King John’s annus horribilis in King’s Lynn

King John
King John
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In just a couple of years it’s likely that members of the King John Appreciation Society will be focusing on King’s Lynn and The Wash.

That’s because, in 2016, it will be 800 years since his “annus horribilis” – his treasure being lost in an ill-fated journey across The Wash and then just a few days later his own demise.

Born in 1166 and on the throne from 1199, King John is the ultimate loser in the Good King Richard/ Bad King John interpretation of history. And thanks to his reputation there probably won’t ever be a John II.

But back in the 13th Century, King’s Lynn residents perhaps had different views ...

The Victorian judgement on him was “foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.”

In legend he is the pantomime villain opposite our hero Robin Hood, and in pantomime history, commonly judged the most wicked, insolent, selfish, lecherous, cruel, shameless, superstitious, cynical and dishonourable of the Angevins – who wrote the book in all these. As tyrannical, grasping, castle-urban and French as Robin Hood was merry, generous, forest-gladed and English.

A murderer of anyone perceived as a threat, including his own family. A usurper of Good King Richard’s England, and – most tellingly perhaps in the Norman canon of warrior heroes graced by Richard the Lionheart, his brother, a ‘soft-sword’ – not much of a soldier. (Definitely not true.)

The modern judgement might be a little kinder to John and less generous to Richard – but even that is along the lines of ‘Satisfactory with Elements of Al Capone.’ And to cap his reign, he even lost the royal treasure in The Wash. Didn’t he?

Well, 1216 certainly wasn’t a great year for John. By then, he’d squandered the mighty Angevin empire won by his father Henry II (and pawned by Good King Richard for the crusade) lost Normandy to France; endured a French invasion – supported by his own barons – and signed away a deal of royal power at Runnymede.

He was also four years ex-communicate, every church in England closed by order of the Pope; was despised by barons, guilds, knights, peasants, Church, Emperor and the King of France though he was on – humiliating – speaking terms with Abu Abdullah Mohammed al-Nasir, Emir of Morocco, about a (yes, really) mooted national conversion to Islam.

Then we come to October that year and, to save time, while he personally went via Wisbech (then on sea) he did send his army across The Wash estuary (then much bigger, with a port at Long Sutton) towards Lincolnshire along a causeway at low tide.

With the royal wardrobe, royal regalia and (allegedly) the royal treasure. But without local guides. Somewhere between Walpole Cross Keys and Port Sutton, the wheels came off the wagon train, the tide rolled in and all that dosh got lost in The Wash.

King John himself fell ill just days later and died at Newark Castle on October 18, aged 49.

But we ‘du different’ in Norfolk and while all the mud in The Wash of history might stick to John, (Bishop’s) Lynn was John’s island-refuge against his rebel nation.

He kept ships in the port to pillage rebel barons. The Bishop of Norwich – his friend and he didn’t have many – had a palace at Gaywood. And twelve years before John had stood big for little Lynn against overweening Norwich and knocked it back over Shire Hall with a royal charter.

It was Lynn’s ‘Magna Carta’ and made her a borough. And her citizens never forgot the little barrel-chested man who’d given them their own town.