Episode 18: Stephen Langton holds a meeting to regain the rights of free men

The archbishop of Canterbury becomes the cheer leader for the restoration of the rights of the free men of England.

In August 1214, Archbishop Stephen convened a meeting of bishops, abbots, other top ecclesiastical folk, and nobility at St Paul’s, London. He reminded the participants of the good laws of King Edward the Confessor, who reigned in the middle of the eleventh century. In fact, these laws were a fiction, and were compiled by an unknown hand almost a century after Edward’s death, and were called Leges Edwardi Confessoris. More importantly, Stephen produced the Coronation Charter, he said, of King Henry I, which had miraculously turned up in time for the St Paul’s meeting. This referred to King Edward’s laws, and the inclusion of these in Henry I’s so-called charter was probably a gloss of what the drafters thought King Edward’s laws would have been if he had made any, or had made any that survived. Indeed, according to the re-drafting of Henry I’s Coronation Charter, Langton sought to imply that William the Conqueror had ruled on the advice of a council, with the support of the people, which was sheer nonsense. William I is not called ‘the Conqueror’ for nothing. Conquerors do not consult the people.

The archbishop called some of the nobles aside to him, and Roger of Wendover puts these direct quotes in Langton’s mouth:

‘Did you hear,’ said (the archbishop), ‘how, when I absolved the king at Winchester, I made him swear that he would do away with unjust laws, and would recall good laws, such as those of King Edward, and cause them to be observed by all in the kingdom; a charter of Henry I, king of England, has just now been found, by which you may, if you wish it, recall your long-lost rights and your former condition.’

Well, like any large group of people, the barons were a flock of sheep, but there were some wolves among them. The archbishop knew that his ideas would appeal. This generous Coronation Charter, which Langton came up with in time for the meeting at St Paul’s, included clauses about noble inheritance, the king’s power over noble marriages, and other matters which would be dealt with by recalling the barons’ long-lost rights and their former condition. The Church was notorious for forgeries, especially to prove the ownership of its lands.

I do not think that there would be a jury in the land today, who, without forensic evidence, would believe this Coronation Charter to be anything more than a forgery, by or for the archbishop of Canterbury. We know that Archbishop Stephen’s lawyers drafted the most important clauses in Magna Carta, and those from the so-called Coronation Charter will be found repeated there less than twelve months later.

It had been the case, quite early on, for Anglo-Saxon kings to announce laws to some great assembly in the open air. Alfred the Great summoned officials and great noblemen to his councils, as did his successors. Even Aethelred II (better known as ‘the Unready’) also called councils, some of which he ignored, losing his kingdom to Cnut. I find it entirely credible that Langton and his lawyers could have been thinking of these much more distant times when they were making their forgery.

I may be doing the archbishop an injustice and a copy of Henry I’s Coronation Charter really did appear, probably from a Church archive at the last minute. If that is so, then Henry I made great concessions and he was, after all, a son of the Conqueror. As king, he did not readily follow many of his coronation promises, raising taxes as he needed them, extending the royal forest as he pleased, and being exceedingly tough on barons he deemed recalcitrant. John was the son and heir of Henry II, a king who had caused the martyrdom of Thomas Becket; John was a king who murdered his nobility, their wives, and children often in the most gruesome ways - and he had taxed them beyond endurance.

In the actions of the Church, I have long detected a thick seam of ‘the means justifying the ends.’ Priestly hagiographies, such as Adamnan’s Life of St Columba (early sixth century) and the first Life of St Gildas (mid-seventh century), to name only the earliest for England, are full of endless, tedious miracles that were palpably untrue. But the Church attitude was that such embellishments were necessary to win converts and to keep the converts true to the Faith, by which alone they could only enter Heaven.

Archbishop Stephen very nearly brought the Plantagenet dynasty down when the barons took advantage of John’s much weakened position after Magna Carta, and he moved to save King John, or rather to save the kingdom from the anarchy of an uncontrolled baronage. Langton would have remembered the Time of Troubles in the reign of King Stephen two or three generations before, and which we touched on at the beginning of this history. He was born just after King Stephen’s death. His successor, Henry II, the father of King John, had brought stabilty.

We must now turn our attention to what I have just described as King John’s weakened position. After studying Henry I’s soit disant Coronation Charter, the meeting at St Paul’s closed, as described thus by Roger of Wendover:

When this paper had been read and its purport understood by the barons who heard it, they were much pleased with it, and all of them, in the archbishop’s presence, swore that when they saw a fit opportunity, they would stand up for their rights, if necessary would die for them; the archbishop too faithfully promised them his assistance as far as lay in his power; and this agreement having been settled between them, the conference was broken up.

We saw earlier how the counts of Flanders and Boulogne had been driven out of their territories by the king of France, and their lands ransacked. In February 1214, they returned from England, where they had taken refuge, with money for troops from King John, who had built a formidable alliance of the apparent willing against the French king. These also included John’s nephew Otto IV, German emperor, and the dukes of Lorraine and Brabant. Philip II was apparently outnumbered five to three, mainly mercenaries on both sides.

John sailed with his queen from Portsmouth, on 2 February, to La Rochelle, on the coast of Poitou. Roger of Wendover says that he landed a ‘large army’ in western France. The idea was that the English would drive inland north-east to meet up with the emperor and other allies moving south-west, in an effort to catch King Philip between them. As ever, John did very well to begin with, taking castles and frightening off the French king’s son, Prince Louis, who had arrived with another French army. He also garnered numerous aristocratic converts to his proposed rule, not least the count of Lusignan. He sent excited letters to his Council in England littered with his sieges and other victories.

In London, on 29 June, bishop Nicholas of Tusculum, the legate, lifted the interdict on England, leaving the entire English clergy without any agreement on what the king was supposed to pay them for his depradations during the breach with Rome.

It appears that the Poitevin barons were unwilling to support John in an open battle with Prince Louis, and John withdrew to Aquitaine, still English, in the south-west. Not knowing King John’s intentions, Prince Louis also ran away, but fortunately for his father, Philip II, Louis ran off in his direction in the north-east.

Philip’s and Louis’s forces faced the German emperor and his allies at the small village of Bouvines, in Pontoise. Amazingly, the French won the day and destroyed the allies. If King John had pursued Prince Louis to the north-east, instead of sculking away to Aquitaine, who knows what the outcome might have been? The French victory at Bouvines made it one of the most important battles of the Middle Ages.

Had Philip died and had the allies won at Bouvines, matters might have gone a lot easier for King John if he had returned to England as a victorious king. As it was, his barons were in rebellious mood and ready for him. They were being led by the archbishop of Canterbury.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain