Stephen Langton and Magna Carta

Our esteemed leader may not know what ‘Magna Carta’ means (what do they teach at Eton if not Latin?) but I’m sure the educated and well-informed readers of this website know that it means ‘great charter’.  One of the main signatories of the charter, and someone involved in the negotiations that led up to the historic moment at Runnymede in 1215, was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton’s precise contribution to Magna Carta is still a matter of debate, however; a paper written by David Carpenter and published only last year in the English Historical  Review is titled ‘Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts and His Hypocrisy’; it seeks to ‘expose the seeming hypocrisy of Langton’s conduct when set against the principles of the charter and the canons of his own academic thought’.  Langton is certainly an interesting and divisive character.  The pope, Innocent III, had insisted on his appointment as archbishop despite the objections of King John and the proposal of a different candidate by the monks of Canterbury; indeed John seized the lands of the archbishopric and refused Langton entry into the kingdom.  The pope placed the country in an interdict and excommunicated John.  The situation was resolved in 1213 with the installation of Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.

But despite his original support of Langton, the pope suspended him from office because he refused to condemn Magna Carta.  Here the pope and king were on the same side:  that of the authority of the establishment.  Innocent announced that Magna Carta was ‘not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust.  We refuse to overlook such shameless presumption which dishonours the Apostolic See, injures the king’s right, shames the English nation, and endangers the crusade’.  He continued, ‘The charter with all its undertakings and guarantees we declare to be null and void of all validity for ever’.  This is quoted in Danny Danziger and John Gillingham’s book on 1215: The Year of Magna Carta.  Another accessible book for this period is Robert Bartlett’s volume in the New Oxford History of England series, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225.

Stephen Langton was still Archbishop of Canterbury when the first known rector was installed at Colne Engaine in 1219.  Colne Engaine is a small but lovely village in north Essex on the banks of the river Colne and I shall be writing more about it to celebrate and commemorate the 800th anniversary of its first rector, Peter de Feria.


© Cate Gunn

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