The law of succession requires the assets of a deceased person be distributed among their heirs according the rules of succession. This principle may only be ignored where they left a legal will, and then only in the case of assets clearly included in the will.
This raises the question of buried treasure. In this case, the law asks whether the person intend to conceal their wealth forever, or did they plan to return and recover it later. In the latter case the asset still belongs in their estate.
Let’s Use Bad King John’s Baggage Carts As Example
Bad King John lived in England from 1166 to 1216. His people called him bad because he was utterly incompetent and lost large swathes of his land in France. He even managed to be excommunicated by the Pope. Eventually his barons revolted and insisted he sign the Magna Carta.
Eight centuries ago, in the year 1216 Bad King John was on the run from his enemies again in the vicinity of The Wash. This is a square bay on the east coast where Lincolnshire meets Norfolk. The King was fatally ill with dysentery and left his baggage train in the care of his army.
When the North Sea rose with the ride is it does with full and new moons, the waters flooded in faster than their horses could run. The entire baggage train vanished and with it the King’s treasures including his crowns or so they say. When the soldiers returned all they reported were treacherous, sticky mud flats.
The Mystery Continues On After 800 Years
Two possibilities exist, according to those in the know. Firstly, dishonest soldiers could have stolen a treasure trove of gold and precious jewels, and spirited them away. However these would have been too hot property to sell and so the chances are they secreted them away.
The second possibility is The Wash buried Bad King John’s treasure in the deep sticky mud and nobody ever found it. Optimists still hunt for his wealth with metal detectors and spades. However, if they found it, then to whom would it belong?
Ownership of Treasure under Mediaeval Law
All treasure belonged to the crown in mediaeval times. However, the King could allocate some to third party franchisees, typically favourite nobles. The Treasure Act 1996 defines ‘treasure’ as worked objects over 300 years old that have precious metal content.
Discovered treasure belongs to the crown unless a franchisee owns it that can be found. Therefore, Bad King John’s treasure technically belongs to the current sovereign and HM’s pot of gold would grow. A coroner would decide whether the finder was entitled to a reward and the amount.
What About a Modern Diamond Ring on a Beach?
However, if someone finds private property – say a diamond ring on a beach – the asset still belongs to the owner (or their heirs) unless they threw it away. In this instance any reward would be a matter between the parties concerned, and the law be unlikely to intervene unless asked.
Therefore succession does not apply to buried treasure. That’s because the law dates back to when the sovereign ultimately owned everything,