Lost Masterpieces

When ‘Bad King John’ Lost The British Crown Jewels

In 1216, a group of King John’s men were traveling through some marshland when a flood engulfed them. Ever since, the whereabouts of the Crown Jewels has remained unknown.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

For first-time tourists to the United Kingdom and for the royalty obsessed, a visit to the Tower of London is a must.

Forget the building’s sordid history as a prison for pint-size princes and religious fanatics or its role in the murder of out-of-favor queens. The towering brick building is now the regal home of the monarchy’s glittering and gilded prized possessions.

Yes, this site that once served as a fortress and is now filled with watchful guards is the perfect place to protect and display the British Crown Jewels. Want to know what isn’t a good place? A horse-drawn cart following an army into battle.

But that didn’t stop King John, who decided his participation in quelling rebellions and fighting the French was no excuse not to have all of his finest baubles on hand at all times.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well. The spectacular crowns, scepters, and various bling now on display in the Tower of London could more accurately be called the British Crown Jewels: Version 3.0.

King John’s nickname, “the Bad,” gives some indication of how his service to his crown and country was viewed.

The youngest son of Henry II, John assumed the throne after his brother Richard died. He quickly found himself embroiled in conflict when he set his eyes on the wrong fair maiden from France, Isabella of Angoulême.

Their marriage started a costly war that had John quickly losing ground—quite literally, he had to cede several regions to his French adversary—and struggling to find a way to pay for his crusade to keep his realm intact.

It was the greedy John who began robbing—er, heavily taxing—the poor to fund his campaigns that led to the rise of the lore of Robin Hood.

Legend has it that the good-willed forest bandit and his merry men retaliated by turning the tables and robbing the rich to give back to the poor. Whether Robin Hood really existed or was just a tale that cropped up in the troubled wake of King John’s plunder, the lesson was the same: the English weren’t too happy with their overlord.

“He was a total jerk. He was loathed by contemporaries as cruel and cowardly,” Mark Morris, author of King John: Treachery, Tyranny, and the Road to the Magna Carta told the BBC in 2016. “There were rules, especially about how you treated nobles. John broke these taboos. He didn’t just kill, he was sadistic. He starved people to death. And not just enemy knights, but once a rival’s wife and son.”

By 1215, King John had crossed the line. Rebellions were cropping up throughout England, while his continued losses to France, bad behavior, and all-around poor leadership led many of his barons to turn on him.

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He was still locked in a violent battle with the French, and Pope Innocent III had grown so fed up with his antics that he had rescinded all support for John the Bad. The situation on the home front reached a head when rebels took control of London in May 1215. In order to end the occupation and declare a truce, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

Against this backdrop, John continued to travel the countryside with his army, putting down rebellions and attempting to reclaim the land he had lost to the French.

On the dusty roads he traveled, the greedy and power-hungry monarch brought along the entirety of the British Crown Jewels to keep him company.

So there John was on October 12, 1216, galloping through the English countryside from King’s Lynn to Lincoln with his retinue of soldiers as they went about their business of ruling by military force.

They brought along a bevy of carts lugging their equipment and baggage, as well as King John’s valuables, of course. As happens with most centuries-old stories, the exact order of events has been lost to history. The brigade was either rushing to quell yet another rebellion or retreating from their enemies.

Some say that the whole army was on the same path when King John fell ill with dysentery and turned back, leaving his men behind to deal with the lumbering luggage.

Others say that he was taking the long route around the marshland of eastern England known as the Wash while a group of his men charged with overseeing the supply carts took a short cut through it.

Whatever the exact details of the day, the result was the same. The group traveling through the Wash was over-burdened and unable to move quickly enough.

When the tide turned and the water began pouring back in, they were still navigating the treacherous bogs and sinking sands. The crown jewels—and many of the men and horses—drowned in the flood.

“When at last the tide receded and the wash again stretched bare between the points of solid land there was scarcely a sign of the riches that had vanished in the gleaming wet sand,” A. Hyatt Verrill wrote of the tragedy in The Baltimore Sun in 1933.

It’s unknown what exactly was lost in that wave of water. While we know that King John’s Crown Jewels went down in the flood, no historical record exists that details their specific make-up.

One can imagine that a monarch so intent on pillaging from his people and amassing great shows of wealth would have been similarly meticulous when it came to his royal gems.

It is also believed that this lost treasure included a good amount of gold, precious items like bejeweled utensils and chalices, and a significant amount of the loot that he had acquired over the course of his recent conquests.

But, to this day, none of this bounty has been found. It’s a predicament that has puzzled treasure hunters for decades. Where could King John’s Crown Jewels possibly be today?

Verrill summed up the difficulties in his 1933 piece. In the intervening 800 years, the landscape in that area of the country has changed dramatically. “Where there were sand flats covered by the tides there are now dry sand dunes. If King John’s treasure lies intact beneath these barren hills of wind-blown sand it is merely a question of steam shovels and dredges and the removal of countless tons of sand…But, on the other hand, the scouring tides, the winter’s storms, the seas and the shifting sands may have scattered the treasure far and wide.”

But that hasn’t stopped treasure hunters from looking. In 2015, additional clues were uncovered when an archeological study using the latest technology revealed a detailed map of the changes to the landscape since the days of King John.

While this is a step in the right direction, it in no way reveals where—and even if—King John’s gems are currently buried in the English countryside.

"If there's anything there it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack as there are still hundreds of hectares of fields that could be where the royal baggage train got into difficulty,” historian and archeologist Ben Robinson told the BBC.

Oddly enough for such an immense treasure, this is not the only time that the English monarchy has found themselves stripped of their precious crowns.

Following Charles I’s execution after the English Revolution in 1649, Oliver Cromwell took it upon himself to destroy the second edition of the Crown Jewels in an act that symbolized the destruction of the monarchy itself. Every piece of the collection was either sold or melted down.

Twelve years later, when the monarchy was reinstalled, a new—now third—set of Crown Jewels had to be made in time for the coronation of Charles II. Pieces from this collection now make up some of the oldest items found in the royal collection today—one that remains heavily guarded in the Tower of London.

As for Ol’ John, he may have escaped the flood waters and the treacherous bog, but he didn’t fare much better than his precious gems. Seven days after the first British Crown Jewels were lost for good, King John died a not so pleasant death from dysentery.