Monday, February 13, 2017
King John's Treasure
If you had a history teacher, like mine, with a fondness for bad puns, you will have been told that King John lost his treasure in the Wash, “and I don’t mean he left five pounds in his trousers pocket when he sent a pair to the laundry, mha, mha, mha.” But at least this, and the romance and mystery of the lost treasure, made me remember the story.
King John’s baggage train was lost on 12 October 1216 during an attempted crossing of the tidal estuary over the Wash. Magna Carta had been signed the year before, but by this time the barons were in revolt again, and had invited the Dauphin, Louis of France to invade and seize the throne. The country was in the throes of civil war. John devoted himself to pillaging the estates of those barons, and it must be said some bishops and abbots too, who opposed him. It is generally assumed that the loss included a vast hoard of precious objects from these plunderings and John's own treasury. They have never been found.
We know the exact date of the loss of the treasure because records of the time were thorough, thanks in part to the king’s own keen interest in administration. This was in contrast with his flamboyant but feckless brother and predecessor Richard, an absentee ruler who had spent much of the country’s money on crusades. John at least took an interest in his English realm, and not just in restoring its finances, for he also devoted a lot of time to hearing cases and dispensing justice. Yet his reputation has always been sinister: he was after all the scion of a line said to be descended from the devil.
There has not been all that much use in fiction of the curious story of the King's great loss. One notable example is an excellent novel for young adults, King John's Treasure (1954), by R.C. Sherriff, most known for his haunting World War I play, Journey's End (1928). In his book, two schoolboys resolve to discover the lost hoard, and there is a brisk, breathless plot with a quite plausible solution to the mystery of the treasure, which even includes the romantic idea of a secret line of succession to the throne.
But I was also interested in the local stories of the treasure, the folklore. There was, I soon found, a quite wonderful array of these tales. This remote corner of the country, where the furthest extremities of Norfolk and Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire meet, this land of lonely marshes reclaimed from the sea, is prolific in yarns. I began to make a sort of catalogue of all the places where people said the treasure might be, or had even, it was claimed, been glimpsed – though never actually produced. And in particular I began to wonder what exactly that treasure was...
'The Fifth Moon', the story that came from these wanderings and wonderings, is due to be published in late March from Sarob Press in From Ancient Ravens, a shared volume of long stories with John Howard and Ron Weighell.