Apostle John gives ring and message to pilgrims
Apostle John gives ring and message to pilgrims
Pilgrims return ring with message to King
Pilgrims return ring with message to King

Westminster Abbey also owns a tapestry that illustrates the story of Saint Edward and John called the Morris Loom.

The Morris Loom: Apostle John, the ring, and the King
The Morris Loom: Apostle John, the ring, and the King
Stained glass window in Romford, England
Stained glass window in Romford, England

In Romford, an eastern borough of London, stands the church of St Edward the Confessor, built in the 1850’s. There is a beautiful stained glass window illustrating the story in this Gothic style church. We attended a service there and were able to see and photograph the window.

In addition to the legend of King Edward and John there are other facts and legends that lend themselves to the myth of a still living apostle John. He was the only apostle to die of old age. He was about 100 years old when he passed away in Ephesus, located in modern day Turkey. The other eleven apostles were martyred decades before. And John is the only one to leave behind no relics. When his grave in Ephesus was opened centuries after his death, it was empty.

My fascination with legends like this and the intriguing conversation between Christ and Peter toward the end of John’s Gospel encouraged me to write the novel The Last Apostle. The first printing sold out two weeks before release and it is getting excellent reviews. The novel is available in print, ebook, and audio format through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and many bookstores.

It may only be a myth, but it’s fun to explore the answer to the question, “What if John was still alive and living in Seattle?”

Credits: Images of the stone screen and Morris Loom, Copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster. Other images copyright of the author.

References: John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, by Dr. R. Alan Culpepper

img_2129The Gospel of John 21:20-24 New International Version (NIV)

20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. … 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”