The life of Stephen Langton is an example of how, in the Middle Ages, a man could rise from comparative obscurity to the height of success and fame. This has always been possible in the church, but generally, at this time, the highest ecclesiastics were chosen from among the nobility.
Not much is known of Langton’s parentage, save that he was the son of one Henry de Langton, the lord of a small manor of that name in Lincolnshire. There is nothing to indicate he was highly connected, but his family had sufficient income to send him to study at the University of Paris. The date of his birth is not known, but it must have been about 1165.
In the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, the University of Paris was at its height. It has been estimated there were 20,000 to 30,000 students there, an incredible figure until one compares it with the estimate for other universities, Bologna for example, and Oxford had 15,000 students in 1224 – the city was larger than London, which had about 25,000 inhabitants. When one considers England had a population of not over 3,000,000, the proportion of students is amazing. But we have also to realize that boys from twelve years on, as well as old men went to the University. They traveled from all over Europe; all branches of learning, as then understood, were taught, so it was a high school as well as college. True to its name , it was Universal.
Discipline was a serious problem for such a large number. All students were considered Clerics (hence the gown used to this day) and came under the cannon, i.e. church law, which differed from the secular in having its own courts and being more lenient, or rather, enlightened. There was a great deal of rivalry between the nationalities represented. There was hazing, fights between the students and the citizens, and insubordination. There were poor boys who worked their way through, and rich boys preparing for the law and high offices in the church.
Besides the universities there were schools attached to the abbeys, churches and other religious institutions. Today we may think that medieval learning was restricted to useless studies emphasizing metaphysics, classical studies and theology, but it would be unwise to make conclusions without investigating what actually was taught. It is enough to re-iterate the university must have had a terrific reputation to attract such numbers of students.
Not only the universities amaze us but the great number of cathedrals, churches and abbeys being erected in the thirteenth century. In the short biographies of the barons one should notice how many of these barons , or their families, founded priories, giving them land and revenues, much as rich men today give money to colleges and other foundations for the benefit of their souls. The extent of church property was a constant source of envy to the sovereign. It belonged not so much to the nation as to the empire which was Rome. The old saying “All roads lead to Rome” was true of the ramified organization called “The Church.” The wealth of the church, added to its superstitious hold over the masses of the people made it almost as powerful as the state.
Pope Innocent III, Lothario de Conti di Segni, declared that God had made Peter his representative on earth, and the Pope was his successor, therefore it was God ordained that the Pope rule the earth – no authority was equal to his. While the church since then has made compromises to and concessions from this principle, postponing, so to speak, the era when the church as a secular organization may dominate the world, has never abandoned it.
Innocent III has been called one of the greatest Popes, because he did much to reform the discipline and organization of the church; but he was one of the most unscrupulous, as we learned from his quarrel with King John. He (very naturally if one accepts his dogma) interfered in national affairs and urged Philip of France to invade England. His greatness really lay in the attention he paid to learning, to reform in the abbeys and monasteries, and in the founding of hospitals.
Stephen Langton lived in Paris for twenty-five years, studying, then lecturing on theology, until he gained such a reputation for learning, that, in 1206, Pope Innocent called him to Rome and made him cardinal priest of St. Chrysogonus. Here also he taught theology. Roger of Wendover said “the Roman court did not have his equal for learning and moral excellence.” No wonder that he became known as the most illustrious churchman of English birth.
In the year 1205 the astute and universally respected Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury died, leaving the primacy of the church of England vacant. After a year’s deliberation , Innocent III appointed Stephen Langton to the vacancy. Rightly, he thought this would be accepted in England; wrongly he thought Langton would be subservient to Rome. But King John had already decided upon his own appointee, John Grey, Bishop of Norwich. By custom it was the sovereign of England, and not the Pope, who had the authority in this, the most important ecclesiastical office in the land, for the archbishop was a lay baron as well as an ecclesiastical lord, holding immense territory and wielding jurisdiction over all the property of the church.
In the chapter on King John we have already discussed the quarrel which ensued between the King and the Pope, leading to the Interdict of 1208.
During this time Langton remained in France, whither all the higher ecclesiastics of England had fled. He acted with superb sagacity – one might call it humility combined with courage. He was devoid of personal ambition, prudent enough to abide his chance, yet not inactive. He worked to bring about a reconciliation between John and the Pope, and save the people of England from the hardship of the Interdict. Not until Innocent went so far as to depose John as King (the theory was that a King was King only when consecrated by the representative of God on earth) was there any sign of armistice. John finally capitulated, not because of threats from the Pope, but because of the force Philip of France had gathered to invade the country, and which John wished to avert. Then resulted John’s submission to the papal legate, his surrender to the realm of England as a fief of the Holy See, and Langton’s return to England July 30, 1213. John and Langton embraced dramatically with feigned joy in Winchester Cathedral.
From this time on Stephen Langton became not only by decree, but in fact the spiritual leader of the English nation. At a council held in Westminster August 25, 1213, in the presence of the highest churchmen and lay barons, he proclaimed a mutual security agreement for the preservation of English laws, the precursor by two years of Magna Charta, and at another council held at St. Albans he brought forth a copy of the laws of Henry I for John to ratify, but which the King ignored.
In these attempts to revive the ancient laws of England, which he must have studied, Stephen Langton is credited with much of the Magna Charta. There was no one so learned as he, although there were the chief justiciar of England, Hubert de Burgh and other justices – Saher de Quincey – Roger Bigod – and the most influential man of all, William Marshall, who must have contributed.
Stephen Langton worked incessantly for the cause of justice, no on what side he had to stand. Thus he opposed King John when that monarch endeavored to force his barons and their retainers to invade Poitou in France; thus he opposed also the legate of the Pope, Nicholas of Tusculum, when that prelate tried to fill vacancies in abbeys and bishoprics with foreigners and papal puppets. At Runnemede he remained on the King’s side, not as his partisan, but as the advocate of his subjects.
As we all know, subsequent to June 15, 1215, John by misrepresentations, appealed to the Pope to absolve him from his agreement at Runnemede. And now we come to the real nature of the papal court.
Innocent sided this time with John. As John had submitted himself two years before, he was now the Pope’s liegeman. They were united in defense of this common principle – the infallibility of authority – a dictatorship. Stephen was commanded by the Pope to denounce publicly the barons and all other so-called “disturbers” who had wrested the Charta from King John.
Stephen refused; he was himself as were all the barons , excommunicated ! Then he went directly to Rome to expostulate, and to present the truth. By a stroke of fortune Innocent died, the same year as John – 1216.
The accession of the boy King Henry III made and end to the trouble. Stephen returned to England. On July 7, 1220, he presided over one of the most splendid ceremonies ever performed in England, the translation of the relics of St. Thomas a Becket in the Cathedral of Canterbury – an event which made Canterbury a place of pilgrimage.
The final eight years of his life were devoted to the upholding of peace in England, defending its laws, maintaining an independent church, and in establishing an ordered freedom throughout the land. The famous “Constitutions of Langton” have been called the Magna Charta of the church of England, thereby paving the way for the final break with Rome under Henry VIII, three hundred years later.
Stephen Langton is regarded by scholars as the most original commentator of the scriptures next to Bede. He was also an historical writer – he wrote a life of Richard I – and composed poetry, which has been lost. He died July 9, 1228.
Langton, we may conclude, did not agree with the papal theory of absolution in temporal affairs, and probably, if we interpret his character aright, not in spiritual affairs either. He seems to have been truly learned, humble in the realization that the search for wisdom is never-ending, that no human has the right of domination. Probably, when he described to the clause, No, 39, in Magna Charta “No freeman shall be ——- in any way destroyed,” he meant no man of any status. But that, he knew, would have to be interpreted late. He was of kindred spirit with William Marshall and Hubert de Burgh – these three were the three and only great men, at Runnemede.