Study Guide

Stephen Langton in Magna Carta

By King John of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, and various English barons

Stephen Langton

Like Religious Royalty (Religolty?)

So: the first thing that you need to know is that being the Archbishop of Canterbury is a really, really big deal.

Today, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Church of England and is the guy who gets to perform the wedding ceremony for members of the royal family. Meaning he got to be right up next to Kate Middleton. He could probably even smell her glossy, glossy hair.

Anyway, in medieval times (the era, not the restaurant that's bringing jousting back) the Archbishop of Canterbury was the head of the Catholic Church in England. Back then he did have to answer to the pope, but he still got to be all cozy with the royal family (although without Kate and her perfect hair, who really cares?).

It's also worth noting that the Archbishop of Canterbury was usually a very close advisor to the King of England.

This is due to a lot of ancient traditions that all basically boil down to the fact that almost nobody could read or write. Seriously, even the royals had the attitude, "Well, we could teach our kids how to read, or we could teach them how to ride horses really fast while riding toward each other carrying really long, sharp poles. Yeah, let's go with the pole thing. That sounds more useful."

So these semi-illiterate (and very concussed) kings needed good advisors, and ranking members of the clergy were typically college educated…making them practically overqualified for the job and very influential over English government.

Where Does One Apply For This Awesome Job?

So who gets to hire the Archbishop of Canterbury? That depends. Sometimes the clergy at Canterbury Cathedral voted him into office. Other times the king picked him.

In 1205 both happened…which was a problem. The clergy in Canterbury elected some random monk named Reginald and King John picked his bestie John de Grey the Bishop of Norwich. So, they asked the pope what to do and Pope Innocent III surprised everyone by throwing out both choices and picking his college bud Cardinal Stephen Langton.

The English clergy united behind Langton, but King John threw an epic hissy fit that included barring Langton from entering the country, declaring anyone who supported him an enemy of the state, and seizing church property for himself. All his kicking and screaming got King John excommunicated from the church in 1209, which was basically the Catholic version of sending a child to bed without dinner…over the phone. They can say, "Bed without dinner!" as loudly as they want, but it's not like they're actually there to enforce it.

King John pretty much ignored the excommunication and went along with business as usual until he realized that the king of France was probably going to invade England. (King John really knew how to provoke people. It was kind of his thing.)

Anyway, to avoid an invasion King John apologized to the pope and let Archbishop Langton into merry ol' England in exchange for the pope telling France that invading England would not be a Christian thing to do.

Ready to Badmouth From Day One

In 1213 Langton began his super awkward job as King John's advisor…and he quickly realizes that England was packed with people who, like himself, couldn't stand their Johnny-boy.

John had made a lot of enemies, and those enemies started having conventions where they brought swords, and arrows, and other instruments for killing. At these conventions (also known as rebellions), Archbishop Langton was like a hero because a) he hated King John, and b) he could read and write all about his hatred.

While John was off invading France in 1214—yup, King John wasn't one of those people who let being a total hypocrite get in the way his fun—Langton started preaching about how John was the dumbest box-of-rocks to ever sit on the English throne. He stirred up so much trouble that John had to return to England to do something about the nobility who, by this point, were basically spending all day playing target practice with pictures of his face.

And so it was everybody's favorite Archbishop who actually drafted the Magna Carta, making sure to very specifically mention right off the bat, "that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired […] we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church's elections" (1.1-2)

This is Langton rubbing John's nose in the fact that the king doesn't get to pick church officials anymore: they're elected by the clergy (unless that election is circumvented by the pope).

Lesson: Always Call the Pope First

However, it turned out that the pope didn't really like the rest of the Magna Carta (or maybe he just didn't want another argument with King John). He declared it void and suspended Langton.

The pope basically called Langton down to the principal's office for a chat about not stirring up trouble and only let Langton go back to work if he promised to make peace in England. Langton may have had his fingers crossed when he said he was very sorry.

After the pope and King John died, Langton continued to be the Archbishop of Canterbury and didn't give up on his Magna Carta dreams. He got King Henry III to sign it again and pretty much ensured that this time it would last.

Stephen Langton is ironically remembered for organizing the Bible into the chapters that are still used today…and for totally not organizing the Magna Carta into any logical order, but making sure that it survived despite the opposition of very powerful people. (Source)

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