"John finally demonstrated his utter incompetence by losing the Crown and all of his clothes in the wash and then dying of a surfeit of peaches and no cider."
Sellar & Yeatman, '1066 And All That'
King John was, as we all think we know, a Bad King, and apparently a careless one too, managing to lose first Normandy, in 1204 - some people think this is why he was called 'Lackland' (Sans-terre), but that was actually due to him not having any lands assigned him by his father in his early years, at a time when he had three surviving elder brothers. After Normandy he lost his nephew Arthur (probably actually murdered earlier by John's own hand in late 1203), then during his ill-fated attempt to recover Normandy in 1214 he also lost his ancestral lands of Anjou and Poitou, and finally in October 1216, just a week before his death, he lost the Crown Jewels during an attempted crossing of the marshlands of the Wash, west of Kings Lynn. Today, October 12th, marks the 798th anniversary of that disaster.
Losing the Crown Jewels in the Wash is one of those things that everyone knows about John, and that's why Sellar and Yeatman jokingly mention it in '1066 And All That', but did he really lose the Crown Jewels, and if so, how? Our evidence of this comes from two contemporary chroniclers; Abbott Ralph of Coggeshall, in Essex, and Roger of Wendover, one of the keepers of the great chronicle of St Albans Abbey. Ralph's note, in his Chronicon Anglicanum, reads:
"The greatest distress troubled him, because on that journey [from Lynn] he had lost his chapel with his relics, and some of his pack horses with diverse household effects at the Wellstream, and many members of his household were submerged in the waters of the sea, and sucked into the quicksand there, because they had set out incautiously and hastily before the tide had receded."
Roger of Wendover puts it as:
"Then, heading for the north, he lost, by an unexpected accident, all the wagons, carts and pack horses, with the treasures, precious vessels, and all the other things which he cherished with special care; for the ground was opened in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools engulfed everything, together with men and horses, so that not a single foot-soldier got away to bear tidings of the disaster to the king. The king, however, barely escaping with his army, spent the following night at the abbey called Swinehead."
Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? And yet and yet, neither of them actually mention the loss of the Royal coronation regalia (which you would have thought would be something of a big deal), and John himself makes no mention of the incident at all. John was travelling with his army, probably some 3,000 men, plus their logistical 'tail' of wagons, and no doubt various funds and valuable items, and of course the nucleus of Royal administration - although the country was in civil war, he had to keep running it, and there are frequent dispatches arriving and being sent which are preserved in the Royal patent rolls - the scribes' version of Hansard. We know from letters that John sent that he was at the major seaport of King's Lynn (then just called Lynn) on the 11th of October, and that he was at the small fishing port at Wisbech on the 12th, where he ordered a ship to take some 'goods and merchandise' - possibly supplies for the army - on to Grimsby, and that he had reached the abbey at Swineshead, southwest of Boston, some 15-20 miles away (the coastline is uncertain at that time and has receded since) by nightfall on the same day. This doesn't sound like a man burdened by losing half his army and most of his baggage train to the waves and barely escaping with his life. It's also not clear why it would matter whether anyone escaped to tell John, as Roger puts it, if the King had been there personally. It's also notable that Roger of Wendover's account is rather more apocalyptic, or perhaps Biblical, than Ralph's own rather understated and credible retelling. Is there a touch of God's vengeance upon Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea in Roger's version?
Perhaps one of the strongest arguments in favour of some kind of accident is one of absence; the crown and regalia were certainly missing when John's son Henry III was crowned in Gloucester on October 28th - the boy king had to make do with one of his mother's old bracelets as a diadem. The Royal regalia and a variety of other gifts John had received during his reign were also still missing during an inventory taken in 1220, so they hadn't just not yet arrived at Gloucester. And after all, this was the coronation of a 9 year-old boy during a civil war, with a rival claimant already crowned at Westminster - it would be difficult to imagine a time at which symbols of Royal authority like the crown would have been more important to display in public, so we must conclude that they had gone missing. This led early historians to link the account of being caught by quicksands in the Wash with the absence of the Crown Jewels. But is that the best explanation? We also know that John had died - most likely from the dysentary that had been plaguing him for a couple of weeks - only a week after crossing the Wash on October 19th at Newark, just 20 miles away. At that time, Sidney Painter has calculated that around 75% of John's barons were in open revolt. Prince Louis, the French Dauphin, who had been invited over by the baronial party, controlled London and most of the southeast (with a few important exceptions like Dover Castle, in which a loyalist garrison was still holding out) and was in alliance with the Welsh and Scots. The History of William the Marshall, who became Regent on October 29th, paints a bleak picture of Royal fortunes at the time. Marshall's own household suggests he should decline the job and retire to Ireland, and Marshall himself admits tearfully that; "I have embarked upon an open sea.. from which it is a miracle if [a man] reaches port and a safe haven." Such is the measure of the man that he takes the seemingly impossible task anyway, out of loyalty to the Plantagenets, but as the History tells us, under similarly difficult circumstances in 1189, the still warm body of Henry II, John's father, had been stripped of its jewels and finery by his own fleeing servants. If John did have the Crown Jewels with him - which is by no means certain in itself, but given the state of the country at the time not a bad hypothesis - it is not so very hard to believe that John's gold and jewels mysteriously 'vanished' in much the same way as his father's had done. We needn't invoke some of the conspiracy theories that have been postulated since about a plot to murder John and steal the Crown Jewels, or an attempt by John at explaining away how he had pawned the Jewels to foreign merchants to raise cash for his struggle for power. Simple greed and fear among John's largely mercenary army would have done the job.
Ralph's account does sound quite credible, and it may very well be that there had been a mishap during October 12th by part of John's baggage train during its crossing of the Wisbech estuary which had carried away part of it. Perhaps, indeed, as Ralph of Coggeshall puts it, including some pack horses bearing church plate and relics from the Royal chapel. We know that Roger of Wendover had seen Ralph's chronicle (which ends in 1218 with Ralph's death) and in various places he re-hashes parts of it. This may be another incident which he has borrowed and elaborated upon, with his whirlpools and swept away foot soldiers, to draw a Biblical parallel with Pharaoh. And it is probably true that John's treasures and much of his army did indeed go missing at this time, but we needn't invoke natural disaster for that, merely desertion and self-preservation in the face of what probably seemed - after the King's death - like a lost cause.
So did John lose the Crown Jewels in the Wash? It's possible, but no more than that. No-one mentioned it at the time, and while some items may well have ended up in the sinking sands, given the chaos that England was in at the time, a more likely explanation is just that they were appropriated by various servants, courtiers and mercenaries after his death, never to be seen again.
A curious footnote is that according to Gerald of Wales, during the reign of Henry II, graves purporting to be King Arthur and Guinevere had been unearthed at Glastonbury Abbey. This was almost certainly a put-up job by the monks, designed to flatter Henry and gain kudos for Glastonbury, but among the artifacts recovered was - allegedly - Arthur's sword, Excalibur. "Excalibur" most likely travelled with the Royal regalia, and so may also have been part of the consignment lost in the Wash or subsequently looted (although another story has Richard I giving it away as a gift to the King of Sicily, which may show that Richard was, shall we say, not convinced about its provenance).