Tag Archives: Ralph of Coggeshall

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

King John, wardship and taxing heiresses

king_john_stag_3231934bThe loss of his empire presented King John with a problem – well several to be honest.  However to pare them right down they could be viewed thus: John’s barons expected him to trounce the French as big brother Richard was wont to do; he needed money to do this but his revenue had been slashed on account of him loosing vast tracts of land.  In order to trounce the French John needed money to pay his army but he no longer had the wherewithal to raise the revenues.  Therefore John had to get creative in his taxation.

One of John’s wheezes was inheritance tax.  Technically England was a feudal society which meant that all the land belonged to the king and thus when a baron died the land reverted to the crown – except of course that wasn’t the way it worked in real life.  John, however, decided that actually that was exactly how it worked.  Take John de Lacy for example. He expected to inherit his father’s Honour of Pontefract in 1213 – which he did ultimately do but not until he’d coughed up to the tune of 7,000 marks – and let’s not forget that John had been using the estate for himself during de Lacy’s minority.

At least John was an adult male.  If you were a woman or a minor then things became even more fraught.  John paid special attention to so-called feudal custodies.  if the king was at the top of the feudal pyramid he was effectively responsible for widows and orphans – particularly if they came with a juicy price tag. He claimed the right to dispose of them in marriage and to grant their custody where he saw fit- not necessarily to their family but to the person who would pay most to get their hands on the person of the heiress and her estates.  A wealthy widow or young heiress became an excellent way of rewarding his loyal servants not to mention filling the royal coffers.  An heiress was also an excellent way of providing for illegitimate Plantagenet sprigs.  William Longsword, John’s half-brother, was famously married to the Countess of Salisbury.

John’s own son, Richard, was married off to Roese de Dover bringing him Chilham Castle.  Her story is typical of what could befall an heiress.  Her father was Fulbert de Dover who held the Barony of Chilham.  When Fulbert died, Roese was too young to marry so the custody of the castle and its estates along with Roese reverted to the crown. John decided to marry her off to his own son – Richard FitzJohn. This meant that the estates and the family name were passed, along with the bride, to the king’s son. It is probable that Roese’s age upon marriage was about thirteen. We know that Roese or Rohese had children – there were at least two daughters- Isabel who married into the Berkeley family and Lorette who married a Marmion.  How Rohese felt about the Barony of Chilham passing into Richard Fitzjohn’s hands or even her own marriage to him is not recorded.

What we do know is that rights of wardship and marriage were so valuable, according to to Turner, that justices were given instructions to keep their eyes out for stray widows and heiresses. Turner goes on to look at the accounts.  During the reign of Henry II the average levy on an heiresses wedding was 101 marks.  By the time of King John the value had more than tripled. Peter de Maulay paid 7,000 marks to marry Isabella of Thornham who was the heiress to the Barony of Mulgrave. This fine was huge and what makes it even more remarkable is that according to Ralph of Coggeshall it was Maulay who had killed John’s nephew Arthur of Brittany – under which circumstances you’d have thought John would have offered a cut-price bride.

It wasn’t always hopeful grooms who made the highest bid.  Sometimes widows paid a fine to the king to avoid remarriage.  The Countess of Aumale is one such example.  In fact, John realised that he was on to such a good thing that he also started fining male heirs who were wards of the crown when they got married which was a new practice as up until that point feudal custom hadn’t fined males – so at least you could argue that King John offered equal opportunities to heirs and heiresses alike! It was undoubtedly true that wardship was a lucrative income for the crown. Fryde goes so far as to describe the fines John imposed as ‘extortionate.’

No wonder then that wardship is mentioned in Magna Carta.  As well as issues about caring for the estates of minors rather than milking them dry clause six states that “heirs shall be married without disparagement” – i.e. no marrying heirs off to their social inferiors.  The same clause also states that the family of the ward to be married off should be notified once the deal is done.  Clause seven of Magna Carta deals with widows stating that they were to have their dower and their inheritance without the king taxing it and furthermore in clause eight no widow was to be married off against her will…all of which rather suggests that one way or another King John rather overdid income from  feudal custodies.

Fryde, Natalie. Why Magna Carta: Angevin England Revisited.

Turner, Ralph: (1994)  King John, England’s Evil King. Longman

3 Comments

Filed under Kings of England, The Plantagenets, Thirteenth Century