Tuesday 24th October 2017
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Words: Jane Keightley
Featured in the June 2015 issue

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The story of King John’s fateful visit to Swineshead Abbey in 1216 has been told in numerous versions over the centuries, making it one of the most colourful tales in the life of one of England’s most notorious monarchs.

Having lived in Swineshead until I was 18, I grew up with the tales about King John being poisoned at the Abbey. I was even taken round the grounds of the Abbey on a trip from Swineshead Primary School and it sticks in my memory to this day. So I have always been fascinated by the different tales that were told and always vowed to find out more.

‘What was King John doing in Swineshead?’ you may ask. The year before he had put his seal to the Magna Carta against his will in Runnymede. This was a great Charter that was drawn up by barons, churchmen and leading citizens who had had enough of the way King John was ruling the country. The king had no intention of keeping his promises and carried on just as he had before.

Furious with the nobles who had forced him into agreeing to their demands, he gathered an army of foreign mercenaries together and marched north. Despairing of their king the barons invited Louis the Dauphin of France to come to England and accept the English throne. In May 1216, Louis landed in Kent and started to seize England with the help of his English allies. At the same time King Alexander II of Scotland was marching south.

John was very uncertain of his future at this time. Between 28th September and 2nd October 1216 he and his army had fought to defend Lincoln Castle. He then toured Lincolnshire destroying the estates of any disloyal barons staying at Grimsby, Louth and Spalding. He then travelled to Lynn in Norfolk, which later became Bishops Lynn and then King’s Lynn (after King John).

On 12th October King John left Lynn and headed for Swineshead Abbey. He decided to travel via Wisbech but unfortunately he sent his baggage and jewels on the shorter route across the mouth of the Wash. At that time the sea came in a lot further than it does today and it was quite a dangerous route to travel, especially if you were not aware of tides and currents. Unfortunately his belongings, including his jewels, were sucked into the mud and disappeared forever.

A contemporary chronicler, Roger of Wendover wrote that ‘the ground opened up in the midst of the waves and bottomless whirlpools sucked in everything.’ Another chronicler of the time, Ralph of Coggeshall states that it was not that dramatic and not all items were lost. Unless they are ever found, we will never know for sure.

It is sometimes said that when the king arrived at Swineshead Abbey he was already ill with dysentery but I much prefer the story that has come down through the centuries which says that a monk poisoned him.

The story goes that one of the monks at Swineshead Abbey, a Brother Simon, poisoned King John by putting poison into his goblet of cider and that he obtained it by pricking the back of a toad. There are two versions of the story. The first one tells of how King John, whilst in conversation with Brother Simon, threatened to put up the price of bread. This would seriously affect the Abbey as a large part of their income came from a mill in Manchester. This was granted to them by Robert de Gresley, who was first Baron of Manchester and Lord of Swineshead and also the founder of Swineshead Abbey in 1134. It would also have had a detrimental effect on the majority of people in the country.

The second version of the legend describes how King John demanded that the beautiful sister of the Abbot of Swineshead should be sent to the Abbey and more specifically to his private chamber. Judith, the Abbot’s sister, was a pure and chaste nun. Brother Simon was worried about the king’s intentions towards her and decided that something needed to be done to stop the king having his wicked way with her.

Both stories tell of how Brother Simon went to William, the Abbot, and was granted absolution before carrying out the poisoning. The king was given the poisoned drink, but as was the practice in those days someone had to taste it before the king. His official taster was not available (he was probably lost in the crossing of the Wash). Brother Simon tasted it then went to his cell where he died soon afterwards. The King became ill but was not told of the death of Brother Simon. He remained at Swineshead for three days and when he left he was too ill to ride and was carried on a litter to Newark Castle where he died on the 18th or 19th of October.

It is said that as soon as he died his servants robbed him of all his belongings. It is also said that he had left instructions for his body to be buried in a monk’s habit, hoping that he would not be recognised at the Gates of Heaven and would be let in. He was obviously very aware of the sinful life he had led. When his tomb in Worcester Cathedral was opened in 1797 it was found that his skull was covered in the remains of a monks cowl, so it seems the story was true.

Writing in 1596 Shakespeare was aware of the poisoning story. In his play King John he recounts the story I have just told and calls the monk ‘a resolved villain’ and that after he had drunk the poison ‘his bowels suddenly burst out’. In the play it is implied that the king knew about the monk’s death and knew that he had been poisoned. He also says that the king died at Swineshead, so we must assume he was using some poetic licence. Shakespeare is said to have based his play on an anonymous chronicle called ‘The troublesome Raigne of John King of England’.

William Caxton also published a chronicle which mentioned the poisoning at Swineshead. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs mentions the story too and includes a woodcut illustration entitled ‘The Description of the Poysoning of King John, by a monk of Swinestead Abbeye in Lincolneshire’.

Unfortunately these days there is hardly anything left of the original Abbey buildings. After the dissolution of the monasteries their estates were sold through the Court of Augmentation and the site of the ruined Abbey was granted to Edward Lord Clinton.

In 1607 Sir John Lockton bought the abbey estate and built himself a house using the stones from the ruined Abbey. A tomb effigy built into the wall of this house is said to originate from the old Abbey buildings and is presumed to be that of Brother Simon. However, in this effigy Brother Simon is depicted as a knight, not a monk, so there are theories that Brother Simon could have been one of the Knights Templar.

The Abbey grounds are privately owned and not open to the public but if you feel you would like to know more about these fascinating stories there are two books I can thoroughly recommend. The first one is The Lost Treasure of King John by Richard Waters. The second one is A History of Swineshead by Pamela Southworth which is unfortunately out of print but can be borrowed from local libraries or bought secondhand.

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