Stephen Langton: Father of English Liberty

What does Magna Carta, the seminal document of English law that King John signed at Runnymede on June 15, 1215, have to do with the chapter divisions in your Bible?  The same great man—a man you’ve probably never heard of—produced them both. 


Stephen Langton

Stephen Langton was born in the mid-1150s in Lincolnshire, a county on the east coast of England.  His father owned a home and some land, and was descended from the Saxons who settled in Lincolnshire in the 10th Century.  A scholarly young man, Langton opted to join religious orders, a decision that scandalized his father (much as Martin Luther’s decision to become a monk would later scandalize his father, Hans Luther). 

Around 1181, Langton was given a stipend and sent to study in Paris, at what would become the University of Paris.  While there, Langton befriended an Italian cleric, Cardinal Lotario de Conti, who was to play a key role in his life. 

Langton earned a doctorate in arts and theology, and remained in Paris as a teacher.  He lectured on theology and ethics, and wrote extensively on the Bible, writing commentaries on books of the Old and New Testament.  His topical lectures, called questiones, were famous and well attended, and he became known as “Stephen with the Tongue of Thunder.”

Along with other scholars, Langton worked on a version of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and is credited with dividing the books of the Bible into chapters.  The Paris Vulgate was the Catholic Church’s standard Latin Bible for the next two centuries, and Johan Gutenberg’s first printed Bible was based on it.  Langton’s chapter divisions are still in use today, eight centuries later.

He remained in Paris as a professor until 1206, when he was called to Rome and made a cardinal. 


The Angevins

Meanwhile, upon the throne of England was a turbulent family known as the Angevins.  Henry II (r. 1154-89) was the third Norman ruler after William the Conqueror, who had brought a French-speaking monarchy to a country that had been ruled by Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons) originally from the Jutland peninsula of modern Denmark.  Henry II was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, surely the great lady of her age.  This not-always-happy marriage produced eight children, five sons and three daughters.   

After Henry’s death in 1189, his son Richard became king.  Richard was a noble man, well loved by his people, but he spent much of his reign abroad, crusading in Sicily, Cypress, and the Holy Land. He won fame in the Third Crusade for his encounters with the Kurdish Muslim leader, Saladin, and he became known as “the Lionheart.” Richard was not able to re-capture Jerusalem but negotiated a treaty with Saladin to allow Christian pilgrims access to the city.  On his return journey, bad weather forced Richard’s ship to port.  Although traveling incognito, he was arrested by the Duke of Austria, and later had to be ransomed for 100,000 pounds of silver, a king’s ransom equal to three years’ worth of tax receipts to the royal treasury.  He was released and returned to England in 1194, but was killed in 1199 while besieging a French castle falsely rumored to contain a trove of Roman gold coins.

Richard’s death effectively put his brother, John, on the throne.  John was the opposite of Richard.  Whereas Richard was well-loved, courageous, and a natural leader of men—as if central casting had ordered up the perfect medieval monarch—John was a comic-book villain.  John had even tried to usurp Richard’s throne while Richard was in the Holy Land.  But Henry’s other (legitimate) sons were all dead now, so the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter (1160-1205), (who was also chancellor) and William Marshal (1147-1219—Marshal was both his name and his hereditary title in the royal office of marshal) decided that England would be stuck with King John. 

John promptly went to France, married a twelve-year-old French girl, and within a couple of years had lost the Angevin family lands in Normandy to King Philip of France.  On his return to England he levied a 15% tax on all the moveable wealth in the country, in the hope a raising an army large enough to re-conquer Normandy. 


Langton made Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1205, Hubert Walter passed away.  John felt it was his prerogative to name the next archbishop, so he went to Canterbury and demanded that the monks elect John de Gray.  (Hand-picking his own archbishop had not worked out well for John’s father, Henry, who had selected Thomas Becket as archbishop, but later reportedly cried, “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” leading to Becket’s assassination.)  The monks who were there elected Gray, as John demanded, after which John looted Walter’s personal effects and returned home.  Then the monks, or some other monks, elected another guy, Reginald.  Confusion reigned.  A delegation of monks traveled to Rome to appeal the matter to Pope Innocent III, formerly known as Cardinal Lotario de Conti, Stephen Langton’s friend from Paris.  The pope ordered that another election be held in his presence and, mirabile dictu, Langton, who had not been in England in 25 years, was chosen Archbishop of Canterbury.

John was greatly aggrieved that his choice had been overruled, and ordered that Langton should not set foot in England, thus beginning a long-running feud with Innocent III. The pope responded by placing the entire kingdom under interdict, meaning that the priests could not administer the sacraments.  The churches were closed, no masses celebrated, no marriages performed, no last rites given.  The people were frightened and upset, but instead of backing down, John doubled down.  He ordered that all church lands and wealth be confiscated.  The pope did not back down, either.  He matched John, escalation for escalation; he excommunicated John, and ordered that he be deposed, that King Philip of France carry out the business, and that all Christendom go on a crusade against John.

The petulant and tyrannical John publicly prepared for war, but privately realized that, if push came to shove, he would be overmatched, so he opened secret communications with the pope through back-channels.  Terms were offered:  John must accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, accept some other bishops he did not like, and restore the church’s confiscated property. 

There was another term, a Big One, but one that John could treat as symbolic:  He must admit that the kingdoms of England and of Ireland belonged to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Pope, and that “henceforth, we retain and hold these countries from him and the Church of Rome as vice-regent.”  In other words, John had to agree that England really belonged to the Church, and that he governed it as the Pope’s regent. 

John agreed.  On May 15, 1213, at the house of the Knights Templar, near Dover, John granted to the pope the kingdoms of England and Ireland.  Shortly thereafter, Stephen and the other bishops were welcomed into England with great ceremony.


Langton and the Great Charter

Langton was now concerned with how to prevent John from ruining England through greed, malice, fits of rage, and sheer stupidity.  John must be kept within accepted and customary parameters of royal behavior. The only answer to tyranny is law—we can be governed by the whims of men, or governed by law.  There must be a law higher than the king, which even the king must obey.  Langton went looking for a law.

Stephen Langton (c. 1155 - 1228) Archbishop of Canterbury

Stephen Langton (c. 1155 - 1228) Archbishop of Canterbury

While John was away in Flanders, inciting the Flemish to wage war on King Philip, Langton called a meeting of barons, nobles and bishops, at St. Paul’s in London.  He brought out an ancient charter—a document enumerating rights and obligations—that had been agreed to by John’s great-grandfather, Henry I.  “It will concern you to know,” he stated, “that a charter of Henry the First has been found, by which you may, if you wish, recall your long-lost rights and your former condition.”  England needed a basic law, argued Langton, something like Henry’s charter, only better and more detailed, to rein in a continually out-of-control King John.  The Barons agreed.

John returned from the continent in a nasty mood, having lost another battle with King Philip.  The decisive loss at Bouvines, in July, 1214, brought John’s dozen-year campaign to reclaim the lost Angevin territory in Normandy to an unsuccessful conclusion.  John’s mood was not improved by finding the normally contentious and feuding barons nearly united and standing up to him, demanding a charter. 

After Christmas, 1214, He called them together at Temple Church in London, and stated, “Your demands are a matter of importance and difficulty.  I ask you for a truce until the end of Easter, that I may with due deliberation satisfy you, as well as the dignity of my crown.”  This was well spoken and agreeable to the barons.  In the meantime, Langton worked diligently at re-writing, updating, and expanding the old charter of Henry I.   

Easter came, and the barons gathered at Stamford, in Lincolnshire—two thousand knights, squires, foot soldiers and men at arms—and began marching south, toward London.  John sent his archbishop and William Marshal to inquire as to their demands.  They returned with a bill of particulars, many of which Langton had written himself. 

First, the freedom of the English church was to be guaranteed.  Then the rights of the barons, their widows, their heirs, the farmers, tradesmen, cities, merchants and other classes of society were specified, one by one.  There was much about justice and courts:

(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we [the royal “we” as in other instances below] proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

(38) In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.

(20) For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and . . .  not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a [farmer] the implements of his husbandry.

(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

(17) Ordinary lawsuits shall not follow the royal court around, but shall be held in a fixed place.

(45) We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.

(24) No sheriff, constable, coroners, or other royal officials are to hear lawsuits that should be heard by the royal justices.

Cities were to be free to conduct business as usual, merchants to transport goods, and citizens to come and go without hindrance:

(13) The city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water. We also will and grant that all other cities, boroughs, towns, and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs.

(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs.

(42) In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm.

Property was not to be seized:

(28) No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.

Old wrongs were to be made right:

(52) To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgment of his equals, we will at once restore these.

(55) All fines that have been given to us unjustly and against the law of the land, and all fines that we have exacted unjustly, shall be entirely remitted, or the matter decided by a majority judgment of the twenty-five barons referred to below . . . together with Stephen, archbishop of Canterbury, if he can be present, and such others as he wishes to bring with him.

Magna Carta also made a start on reforming the hated laws pertaining to the royal forests, who could hunt in them, and what they could kill and eat.  This was the time when Robin Hood and his merry band were ruling Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, from the Major Oak, and the forest laws were a serious source of anger and frustration.

And Magna Carta was to be the law of the realm, respected by all:

(60) All these customs and liberties that we have granted shall be observed in our kingdom in so far as concerns our own relations with our subjects. Let all men of our kingdom, whether clergy or laymen, observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.

The king hated most of the enumerated rights, but absolutely balked at the enforcement mechanism.  The charter was to be enforced by a group of 25 barons.  If four of these barons agreed that a violation had occurred, they were to bring the matter to the king’s attention and ask for redress.  Should the king fail to make it right, the four barons were to take the matter to the larger panel of 25, who, if a majority agreed that a violation had occurred, “may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.” 

This was too much.  “By God’s teeth,” John shouted at Langton, “you have by this given me five and twenty overlords and instructed them to treason and rebellion in overthrowing the kingdom at their will.  Why, among these unjust demands, did not the barons ask for my kingdom also?” Marshal and Langton tried to reason with him, but to no avail.  He declared war on the barons. 


John Seals the Great Charter

The barons first invested John’s castle at Northampton, but the castle held fast, and the siege was lifted.  Instead of attacking another castle, the barons marched on London and occupied it without incident.  John saw that his position was hopeless.  His capitol city was occupied and those barons loyal to him were beginning to defect to the baronial army.  He agreed to sign the Great Charter.  He would meet the barons at Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines on the Thames, on June 15, 1215. 

At his bedtime on June 14th, Langton opened his Bible, as was his custom, and read from the prophet Isaiah: 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.”

The next day, 801 years ago today, the nobility of England gathered at Runnymede.  There were knights in shining armor riding magnificent war horses, with brightly colored heraldry and pennants streaming in the air.  After weeks of negotiation, the final ceremony was to be completed in a day. 

            The blare of trumpets announced the arrival of King John, accompanied by Archbishop Langton in his bishop’s mitre and white stole embroidered in gold.  William Marshal, in his best chain mail, was also in the king’s retinue.  In a clear and authoritative voice, Marshal read the Great Charter, then handed it to Langton, who brought it to John.  John arose and affixed the royal seal.  Then he mounted his horse, and he and his little retinue rode back to Windsor Castle.   Scribes copied Magna Carta, and the copies were sent to the sheriffs to be read in every shire in England. 


War with the Barons

Had John been the kind of man who could live under law, there would have been no need for Magna Carta.  He was not such a man.  He prepared for war, fortifying his castles and appealing to the pope, whose regent, after all, he was.  The younger barons, who did not understand that John had no intention of living up to Magna Carta, retired upon London and held tournaments and games.  The older barons, who knew that John was now at his most dangerous, went home to fortify their own castles and prepare for war. 

What followed is known to history as the First Baron’s War.  Some of the barons reasoned that if you don’t like your king, you should get a new one.  So they invited in Louis of France to be their king. Although Louis was not supported in this adventure by his own father, Philip, nor by the pope, who sided with King John, many of the barons pledged their loyalty to Louis.

Pope Innocent III (whom, history tells us, was anything but innocent) was no fan of Magna Carta, to put it mildly.  He promptly “condemned and forever annulled” the charter. He went so far as to forbid King John from abiding by Magna Carta on pain of excommunication, and then excommunicated the barons.  He accused Langton of conniving with the barons and giving them advice and counsel on how to draw up Magna Carta and force King John to agree to it—which was true, although it was a heroic accomplishment and an everlasting victory for the rule of law.  He ordered Langton to announce the excommunication of the barons, which Langton simply could not bring himself to do.  Noting Langton’s refusal, the pope placed him under suspension and ordered him to leave England and return to Rome at once.

According to Pope Innocent’s agreement with John, he owned England and John was ruling it as his regent.  He didn’t appreciate Langton or the barons interfering with his regent.  He didn’t appreciate all that nonsense about laws and rights, stuff he didn’t need or want.  When Langton returned to Rome, the pope reportedly told him, “Brother, by Saint Peter, you shall not so easily obtain absolution from us after having inflicted such, and so many, injuries not only on the King of England but on the Church of Rome.  We will, after deliberation with our brethren, decide how we are to punish such a rash fault.”

To make matters worse, John, who had been losing the war with the barons, starting winning it.  Leading an army of paid mercenaries, he went on a rampage to and fro across the country, killing barons and sacking their castles.  Langton was cooling his heels in Rome.  All seemed lost.  Then a miracle happened.


The Death of King John

Since John did not trust anyone, not his few remaining loyal barons and not his mercenary army, he carried his royal treasury and all his valuable goods with him in his baggage train. On October 12, 1216, in the misty wetlands of East Anglia, John’s teamsters struggled to cross a wide estuary in a marshy area called “the wash,” which separates Lincolnshire, to the north, from Norfolk, to the south.  John’s drovers apparently miscalculated when the tide would come in, or perhaps how long it would take them to cross four miles of tidal floodplain, and they were trapped by a rising tide.  John’s baggage train sank under the water, never to be found again.  His crown, his crown jewels, gold and silver goblets, golden candelabra, the money with which he paid his mercenaries, even his coronation regalia, were all swallowed up and lost, and they remain lost to this day. 

Was it just a coincidence that John’s treasure was swallowed by the earth just south of Stephen Langton’s home county of Lincolnshire?  I think not.  I think God has a sense of humor. 

John had already contracted dysentery, reportedly from living off camp food and then gorging himself on rich city fare.  This catastrophe took the starch out of him, as he realized that he would no longer be able to pay his mercenaries.  One week later, on October 19, 1216, John was dead.   Pope innocent III had died three months earlier. 


Peace is Restored, and Langton Returns to England

Immediately upon John’s death, William Marshal set about cleaning up his mess.  He decided to put John’s young son Henry on the throne, as Henry III, with himself as regent.  On November 12, Marshal caused Magna Carta to be re-issued in the name of Henry III.  He pleaded that the barons should not hold the father’s sins against the son (Ezek. 18) and promised that he and the other regents would govern according to Magna Carta

Marshal convinced the new pope, Honorius III, to excommunicate Louis until he should leave England and return to France.  Then Marshal set about urging the barons to switch their loyalty from Louis to Henry III.  The tide soon turned against Louis, although he continued to fight until May, 1217.  Later that year, Louis signed the Treaty of Lambeth, pursuant to which he relinquished his claims to English territory in return for a modest indemnity. 

Pope Innocent III had lifted Langton’s suspension in May, 1216, on condition that he would not return to England until peace was restored, and although the pope died only a couple of months later, Langton kept his word and did not return until May, 1218.  By this time, Langton had had enough interference from Rome and decided that henceforth there would be no papal legate to England.  He, as Archbishop of Canterbury, ought to be, and would have to be, papal legate enough.

A few years later, in 1225, Henry III wanted to reconquer Normandy. In exchange for agreeing to support him, and allow taxes to be levied, the barons demanded that he reissue Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest.  And who drafted this new, improved, definitive version of Magna Carta?  Why Stephen Langton, of course. 


The Moral of the Story

Is it an accident that the man who insisted that the English kings be governed by law was also a man so intimate with Scripture that he divided it into chapters still used today?  I think not.  The philosophical foundation for the principle that all are governed by law is that there is a God outside of nature and above man, who has an absolute standard of right and wrong, and who judges every man according to his deeds, including kings.  The achievement of the rule of law rests ultimately upon a biblical worldview. 

He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.  And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.”  2 Sam. 23:3-4.