Day in History: King John Loses Crown Jewels

  October 14, 2012 at 11:59 am by

King John I of England

The period between 1214-1216 was a particularly difficult one for King John: most of his country was occupied by the French King, Louis VIII The Lion (who had been declared King in London), even his most ardent supporters were deserting John’s side, the Barons forced him to sign Magna Carta, the Pope issued a proclamation whereby anyone who tried to seize the Crown from John would be entitled to do so, John fell ill and suffered from dysentery, and to top it all, he lost the Crown Jewels.

In 1216, King John travelled to Bishops Lynn in Norfolk where he arrived on October 9. Unfortunately, he fell ill immediately upon arrival and it was decided he would return to Newark Castle, which was deemed safer (the threat of Louis VIII was hovering in the air). It is assumed that the King took the slower and safer route around the Wash, aptly named so because it was full of marshes and dangerous flats. However, most of his soldiers and several carts full of his personal possessions, including the crown jewels he had inherited from his grandmother, took the shorter route through the marshes. This route was usable only at low tide. The horse-drawn wagons moved too slowly for the incoming tide, and many were lost. The treasure carts were lost and never recovered.

King John’s passage of the Wash

What exactly was lost is a subject of hot debates to this day. Known. Known as a ”connoisseur of jewels”,  John built up a very large collection of jewellery, precious stones, gold and other items of value. He had also inherited Imperial Regalia from his grandmother, Empress Matilda (Holy Roman Empress) which is assumed to have been lost in the incident. That a lot of valuables were lost is supported by the fact that most of the items mentioned in the Rolls (inventories listing all royal treasures) in 1215 were absent from the inventory of regalia used for Henry III’s coronation in 1220.

The precise location where the Crown Jewels were lost is a bit of a mystery; it is usually assumed to have been somewhere near Sutton Bridge, on the River Nene. However, there is one inconsistency which casts doubts on that theory; while most modern historians agree John travelled separately from the carts, contemporary sources claimed the King was actually within the immediate vicinity and in fact barely escaped with his own life. If that is accurate, then the location should be moved because it is known King John crossed Wellstream at Wisbech. Many other theories exist, but so far none has helped to recover anything. Of course, modern treasure hunters should be aware that most metal detectors would be quite useless wherever the incident took place: because of the centuries that have passed, the treasure will be buried underneath 20 feet or more of slit.

It is also possible that the treasures were not lost as such: even back in 13th century, there was a suspicion that John had simply left his jewels back in Lynn as security for a loan and spread rumours of the “loss” to cover that up. Whatever the case, King John didn’t live for much longer for anything to uncover: he died just days later, on October 19.

Interesting question to legal experts: assuming the Jewels were found, who would have the best claim on them? The Monarch, the Government, the finders, museums… Perhaps King John will yet manage to cause troubles even eight centuries after his death.

Filed under British Royals, Historical Royals
Tagged , , .

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2 Responses to Day in History: King John Loses Crown Jewels

  1. pmzq says:

    The government should have them in protection but some kind of finders fee has to be paid. But how would you estimate the value of such a find ? The metal & jewel value might not be that great but what would make this such a great find is the intrinsic value of something so historically significant.

    This is fascinating !

  2. Ed says:

    I think it is outrageous that you can’t keep them if you find them

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