The story of King John and the loss of his treasure in The Wash, is one for the ages. It might look like a damp paddock, but there is a real possibility that some of King John’s crown jewels, and in some ways even more important written records, are buried somewhere in the wide expanse.
The Wash is a large tidal inlet in Norfolk in the UK. You can see it in the image below.
The story of King John and The Wash has to begin with John and the last few years of his reign. He was an unpopular king, for a number of reasons. I have looked at John’s reign in the light of the Magna Carta before, but I will cover the salient points here, as it is important to understanding how John ended up in Norfolk in 1216, sending his baggage train across The Wash.
John was not a popular king with his barons. He wasn’t the first king to have disputes with his barons, both his father (Henry II) and his older brother (Richard I) had dealt with baronial rebellion, but the situation came to a head under John. Most of John’s failings in kingship were personal, he was inconsistent and could be very vindictive if he perceived himself wronged. He also inherited a country that was in debt, due to his brother’s crusade and the ransom that had had to be paid for Richard’s release when he was captured on the way home. It also didn’t help that John lost most of the Plantagenet lands in what is now France. This, not only put some of his barons in a difficult position of owing homage to the French King for their lands in France, but also gave John more time to focus on England. This is only the briefest of snapshots of the problems of King John’s reign. Suffice it to say that by the time our story begins, John had been forced to seal the Magna Carta (which actually had very little affect at the time) and was in retreat, because the barons had nominated Prince Louis of France as their choice of King and Louis was on English soil fighting for the kingship.
In October 1216, while Louis was laying siege to Dover Castle with not that much success, John was ravaging his way through Suffolk and Norfolk. The situation for King John had been dire. The only prominent lords left on his side were William Marshal who was Earl of Pembroke and the Earls of Chester, Derby and Warwick. Even John’s half-brother William Earl of Salisbury, who had been unflinchingly loyal in the past, had gone over to Prince Louis and the rebellious barons. Prince Louis held London. There was little money left and the situation was described in History of William Marshal as “the King has scarcely any resources.” There was a glimmer of hope towards the end of 1216 as some of the lords looked like they were coming back into the fold, and there was tension between the French Barons in the opposing camp and the English Barons who had sided with Louis, with the English Barons thinking (rightly) that the French were in the war to claim more land in England, even at the expense of their English allies. We will never know what the fate of the war would have been if John had remained king though, because on the 11th of October John departed Kings Lynn, after being welcomed by the townsfolk, for Swineshead Abbey. He sent his baggage train on the more direct across the Wellstream Estuary, the Wash. This was a recognised route that was four and half miles long and there would have been guides as the sands were treacherous. It was a reasonable time for crossing as it was spring tide so the water should have been a long way out. It is probable though that they started out late, as October was a month for heavy fogs, and they would have fanned out across The Wash to get across as quickly as possible. It is also worth noting that the shape of the estuary was very different in 1216, they would have actually had to ford some streams that ran into the estuary and the sands surrounding the safe path were incredibly treacherous. You can see what the Wash looked like in 1216 in the image below
Whatever the reason, the baggage train seems to have become bogged down and as contemporary chronicler Roger of Wendover described it “he lost all his carts, wagons, and baggage horses, together with his money, costly vessels, and everything which he had a particular regard for ; for the land opened in the middle of the water and caused whirlpools which sucked in every thing, as well as men and horses, so that no one escaped to tell the king of the misfortune.”
Wendover then goes on to add that John narrowly escaped, which might imply that he’d reached the other end of the Wash and came back to help, in time to see his entire baggage train go under the waves. It is possible that it was simply the incoming tide and the quagmire of the sands that took out King John’s train, but there has been discussion of an offshore earth quake, which would be the ultimate irony for an unlucky king.
John was not well though. His illness, which he may have contracted at Kings Lynn when they feasted him, was worsening he travelled on but by the time he reached Newark he couldn’t go any further. He died of dysentery on the 18th of October, leaving his kingdom to his nine year old son Henry and the Regency in the hands of William Marshal- who I have written a lot about before and you can see it here.
Ironically for John, his death ended the civil war, as most of the Barons who had taken up arms against him, had nothing against Henry III. There was a handful more battles (including a sea battle) and ultimately the French were bribed, but Prince Louis did leave the country and by the time Marshal died in 1219 the country was relatively peaceful.
But the story of the King John and The Wash does not end with John’s death. The question remains what was in the carts, and why hasn’t it ever been found?
My story with The Wash began in second year university, when I wrote a fictional story about the demise of the baggage train, so when I went to the UK in 2012, I had to see it. I admittedly got a little lost trying to find an estuary that is actually very large. I went into a local post office and was given the map you can see below.
We followed it as best we could and eventually I found a track that seemed to lead out to The Wash.
You can see me trudging out as a tiny figure on top of the embankment in the photo below, I got very wet feet walking out.
The view from the end is partly The Wash but also partly farmland, as large parts of what would have been sands in the medieval period have been reclaimed. The atmosphere was perfect though, with a cold drizzle and low hanging mist. You could almost imagine the baggage train wending its way in front of you.
And that brings me back to the baggage train, its contents and why it has never been found. I’ll start with the latter. There have been many attempts over the years to locate the remains of the baggage train, largely because of the treasure it was supposed to have been carrying. Even using modern technology nothing has been found conclusively. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly it is entirely possible the extensiveness and the complete demise of the baggage train was exaggerated by medieval chroniclers. It is also possible, however, that the disaster really was as described and in the intervening 800 years so much has moved in The Wash, with reclaimed farm land and re-routed rivers, that anything buried beneath the sands in the vast estuary is still there. Nothing substantial has ever been found, yet…
But what is there to find? It’s the stories of treasure that have made the tale of King John’s baggage train’s damp demise so interesting. So was there actual treasure?
The answer is, possibly. There would definitely have been valuables, and as a historian I feel for the demise of the extensive paper records that probably would have been with the train too, but treasure? Honestly, it’s arguable. The argument starts with a line from Roger of Wendover, who we met earlier, he describes John (after he learns of the loss of the baggage train) that “he felt such anguish of mind about his property which was swallowed up by the- waters, that he was seized with a violent fever and became ill”
So if Wendover is to be believed then there was material in the train that was very personal to John. The remainder of the argument is based on work done by A.V Jenkinson in the early 1900s in looking back over the records of what ‘treasure’ John had. What Jenkinson is establishing is what John might have had in the baggage train when it met its watery fate. On the 24th of June 1215 John issued a writ to no less than 16 abbots and priors to send him their valuables for safe keeping- what was sent was all meticulously recorded and it numbered:
143 cups and 14 goblets, 14 dishes, 8 flagons, 5 pairs of basins,
40 belts, 6 clasps, 16 staffs, 52 rings and 2 pendants; besides
4 shrines, 2 gold crosses, 3 gold combs, a gold vessel ornamented
with pearls (a present from the Pope), 2 candelabra, 2 thuribles
and 3 golden phylacteries.
These were high quality items, with several studded with precious stones and made of gold. He made some other gains from excommunicated monks as well, but the key to the possible treasure is royal regalia. There was his own regalia and coronation robes and the royal regalia of Empress Maud (John’s Grandmother). They were usually held by the Templars and the Hospitallers, but John seems to have wanted them with him, in the upheaval following the Magna Carta in 1215, as he reclaimed both sets. The regalia of Empress Maud was said to contain:
A great crown which came from Germany, a tunic of purple, sandals of the same cloth, a
belt of embroidery (orfrasio) with stones, a pair of shoes with frets of embroidery, a pair of gloves, dalmatic of dark purple, a royal pallium of purple with morse and brooch of gold, a silk
cloth for bearing above the king in his coronation, a great sceptre of the same ” regale,” a golden wand with a dove at the top, two swords, to wit the sword of Tristram and another sword of the same ” regale,” the golden spur of the same ” regale,” a cup of gold of 8 marks 2 oz. weight, and a cross of gold of 3 marks 7£ oz. weight
The other regalia held:
one wand of gold with a cross, ” to wit a sceptre ” ;
a red belt with precious stones which belonged to the ” regalia” another belt of black skin, padded within (furratum) with red sendal, with precious stones, cut, set in a chase ; another belt of leather padded with red sendal with great stones set in a chase ; another belt of red leather padded with white leather with great cut stones set in a chase; another belt of black leather with roses and bars of gold without stones; a necklace or collar (monile) set in the middle with diamonds surrounded by rubies
and emeralds ; nine great necklaces with many precious stones ; a crown with precious stones with a cross and seven flowers ; a royal tunic of red samite with embroideries with precious stones in orles ; a pair of gloves with stones and another pair with flowers of gold ; a white tunic of diaper banded with embroidery ; a ” regale ” of red samite orled and marked all over with the cross in embroidery, with stones ” great, divers and precious,” with two brooches for attaching the said pall ; a pair of sandals
of samite with embroidery; two pairs of samite shoes; and eleven pairs of basins weighing 62 marks.
If this isn’t treasure then I don’t know what is.
The question though remains, was all this fantastical booty actually in the baggage train when it drowned in The Wash? the answer we can never be sure. However, as John had specifically collected it together to keep it safe in troubled times, it is unlikely that he would have dispersed it again. Additionally, none of it is mentioned again in later lists of royal regalia, such as Henry III. Henry was crowed with a simple gold circlet that probably belonged to his mother, but that was because he was nine and his Barons needed him crowned quickly, to help stem the civil war. However, if you look at a list of royal regalia of Henry III from 1220, it is clear that almost none of John’s items appear and some of it is cobbled together of old things of John’s, possibly in an attempt to re-create a lost regalia.
So is all this gold and belts and crowns and basins and fabled swords under the sand in The Wash?
It’s certainly possible and they haven’t show up anywhere else, so unless they were melted down and it wasn’t recorded (which isn’t impossible) the likelihood is that they were on that baggage train. Whether bits and pieces have been found quietly over the last 800 years (remember it would be scattered this wouldn’t be hoard) and how much would survive those conditions is anyones guess. But it does make what looks like a damp paddock, suddenly a lot more interesting.
Site visit 2012
King John by W.L Warren
TAGG, G. F. “KING JOHN’S TREASURE: AN INVESTIGATION INTO ITS LOSS AND POSSIBLE LOCATION.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 120, no. 5192, 1972, pp. 508–523. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41370897. Accessed 22 June 2020.
Jenkinson, A. V. “THE JEWELS LOST IN THE WASH.” History, vol. 8, no. 31, 1923, pp. 161–168. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24399528. Accessed 22 June 2020.
Roger of Wendover. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History from the Descent of the Saxons to A.D 1235. (trans.) J.A Giles, Volume II. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1849.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Blood Cries Afar: The forgotten invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn ISBN: 9780752488318
The photos are all mine- apart from the photo of me in the distance (which was taken by Penny Woodward), the map of the Wash in 1216 which comes from the Tagg article and of course the Google Maps image.