Hyatt Verrill visited Great Britain with his family and published several of his books in England.
England's Buried Treasures
A boom in buried gold arouses thoughts of lost hoards
by A. HYATT VERRILL
The Sun; Nov 26, 1933; The Baltimore Sun, collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2011.
With the world clamoring for gold, and the price of the yellow metal almost double its normal value, searching for lost treasures has aroused greater interest than ever before.
Pirates' hidden hoards, the secret treasures of Incas and Aztec, sunken galleons, wrecked liners, loot of conquest concealed by raiders fleeing from the vengeance of ravished Indians—all are being sought on land beneath the sea. Ancient maps and charts, traditions, fragments of history, fiction and fact, radio finders, hypnotism, divining rods—all are being employed by the seekers after these almost fabulous lost treasures.
Very possibly more money is being spent in the search than ever will be recovered, but there is a lure, a fascination about treasure hunting that is irresistible. It is a game rather than a profession, a gamble, to be sure, with the chances against the gambler; in most cases a matter of luck. But granted that the treasure is authentic and actually exists, and that there is historic, documentary evidence to indicate its hiding place, treasure seeking may become a practical business venture or an engineering problem. Such, for example, is the famous treasure of King John Lackland of England, which James R. H. Boone, formerly of Baltimore, now is reported to be seeking.
More than seven centuries have passed since that autumn day in 1210 when the treasure of King John was lost. For more than 700 years the gold and jewels and precious vessels have rested beneath the sands of the Norfolk coast. There is no question as to their existence and their loss, no question as to the general area in which they lie (for the facts are well known historically)—yet no attempt to recover them has been made until now. Very largely this is the result of the British law which has always provided that all treasure trove belonged to the crown, and it is a thankless task to spend time and money recovering lost treasures merely to have them seized by the authorities to enrich the Bank of England.
But recently the law has been somewhat modified, and if Mr. Boone is successful in locating King John's lost treasure he will doubtless add to his fortune.
It was when fleeing from his enemies that luckless King John lost the treasure. With infantry and cavalry, with long trains of pack horses, wagons and carts, carrying baggage, supplies and the riches of the court, King John attempted to take a short cut across the Wash of Welland, a shallow bay or estuary bare at low tide.
But the creaking carts, the burdened pack animals, the plodding carriers, the soldiers weighted down with armor found marching across the sands difficult and slow. Feet, hoofs and wheels sank deeply into the damp sand. Casting aside arms and armor, jettisoning baggage and provisions to lighten vehicles and beasts of burden, the men struggled to cross the treacherous wash ere the tide turned.
King John and a few followers reached the farther shore in safety, but before the carts and carriers, the horse and foot soldiers were more than half way across the estuary the tide came sweeping in from the sea. Like the hosts of Pharaoh, the army and the baggage trains were overwhelmed by the rapidly rushing waters. Here and there a man or a horse swam to the shore. But, weighed down with mail, many were drowned, the treasure-laden carts and pack animals sank deeper into the quicksands, and when at last the tide receded and the wash again stretched bare between the points of solid land there was scarcely a sign of the riches that had vanished in the gleaming wet sand.
No one can say what that lost treasure was worth, or what it would be worth today. History and tradition agree that King John had with him jewels, golden and silver vessels and utensils, the loot of battles and conquest.
Will the treasure be found? Can it be recovered? Who can say. To be sure, 700 years is a long time, and winds and tides and man have wrought great changes in the wash where King John's treasure was lost. According to Sir William St. John Hope, the exact spot where the treasure sank was where there is a line of sand dunes today, and quite close to the railway embankment between Sutton and Long Walpole. During the seven centuries that have passed since that fateful day in 1216 the coast of Norfolk has risen inch by inch from the sea. Where there were sand flats covered by the tides there are now dry sand dunes. If King John's treasure lies intact beneath these barren hills of wind-blown sand it is merely a question of steam shovels and dredges and the removal of countless tons of sand in order to remove it. But, on the other hand, the scouring tides, the winter's storms, the seas and the shifting sands may have scattered the treasure far and wide. It may have sunk slowly deeper and deeper, until it now lies hundreds of feet beneath the surface; or it may have been carried far from the spot where it was originally lost. So, after all, the search for King John's treasure resolves itself into a gamble.
That such an immense and authentic treasure should have remained practically unsought in a country like England may seem amazing and incredible to many. But, strangely enough, there are few if any countries in the world where there are so many lost, hidden and buried treasures the actual existence of which are borne out by history. And, in addition, there are countless traditional lost treasures which unquestionably exist, as well as many times more of a semi-fabulous or legendary character.
Among the most noteworthy of authentic lost treasures in England is the loot of Croyland and Peterborough. The history of this treasure is very similar, in its way, to that of the treasure of King John; it was lost in attempting to ford the River Nen. It was nearly four centuries before King John's treasure-laden army was overwhelmed by the tides of Welland Wash—in the year 870, to be exact— that raiding Vikings attacked and sacked Croyland, Peterborough and other towns. With two carts loaded to capacity with their loot of gems, silver and gold, the Norsemen headed for the coast where their long dragon-prowed boats were moored. But in fording the Nen the carts sank from sight in the mud and silt of the river bed, and not an ounce of gold nor a single jewel has ever been recovered.
ANOTHER English treasure whose existence is established by history is of more recent origin. This is the treasure hidden in the "Money Coppice" on King George's estate on the Isle of Wight. Although in this case the approximate location of the treasure—amounting to several thousand pounds sterling—is known, yet no one has ever been able to find it. This, however, is not so surprising as it may seem, for the owner who concealed the hoard hid it so effectually that he could not find it himself.
It was in the bloody and turbulent days of King Charles I that a stanch royalist, one Eustice Mann, decided that his fortune would be safer under ground than in strong boxes where it might fall into the hands of Cromwell's, forces. So at dead of night he dug a hole in the little wood on the island and buried his treasure in true piratical style. But quite obviously he forgot one important item which, according to tradition, the buccaneers never overlooked. He quite neglected to mark the hiding place of his wealth or to make a chart with crosses and bearings and similar symbols and cryptic ciphers, as all professional treasure hiders should do.
As a result of his carelessness when, with a King again on the British throne, friend Mann shouldered pick and shovel and entered the coppice to disinter his fortune, he discovered to his dismay that brush and saplings and weeds and grass had so altered the appearance of the patch of woods that he hadn't the remotest idea where he had interred the treasure. Although he dug and dug, and although many have searched the coppice since then, poor Eustace Mann's treasure still lies hidden in the mold of the "Money Coppice," and if ever it is found in all probability it will be by accident.
Still another historic treasure is that supposedly hidden in or near the keep of ancient Wallingford Castle. Today little of the old castle remains, aside from its half-ruined tower covered with a mantle of ivy. But the immensely strong stone walls that surrounded the castle grounds are still in perfect shape. There is no valid reason for doubting that the treasure was hidden there, for the castle's history is as old, as romantic and as filled with deeds of violence, of bloodshed and of intrigue as that of any old castle in Britain. But there is some reason to doubt that the hoard is still secreted on the grounds.
Several years ago a gardener employed about the castle devoted considerable time to digging in the earth about the ruined keep. Then one day he vanished completely, leaving behind him a steady job, his limited wardrobe and a goodly hole in the ground. Naturally the local inhabitants put two and two together and were convinced he did find a hidden hoard, and if so he showed rare judgment in decamping and saying nothing instead of broadcasting his find and being forced to turn it over to the Crown. But the chances are that if he did find treasure it was some small sum buried in time of stress or war and not the Wallingford treasure.
Far more romantic is the treasure reputed hidden on Cavesham Heights, near Reading, only a few miles from Wallingford Castle.
Here, from time immemorial, has been the famous Well of St. Anne, which, during the Middle Ages, was credited with miraculous powers and was one of the most revered and holy shrines of all Europe. Like the Lourdes of today it attracted pilgrims from far and near; the lame, halt and blind, cured of aches and ills by drinking the water of the well, cast offerings of gold and jewels into the shaft, until there was danger of its being choked by the accumulating mass of treasures. In time of peril, when invaders or enemies or the Cromwellian Roundheads threatened, the people hurried with their treasures to St. Anne's Well, and buried their riches in the earth near by, firm in the belief that even their foes would respect its sanctity. As far as known, the only treasures ever recovered have been a few stray coins which have been dug up from time to time.
Today the holy well is surrounded by modern houses and villas, and the top of the shaft is protected by an iron grating. Deemed unfit for drinking purposes, its miraculous waters are undisturbed, green with slime and foul with fallen leaves. As one goes into the dark moss and fern-grown stone shaft, it seems a most fitting repository for ancient treasures; one can almost vision the piles of golden trinkets, coins and jewels hidden under the black surface of the water. Perhaps some day the local officials will decide that the far-famed well is a menace to public health and, pumping it out, discover the mass of mud-and-slime-covered offerings made by devout pilgrims centuries ago. But on the other hand, the skeptical authorities may order the well filled in, in which case whatever the shaft holds will be lost forever.
Many—in fact, most—of the authentic historical treasures of Great Britain are those of the church, for in the troublous days of English history of centuries past the church was not only rich, but was forever the object of attack and looting by one faction or another. In order to safeguard their possessions in time of danger, the priests and monks sought to conceal their treasures in the most effective manner—which, of course, was burying them or dropping them into some convenient moat, pond or stream. In fact, judging by the pages of history, the clerics must have devoted most of their time to interring and disinterring their treasures.
Practice makes perfect, as the old saying tells us, and with so much practice at treasure hiding the priests became past masters of the art. As a result, very few of their many hidden treasures have ever been found. On the other hand, far more of their hidden hoards were recovered by their owners, once danger was past, than was the case with secular treasures—for the prelates and friars were not fighting men, and compared to the fatalities of civilians their losses were insignificant. Though monasteries, cathedrals, abbeys and churches might be burned or destroyed, there would always be monks or priests left to disinter or salvage their riches and to carry on until the next outbreak of hostilities. But now and again the vast treasures secreted by the churchmen were never recovered and still remain where they were hidden centuries ago.
Among such are the golden gates of the Glastonbury Abbey, hidden in 1535 at the time of the abolition of monastic orders. In addition to the golden portals, there was a treasure in golden vessels, silver and gold candelabra, altar pieces, minted coins and an enormous sapphire that belonged to the abbot of Glastonbury, who was executed by order of King Henry VIII. Tradition tells us that the worthy abbot invoked a most fearful curse on whosoever should disturb his hidden treasures, which may perhaps account for the fact that no one has ever found them. But more probably it is because no one can definitely say where the riches are concealed. The people of Caldey Island, off South Wales, believe that the Glastonbury treasure was brought from the mainland and buried on their isle. Hut it is more logical to assume that the treasure was buried or submerged within a short distance of the Abbey itself.
Then there is the treasure of Evesham Abbey, in Worcestershire. In addition to its other previous belongings, its jeweled chalices and crucifixes, its golden candelabra and altar pieces, the abbey boasted huge bells of solid silver.
Hidden in time of danger by the Abbot Lichfield, these have never been found. Local tradition assures us that the treasure was secreted in a subterranean passage under the River Avon, and that the secret tunnel since then has caved in, leaving no trace of its existence. But another and equally reasonable tradition is that the bells and the other valuables were dropped into the old moat about the abbey. In this case, they doubtless are still there, buried deep in the soft mud and silt and decomposed leaves, but not by any means beyond the possibility of salvage.
But perhaps the greatest of all the lost church treasures of Great Britain was that of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Scotland. Not only did the cathedral possess a vast treasure of its own in the form of sacred utensils and vessels, plate and jeweled objects, but, in addition, the spoils taken from the vanquished English at the Battle of Bannockburn were deposited in the cathedral. At the time of the bitter wars between the Catholics and Protestants the enormous treasure of the cathedral suddenly vanished. That priests had secreted it somewhere was obvious, but no trace of it could be found.
However, a secret underground tunnel once was discovered, with a hidden stairway leading downward. Again, in 1879, a search was made and a second subterranean passage leading to an opening outside the cathedral's grounds was found, but there was no trace of the lost treasure.
Even teeming London has its hidden treasures. During the fire of 1666 incalculable sums were buried and many were never dug up. By tradition, too, treasure is buried somewhere in the grounds of the historic Inner Temple, where it was hidden by the Knights Templar in the fourteenth century. Somewhere under the Tower of London lies another treasure of gold coins. There is another hoard in or near the Adelphi Arch.
From time to time laborers' picks or steam shovels excavating for new buildings disinter hoards of gold and precious gems from the muck of London's subsoil. Busy Longacre, Leicester Square, Soho and Cheapside, Mansion House Corner and Highbury Lambeth and Stepney, Piccadilly and Haymarket— every section of England's capital and its suburbs has yielded hidden treasure.
Marvelous objects are some of these: The model of a Roman galley wrought of solid gold. A golden altar of Diana. A gold chandelier weighing 1,000 ounces. Pots of ancient coins. Chests of golden plate. Bishops' golden mitres incrusled with gems. Silver objects innumerable. Caskets of jewels. Chalices and croziers blazing with precious stones. These are but a few of the precious objects unearthed in London. Yet it is safe to say that many more treasures still remain buried under the thoroughfares and buildings of the city.