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Author: Raphael Holinshed
Editor: Michael Best
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Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1587 (Selection)

326[King John dies]

[The varying reports of his death]

Thus the country being wasted on each hand, the king hasted forward till he came to Wellstream Sands, where, passing the Washes, he lost a great part of his army,The loss of the king's carriages. with horses and carriages, so that it was judged to be a punishment appointed by God that the spoil which had been gotten and taken out of churches, abbeys, and other religious houses should perish and be lost by such means together with the spoilers. Yet the king himself, and a few other, escaped the violence of the waters by following a good guide. But, as some have written, he took such grief for the loss sustained at this passage that immediately thereupon he fell into an ague, the force and heat whereof,King John falleth sick of an ague. together with his immoderate feeding on raw peaches and drinking of new cider, so increased his sickness that he was not able to ride, but was fain to be carried in a litter presently made of twigs with a couch of straw under him without any bed or pillow, thinking to have gone to Lincoln; but the disease still so raged and grew upon him that he was enforced to stay one night at the castle of Laford,Laford. and on the next day, with great pain, caused himself to be carried unto Newark, where in the castle, through anguish of mind rather than through force of sickness,King John departed this life. he departed this life the night before the nineteenth day of October in the year of his age fifty and one, and after he had reigned seventeen years, six months, and seven and twenty days.

327¶ There be which have written, that after he had lost his army, he came to the abbey of Swineshead in Lincolnshire, and there understanding the cheapness and plenty of corn, showed himself greatly displeased therewith, as he that, for the hatred which he bare to the English people, that had so traitorously revolted from him unto his adversary Lewis, wished all misery to light upon them, and thereupon said in his anger that he would cause all kind of grain to be at a far higher price ere many days should pass. Whereupon a monk that heard him speak such words, being moved with zeal for the oppression of his country, gave the king poison in a cup of ale whereof he first took the assayCaxton. to cause the king not to suspect the matter, and so they both died in manner at one time.

328There are that writeGisburn and alii. how one of his own servants did conspire with a convert of that abbey, and that they prepared a dish of pears which they poisoned, three of the whole number excepted, which dish the said convert presented unto him. And when the king suspected them to be poisoned indeed, by reason that such precious stones as he had about him cast forth a certain sweat as it were bewaring the poison, he compelled the said convert to taste and eat some of them, who, knowing the three pears which were not poisoned, took and ate those three, which when the king had seen he could not longer abstain but fell to, and eating greedily of the rest died the same night, no hurt happening to the convert, who through help of such as bare no good will to the King found shift to escape and conveyed himself away from danger of receiving due punishment for so wicked a deed.

329Beside these reports which ye have heard, there are others that writeThe variable reports of writers, concerning the death of King John. how he died of surfeiting in the night, as Rafe Niger; some, of a bloody flux, as one said that writeth an addition unto Roger Hoveden. And Rafe Cogheshall saith that, coming to Lynne (where he appointed Savery de Mauleon to be captain, and to take order for the fortifying of that town), he took a surfeit there of immoderate diet, and withal fell into a laske, and after his laske had left him, at his coming to Laford in Lindsey he was let blood; furthermore to increase his other griefs and sorrows for the loss of his carriage, jewels and men in passing over the Washes which troubled him sore, there came unto him messengers from Hubert de Burgh and Gerard de Sotegam, captains of Dover castle, advertising him that they were not able to resist the forceable assaults and engines of the enemies if speedy succor came not to them in due time. Whereat his grief of mind being doubled, so as he might seem even oppressed with sorrow, the same increased his disease so vehemently that within a small time it made an end of his life (as before yee have heard).

330The men of war that served under his ensigns, being for the more part hired soldiers and strangers, came together, and marching forth with his body, each man with his armor on his back, in warlike order conveyed it unto Worcester, where he was pompously buried in the cathedral church before the high altar, not for that he had so appointed (as some write) but because it was thought to be a place of most surely for the lords and other of his friends there to assemble,Bernewell. and to take order in their business now after his decease. And because he was somewhat fat and corpulent, his bowels were taken out of his body and buried at Croxton abbey, a house of monks of the order called Praemonstratenses, in Staffordshire, the abbot of which house was his physician.

331[King John's reign considered]

¶ Howsoever or wheresoever or whensoever he died, it is not a matter of such moment that it should impeach the credit of the story. But certain it is that he came to his end, let it be by a surfeit or by other means ordained for the shortening of his life. The manner is not so material as the truth is certain. And surely he might be thought to have procured against himself many molestations, many anguishes and vexations, which nipped his heart and gnawed his very bowels with many a sore symptom or passion. All which he might have withstood if fortune had been so favorable that the loyalty of his subjects had remained towards him inviolable; that his nobles with multitudes of adherents had not with such shameful apostasy withstood him in open fight; that foreign force had not weakened his dominion, or rather robbed him of a main branch of his regiment; that he himself had not sought with the spoil of his own people to please the imaginations of his ill affected mind; that courtiers and commoners had with one assent performed in duty no less than they pretended in verity to the preservation of the state and the security of their sovereign -- all which presupposed plagues concurring, what happiness could the king arrogate to himself by his imperial title, which was through his own default so embezzled that a small remnant became his in right, when by open hostility and accursed papacy the greater portion was plucked out of his hands.

332Here therefore we see the issue of domestically or homebred broils, the fruits of variance, the gain that riseth of dissension, whereas no greater nor safer fortification can betide a land than when the inhabitants are all alike minded. By concord many an hard enterprise (in common sense thought impossible) is achieved, many weak things become so defended that without manifold force they cannot be dissolved. From division and mutinies do issue (as out of the Trojan horse) ruins of royalties and decays of commonalties. The sinews of a realm is supposed of some to be substance and wealth; of other some policy and power; of other some convenient defenses both by water and land; but a most excellent description of a well fortified country is that of Plautus, set down in most pithy words and grave sentences, no less worthy to be written than read and considered. The description is this.

333Plautus in Persa.Si incolae bene sunt morati pulchre munitum regnum arbitror.
Perfidia et peculatus ex urbe et avaritia si exulant,
Quarta invidia, quinta ambitio, sexta obtrectatio,
Septimum perjurium, [. . .] octava indulgentia,
Nona injuria, decimum, quod pessimum aggressust, scelus:
Haec unde aberunt centumplex murus rebus servandis parumst.

334And therefore no marvel though both courtiers and commoners fell from King John, their natural prince, and took part with the enemy, not only to the disgrace of their sovereign but even to his overthrow and the depopulation of the whole land; sith these main bulwarks and rampires were wanting, and the contrary in most rank sort and detestable manner extended their virulent forces.

335[The manner of King John's burial]

But we will surcease to aggravate this matter, sith the same is sufficiently urged in the very course of the history concerning his acts and deeds continued to the very day of his death and the very time of his burial; whereof I say thus much, that whether it was his will to be interred as is aforesaid, or whether his corpse being at the disposing of the survivors to elect the place as a convenient storehouse for a prince's bones, I leave it as doubtful, and therefore undetermined, esteeming the less to labor therein because the truth can hardily by certainly be winnowed out but by conjectural supposals aimed and shot at. Notwithstanding, in my poor judgement it is very likely (first in respect of the time which was superstitious and popish; secondly by reason of the custom of funeral rites then commonly used) that he was buried in the said place for order sake, and his body (if I may presume so far by warrant of mine author) wrapped in a monk's cowl and so laid in his grave or tomb. For the manner was at that time in such sort to bury their nobles and great men, who were induced by the imaginations of monks and fond fancies of friars to believe that the said cowl was an amulet or defensitive to their souls from hell and hellish hags, how or in what soever sort they died, either in sorrow and repentance for sin, or in blasphemy, outrage, impatience, or desperation.

336This form of funerals was frequented in Wales, having been first brewed and broached in England, from whence (if we may give credit to our late chronographers) as from a poisoned spring it spread itself into Wales.Humphrey Lloyd. David Powell. For the first abbey or friary that is read to have been erected there since the dissolution of the noble house of Bangor which savoured not of Romish dregs, was the Twy Gwyn, which was builded in the year 1146. Afterwards these vermin swarmed like bees, or rather crawled like lice over all the land, and drew in with them their lousy religion, tempered with I wot not how many millions of abominations; having utterly forgotten the lesson which Ambrosius Telesinus had taught them, (who writ in the year 540 when the right christian faith which Joseph of Arimethia taught the Isle of Avalon reigned in this land, before the proud and bloodthirsty monk Augustine infected it with the poison of Romish errors) in a certain ode, a part whereof are these few verses ensuing,

337Gwae'r offeiriad byd,
Nys angreifftia gwyd,
Ac ny phregetha:
Gwae ny cheidw ey gail,
Ac efyn vigail,
Ac nys areilia:
Gwae ny theidw ey dheuaid,
Rhae bleidhie Rhiefeniaid,
Ai ffon grewppa,

338Wo be to that priest yborne,Thus in English almost word for word.
That will not cleanely weed his corn,
And preach his charge among;
Woe be to that shepheard (I say)
That will not watch his fold alway,
As to his office doth belong;
Woe be to him that doth not keep,
From ravening Romish wolves his sheep,
With staff and weapon strong.

339This (as not impertinent to the purpose) I have recorded, partly to show the palpable blindness of that age wherein King John lived, as also the religion which they reposed in a rotten rag, esteeming it as a scala coeli or ladder to life; but specially inferred to this end that we may fetch some light from this clear candle (though the same seem to be duskish and dim) whereby we may be led to conceive in reason and common sense that the interment of the king was according to the custom then in use and request, and therefore by all likelihoods he was buried as the peers and states of the land were wont to be in those days after the manner above mentioned.

340[King John's family and reputation]

But to let this pass as a cold discourse of a coffin of bones covered with clods of clay,King John's children. you shall understand that he left behind him posterity of both sexes. For he had issue by his wife Queen Isabel two sons, Henry who succeeded him in the kingdom, and Richard; three daughters, Joan, married to Alexander King of Scotland, Isabel, coupled in matrimony with the Emperor Frederick the Second, and Eleanor, whom William Earl of Glocester had to wife. He had also another daughter (as some have left in writing) called Eleanor.

341He was comely of stature, but of look and countenance displeasant and angry; somewhat cruel of nature, as by the writers of his time he is noted, and not so hardy as doubtful in time of peril and danger. But this seemeth to be an envious report uttered by those that were given to speak no good of him whom they inwardly hated. Howbeit, some give this witness of him (as the author of the book of Bernewell Abbey and other) that he was a great and mighty prince, but yet not very fortunate, much like to Marius the noble Roman, tasting of fortune both ways: bountiful and liberal unto strangers, but of his own people (for their daily treasons practised towards him) a great oppressor, so that he trusted more to foreigners than to them, and therefore in the end he was of them utterly forsaken.

342¶ Verily, whosoever shall consider the course of the history written of this prince, he shall find that he hath been little beholden to the writers of that time in which he lived, for scarcely can they afford him a good word, except when the truth enforceth them to come out with it as it were against their wills. The occasion whereof (as some think) was for that he was no great friend to the clergy. And yet undoubtedly his deeds show he had a zeal to religion, as it was then accounted, for he founded the Abbey of Beaulieu in the New Forest, as it were in recompense of certain parish churches, which to enlarge the same forest he caused to be thrown down and ruinated.

343He builded the monastery of Farendon, and the abbey of Hales in Shropshire; he repaired Godstow where his father's concubine Rosamund lay interred; he was no small benefactor to the minster of Lichfield in Staffordshire, to the abbey of Crokesden in the same shire, and to the chapel at Knatesburgh in Yorkshire. So that (to say what I think) he was not so void of devotion towards the church as divers of his enemies have reported, who of mere malice conceal all his virtues and hide none of his vices, but are plentiful enough in setting forth the same to the uttermost, and interpret all his doings and sayings to the worst, as may appear to those that advisedly read the works of them that write the order of his life, which may seem rather an invective than a true history. Nevertheless, sith we cannot come by the truth of things through the malice of writers,Matthew Paris, Polydor et alij. we must content ourselves with this unfriendly description of his time. Certainly it should seem the man had a princely heart in him, and wanted nothing but faithful subjects to have assisted him in revenging such wrongs as were done and offered by the French king and others.

344Moreover, the pride and pretended authority of the clergy he could not well abide when they went about to wrest out of his hands the prerogative of his princely rule and government. True it is, that to maintain his wars which he was forced to take in hand, as well in France as elsewhere, he was constrained to make all the shift he could devise to recover money, and because he pinched their purses they conceived no small hatred against him, which, when he perceived and wanted peradventure discretion to pass it over, he discovered now and then in his rage his immoderate displeasure, as one not able to bridle his affections, a thing very hard in a stout stomach, and thereby missed now and then to compass that which otherwise he might very well have brought to pass.

345It is written that he meant to have become feudary (for maintenance sake against his own disloyal subjects and other his adversaries) unto Miramumeline the great king of the Saracens, but for the truth of this report I have little to say, and therefore I leave the credit thereof to the authors. It is reported likewise that in time when the realm stood interdicted, as he was abroad to hunt one day, it chanced that there was a great stag or hart killed, which when he came to be broken up, proved to be very fat and thick of flesh; "Oh (saith he) what a pleasant life this deer hath led, and yet in all his days he never heard mass." To conclude, it may seem, that in some respects he was not greatly superstitious, and yet not void of a religious zeal towards the maintenance of the clergy, as by his bountiful liberality bestowed in building of abbeys and churches (as before ye have heard) it may partly appear.

346In his days many learned men lived, as Geffrey Vinesaufe, Simon Fraxinus, alias Ash, Adamus Dorensis, Walter de Constantius, first bishop of Lincoln and after Archbishop of Rouen, John de Oxford, Colman surnamed Sapiens, Richard Canonicus, William Peregrine, Alane Tewkesbury, Simon Thurnay, who, being an excellent philosopher but standing too much in his own conceit, upon a sudden did so forget all his knowledge in learning that he became the most ignorant of all other, a punishment (as was thought) appointed him of God for such blasphemies as he had wickedly uttered both against Moses and Christ. Gervasius Dorobernensis, John Hanwill, Nigell Woreker, Gilbert de Hoiland, Benet de Peterburgh, William Parnus, a monk of Newburgh, Roger Hoveden, Hubert Walter, first Bishop of Salisbury and after Archbishop of Canterbury, Alexander Theologus, of whom ye have heard before, Gervasius Tilberiensis, Sylvester Giraldus Cambrensis, who wrote many treatises, Joseph Devonius, Walter Mapis, Radulfus de Diceto, Gilbert Legley, Mauricius Morganius, Walter Morganius, John de Fordeham, William Leicester, Joceline Brakeland, Roger of Crowland, Hugh White, alias Candidus, that wrote an history entitled Historia Petroburgensis, John de Saint Omer, Adam Barking, John Gray, an historiographer and bishop of Norwich, Walter of Coventry, Radulphus Niger, etc. See Bale Scriptorum Britanniae centuria tertia.

Thus far King John.