King John

King John's Tomb at Worcester Cathedral HeadKing John was born on Christmas Eve in 1166. He began his reign in 1199 in control of a vast empire which stretched from Gascony in the south of France all the way up through large regions of France to England, areas in Wales and some parts of Ireland. King John is most famous for agreeing to the Magna Carta, which was a charter of demands made by John's rebellious barons. When he died in October 1216, he had lost most of his French lands, and was in the midst of a civil war against many of his own barons. 

Read Prof Stephen Church's (of the University of East Anglia) article for The English Historical Review, on King John's Testament and the Last Days of his Reign..........

King John's Testament by Prof Stephen Church



King John and Worcestershire

Some of King John's favourite hunting grounds were here at Kinver and Feckenham, and he had a special affection for Saint Wulfstan, one of the two great Anglo-Saxon saints whose shrines and tombs were at Worcester. Both Saint Wulfstan and Saint Oswald can be seen in miniature beside the head of John on his effigy.

When John came to Worcester he would have stayed in the cathedral priory or castle. There are two or three probable locations for his place of lodging. The first possible place was in the rooms of the prior, who was the monk in charge of the monastery. The second was in the guesthouse of the priory, which was located originally inside from the gatehouse and just to the north of it, on the site of the present Guesten. This was later to be replaced by the huge Guestenhall in the later middle ages of which only the ruins survive. An alternative theory is that the early guesthouse was located just south of the Chapter House. John first visited Worcester in October 1189, when meeting the Welsh nobility on behalf of his brother King Richard I. All paid homage to John, except for one, whom John therefore attacked in Carmarthen castle and brought to submission.

On Easter Day in the year 1200 King John visited the Cathedral. In 1202 he had ordered the rebuilding of the priory's great Gatehouse (now called Edgar Tower) after a terrible fire, which had damaged the whole city of Worcester. He again visited Worcester in 1205 as part of a national tour to raise forces to recapture his lost French territories. In 1207 John was at Worcester for Christmas, and he gave 100 marks to help with the repairs after the great fire of 1202 and prayed at Saint Wulfstan's golden shrine.

However in the quarrel between the Pope and King John, the Bishop of Worcester, Mauger sided with the Papacy. Mauger had been Richard the Lionheart's physician. He was one of the few Bishop's to publish the Pope's interdict in England in 1208, and was consequently forced to flee England. John returned in 1209 to negotiate with the Welsh.

Worcester Priory was ordered to give the King in the year 1210 the sum of 200 marks, and King John's Tomb at Worcester Cathedral in profileinstructed to provide him with a cart and four horses. John appeared here once again in 1211 when he was trying to raise troops to invade France, and once more in 1213 when he ordered the monks to elect the Chancellor of the Exchequer Walter de Gray as the new Bishop of Worcester. In 1214 John visited briefly to spend his Christmas at the Cathedral priory, but left on Boxing Day for London. During the civil war at the end of John's reign, the city of Worcester had declared for the rebellious barons. A loyalist army under the Earl of Chester was unable to capture the city. However on 17th July 1216, one of John's loyal lieutenants, Fawkes de Breauté broke through the defences at Worcester castle and then captured the town. The gold on St. Wulfstan's shrine was melted and used to pay a 300 mark fine. John's last visit to Worcester was on 16 August 1216, ordering the citizens to make a payment to Walter de Beauchamp so that alms might be given to the poor.

The Will

John had contracted dysentery at Lynn in 1216. Just before his death, John managed to dictate a brief will. The will still survives and is usually on display in the cathedral library. As part of that John requested: "I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester".

The Tomb

Medieval effigies usually show the subject in the prime of life. The effigy on John's tomb is unique - it is a life-like image of him and is the oldest royal effigy in England dating from 1232. The tomb has been opened twice. Once in 1529 when it was described that his head was covered with a monk's cowl, however it is now thought that this was his coronation cap. Also at that time the box part of the tomb was added to match the tombs of Prince Arthur and Griffiths ap Ryce. The tomb was opened again in 1797 when an antiquarian study of the body was made.

John was found to be 5 ft 6½inches. A robe of crimson damask was originally covering the body, but by 1797 most of the embroidery had deteriorated. The remains of a sword lay down the left side of the body, and parts of the scabbard. The internal coffin was made of white Highley stone from Worcestershire. The coffin rests on the pavement of the Quire.

King John's Tomb at Worcester CathedralAt the time of burial a silk canopy was placed over the tomb, and the body was covered in silk. The cost of candles round the tomb was paid for by the royal government giving Worcester's monks Grafton manor, and the whole of the College Green area was finally returned to the cathedral, having been taken at the Norman invasion from the cathedral by the then Sheriff of Worcester.

Worcester 1250 A.D.  A 1:500 scale reconstruction of the walled city of Worcester as it may have looked in the middle of the thirteenth century. Built by Hugh Watson and Dave Austin, and Jeremy Burr.  This model has been renovated in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and is on display in the Worcester City Commandery Museum,

To find out more about King John and Magna Carta.

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