800 years ago to the day – on 15th June 1215 – when rebellion was endemic and conspiracy rife, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede, in order to avert political revolution and end civil strife. He did neither, of course. The Barons would have been perfectly prepared to instal another king had their demands not been met, doubtless with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, who had issued an Interdict upon England over the King’s refusal to install Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. The matter of who appointed bishops was inextricable from the question of who governed England.
The King responded by seizing the entire property of the Church – the bishops’ land and palaces, the priests’ houses, and all the revenues of Canterbury Cathedral. Monks were driven into exile and clergy staff were arrested. And so the Pope of Rome duly excommunicated the King of England. The spirit of Protestantism brooded over England almost two centuries before the Morning Star of the Reformation was to arise; and three centuries before reaching its zenith in Martin Luther.
When it comes to Magna Carta, you hear an awful lot about certain discontented Barons, but rather less about the role played by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. The Barons were empowered by the Church to rebel against their King, for to do so against those who are disloyal to God is no rebellion at all: the papal legate, Pandulf, had made it clear to the Barons in 1211 that their King was denying the authority of the Church, and so they were absolved of their oaths of allegiance. It’s an old medieval symphony: the Barons plotted to murder or depose the King for the good of Holy Mother Church; and the King responded by imprisoning them as traitors and having them executed for the peace and security of the Realm.
Cardinal Stephen Langton had been conspiring with King Philip II of France to invade England and instal his son, Prince Louis as King of England. You can understand why King John had been resisting his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury: fomenting civil strife and war is not conducive to the administration of kingly justice. The King proclaimed as a public enemy anyone who felt inclined to recognise Stephen as Archbishop. According to Professor JC Holt, one of world’s experts on the reign of King John, this was not a tale of goody prelates and barons against a baddy King: “John’s conduct of affairs was not in the main unlawful or contrary to custom. He was making no bid to establish an autocracy.” And yet somehow, lost in the mists of time and the myths of national liberty, it has become a tale of the righteous independence of the Church and the rights of the freeborn Englishman.
Historians incline to the view that Magna Carta is the foundation of justice and liberty: lawyers tend to take the view that it is nothing of the sort; more a chronicle of the Crown’s dealings with a resentful aristocracy who had been denied certain favours of wealth, influence or position. Certainly, King John had been imposing punitive feudal dues and rather intense levels of taxation to finance his military exploits, but this was not peculiar to his reign. King Henry I had issued a previous charter, and Edward the Confessor had codified his laws. But they were wise enough not to shackle those who demured, or execute those who sought mercy, for therein lies the cause of rebellion.
By absolving the King of his defiance and disobedience – heresy, even – Archbishop Stephen Langton re-asserted the primacy of the Holy See, but he was a poor mediator between England and Rome. Pope Innocent III had to intervene directly; instructing the King to treat the Baron’s petition with sympathy, and exhorting the Barons to cease their conspiracies. But this ‘triple form of peace’ didn’t last long. Archbishop Stephen was dispatched by King John to see what more the Barons wanted, and their demands were made with threats of civil war, which seemed unavoidable.
But even as we speak of ‘the Barons’, we lose sight of the fact that this was not the entire baronage of England. By 1215, only about 40 of their number were up in arms (quite literally), while many remained loyal to the King, and many more were neutral. If any group propelled King John to seal Magna Carta, it was the neutralists, under the judicious guidance and with the supreme diplomacy of Archbishop Stephen Langton. It was he who, trusted by both sides, rode tirelessly back and forth between London and Windsor with draft charters in a concerted effort to harmonise the King’s traditional rights with what is referred to as “the restatement of English custom in light of new necessities”. According to the chronicler Ralph of Coggshill, “by the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury and some barons, a sort of peace was made”.
That peace had indeed come, and the rebellion was at an end. Archbishop Stephen of Canterbury had renegotiated the limits of the Royal prerogative and the rights and liberties of all freemen throughout the Realm. “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”; “..the English Church is to be free, and to have its full rights and its liberties intact”. It was Archbishop Stephen who abolished all ‘evil customs’ and secured the liberties of the Church in England and the people of England – liberties which were to be reiterated in the 1689 Bill of Rights and the American Declaration of Independence.
Sadly, despite his efforts for peace and reconciliation, Archbishop Stephen eventually fell foul of the Holy See, trying to walk the impossibly complex via media between papal and kingly authorities. Ultimately, he failed both his Pope and his King. But he was a patriot who worked tirelessly for peace and the political independence of England. He was not the first to discover that a man may not serve two masters. Nor was he the last.