Sunday, 19 October 2014

A surfeit of peaches

"[The King] on the following night travelled to the abbey which is called Swineshead. There, as it is thought, he was seized with so much sorrow of mind at his baggage being destroyed by the waves, that being attacked by acute feverish symptoms he began to be very ill. But his very hurtful gluttony increased the troublesome nature of his illness, who, having indulged too much in eating peaches and by drinking new cider, strongly intensified and inflamed the fevered heat within him."
Roger of Wendover

To contine our tale of King John, we move now to October 19th 1216 - the day of his death (or possibly 18th or even 17th, depending on which chronicler you believe). As you may recall, John had had a difficult journey to Swineshead Abbey on the 12th, during which some of his baggage train seems to have been lost in quicksand. He spent the 13th at Swineshead, according to Royal papers, the 14th and 15th at Sleaford, and on Sunday 16th reached the Bishop of Lincoln's castle at Newark.
More problematically for John, however, he was also extremely ill, which probably accounts for the slow pace of his movement over that week. Once again, there is more than one version of this. Roger of Wendover, as quoted above, puts his night at Swineshead as the start of his troubles. Although he mentions acute feverish symptoms, he says it was exacerbated by John's "gluttony", in this case a surfeit of peaches and "new" cider. Peaches were not unkown in Europe at the time, although they were not known to be cultivated in England for ranother 60 years or so. This being October, it would presumably make the peaches pretty over-ripe, although they may have been already cooked into some dish or another. Swineshead Abbey was famous for its pears, and there are some who have suggested that that was more likely than the exotic dish of peaches, and Wendover, as he had with the accident crossing the Wash, may have been exaggerating for sake of effect. On the other hand, if anyone could get hold of peaches in England in October, it would surely be the King. Anyway, the fact that Wendover mentions John's food making him ill, and the fact that he died a week later, have led many to suspect poisoning. Shakespeare repeats the allegation that a monk at Swineshead poisoned the King in his play King John, almost as an aside. There are sources as early as the 13th century which repreat the gossip (attributed to a "Brother Simon"), although it remains one of history's imponderables. Certainly John had faced assassination plots before; he was warned of a plot to kill him in 1212, allegedly orchestrated by Eustace de Vesci and Robert fitzWalter, who later became leaders of the Barionial opposition, and by 1216 he was even more unpopular. The poisoning story grew in the telling over the centuries, acquiring details about the monk using the poison of a toad, a falling out over John wanting to sleep with the monk's sister, or a dish of pears with all but three poisoned so that the monk could partake of the same dish, and even of Brother Simon being a Templar in disguise, but these are all later accretions, and no more reliable than the story of Friar Tuck being responsible, in revenge for the killing of Maid Marion.
Our other major chronicler, Ralph of Coggershall, who seems to have been more contemporary than Roger and who writes in more understated fashion, says instead that John's illness, which he names as dusentary, began at Lynn, before he even set out for Swineshead, although he also attributes it to John's gluttony and over-indulgence in drink at a feast there. Still another writer, the unnamed Barnwell annalist, puts the onset of the illness to John's stop at Sleaford, when he learned that the garrison of Dover was negotiating surrender terms. Again, we can't be sure - only that John was clearly in pain with stomach complaints during the last week of his life, and given the exigences of medieval hygiene on campaign, even for a King, tales of dysentary are perhaps the most plausible.
Ralph also mentions one other little snippet - a tale told him by John de Savigny, a monk travelling to Newark, who arrived at night in the midst of a great gale, and who saw suspiciously heavily laden men, some of them part of John's household, leaving after John's death. It is quite likely that these were some of John's servants and possibly mercenaries escaping with valuable items, and puts a different complexion on the 'lost in the Wash' story of John's treasure. John had up to 400 Flemish knights serving him at the time, most of who made themselves scarce in the wake of his death, as well as sundry mercenary companies led by John's captains like Philip Mark and Robert de Gaugi, men who had risen by their service to John, but who were unlikely to see much favour after his death (indeed, the previous year Magna Carta had named nine mercenary captains and their retinues who were to supposed to leave England as part of the deal).


  1. I always get my "died of a surfeit" stories muddled. I thought John died of a surfeit of lampreys ... or was it eels? Something disgusting, at any rate. Perhaps the best thing to do in those days was to avoid a surfeit of anything, though I suppose this was only a problem for royalty, as most medievals likely weren't troubled by surfeits, except the unpleasant ones (lice, rats, plague, etc).

    1. Heh, yes, as '1066 And All That' likes to poke fun, there are a lot of Medieval kings dying of surfeits. The lampreys was Henry I, according to Henry of Huntingdon. But surfeits were in vogue, mostly to do with monks scandalised by the sin of gluttony, to which Kings were, let's face it, prone.