On 12 October 1216, much-maligned English King John attempted to cross the Wash, an estuary in the East of England. However, he misjudged the tide, leading to his precious baggage train being claimed by the advancing waters, including, supposedly, the crown jewels.
John has always had a tough time from historians. The son and younger brother of famous warrior Kings – Henry II and Richard the Lionheart– he is best known for losing England’s Norman possessions to the French, going to war with his own barons and eventually being forced into signing the Magna Carta. The loss of the crown jewels merely added insult to injury. His depiction in the popular Robin Hood stories further cemented his reputation as Bad King John.
A troubled kingdom
By 1216 John had been on the throne for 17 years and faced widespread rebellion, which was supported by the Kings of Scotland and France. Earlier in the year Prince Louis of France landed unopposed in Kent, while the rebels held huge swathes of his Kingdom, including much of the east of England.
As a result in September 1216 John launched a campaign to retake these counties, marching to Cambridge before heading north to relieve a rebel siege of the castle at Lincoln. As John headed back south to King’s Lynn to gather supplies more bad news reached him – Scottish King Alexander II had invaded the north of England and was now heading south to link up with the French. In a desperate hurry John decided to retrace his steps north from King’s Lynn, in order to confront Alexander on his march towards London.
John’s march involved crossing the Wash, a tidal estuary which contained quicksands and tidal whirlpools. Precisely what happened is unknown, but John was said to have lost at least part of his baggage train to the Wash, as well as several horses.
The Crown Jewels
Our knowledge of the Crown Jewels prior to the 13th century is relatively hazy: there is little documentation or description, so precisely what was lost in somewhat unclear. It is known, however, that when Henry III was crowned in 1220, he used St Edward’s Crown, which was reportedly worn by Edward the Confessor over one hundred years earlier, so this piece of regalia at least was saved from a watery fate.
The modern day crown jewels primarily date back to the Restoration in 1661, with additional jewels and pieces that are older. The Black Prince’s Ruby, for example, was given to Edward (the Black Prince) by a Spanish prince in the 14th century, and has been worn into battle on helmets by various kings.
The so-called ‘Sword of Tristram’ was also lost – a ceremonial sword supposedly kept as regalia according to Angevin records. The last mention of it is in 1207.
John’s disastrous final days
The disaster which then unfolded must have seemed like the final straw to John, with every piece of news further dampening his spirits. A string of notable desertions amongst his followers around this time was prompted by John’s increasing clashing with the barons who had remained loyal to him.
The final nail in the coffin for the King was contracting dysentery in King’s Lynn, and as he headed north he grew steadily more ill, before finally dying at Newark castle on 18 October. He was 49 years old. Rumours of poison swirled on his death, with some saying he’d died from a ‘surfeit of peaches’, but the truth was far more mundane.
No trace of what was lost in the Wash was ever found, but the legend persists nonetheless.
John’s death was perhaps the best thing for his troubled kingdom. He was succeeded by his son, the future Henry III, who was just nine years old. As a result, the real power lay in the hands of the Lord Protector William Marshal, and immensely capable baron 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.