This edited article about King John originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 726 published on 13 December 1975.
“Foul as it is,” wrote Matthew the monk, who appears to have had inside information, “hell itself was defiled by the presence of King John.” The “historian” was writing some years after the allegedly appalling monarch had supposedly died by “surfeiting himself with peaches and new cider”. A few days before the surfeit, John had – and it is the one thing that everyone knows about him – lost his baggage and treasure in the Wash. It was not his week.
The treasure is our main concern, of course, but we must set the scene by revealing that no reputable modern historian now accepts the legend of Bad King John, a major contender for the title of worst English monarch of them all. True he was suspicious, and erratic, the killer of a youth who had a better claim to the throne than he did – he was not alone in such a deed. But he was also brave, patriotic, an able ruler, and certainly no worse than many praised kings.
As for Magna Carta, that document had precious little to do with ordinary people, but was made with barons even more reactionary than he was. True, the power of the crown was curbed a little, but not until ten years later in 1225 did a revised charter become the one that was to inspire later generations from the 17th century onwards.
So let it be quite clear: the following account of the misfortunes of a much-maligned monarch is basically sympathetic to him.
He had become king in 1199, but now in 1216 a civil war was raging in England, not for the first time in his reign, between John and his barons, some of whom had gone so far as to enlist the aid of the heir to the French throne to help them fight their own king.
By early October it seemed as if John, though almost prostrated by exhaustion, was gaining the upper hand on the rebels. He relaxed in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, unfortunately as it turned out, for his loyal subjects fed him too well, giving him dysentery. But he set out with his army for Lincolnshire.
Look at the map of East Anglia and you will see four rivers flowing into the Wash. These are the Witham, Welland, Nene (then called the Wellstream) and the Great Ouse, all of which were much wider than they are today. The Wellstream stretched almost as far as Wisbech as a major estuary and was 4¬Ω miles (7 km.) wide between the villages of Long Sutton and Cross Keys, and at this time of the year there were mists over the mudbanks and the fenlands.
To travel quickly into Lincolnshire from Norfolk, the Wellstream had to be crossed at low tide, with guides to keep the unwary out of quicksands. A safer way was to go from King’s Lynn to Wisbech and cross the river there.
October 11 saw John and his men using this longer route, but the king sent the slower-moving baggage-train by the dangerous short one, or so most experts now agree, to prevent it holding up the rest of the army. With guides wielding prodding poles, the baggage wagons rumbled forward from Cross Keys to their doom.
Exactly what happened next can never now be known. The crossing should have been reasonable at that time of the month, but perhaps, when half way over, some of the wagons became bogged down; perhaps others had fallen behind; perhaps mist shrouded the estuary. Whatever the reason, the tide suddenly caught the terrified travellers and rose fast over the plunging beasts and frantic men.
Unknown numbers of King John’s followers perished in the flood, along with documents of state records and details of legal matters and administration. Religious relics vanished and John, who had been a mighty collector, lost all his gold and silver ornaments, indeed all his treasure, including the crown jewels.
And where was the unfortunate monarch at this dreadful moment? Almost certainly on the far bank or, having been summoned by a messenger, galloping back to the appointed meeting place. Perhaps the stories are true of how he rode on to the sands, vainly trying to help organise the impossible, a rescue party, before being forced to hurry to the far shore again to save himself from destruction.
His morale was now as low as his health was in ruins, but he was determined to keep up the struggle against the rebels and the invaders. It was too late, for on the 18th he died at Newark in the Bishop of Lincoln’s castle.
It might be thought that evidence of such a long baggage train would have come to light down the centuries. But only those who did not realise just how wide the river was in 1216 could be optimistic. It is not as if the exact location of the crossing, in what is now marshland, is known, and any treasure is probably at least 60 feet (18 metres) down. In 1906 and 1933 serious scientific attempts were made to solve the 700-year-old mystery, but without any success, and in the 1950s a Wash research committee was set up.
Nothing definite has come of these efforts. However, a historian and expert on the period, Professor Holt, and a geologist, Professor W. D. Evans, both became convinced that the most likely place in which John lost his treasure is now an orchard between King’s Lynn and Wisbech. A drill was set up and boring began. Not until the 25-30 ft. (7.6-9 metres) level was there any excitement, when the drill struck a hard object, but all that happened was that the bit of the drill was twisted and broken by the pressure.
The mud on the damaged drill was very carefully examined and the scientists found chips of copper and iron, then traces of gold and silver.
Alas, there was not the slightest proof that this was the treasure of King John, even though something is obviously buried there. But not only would a full-scale drilling operation be very expensive; in a low-lying area like the Wash, bore-holes could upset the water supply and drainage of the surrounding farmlands.
One day, perhaps, the secret will be a secret no longer. Yet exciting as a treasure find would be, historians, amateur and professional, would be even more thrilled if other types of treasure came to light. Perhaps this could be some documents, securely sealed in a stout box that had resisted the ravages of time. These might strengthen the case that King John, the bogey-man monarch of the history books, was not such a bad man after all, merely an unlucky man, who had the misfortune to be written about by his enemies after his death.
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