In 1216 King John’s treasury was lost somewhere in The Wash. But where? It’s time to don our wellies – and set off in search of buried treasure.

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Where do we start digging?

Um, we don't know. Actually we're not even sure if it was really lost in the first place. The legend of John's lost treasure has been handed down and grown in the telling for 700 years, largely by word of mouth, and anyone brought up in the Fens has heard it from an early age. So here it is, the story of one of England's most incompetent and unlucky monarchs, his missing royal regalia, a mysterious and possibly murderous monk, 3,000 missing soldiers and servants and, perhaps most lethal of all, the sea.

How could he have lost 3,000 men?

That's not all he lost. By the autumn of 1216, John's fortunes had sunk to a new low. He had inherited the mighty Angevin empire in England and France forged by his father Henry II, pawned to pay for the crusades by his brother Richard and squandered by himself. Having already lost his lands in Normandy to the French king, he had faced a rampaging French army on his own soil aided and abetted by his own rebellious barons. The previous year he had been forced by them to sign the Magna Carta, reducing the powers of the crown. Although he had won some victories since then, he had earlier been ex-communicated by the pope and his whole country had been placed under an interdict from Rome every church in England was ordered to be closed. On October 9, 1216, though, he arrived in Lynn, one of the few places where he was still popular.

Why was that?

A few years earlier he had granted the important port of Lynn a royal charter and the citizens there were grateful. He kept ships in the port, and had been busy pillaging rebel barons in the area. Also, his great friend the bishop of Norwich had a palace there at Gaywood. Chroniclers recall John was in hot haste to get to Lynn from Newark in Lincolnshire, covering 40 miles a day. There he was royally feasted and, having overeaten, soon fell ill. Nevertheless, he was keen to be on the road again. Within three days he and his army were heading back across the Fens towards Newark. John went via Wisbech, while his wagon train travelled across the estuary. At the time it was wide, the sea extending as far south as Wisbech. Long Sutton was then on the coast, a port in its own right. All this land has long been drained in a long process beginning in medieval times. Today you can follow the line of the coast along the medieval sea banks. What was known as the Wellstream was certainly traversable via a causeway at low tide and with the help of local guides. Without that vital knowledge you could easily be sunk. The royal train, perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers and servants, carrying the king's wardrobe and some say the royal regalia and entire treasury took this route to save themselves nine miles. Perhaps they were in a hurry; given the king's mood they would have been keen to press on and meet him on the road into Lincolnshire, and crossed without guides.

What happened?

Who knows? A sudden surging tide, perhaps wagons caught in quicksand holding the rest up leaving them vulnerable to the rising water. All we know is that they never emerged, so some disaster struck the column at an ill-defined point between Walpole Cross Keys and what is now Sutton Bridge. But that's not the whole story. Having stayed overnight at Wisbech Castle, the king's party stopped at a Cistercian abbey west of Boston at Swineshead. There John became even more ill, and there is a legend that he was poisoned by a treacherous monk called Brother Simon, who may even have been linked to the Templars. It was he, goes this version, who made off with the jewels and sold them off around Europe to make money for his order.

Sounds like a mad conspiracy theory.

There's absolutely no evidence for this, but it makes a good story. The ailing king made it to Newark Castle, where he died, aged 49, on October 18, just two days after re-entering Lincolnshire. He was buried at Worcester minus his missing regalia. Maybe someone else did make off with the loot and the lost treasure in The Wash story was just a ruse to cover the glaring absence of the jewels. Certainly it reinforces the negative image of King John that even recent revisionist historians have not been able to change. We have to ask if a suspicious character like John would really travel without his most precious jewels. If the treasure is really buried somewhere near modernday Sutton Bridge, then it would be covered by 20 feet or more of silt, so we can all put our metal detectors away. But that hasn't stopped people looking. During the 1930s a group of American treasure hunters paid local farmers 2s 6d an acre for their help in looking for the jewels at Walpole Island. More recently a team from Nottingham University took soil samples in a bid to discover the causeway the wagon train used. The search goes on. We may never know the truth.

Anything else?

In the 14th century it was commonly rumoured that Robert, Lord Tiptoft, had salvaged the treasure, setting himself up as a wealthy man in the north country on the proceeds.

FURTHER READING

The Lost Treasure of King John, R Waters, Barny Books 2003
website: www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/john.shtml

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