For King John, the last two years of his reign (and life) must have felt like a long losing streak: he failed in his attempt to retake Normandy by force, in part because his own barons refused to serve in his military; later, he was made to sign the Magna Carta with many of those same barons, and even though the pope took John’s side and declared the Magna Carta null and void, the barons and he still fell into war against each other.
And then came October 12, 1216. John spent much of his reign traveling; even when he was home in England he traveled from friendly manor house to the next friendly house, allowing his allies to play host to the king, and he did not travel light: his entourage carried everything that he owned personally and in the name of the crown everywhere it went. John collected jewels and gold and silver, and he inherited the Crown Jewels of Germany from his grandmother. His traveling court included several horse-drawn carts full of jewels and precious metals.
His was an obsessively bureaucratic administration, which is a great gift to historians; more is known about King John’s whereabouts on any given day during his reign than the day-to-day events in the life of many an American president.
Eight hundred years ago today, the king and his entourage were traveling from Norfolk to Lincolnshire and it was decided to travel across the Wash, the marshy estuary in East Anglia. The Wash is tidal, and travel across it depends on the traveler knowing the schedule of the tides and speed.
King John often covered huge distances each day, so he and his immediate companions most likely traveled apart from what was probably several slow-moving horse-drawn carts full of precious belongings. The king made it across. The tide came in and several spots of muddy quicksand appeared. The carts and all King John’s belongings disappeared into the Wash, where they remain all these years later.
What was lost is not known. His court maintained an inventory, which still can be seen, and a similar inventory of royal possessions that was made when John’s successor, Henry, was crowned in 1220 lists many things, none of which were on King John’s list.
In his book, A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens takes some glee in John’s misfortune and imagines that John was present at the Wash as his jewels disappeared (there is no evidence that John saw the disaster himself):
… [H]appily for England and humanity, John’s death was near. Crossing a dangerous quicksand, called the Wash, not very far from Wisbeach, the tide came up and nearly drowned his army. He and his soldiers escaped; but, looking back from the shore when he was safe, he saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the wagons, horses, and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.
Whether or not Dickens was right about King John’s character, he was right about his history: King John was dead a week later.
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The USS Cole was bombed while in port in Yemen on this date in 2000. Seventeen American sailors were killed.
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Nancy Spungen was murdered on this date in 1978. John Denver died on this date in 1997. Matthew Shepard was murdered on this date in 1998. Wilt Chamberlain died on this date in 1999. Oscar Hijuelos died three years ago today.
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Luciano Pavarotti was born on this date in 1935.
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Robert Coles is 87 today. Dick Gregory is 84 today. Ned Jarrett is 84. Sam Moore is 81 today. “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” performed by Sam & Dave with Booker T. & the M.G.’s live in 1967:
Tony Kubek is 81 today. Chris Wallace is 69. Susan Anton is 66. Adam Rich is 48. Hugh Jackman is 48.
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