By Haydn Brown
In school we were told that King John lost his jewels in the Wash; fact they said- and we believed it for we were not in a position to think or judge otherwise! Now it’s a case of thinking ‘Maybe he did, – maybe he didn’t’; certainly there has been much speculation and probably arguments for generations ever since – with no sign of the debate ending in the foreseeable future!
For the purposes of this blog, let’s keep things calm and simple by starting with The Wash, the place which played host to this interesting and somewhat speculative incident in our history. Then we will combine this with the year of 1216, when King John was said to have lost England’s Crown Jewels somewhere in the murky waters of quite a sizable estuary which is still fed by the rivers Witham, Well, Steeping, Nene and the Great Ouse at the point where they enter the Wash.
Even a cursory look at a map will show that the Wash is a large bay on the East coast of England; lying as it continues to do, between the Counties of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The Wash collects somewhere around 15% of Great Britain’s water and is host to the Country’s second largest inter-tidal mudflats, clearly in evidence when the tide is out.
People have lived on the surrounding fertile land for centuries and it was this stretch of water that the Vikings used as a major route to invade East Anglia between 865 and the start of the Norman Conquest. Schools also continue to tell children that The Wash was given the name of Metaris Aestuarium, (meaning the reaping/mowing/cutting off estuary) during the first century, by the Roman astrologer and mathematician, Claudius Ptolemy. Also, that the Romans built large embankments that protected the land and prevented flooding, but they had all but disappeared by the end of the fifth century. However, in 1631, a Dutch engineer, by the name of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595 – 1677), began a large-scale land reclamation to drain the Fens of East Anglia with the building of the Horseshoe Sluice on the tidal river at Wisbech……. So much for today’s geography and history lessons; we must proceed with the circumstances surrounding ‘Bad’ King John and the apparent loss of his Crown Jewels.
In a nutshell, King John was not popular – probably still an understatement. Nevertheless, previous to this, his latest of unfortunate ‘incidents’ in his life, he had the misfortune of losing much of England’s lands in France; he’d been excommunicated and maybe worst of all, he was forced to sign the Magna Carta. However, the following year John, being John, broke his word; this action was the starting point of the First Barons’ War. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle. Later he retreated north from the French invasion, taking a safe route by circumventing the marshy area of the Wash and thus avoiding that rebel held area of East Anglia. It is known, for example, that on 2 October John travelled to Grimsby, apparently to arrange for military equipment and stores to be shipped to Bishop’s Lynn – now King’s Lynn. Originally, the town was known as `Linn’, and it is thought that the name derived from the Celtic word for a lake or pool, and it is recorded that a large tidal lake originally covered that particular area.
King John also went to Spalding before possibly using one of the Sutton Wash crossing points to arrive back in Bishop’s Lynn on 9 October. It was in Lynn where he finally succumbed to dysentery and had no option but to stay awhile in order to recover; it may have been somewhat fortunate that Bishop’s Lynn happened to be a town where the King was well liked – in view of the fact that he had previously granted the place a Royal Charter. He was still in Lynn on October 11. According to Kings Lynn’s Borough Council records, the King stayed until the 12 of October 1216 when he left, taking a different route to his baggage.
We are told that he sent it, together with the jewels, on what he thought was a quicker route across one or other of the rivers thereabout. On this, there is a problem for today’s speculation and argument is about the place where the treasure was actually lost. We know that the Wash was much wider centuries ago, and the sea then reached as far as Wisbech and the inland town of Long Sutton was a port on the coast. But it is much more than that; journalist, Bruce Robinson, as recently as 2014 speculated:
“…… Was it near Fosdyke, close to the mouth of the river Welland, as some modern revisionists have suggested; or as most Long Suttonians have long believed, on the Sutton Wash estuary of the river Nene? And what was the treasure? Gold and silver, or ancient books and legal documents? Or was there never any ‘treasure’ in the first place, as some have speculated, because the King was largely bankrupt?
There are more questions than answers for the precise details of John’s daily movements are unknown, and there has been much speculation as to how the schedule was achieved. John may have gone directly from Lynn to Wisbech, crossing the Nene by the town bridge before heading for Spalding and then to Swineshead Abbey. Or he may have crossed the estuary and ridden to Wisbech before awaiting the arrival of his baggage train. It was all, without doubt, a hard schedule for a very sick man. Understandably, it is the movement of the baggage train which has excited most curiosity, for its attempted crossing of the estuary using the Cross Keys to Sutton route apparently at a time when the tide was about to turn can only suggest either that the baggage train was in a desperate hurry, or that someone must have ignored or over-ruled the advice of local guides. Either way – and it might have been both – and assuming the event did take place here and not Fosdyke, it was a foolhardy decision.”
We are told that up to three thousand of the King’s entourage were carrying the royal wardrobe and the whole of the kingdom’s treasury. At low tide the conditions of any causeway would have been so wet and muddy that the wagons would have moved slowly, with the inevitable result that they would have sunk into the mud, thus engulfing the King’s most valuable possessions. The men of the train would certainly have struggled with the trunks, whilst others equally struggled with the horses in an attempt to encourage movement – but with no avail; everything would have been eventually covered by the incoming tide!
As for the King; he continued to Swineshead Abby, near Boston in Lincolnshire, where his health deteriorated once again. Here we have yet another legend about the loss of the treasure. This one tells us that he was poisoned by a monk called Brother Simon, who stole the jewels and made his way out of England, his destination was somewhere in Europe – and the stories did not stop there. Another interesting take is that the treasure was not lost at all! – instead, the John used its value as security, arranging for its ‘loss’ before they would have arrived at their destination, using the Wash as a ruse. But, there appears to be no written proof to give credence to these two tales – so they remain as possible myths!
In the end, however, we are led to believe that a story which began with the King’s run from the Barons came to a head with the loss of the kingdom’s ‘treasury’, and may well have been the last straw with the John’s health and possibly his state of mind. But, apparently, he was not to hear about his ‘loss’ until after he had left Sleaford Castle for Newark Castle. It was here where the so-called ‘Bad’ King John died – either the 18 or 19 of October 1216 – and we are all here to pick up the pieces!
John was an English king who has suffered from bad press over the centuries. He was no hero, he was vengeful and untrusting; is it any wonder when we are told that, as a child he received no support from warring parents, he received no support from a self obsessed brother and, as King, he saw little or no support from his people so, what chance did he have? W L Warren, in his book ‘King John’, seems to sum up fairly accurately the cause of John’s troubled reign.
“talented in some respects, good at administrative detail, but suspicious, unscrupulous, and mistrusted. His crisis-prone career was sabotaged repeatedly by the half-heartedness with which his vassals supported him—and the energy with which some of them opposed him.”
There are also two contemporary accounts, one by Roger of Wendover, an English chronicler who died in 1236 and one by Ralph of Coggeshall, an English monk and chronicler who died in 1227. Both were writing at the time of the loss. Roger of Wendover writes rather melodramatically and calls it a major disaster, he writes:
“…….the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything”
Ralph of Coggeshall, on the other hand, refers to it as more of a ‘misadventure’, stating that it was not the whole of the royal baggage train that was lost but the vanguard that carried household items, church and holy relics. However, and on balance, it seems pretty certain that some valuable items belonging to King John did get lost in the Wash, but not a treasure trove as we would imagine it to be. There was no large chest overflowing with coins, necklaces and gold goblets, only kitchen equipment and finery collected from churches. As Coggeshall suggested, maybe the real treasure was in a second train that never began its journey across the Wash, but ended its days thrown in amongst the new King Henry III’s treasury?
Two final myths: Firstly, in the mid-14th century a certain local Norfolk gentleman, by the name of Robert Tiptoft, became suddenly very wealthy; according to folklore this was because he found the Kings treasure – but did not hand it back to the Crown!
The other is, again, from journalist, Bruce Robinson:
“The whole King John episode has sparked some odd investigations over the decades, none stranger than one shortly before the Second World War when an ‘expedition’ to find the jewels excited interest and suspicion, so much so that years later……. a story was still current that the searchers were not archaeological experts looking for treasure but ‘Nazi spies’ mapping the fieldscapes in preparation for later landings by paratroopers……..Interestingly, in 1940 and 1941, during the ‘invasion scare’ period, defensive preparations for enemy paratroop landings were high on the list of local military priorities.”
There lies further stories!
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