The uncrowning indignity

Har dee har har. Exactly 800 years ago, on October 12 1216, Bad King John lost the crown jewels in the wash. Yuck yuck yuck.

Have I gone off my rocker? Very possibly. But the preceding paragraph is not evidence of it. This story, which every schoolchild once did know and giggle at back when they regularly taught anything interesting or useful in school, depends upon there being a river estuary in southeastern England called “the Wash”, where four rivers including the “Greater Ouse”, a very British name, flow into the North Sea.

As part of his campaign to undo Magna Carta and slay his enemies John had brought his army into Lincolnshire and crossed south into Norfolk before falling ill and heading north again. He rode back the long way round but sent his cumbersome baggage train by a more direct but risky route, only traversable at low tide, and the sea came whooshing in and engulfed it.

Now in fairness to John it’s not clear what exactly was lost; apparently it didn’t include the ancient crown supposedly belonging to Edward the Confessor that the wretched Oliver Cromwell later characteristically had melted down. And I suppose such a misfortune could have happened to anyone. He wasn’t personally leading the wagons when they got Washed away. But it did happen to John, and it was the sort of thing that happened to him, and if his enemies exaggerated the extent of the catastrophe, he certainly had made enough of them, and sufficient resentment and distrust among the populace, to make such exaggerations effective. And to give some credibility to the rumour that John had actually pawned some of his state treasures in Norfolk and faked their loss. It’s the sort of thing he would do even if in this case he did not, perhaps because he was too ill to scheme at that point; he died unlamented if not actually poisoned just a week later.

John was a brutal, cunning man. But he also had a lead touch, a gift for using his considerable talents to get himself into worse messes than most people could manage. And his combination of ruthlessness, recklessness, instability and unwillingness to heed prudent counsel that drove his subjects into the revolt that forced Magna Carta on him was on display in a minor way in his rushing about seeking revenge in deteriorating health and suffering this embarrassing setback.

He lost the crown jewels in the wash. Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. What a looooooser.