WEIRD NORFOLK: Searching for the crown jewels dropped by King John in King’s Lynn
- Credit: Ian Burt
The lost jewels of Bad King John lost in mud and time close to King’s Lynn and the treasure seekers desperate to find them
It’s a story that glitters through the centuries and lures treasure hunters to the marshy fens of Norfolk: somewhere in the mud, King John’s crown jewels were lost in 1216.
Best known for his role as the eternal baddie in the story of Robin Hood, King John was an unpopular king who lost much of England’s lands in France, had been excommunicated and been forced to sign the Magna Carta in June 1215.
Having inherited the crown mostly due to his brother Richard’s crusades, by 1216 John’s powers had shrivelled and he faced widespread rebellion supported by the Kings of Scotland and France.
Earlier in the year, Prince Louis of France had landed unopposed in Kent, while the rebels held huge swathes of his Kingdom, including much of the east of England. In September 1216, King John launched a campaign to reclaim the east and marched to Cambridge before he headed to Lincoln to relieve a rebel siege of the castle.
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He then headed back south to King’s Lynn, then Bishop’s Lynn, to gather more supplies: it was in Lynn that he heard the Scottish King Alexander II had invaded the north and was heading south to link up with the French.
There was no time to lose: King John had to head back to safety in Lincolnshire and he had to arrive there as quickly as possible. He was infamous for his cruelty and was also reckless: as he ran from his enemies he forced his armies across the mudscapes of The Wash, a marshy land filled with quicksand, creeks and fast-running tides.
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While the King rode on ahead on a fast horse, the ox-carts labored behind him carrying his household effects – beds, chests, treasure – and they travelled at a slower pace. A terrible decision was made to risk a more direct route to make up lost time.
Trying to cross The Wash before the tide turned and without the benefit of local guides, the Royal train was quickly caught up in rising waters as the North Sea tide began to rush in, flowing upriver as fast as the ox could run. The wagons and all they contained were lost to the marshy landscape, buried in a sea of mud and lost forever, a royal fortune consigned to a watery grave.
There is no precise list of what was lost or of whether King John watched his treasure sink or had to be told of its loss in Lincolnshire. Some say the treasure contained the crown jewels, silver plates, golden goblets, the legendary sword of Tristram, a golden wand topped with a jeweled dove and endless gold coins.
On the night of October 12, the King was at Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire, stuffing himself with a feast of peaches, pears and cider – the next day a search party was sent to search for the lost haul. As every day passed and the gold wasn’t found, the monarch grew sicker and sicker until, on October 18, he died of dysentry at Newark aged just 49.
No one knows the precise route the Royal train took on that fateful journey and estimates include the treasure having been lost close to Sutton Bridge, or somewhere between Wisbech and Walsoken if it travelled the same route as King John or that it is in the region between Walpole and Foul Anchor, a crossing point to the north of Wisbech. But the stories persist, that the route was across The Wash.
Writing at the time, Ralph, the Abbot of Coggeshall in Essex, said: “Moreover the greatest distress troubled him [John] because on that journey he had lost his chapel with his relics, and some of his packhorses with divers household effects at the Wellestream [the Wash], and many members of his household were submerged by the waters of the sea, and sucked into the quicksand there, because they had set out incautiously and hastily before the tide had receded.”
This suggests that rather than an entire horde of treasure, it was a travelling chapel was lost, although 10 years later, Roger of Wendover said that John had: “…all the wagons, carts, and packhorses, with the treasures, precious vessels, and all other things which he cherished.”
By the time Matthew Parish wrote about the event n 1253, it was as if the world had taken a gulp and digested all that the King held dear: “the ground opened up in the midst of the waves, and the sand which is called quick, swallowed down everything, horses and men, weapons, tents, victuals, and all the things which the king valued too highly in the world apart from his life.”
In the 1930s, a wealth American founded the Fen Research Company to hunt for the lost treasure using what were, at the time, cutting-edge machines. Dowsers have tried to locate the treasure, others believe the outline of the royal train can be seen on images of Google Earth and scientists have used lasers to try and shed light on the matter. But the treasure remains resolutely lost.
A pool known as King John’s Hole is said to be found on the southern side of the King’s Lynn to Long Sutton Road which is said to be the hiding place of King John’s treasure – the stories about the treasure and where it was lost have been added to over eight centuries.
Whatever the answer to the mystery, the real treasure for Britain may well have been found in King John’s premature death. He was succeeded by son Henry, who was a nine-year-old child when his father died and who placed the country in the hands of the Lord Protector William Marshall, who won the civil war in 1217 with victories at Lincoln and Dover and forced the invading French to renounce their claim to the English throne.
If you find the King’s treasure, be warned: folklore has it that if it is found, profound change is coming. Was it, then, actually unearthed in March 2020?
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