You probably already know that the reign of King John was not a good time for the people of his kingdom. He was bad-tempered, he was cruel, and definitely not a man to cross.
Robert FitzWalter, Lord of Dunmow, had a beautiful and clever daughter named Matilda. She was so beautiful, that King John himself fell in love with her and wanted her to become his mistress.
Now, he may have been the king but he was such a bad man that Matilda knew she could never care for him. She eventually fled to the safety of Sherwood Forest to escape his evil clutches.
In Sherwood Forest, Matilda met with Robin Hood and his famous gang of outlaws. Robin was everything that King John wasn't. He was kind, generous and cheerful and Matilda fell madly in love with him and became known as 'fair maid Marion' to the outlaws.
Matilda lived with Robin and his gang for a number of years and shared their adventures. However, one day disturbing news reached Matilda. Her father had fled the country during a siege at Binham Priory, in defence of his friend. A furious King John had dispatched a powerful army, crying out, "By God's feet either I or FitzWalter must be king." By the time the army arrived FitzWalter had fled to France and into exile. Matilda decided she must return to Dunmow to look after her father's estates.
Now King John had many spies and he soon heard of Matilda's return. He had not forgotten her incredible beauty but Matilda was in love with Robin and she ignored the letters that King John sent. Jealousy was King John's middle name (well, it might as well have been) and he decided that if he could not have Matilda, then nobody else would.
He sent a knight, Robert de Medewe to deliver her a bracelet as a token of his love. What this knight did not know was that the bracelet was coated with deadly poison. When Matilda received Robert, he was dazzled by her beauty and stately appearance.
He presented her with the king's gift and placed it on her slender wrist. The knight then left to return to the king's court in London. But try as he might, Robert de Medewe could not forget the beautiful Matilda. Desperate to see her again, and before he had gone half way, he turned around and hurried back to Dunmow.
When Robert arrived at Dunmow, an ominous silence hung over the place and he was puzzled as to why he was led into the priory church. There, to his horror, he saw the lifeless body of Matilda lying on a bier covered with flowers, the bracelet still on her wrist. The poison had blackened the skin on her arm.
Robert could hardly bear to think that he had been the cause of her death. He refused to return to the court of King John and spent his remaining days in a monastery in the order of the St. Augustine.
However, the story does not end there, for King John found himself in dispute with the Pope and, in those days, Popes were very powerful people.
The Pope authorised King Philip of France to invade England, to remove King John and install his own son Louis on the English throne. With many Barons declaring support for the king of France, King John had to accept the Pope's terms. The Pope insisted that John grant a pardon to all exiles. One of the exiles to return was Robert FitzWalter - Matilda's father.
The king promised him safe passage, the return of his estates in Essex and 100 marks compensation. However, neither man saw this as reconciliation. FitzWalter may have been able to forgive his time in exile but he could not overcome the bitterness he felt over the murder of his beautiful daughter. He had always been a quarrelsome adventurer and was to become King John's most vigorous opponent.
In 1214, King John left England to fight a war in France. On the king's return, Robert FitzWalter called a secret meeting at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey. On the 20th of November 1214, it was agreed the King should be forced to obey the rightful laws and liberties granted to the church and nobles of England in the charter of Henry I.
If King John did not agree, the Barons would declare war on him. Negotiations with the king failed and the Barons took up arms under the leadership of none other than Robert FitzWalter - Matilda's father.
After a number of skirmishes, King John was eventually forced to sign the Magna Carta, at Runnymede, on the 15th of June 1215. King John was not just a bad-tempered man; he was also dishonest. He had no intention of keeping to the agreement in Magna Carta and no sooner had he made his promise than he broke it. On hearing this, Robert FitzWalter once again rallied the Barons for war.
Later that year, as King John's army marched into East Anglia, burning villages and recapturing rebel castles from the Barons, Matilda's father travelled to France to offer Prince Louis of France the throne. Together they invaded England and marched to London and King John's reign ended in chaos.
On the 11th of October, the King and the few remaining loyal barons took a short cut across the River Ouse at low tide. The wagons soon became stuck in the treacherous quicksand and the fast incoming tide overwhelmed the men, horses and wagons containing the king's treasure, including his crown.
The king narrowly escaped, but a few days later on the 19th of October 1216, having lost everything, King John died from a fever at Newark Castle. So the gift of a bracelet led to the downfall of a King. Matilda's father returned to his estates but the loss of his beautiful daughter still caused him pain.
It was said by many at the time that Matilda was such a beautiful, kind and gentle woman that, when she met her murderous end, she was welcomed into heaven to live for all eternity in peace and contentment. It was also said that she would probably not bump into King John there - he was destined for somewhere else...somewhere a bit hotter!