King John, his treasure and the Wash.

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.

runneymede2
Runneymede, the water meadow where the Magna Carta was sealed.

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.

King John
A copy of King John’s effigy, the original is in Worcester Cathedral.
marshal2
Effigy of William Marshal in the Temple Church in London.

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 every 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.

References:

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.

https://historicalragbag.com/2018/07/22/the-magna-carta-2/

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.

William Marshal

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.

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 19th of December

Roger of Wendover 1201

“How the king and queen of the English were crowned at Canterbury.

King John kept Christmas at Guilford, and there he distributed a number of festive garments amongst his knights; and Hubert archbishop of Canterbury, striving to make himself on a level with the king, did the same at Canterbury, by which he roused the indignation of the king in no slight degree. Afterwards the king set out to Northumberland, and exacted a very large sum of money from the inhabitants of that county. He then returned to Canterbury in company with his queen, and on the following Easter-day they were both crowned at that place ; and at the ceremony the archbishop of Canterbury was at great, not to say superfluous, expense, in entertaining them. On the following Ascension-day at Tewkesbury the king issued a proclamation, that the earls and barons, and all who owed military service to him, should be ready with horses and arms at Portsmouth, to set out with him for his transmarine provinces at the ensuing Whitsuntide; but when the appointed day came, many of them obtained permission to remain behind, paying to the king two marks of silver for each scutcheon.”

From Roger of Wendover Flowers of History Volume II. Pg 201

https://ia800503.us.archive.org/35/items/rogerofwendovers02roge/rogerofwendovers02roge_bw.pdf

Medieval Quotes Advent Calendar 16th of December

Two shorter quotes for the price of one today. Both about Isabel de Clare and William Marshal

 

1.

William Marshal speaking to his retainers in Ireland about his wife Isabel de Clare who he is leaving nominally in charge of his lands in Ireland, which he holds though marriage to her, while he goes back to serve King John.

“My Lords, here you see the countess whom I have brought into your presence. She is your lady by birth, the daughter of the earl who graciously, in his generosity, enfieffed you all, once he had conquered the land. She stays behind here with you as a pregnant woman. Until such time as God brings me back here, I ask you all to give her unreservedly the protection she deserves by birthright, for she is your lady, as we all know; I have no claim to anything save through her”.

 

History of William Marshal Volume II. pgs 177-179. ISBN: 0905474457

 

2. William Marshal and Isabel de Clare’s wedding in the house of Richard Fitz Reinier

“She was married under a favourable star, that worthy, beautiful lady of good breeding, that courtly lady of high birth. Who bore children whose fortunes were so promoted by the Lord our God in his providence, as we see now and have seen in the past.”

History of William Marshal Volume II. pg 485. ISBN: 0905474457

Marriage alliances 1180-1250: Part 3 Joan of Wales.

joanna close

joanna far

Joan’s tomb. It now lies in Beaumaris parish church with this inscription above it.

This plain sarcophagus, (once dignified as having contained the remains of Joan, daughter of King John, and consort of Llewelyn ap Iowerth, Prince of North Wales, who died in the year 1237), having been conveyed from the Friary of Llanfaes, and alas, used for many years as a horsewatering trough, was rescued from such an indignity and placed here for preservation as well as to excite serious meditation on the transitory nature of all sublunary distinctions.

Joan of Wales was the illegitimate daughter of King John.  She was born in c. 1190 and died in 1237. All we know about her mother was that her name was Clemence.  In 1206 her father King John gave her in marriage to Llywelyn ap Iorweth Prince of North Wales. She was roughly sixteen and he was in his early thirties.

llew coffin 2

Llywelyn’s sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus is now found in Llanrwst parish church. Llewlyn was buried beneath the high altar of Aberconwy Abbey, but about forty years later Edward I wanted the land the abbey stood on to build Conwy Castle. So the monks moved the coffin containing Llywelyn’s body by river to the newly built abbey at Maenan. During the dissolution of the monasteries the coffin was moved for safe keeping to St Grwst’s church where it was forgotten about and was found covered with rubbish some 200 years later. it was then moved to this chapel in Llanrwst parish church. No one knows what happened to Llywelyn’s body.

llew

Statue of Llywelyn in Conwy. Obviously not contemporary. Also much smaller than it looks in this photo.

Llywelyn was later known as Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the great). He was the most powerful Welsh Prince of his time and in many ways a serious threat to the English Crown. At this point Wales was still independent of England, although their princes swore featly to the English kings. Joan was sent to a country she didn’t know, whose language she didn’t speak, with a man she had never met before as a bargaining chip from John to try and quell the Welsh. Joan continued to be an important part of English and Welsh negotiations throughout her entire marriage. Joan occasionally acted as a mediator between the two and on one occasion was forced, through circumstance, to beg King John for leniency towards her husband.[1]  Interestingly Joan’s illegitimate birth was not the stigma to the Welsh that it had been to the Norman French. Illegitimate children were even allowed to inherit in Wales as long as their father acknowledged them. However Joan managed to obtain a papal decree in 1226 from Honorius III which declared her legitimate as neither of her parents had been married at the time of her conception, but it clearly gave her no right to the English throne.

One of the most controversial aspects of Joan’s marriage to Llywelyn was that she committed adultery with William de Barose in 1230. De Barose was found in her bedroom.  De Barose was hanged and Joan was placed under house arrest for twelve months, after which, according to the Chronicle of Chester, Llywelyn took her back and restored her to all her former positions and titles. [2] Their marriage seems to have been one of affection, not many men of the period would have ever forgiven a wife who committed adultery.  Llewlyn was certainly distraught when she died. A Welsh chronicle the Brut y Tywysogion described Llywelyn’s actions at Joan’s death in February 1237. It said “in honour of her [Joan] Llywelyn son of Iorworth had built there [where she was buried] a monastery for barefooted monks which is called Llanvaes in Mona”.[3] So this was one marriage that did seem to have worked emotionally as well as politically. Additionally tradition has it that when they stayed at their hunting lodge at Trefriw Joan found the steep climb to the church at Llanrhychwyn too arduous so in c. 1200 Llywelyn had a church built for her much closer to their hunting lodge. The Church of St Mary’s now stands roughly on the same spot and stain glass windows, not contemporary,  depicting Llywelyn and Joan can be seen in the church in Trefriw. st mary's st mary's stained glass

St Mary’s Church in Trefriw and the stain glass windows. Unfortunately I couldn’t get inside the church as it was locked when I was there.

Joan’s is one of the nicer stories of noble marriages of this time period. Even though she was traded like coin for an alliance and spent much of her marriage trapped between her husband and her father, her marriage itself seems to have been one of at least some affection. Joan also had the advantage of being a little older than some of the other daughters who were used to cement alliances, many were only young girls when they were sent off. Some were even raised in foreign courts. As harrowing as being sent to an alien land where you didn’t speak the language would have been Joan was dealt a better hand than than many of her contemporaries and that says something about the way these women were used during this period.

The next post will look at another noble woman whose marriage turned out for the better. Isabel de Clare was a great heiress and her marriage to William Marshal brought to prominence a man who would have an indelible affect on England.

[1] W.L Warren, King John, London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961, pp. 197-198. [2] The Chronicle of the Abbey of St Werberg at Chester. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=67180 [3] Anonymous, Brut y Tywysogion, (ed.) & (trans.) The Rev. John Williams, London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1860, pp. 325-327.