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King John and the Crown Jewels – Are we awash with wishful thinking?

King John, a royal well known for losing things… including much of England to the French, the respect of his barons (leading to his signing of Magna Carta), and… some believe… the crown jewels. Add to the mix that he’d been excommunicated too, and one starts to get the picture of a king out on a limb.
By 1216, John had held the crown for seventeen years. His realm was a melting pot and, whilst Prince Louis of France sat happily overseeing vast areas of land around Kent, rebels held control over great chunks of the kingdom elsewhere. In a bid to regain a stronger hold, therefore, John had decided to launch a campaign on the East, focusing the start of his fight in Cambridge. Once that had been sorted, he’d set his next sights on relieving a siege in Lincoln.
For a short while, his plans had seemed to be coming together. So with the aim of entrenching his position, he’d headed back to Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk (now called King’s Lynn) to gather supplies. However, it was at this point that bad news then arrived from the north. One can imagine John’s shoulders sagging as he found out King Alexander II of Scotland had taken the opportunity to invade and was now heading down to meet up with the French. If the saying that it never rained but poured existed back then, John would have been muttering it as an incantation. His only option was to head back north again as quickly as possible… which would involve crossing the Wash.

A little bit of swishy sWashy background

The Wash, a good-sized bay on the eastern side of England, is actually the second largest inter-tidal mudflat in Britain. It collects a considerable amount of water from the surrounding land and allows it to drain out to sea. At the time of John’s disastrous journey, the Wash was far wider than it is today, for the sea reached as far as Wisbech and what is now the inland town of Long Sutton.

Dissention, desertion, and dysentery

But back to our story. As we already know, these were troubled days for John. Even the few barons who’d stayed loyal were beginning to dissent. Some had now started to desert to the other side, and others were openly opposing his plans. Being in Bishop’s Lynn should have offered him respite, for it was one of the few places pleased to see him – he having granted it a Royal Charter earlier. However, as if to add insult to injury, it was in Bishop’s Lynn that he contracted dysentery. His world was turning inside and out in every way.
For reasons best known to himself, on 12th October, 1216 he decided to leave via Wisbech, but send his wagon trail (which is believed to have included his jewels) on what he assumed would be a quicker but harder route across the mouth of the Wash. Perhaps he wanted his ‘stuff’ to arrive in advance of his ravaged body… who knows.
As the wagons began to roll the tide was out, but the causeway was still understandably wet and muddy. The going was extremely slow, and with the burden of their weight, the wheels soon sank fast. As John’s loyal supporters battled with enveloping mud, the royal wardrobe, the royal cooking utensils, the royal booty of church pilfered nick knacks, and the royal treasure, all, slowly sank deeper and deeper… until the tide came in and it disappeared.

Splashes of different storylines

Meanwhile, the king made his way to Swineshead Abbey, which is near Boston in Lincolnshire. As he travelled, as we have already said, some believe that his wealth disappeared as the Wash closed over it. However, there are other stories that also have a stubborn hold. Some believe that it travelled with him and that his weakened demeanour was finished off with poison, delivered by a monk called Brother Simon. It’s then said that Simon pilfered the crown jewels for himself and disappeared off to Europe.
Yet there are then those who think that John, despite everything, was up to his usual skullduggerous ways and had actually arranged for the loss of his wealth to be publicised, even though it was a ruse.
Of course, if the popular story is correct and all disappeared into the depths of the Wash, it’s very possible that news of this was the last straw. It is believed that it was whilst he was still on his wearisome journey, when perhaps staying at Sleaford Castle, that he learned of the loss of his treasure. And regardless of what one believes, there’s no doubt that his health plummeted after that. For having left Bishop’s Lynn on 12th October, 1216, by the 19th October he was dead; passed away at Newark Castle.
Now, though, if you’re harbouring a romantic dream of discovering a long lost crown whilst you wander the mudflats, just remember this: Over 800 years of silt has built up over this crisis-ravaged king’s wealth. Gold, silver, gems, the lot… it would all be mingling with the mud, and quite a long way down too. Of course, various academic quarters have tried to investigate; it’s too tempting a story for them not to have done. And they’ve searched for the route his wagon train would have taken, scoured medieval maps, chronicles, predicted tidal movements, and human psychology, but so far it’s all been to no avail. But that just adds to the mystery of it all, we reckon. And besides… what’s wrong with a bit of wishful thinking?