King John was pretty much the most unpopular king we’ve ever had here in Britain. He lost land in France, raised taxes and got everyone in his country excommunicated. To top it off, on this day in 1216, he lost the crown jewels – in the Wash. He didn’t lose them, like we might lose a sock, whilst doing his laundry. The Wash is an area on the East coast of Britain which is strongly affected by incoming tides.
King John was not well liked, partly because he became king after his brother Richard (the Lionheart) died during the crusades. You could say that Richard died during a heroic battle for God, but equally you could say that he spent loads of money on a war and was never at home. John wasn’t a great king. After losing the lands in France he earned himself the nickname ‘soft sword’. He tried to appoint a new Archbishop without the consent of the Pope. The Pope declared that, because he had not agreed to it, no legal marriages could take place in England. If no one could get married, their children were born out of wedlock and therefore condemned to Hell. People weren’t very happy about that. He was at war with the French, at war with his own barons over the taxes thing and also his own nephew somehow mysteriously died. John was thought to be responsible for that too.
In May 2016, King Louis VIII of France arrived in England and proclaimed himself king at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. John fled to East Anglia, where he still had supporters. He arrived at Bishop’s Lynn on October 9th, but soon began to feel ill and decided that he needed to go to Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire. In the way of his journey was the vast stretch of tidal mud flats and quicksand known as The Wash. The story goes that while John travelled the long way around the flats, he sent his baggage train, with all his treasures, via the quicker route across The Wash. But the tide came in and the wagons became stranded and quickly washed away. It is quite possible that his treasure is still out there somewhere, buried under the silt.
No one now knows exactly where this happened, although there have been several theories. Because of changes to the coastline over the years, the site is now definitely somewhere on land, but no one knows where. It would be impossible to locate the treasure using a metal detector as it would almost certainly lie beneath about twenty or thirty feet of accumulated silt. Nor can anyone be sure what exactly was lost. John loved collecting jewellery and we know that he spent a large part of 1215 and 1216 gathering it all together form the various monasteries where it was deposited. The Royal Coronation Regalia, which we know were listed among his possessions, were mostly gone from the inventory of regalia used during the coronation of his successor, Henry III in 1220.
Whether any of these things were lost in the baggage train is a matter of speculation. It could be that he had left them somewhere as security for a loan and that they were looted from there. John’s health weakened after he reached the abbey. There, he had been fed a large quantity of peaches, pears and cider and it is possible that he was poisoned because he died a week later of dysentery. For some, the loss of his treasure followed by his untimely death is too much of a coincidence. So perhaps the Wash story is just a cover up.
There is an East Anglia legend about a pool known as ‘The King’s Hole’, where the treasure was hidden, either by John himself or by a thief. In the 14th century a local baron, Richard, third Lord Tiptoft suddenly became very wealthy and no one knows how. So perhaps King John’s treasure has been found already.