Was King John murdered?

In the late 13th century, a rumour swept England that the reviled King John hadn't been killed by dysentery – as the historical record suggests – but an assassin's poison. Why did that alternative version of the king's death gain so much traction? And is it founded on truth?

King John hunting on horseback, 14th century. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

In October 1216 the king of England, travelling across country with what remained of his followers, stopped for a night’s rest at the abbey of Swineshead, deep in the Lincolnshire Fens. It had been hard going and he’d lost half of his baggage train in the treacherous fenland.

The abbey was thrown into disarray by his arrival. Its residents scrambled to find accommodation and food for the king and his men, painfully aware that John brought civil war to their doorstep.

At the same time as the king demanded hospitality, Louis of France – attempting to seize John’s kingdom at the head of a determined force of rebel English barons – was laying siege to Dover Castle. The French prince had already received the submission of London and Winchester, and besieged the castles at Windsor and Lincoln. John had not faced him in battle, retreating north in the hope of regrouping his forces.

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