The Journey of the Magi… from Cologne to London

By jackie keily on 29 Dec 2014
Detail from pilgrim badge depicting the three kings.

Detail from pilgrim badge depicting the three kings.

The 6th of January is the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Three Magi, Kings or Wise Men to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In medieval times this was a very important feast day, as it marked the twelfth day after Christmas and the official end of the Christmas period. This idea lives on in the tradition of taking down Christmas decorations by the 6th.

In the Museum’s collections we have two small reminders of the Three Kings in the form of two pilgrim badges. Both are associated with the shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne, Germany. This was one of the great European medieval shrines to which many English pilgrims travelled. In the 13th century it was nominated, along with Compostela, Canterbury and Rome, as one of the four major destinations that serious offenders should be sent to on penitential pilgrimage.

The shrine still exists in Cologne Cathedral and is said to be the largest reliquary remaining from the Middle Ages. It is built in the form of three sarcophagi forming a basilica-shaped structure and is decorated in silver and gold, covered with decorative statues, gems, cameos and intaglios. According to tradition it contains the bones of the three Kings, which were brought to Cologne from Milan in 1164, having originally come from Constantinople.

There are many stories of the reliquary having been moved and restored over time. Perhaps the most bizarre was when, according to legend, the devil tried to destroy it. The devil was apparently jealous at how popular the shrine was and threw a large stone through the roof of the cathedral. However, the shrine miraculously moved and so avoided destruction. The stone, complete with the devil’s claw marks, can still be seen in the cathedral!

Even before the relics arrived, Cologne had been an important stopping point for German pilgrims making their way to the shrine of St James at Compostela. But with the arrival of the new relics it became a major centre for pilgrimage in its own right. Trade links between London and Cologne were growing at this time and the City of Cologne contributed to the ransoming of King Richard I in 1194. The relationship between the two cities strengthened over time and in 1320 the Steelyard, the headquarters of the Hanseatic League in London was founded, near the site of modern-day Cannon Street Station. Cologne merchants played an important part in the League and many were living in London. In the 1330s when Edward III required funds for his war with France, the German Hanse merchants stepped in and Edward pawned his crown jewels to the City of Cologne for several years.


The first of the two badges in the Museum of London collections has rings on its outer edge allowing the badge to be stitched onto clothing rather than pinned, a feature common to badges manufactured on the Continent. The badge depicts the shrine at Cologne. The Virgin and child are shown to the left with the Three Kings approaching from the right; above the child is the star which guided them to Bethlehem. The Kings are clearly identifiable as they wear rather large crowns! This badge dates to the late 12th to 13th century and was found near Billingsgate on the north bank of the Thames, in the City of London.


The second badge depicting the Three Kings was found on the foreshore near Angel Passage, again in the City of London and dates to the mid- to late 14th century. It is an openwork badge consisting of two circular frames and an architectural canopy. The smaller circular frame at the top would have originally contained a small mirror. The mirror would have been used at the shrine to catch the reflection of the reliquary and therefore to absorb some of its miraculous powers. Within the canopy at the top is the figure of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus. Below, within the larger circular frame, are the figures of the Three Kings, on horseback with the star to the right. Only the figure of Caspar is complete, those of Melchior and Balthazar are now missing. This badge also has circular loops for attaching it to clothing.

Whether these two badges were brought back to London by English pilgrims or whether they came to London attached to the clothing of a Cologne merchant, we will never know. But they are a wonderful reminder, both of the close connections that existed between London and Cologne in the medieval period, and of an important pilgrimage site. And, of course, a reminder of the Three Kings themselves and their role in the Christmas story, which is celebrated on 6th January.

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