Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: John Foxe
Editor: Michael Best
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The Book of Martyrs: Selection (Modern)


[King John's death]

55And in the selfsame year, as King John was come to Swinstead abbey, not far from Lincoln, he rested there two days; where, as most writers testify, he was most traitorously poisoned by a monk of that abbey, of the sect of the Cistercians or St. Bernard's brethren, called Simon of Swinstead. As concerning the noble personage of this prince, this testimony giveth Roger Heveden therein: princeps quidem magnus erat sed minus felix: atque vt Marius vtramque fortunam expertus. "Doubtless," saith he, "King Jobn was a mighty prince, but not so fortunate as many were; not altogether unlike to Marius the noble Roman, he tasted of fortune both ways; bountiful in mercy; in wars sometimes he won, sometimes again he lost." Munificus ac liberalis in exteros fuit, sed proditionis causa suorum depredator, plus aduenis quam suis confidens. "He was also very bounteous and liberal unto strangers, but of his own people (for their daily treasons' sake) he was a great oppressor, so that he trusted more to foreigners than to them."

56Among other divers and sundry conditions belonging to this king, one there was which is not in him to be reprehended, but commended rather; for that, being far from the superstition which kings at that time were commonly subject to, he regarded not the popish mass, as in certain chronicles written of him may be collected; for this I find testified of him by Matthew Paris, that the king upon a time in his hunting, coming where a very fat stag was cut lip and opened (or how the hunters term it I cannot tell) the king beholding the fatness and the liking of the stag. "See," saith he, "how easily and happily he hath lived, and yet for all that he never heard any mass."

57It is recorded and found in the chronicle of William Caxton, called Fructus Temporum, and in the seventh book, that the foresaid monk Simon, being much offended with certain talk that the king had at his table, concerning Louis, the French king's son, (which then had entered and usurped upon him,) did cast in his wicked heart how he most speedily might bring him to his end. And first of all he counseled with his abbot, showing him the whole matter, and what he was minded to do. He alleged for himself the prophecy of Caiaphas, John xi, saying, "It is better that one man die, than all the people should perish." "I am well contented," saith he," to lose my life, and so become a martyr, that I may utterly destroy this tyrant." With that the abbot did weep for gladness, and much commended his fervent zeal, as he took it. The monk then being absolved of his abbot for doing this act (aforehand) went secretly into a garden upon the back side, and finding there a most venomous toad, he so pricked him and pressed him with his penknife, that he made him vomit all the poison that was within him. This done, he conveyed it into a cup of wine, and with a smiling and flattering countenance he said thus to the king: "If it shall like your princely majesty, here is such a cup of wine as ye never drank a better before in all your lifetime; I trust this wassail shall make all England glad." And with that he drank a great draught thereof, the king pledging him. The monk anon after went to the farmary, and there died, (his entrails gushing out of his body) and had continually from thenceforth three monks to sing mass for his soul, confirmed by their general chapter. What became after that of King John, ye shall know right well in the process following. I would ye did mark well the wholesome proceedings of these holy votaries, how virtuously they obey their king, whom God hath appointed, and how religiously they bestow their confessions, absolutions, and masses.

58The king within a short space after, feeling great grief in his body, asked for Simon the monk; and answer was made that he was departed this life. Then God have mercy upon me (said he). I suspected as much after he had said that all England should thereof be glad; he meant now I perceive those of his own generation. With that he commanded his chariot to be prepared, for he was not able to ride. So went he from thence to Sleaford castle, and from thence to Newark on Trent, and there within less than three days he died. Upon his death-bed he much repented his former life, and forgave all them with a pitiful heart that had done him injury; desiring that his elder son Henry might be admonished by his example and learn by his misfortunes to be natural, favorable, gentle, and loving to his natural people. When his body was embalmed and spiced, as the manner is of kings, his bowels or entrails were buried at Croxton abbey, which was of the sect of Premonstratenses, or canons of St. Norbert. His hired soldiers, both Englishmen and strangers, were still about him, and followed his corpse triumphantly in their armor, till they came to the cathedral church of Worcester, and there honorably was he buried by Silvester the bishop, betwixt Saint Oswald and Saint Wolstan, two bishops of that church. He died in the year of our Lord 1216, the nineteenth day of October, after he had reigned in such calamity, by the subtle conveyance of his clergy, eighteen years, and six months, and odd days. Now so soon as King John was dead and buried (as is said before), the princes, lords, and barons, so many as were of his part (as well of strangers as of them that were born here) by counsel of the legate Gualo, gathered themselves together, and all with one consent proclaimed Henry his son for their king. Of whom more shall follow (the Lord willing) hereafter.

59Many opinions are among the chroniclers of the death of King John. Some of them do write that he died of sorrow and heaviness of heart, as Polydore; some, of surfeiting in the night, as Hadulphus Niger; some, of a bloody flux, as Roger Hoveden; some, of a burning ague; some, of a cold sweat; some, of eating apples; some, of eating pears; some, of plums, etc.

60Thus you see what variety is among the writers concerning the death of this King John. Of which writers, although the most agree in this, that he was poisoned by the monk above named, yet Matthew Paris, something differing from the others, writeth thus concerning his death, that he going from Lynn to Lincolnshire, and there hearing of the loss of his carriage and of his treasures upon the washes, was plunged into great heaviness of mind; insomuch that he fell thereby into a fervent fever, being at the abbey of Swinstead. This ague he also increased through evil surfeiting and naughty diet, by eating peaches and drinking of new ciser, or, as we call it, cider. Thus, being sick, he was carried to the castle of Sleaford, and from thence to the castle of Newark; where, calling for Henry his son, he gave to him the succession of his crown and kingdom, writing to all his lords and nobles to receive him for their king; and shortly after, upon St. Lucy's even, departed this life, being buried at Worcester.

61In Gisburn I find otherwise, who, dissenting from others, saith that he was poisoned with a dish of pears, which the monk had prepared for the king therewith to poison him. He asking the king whether he would taste of his fruit, and being bid to bring them in; according to the king's bidding, did so. At the bringing in whereof (saith the story) the precious stones about the king began to sweat; insomuch that the king, misdoubting some poison, demanded of the monk what he had brought. He said, of his fruit, and that very good, the best that ever he did taste. "Eat," said the king. And he took one of the pears which he did know, and did eat. Also being bid to take another, he did eat likewise savorily, and so likewise the third. Then the king, refraining no longer, took one of the poisoned pears, and was therewith poisoned, as is beforesaid.

62In the reign of this King John, the citizens of London first obtained of the king to choose yearly a mayor. In whose time also the bridge of London was first builded of stone, which before was of wood.