One 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.