King John’s lost treasure

King_John_from_De_Rege_JohanneOne of English history’s enduring tales of lost treasure is that of King John’s loot lost in The Wash. The year is 1216.  It’s October.  The Magna Carta has been signed. Pope Innocent III has read it carefully then torn it up.  The barons are revolting.  The French are invading.  In short things are not looking good for John.

John was en route from Bishop’s Lynn (King’s Lynn these days) to Lincoln.  He’d already travelled south from Lincolnshire into Norfolk but for some reason turned back.  It has been suggested that he was already feeling unwell.  There was also the fact that he wasn’t terribly popular in the Fens – though he was well thought of in Lynn because he gave the town it’s charter in 1204 which gave its guilds the right to govern themselves.  For whatever reason he turned back towards Lincolnshire.

This meant he had to cross The Wash – a treacherous stretch of coast filled with creeks, quick sands, fast running tides and according to one popular theory an unexpected tidal bore. John crossed via Wisbech.  His baggage train containing his ‘precious vessels’ (Roger of Wendover) and ‘diverse household effects’ (Ralph of Coggeshall) seems to have crossed The Wash by a different route, possibly Sutton Bridge.  This seems a sensible option as the king could have travelled fairly rapidly by horse whereas ox-carts filled with household effects, chests, beds, the crown jewels and heaps of silver plate would have travelled more slowly.  The country was at war – speed was essential.  It seems as though the baggage train risked a more direct route in the belief that it would be able to cross The Wash before the tide turned.  There is no evidence that the baggage train was attended by local guides.

Equally we don’t know exactly what was lost and what was recovered either officially or unofficially at a later date.  We do know that John collected jewellery and precious plate.  It is probable that given the state of the country he had collected it together to keep an eye on it.  What we do have is a list of his belongings.  A Roll inventoried everything including his grandmother’s, Matilda, regalia.  Co-incidentally none of it made an appearance for the crowning of young King Henry III.  It is generally accepted it was all lost.  Charles Dickens paints a picture of the tide coming crashing in and carrying the carts off.  Other folk believe that the treasure still lays deep below eight hundred years worth of silt.

Poor John. The 12th October 1216 had not gone at all to plan.  In some versions of the story he watches as his belongings are carried away by the waves and in other versions someone has to tell him (rather them than me).  He was taken to Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire that night where he stuffed himself with peaches, pears and cider.  If he was feeling ill before he soon felt infinitely worse.  On the 18th October he died of dysentery at Newark.

Where there’s treasure there are always stories.  One tale suggests that a local landowner found all or part of John’s treasure during the fourteenth century.  Other accounts suggest that it was never lost at all, that either John hid it somewhere safe (so presumably it’s still there or there were some very wealthy members of John’s household shortly afterwards) or else he pawned it to raise an army to fight the revolting barons and the equally revolting french.  Whatever the truth, the facts that King John lost France and then lost his treasure do not stand him in good stead with posterity.

7 Comments

Filed under Kings of England, The Plantagenets, Thirteenth Century

7 responses to “King John’s lost treasure

  1. Kevin Parr

    Dear Julia I agree he made an ass of himself and died of cider poisoning. He lost hardly all but was down in spirits for many weeks on end. The story of the sale to pay an army is not really possible or some paper trail would have led to the purchaser of so much English gold and at least a crown of the Kingdom. Even private collectors searched all papers and Johns contacts during the following centuries with no result that led to the buyers collection. Looking at Johns mental health over that week his treasure sank in the silt of the Wash tide. I must say it seems somewhat unlikely that guides had not been used.That smacks of something else and maybe a search on whom had charge of johns household goods may lead to what really happened that day. The hate that had grown around the King may well have tempted theft and when he split his train was it him or was it suggested by the accomplices in the deception to split his train to save his treasure and to allow speed in his progress to Newark?I do not see how the Royal treasure was so easily lost. It would have taken real idiots to try to cross a fast river in October at the Wash. I myself have stood there and even on a calm modern day I would not cross with horse never mind heavy wooden wheeled ox carts. I do not believe this is anything more than what I have come to think Of Johns tricks and this is my only explanation as to what really happened when some other hand cheated the Royal cheater.

    • Having seen The Wash I agree with you that you’d have to be mad, desperate or heavily persuaded that crossing it with heavily laden ox-carts would be a good idea – it’s easy to picture the sea mist rolling in and the guides silently disappearing though even that seems to be pushing it a bit far. You are of course quite right that something like Matilda’s regalia would surely have surfaced on the international market though I can see that something like plate could very easily be melted down. There is of course the story that men were seen leaving Newark Castle with heavy looking bags shortly after the kings death – again the problem you identify in your comment would surely have arisen. If someone was hawking crown jewels around Europe you’d have thought that someone might have mentioned it. As I remember the Newark theory sprang from the priest who’d been summoned to offer the last sacrament. There’s nothing like a treasure story and a possible poisoning to set off conspiracy theories like hares. I’d have to say that moving from fact to fiction seems like an appealing option here as the murder mystery plot has virtually written itself – though I know that you prefer your history factual.

  2. Ironic how history sometimes turns on its tyrants. John was passing through towns and ports built up by Alan Rufus, whose heir Arthur I he had allegedly murdered.
    Henry VIII destroyed the abbeys, careless of the fact that his father, the founder of the Tudor royal dynasty was Earl of Richmond, a title deriving from Alan Rufus who had founded St Mary’s abbey in York and who lay in St Edmund’s, now both ruined. The dynasty ended with the next generation, to be replaced by the Stuarts, whose ancestor had served the servants of Alan’s father Eudon.
    Oliver Cromwell, whose family was traced from places that had been Alan’s, continued the destruction, and his dynasty also ended in the next generation.
    Seems people never learn.

  3. Pingback: FACT: King John lost the crown jewels

  4. Samuel

    Ground penetrating radar in wet sand packed will show refracting signals off the clay bed and the adverment will show up as broken signals. Very easy to find it will take time ans money….

    • JuliaH

      I’m sure that if the treasure is down there it will be found one day. In the meantime its one of History’s rather wonderful stories.

  5. Samuel

    King John was my grandfather X6

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