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What are the lampreys and did they kill King John

01:00 Thu 01st Mar 2001 |

A. This question has come from Jim Gregory. Sorry Jim ' wrong king. It was Henry I (1068-1135), William the Conqueror's youngest and ablest son (a stern critic of excess in others), who died from eating too many lampreys.

Q. How did they wield the mortal blow

A. History does not recount exactly how he died, but it could have been from dysentery caused by one that was definitely dodgy.

Q. So what is it

A. The sea lamprey (lampetria fluviatilis) is one of the most primitive vertebrates on the planet ' an eel-like species that grows up to a yard long. There are also smaller freshwater varieties, such as the brook lamprey (lampetra planeri), which was a delicacy in medieval times. Most live a parasitic adult life, latching on to larger fish and feeding on their blood and flesh.

Q. A yard long, eh

A. The lamprey is also the subject of a rude joke by Jacobean playwright Webster in The Duchess of Malfi: 'Women like that part which, like the lamprey, hath never a bone in it.' In fact, the lamprey is a vertebrate, with a skeleton of cartilage.

Q. So how come I never see a lamprey in my fishmonger's

A. Pollution and over-abstraction of water has caused the lamprey's disappearance from rivers, but it is now making a comeback. You may well see it on the cold slab at Tesco's yet.

Q. What about King's John's demise, then

A. King John (born 1167, ruled 1199-1216) probably died of shame at his depiction as a jumped-up little wimp in various Robin Hood films.

Q. He wasn't exactly a hero, was he

A. Quite right. Sir Richard Baker, in A Chronicle of the Kings of England, said of John: 'His works of piety were very many ... as for his actions, he neither came to the crown by justice, nor held it with any honour, nor left it peace.' Ouch.

Q. Why

A. As the fourth child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane, inherited lands were not available to him, giving rise to his nickname, Lackland.This branch of the Planagenet family was known as the Angevins. John feuded with his big brother Richard in 1184 after Richard's refusal to honour his father's wish that he surrender Aquitane to John.

Q. An unruly prince, then

A. Yes. Richard gained the throne in 1189 and he gave John vast estates to try to appease his younger brother. But was he grateful No. Later, when King Richard was held hostage in Germany, John failed to overthrow Richard's administrators and also conspired with Philip II of France to snatch the throne.

Q. But he made a better king, surely

A. No. He proved extremely unpopular with his subjects. After levying a many taxes upon the barons to pay for his campaigns abroad ' during which he lost all his French lands ' the discontented barons revolted, capturing London in May, 1215. At Runnymead the next June, John succumbed to the barons, the Church, and the English people ' and signed the Magna Carta, forerunner to modern constitutions.

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By Steve Cunningham

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