Toads as murder weapons…King John

Buchel, Charles A.; Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), as King John in ‘King John’ by William Shakespeare; Theatre Collection;

King John died at Newark a week after he lost his baggage train in The Wash on 18 October 1216 from the bloody flux as dysentery was then known. There were rumours that he may have been poisoned.  The Annals of Clonmacnoise reported that the source of the poison was ‘a cup of ale wherein there was a toad pricked with a broach.’ The Brut Chronicle repeats the same tale but provides the murderer as well – a monk who was not keen on John and who was prepared to die if need be. He was required to drink before the king and did so; hurried off to the infirmary and expired.

I admit to sitting up and taking notice – rumours of poison did circulate at the time, any unexpected death raised the question in people’s minds but sticking a toad in a cup of ale seemed excessive – for a start surely the king would have noticed an amphibian floating around in his cup?

Nothing daunted I did some research. It turns out that British species of common toads (Bufo bufo) and tadpoles are poisonous They produce something called bufotoxin which causes cats and dogs to froth at the mouth if they catch one and eat it. The poison is, apparently, in the toad’s skin.

The Brut was written in the 13th century and the Annals of Conmacnoise were a 15th century offering drawing on earlier texts. By then King John had his reputation for tyranny. I’m not even going to attempt to unravel the way that the monk was viewed.

Other writers of the time suggested that John had succumbed to gluttony or dysentry – take your pick…but don’t go putting toads in your beer.

For more about King John’s and his mistresses…but no toads don’t forget my most recent publication by Pen and Sword, Medieval Royal Mistresses Mischievous Women Who Slept with Kings and Princes is available in all good bookshops. I spotted it in my own local bookshop the other day and was very excited.

3 thoughts on “Toads as murder weapons…King John

  1. Firstly King John Lackland was not a tyrant. He had an Angine Temper but wrote Magna Carter himself in 15 days. He invited all to meet at Runnymead on the Thames river bank in great favour of all.Somehow his temper is recorded making him evil . He was a fashion model of a man and if any turned on him he paid them back threefold but a bad King he was not .As far as toad poison it was pricked and dripped into wine tankard. It killed monk next day but John was ill anyway died faster . As a degree holding historian and being related to Henry11 as Plantageanet family I have scoured this said case many times . Yours Sir Kevin Parr Bt

  2. I think the story may well be true.
    Here in Australia we know a lot about the poisons of toads, a non-native invasive species that has worked its way down from the very north to the south of the country. We have to watch our animals don’t get close to them, the can grow very large so they are noticeable..

  3. Yes, it’s very satisfying to see one’s work forcsale in bookshop! Well done, Pen &Sword ate nice, if not niche, publishers..

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