Wednesday, April 15, 2009


John, King of England from 1199–1216, is remembered today for many reasons, most of them unfavourable. To children he is best known as the arch-villain in the Robin Hood story, and in history he is remembered as ‘bad king John’, who lost most of the overseas possessions of the Angevin empire, irritated the barons so much that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, and lost his Crown Jewels in the Wash.

The royal progress

The basic story, as related by historians from the 13th century onwards, is that King John was travelling in the East of England in late 1216. On 9 October he had journeyed from Lincolnshire to Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk, but when he arrived he began to feel ill. It was decided that he would return back towards Lincolnshire, which was probably thought to be safer at this time, as the French king, Louis, had recently invaded the country to the south.

Calamity in the Wash

On 12 October, John attempted to cross the Wash, the large bay that separates East Anglia from Lincolnshire. At this time it extended much further inland than it does today, and would have been a region of mudflats and marshes, traversable at low tide but dangerous to the unwary, riddled with quicksand and deeper channels and vulnerable to rapid movements of water with the tide. The king is said to have crossed over at Wisbech, where it was possible to ford the Wellstream, one of the rivers running into the Wash. Meanwhile the king’s baggage train, which supposedly included all of the royal treasures including the Crown Jewels (the regalia the monarch bore during the coronation), was also trying to cross the Wash, but was surprised by the tide and got lost amidst the rising waters and quicksand. The traditional account of this disaster is well represented by this passage from Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England:

looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [the king] saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the wagons, horses, and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.

Undone by this tremendous stroke of ill fortune, John was taken to the monastery at Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire where he was greeted with ‘quantities of pears, and peaches, and new cider’. He was taken ill again, with dysentery, and moved a few more times, eventually dying on the 18 October at Newark.

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