Bad Decisions in History: featuring King John

King John is probably one of the most remembered and most vilified kings from English history. He was a complicated monarch, his rule marked by inherited debts and conflicts with rebel barons, which eventually led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.

John did not support the loss of his feudal privileges, and signed the Magna Carta only to appease the escalating tensions held by the rebel barons. Pope Innocent took John’s side on this, viewing the charter as ‘shameful and demeaning’ and excommunicated the rebel barons.


In this depiction of King John granting the Magna Carta, no one looks happy, so that seems pretty accurate.

This might have been some incentive for John to break his word (or maybe not, since he’d already had papal disagreements of his own and had been excommunicated before), but it’s likely that he never really intended to follow the letter of the peace accord. By October of 1216, John had broken the charter and the ‘First Barons’ War’ had begun.

Bad Decision: Sending the baggage caravan, containing the crown jewels, along a quicker route – a causeway only accessible at low tide.

Since he was travelling all around England, attempting to subdue the rebel forces, John had good cause for his sense of urgency. After directing a two-month siege of Rochester Castle, John travelled to Bishops Lynn (now called Kings Lynn, due to Henry VIII’s intense restructuring of the church), taking care to travel around East Anglia, which was held by the rebels. To do so, he took the safe route around the Wash, a large marshy area along the coast of England, separating East Anglia from Lincolnshire.

The Wash at low tide

The Wash at low tide

The Wash is an estuary, a partially enclosed body of water that has access to the sea, and it’s fed by four rivers. In King John’s time, it was even wider than it is today, but when the tide was out, it was possible to cross it, although the causeway would have been very muddy.

While in Bishops Lynn, John fell ill, most likely with dysentery. He was forced to change his plans, and decided to leave Bishops Lynn via the town of Wisbech. He sent the baggage wagons, which contained the king’s wardrobe and the crown jewels, across the mouth of the Wash, which was a shorter, faster route, since the tide was out.

Unfortunately, the baggage caravan – which may have included up to three thousand members of the King’s entourage – was too slow, and the wagons too heavy, to traverse the muddy terrain of the Wash. The wagons began to sink into the mud, and though the men struggled to pull them free with horses, the incoming tide made it impossible. Soon everything was buried in mud and seawater – including the crown jewels.


The accident probably took place near Sutton Bridge, which crosses the River Nene, but for most of history, it’s been impossible to ascertain the exact area, especially since the landscape has changed over time. More recently, modern technology such as astronomical photography and laser study has potentially found a way to find the exactly location – and the treasure, if it exists.

Some historical accounts of the loss of the crown jewels are more suspicious, suggesting that John left the jewels behind in Bishops Lynn on purpose and arranged for their “loss” afterward. Since the jewels have never come to light in Bishops Lynn, or anywhere nearby, afterward, it seems more likely that, being ill and harried by the rebels, King John simply made a mistake.

In any case, he wasn’t around to personally witness many consequences of the disaster at the Wash. King John died of his illness about a week later, on October 19th, 1216.

Outcome: A disastrous shortcut, loss of valuable currency, a bit of an embarrassing legacy, although the enthusiasm it provides to modern treasure hunters might overcome that.

king_johns_tombI mentioned at the start of this post that King John was a complicated monarch, and this incident at the Wash really doesn’t do justice to that. I must recommend one of my favourite historical novels of all time to do that, Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman.


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