Precisely what John’s next move would have been is uncertain. The rebels who had been pursuing him had given up the chase after his flight from Cambridge and gone to join Louis, who was still besieging Dover. Although the king was heading south, he appears to have been planning a northern campaign. On 9 October he left Lincolnshire and went to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, then one of the most prosperous ports in England, to arrange for supplies to be sent to several of his northern castles.
At that point, however, John fell ill. Ralph of Coggeshall claims it was dysentery, and assumed it was caused by an excessive intake of food and drink; Roger of Wendover famously but unreliably describes a dish of peaches and new cider. More likely a body racked by exhaustion was to blame: for the previous four weeks the forty-nine-old king had been travelling at a relentless pace, often riding more than thirty miles in the space of a single day.
Two days after arriving at King’s Lynn, despite his illness, he set out again, heading back in the direction of Lincolnshire. Still in a hurry, he decided to save time by taking a short-cut across the great tidal estuary of the Wash, at the point where the River Wellstream merged with the sea. Disaster struck when parts of his baggage train, both men and packhorses, were sucked down into the treacherous sands. According to Coggeshall, the king lost all the precious items of his chapel, including his collection of holy relics. He may even have lost his crown and other regalia, since they do not figure in later royal inventories.
Wracked with grief on account of this loss, John struggled to Swineshead Priory in Lincolnshire, then after two more days pushed on to the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Sleaford. There he was met by messengers from Dover with even worse news. Louis had undermined and partially collapsed the castle’s main entrance. Hubert de Burgh and his men had prevented the French army storming the breach, but they could not hold out for much longer. A truce had been agreed to allow the defenders to seek the king’s help, or else his permission to surrender.
This news, says Coggeshall, caused John such distress that it brought on the return of his illness. An attempt to alleviate his condition by bleeding him seems to have made no difference, and on 15 October he wrote to the pope, describing how he was suffering from ‘a grave and incurable infirmity’. The pope in question was not the formidable Innocent III, whose pontificate had done so much to shape the king’s reign. Innocent had died on 16 July, to be replaced by Honorius III. John now addressed the new pontiff ‘on bended knee’, and committed his kingdom to the Church’s protection, without which he could see no hope of saving the succession for his heirs.
Having composed this letter, the king continued with his desperate journey. Too ill to ride, he was carried in a litter from Sleaford a further twenty miles west to Newark, another castle confiscated from the bishop of Lincoln. It was probably there that he dictated his last will and testament, the original copy of which still survives. John began by assigning the administration of his affairs to thirteen of his faithful servants, including William Marshal, Ranulf of Chester, Peter des Roches and the papal legate, Guala. These men were to make amends to the Church for the damages and injuries he had inflicted, and to arrange for aid to be sent to the Holy Land. They were to help his sons obtain and defend their inheritance, and to ensure that his other faithful servants were rewarded. Lastly, they were to distribute money to religious houses and to the poor for the salvation of the his soul.
Had the imminent prospect of death and the danger to his soul brought any repentance? Eight days earlier, after the first onset of his illness at King’s Lynn, John had given permission to Margaret, wife of Walter de Lacy, to found a religious house in Herefordshire in memory of her father, William de Briouze, her mother Matilda and her brother William.
On the night of 18 October, a great gale howled through the town of Newark, with such intensity that the citizens feared that their houses would be destroyed. The abbot of Croxton must have been grateful to be safe within the walls of the castle. He had been summoned to the king’s bedside because of his medical expertise, but by this point his patient was beyond saving. Instead he heard the dying man’s confession, and administered the last rites.