King John and his Bishops


By William Chester Jordan

Chairman ~ Department of History ~ Princeton University

Professor Jordan gave this talk at our Spring Meeting in Princeton.  It was so well received, we reprint it here with his kind permission.  NOTE:  This material was from articles written by Dr. Jordan with full notes, esp. “The English Holy Men of Pontigny,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 43 (2008), 63-75.

Many of you, I suspect, will know the circumstances that led to King John’s famous conflict with Pope Innocent III. At the death of the archibishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, in the year 1205, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, assembled secretly at night and elected their sub-prior, Reginald, as archbishop. The election was, as I said, held in a secret conclave, without first having received the king’s permission to elect (known as the licentia eligendi) and without formal communication with the bishops.  The sub-prior was sent on his way to Rome to receive papal consecration and the pallium, the symbol of his archiepiscopal authority. But the secret got out (possibly through Reginald’s own boastful indiscretions). In any case, the king was livid with rage, partly, one assumes, because of the monks’ effrontery, that is to say, their quite illegal ignoring of him, and because, as they well knew, and perhaps more importantly he had wanted to see a different candidate elected.  He had wanted a friend of his, also named John, who was bishop of Norwich, to reign as archbishop of Canterbury. I think King John imagined, as many English rulers before him, that a friend as archbishop of Canterbury, was the ideal situation in the manner of William the Conqueror’s almost iconic relationship with his archbishop, the famous Lanfranc of Pavia; and this desire had got many a king into trouble before, most notably when Henry II managed to maneuver Thomas Becket into the archbishop’s office, only to discover that friendship hit a stone wall when the freedom of the church was perceived to be threatened.

In any case, under John’s violent threats the monks undertook a second election, and in December, 1205, they chose the bishop of Norwich.  Now there were two men claiming to be archbishop of Canterbury, and it behooved the pope to act. Canon law – the law of the Universal Church – vested this authority in the supreme pontiff in disputed elections to the episcopate.  Innocent III quashed both elections.  The first had been uncanonical because the king had not been informed before the fact or, by implication, the licentia eligendi obtained.  The second election was set aside for many reasons: because the monks could not proceed to a new election until the pope had ruled on the legitimacy of the first.  Nor could the bishop of one see (in this case, Norwich) be moved or translated to another see without prior papal permission.  Nor, finally, should there ever have been the threat of violence, that is to say, of royal vengeance against the electors, because ecclesiastical elections were supposed to be free.  Freedom of election within the church was a keystone of the liberty of the church, the chief rallying cry, libertas ecclesie, of defenders of clerical immunity in the Middle Ages.


So, again exercising his prerogative under canon law, Pope Innocent III saw to the appointment, in a canonically satisfactory way, of a quite different man, a leading intellectual and an old friend from his student days at the University of Paris, Stephen Langton.  The pope then proceeded to inform King John of Stephen’s appointment.  Upon hearing the news, John refused to recognize Stephen as the new archbishop and ultimately refused him entry into the kingdom.  Arguments and counter-arguments, additional threats and posturing, attempts at mediation – all came and went without resolution.  And John, beset with other problems, turned his considerable wrath against the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, seizing their property and essentially forcing them into exile in July 1207, further and ever more serious violations of the liberty of the church.  One should recall that every medieval English king at his coronation  — in his coronation oath – promised to uphold the liberty of the church.  Meanwhile John continued to bar entry to Stephen Langton.  In the interval, Stephen took up residence at the Cistercian monastery of Pontigny in Burgundy, biding his time until there could be a resolution of the situation.

There were those who thought a resolution was still possible and worked hard to see the dispute go no further.  To be sure, most of the bishops saw John’s actions, whatever they thought about the deeds of the monks of Christ Church that had precipitated the whole conflict – most of them saw John’s actions as irredeemably bad.  But they also had a deep respect for anointed kingship, and John was an anointed king.  It was perhaps the bishops more than any other group who tried to salvage the situation, continuing to act as mediators between king and pope, and this was true, even as John’s anger extended to vindictive gestures against individual bishops, seizing their property and propelling them into exile with the monks of Christ Church – and thus further antagonizing the pope.  But let me leave the story of John and Innocent III here for the moment and turn to a different story that will intersect it.  In doing so, let me mention by name one of the bishops who would endure exile, a certain Mauger.


When this Mauger went into exile he chose to take up residence with Stephen Langton and the Cistercian monks of the monastery at Pontigny.  Langton himself considered his status at Pontigny as that of an exile, and this was a deliberate and artful self-representation.  The monastery of Our Lady of Pontigny, established in 1114, was situated on one of the major routes from England to Italy.  As a site it excited the English ecclesiastical imagination because Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, settled down at the Cistercian monastery of Pontigny during a large part of his long exile from England, from 1164 to 1170.  It was not necessarily his choice, and, indeed, as a location this austere Cistercian house was not favored by all of Becket’s entourage.  Indeed, most scholars would agree that the pope at the time, Alexander III, “dispatch[ed]” the archbishop there (this is the word used by one historian) after the supreme pontiff quashed the Constitutions of Clarendon of 1164, the king’s (King Henry II’s) assertion of rights in ecclesiastical matters that Becket had ultimately rejected as an infringement on the liberty of the church.

The pope’s choice proved to be inspired, for in the recollection of Thomas Becket’s sojourn there a distinct motif emerged in English ecclesiastical thought in which Pontigny was said to have served as the place of Becket’s spiritual growth.  The future martyr enjoyed a time of moral uplift and a deepening of his knowledge of the faith that he would eventually die for.  Pontigny’s monks played or were said to have played an important role in this process.  A writer known as Anonymous 1, possibly a monk by the name of Roger of Pontigny, is the author of a Life of Thomas Becket dated between July 1176 and May 1177 from internal evidence.  He “claims that he [the monk] was consecrated by the archbishop and ‘ministered to the blessed man in the time of his exile”’, that is to say, in this period of profound spiritual growth.  In another Life composed by William of Canterbury in the 1170s, the author describes Thomas Becket’s exile at Pontigny in moving spiritual terms with a heavy interweave of biblical allusions:

Resting from exterior action in the monastery of Pontigny as if in composing himself after a journey, he shook off the old dust of error that he had collected on the way, bearing exile as purgation for a rather lax life.  And [Thomas Becket] discovering the monk [in himself] within the precincts of the monastery, whom he had not satisfied amidst the din of the secular world, now with Mary he sat at the feet of the Lord Jesus, now with Martha he exerted himself in the ministry of the Lord Jesus, learning from experience what might be delightful under the joy of Rachel, what is harsh under her sister Duty.  Meanwhile, as a possessor of the upper fountain, he sighed for the punishment of the reprobate and the rewards of the blessed.  While he ranged between the dealings of heaven and earth, in turn he was present to the things of men and conversations of angels.  And it happened that planted among fruitful trees he grew into a terebinth tree, which began to distil wholesome resin before the time of harvest.

This narrative, as you have heard, stresses exile as an honorable response to alleged abuses of power against the Universal church, and it emphasized the Cistercian monastery of Our Lady of Pontigny as a particularly appropriate site for spiritual discernment in the sad interval of a churchman’s separation from his flock.  So, only a few decades after Thomas Becket’s exile and martyrdom, Stephen Langton, cardinal-priest of Saint Chrysogonus, assumed the role of exiled archbishop at Pontigny, waxing in spiritual maturity and preparing if necessary for martyrdom, if it should come to that.  And by his side was Mauger.

Who was this Mauger? At the time of our story he was bishop of Worcester, and therefore one of the most influential churchmen, indeed, one of the most influential men in England. But his career was somewhat remarkable, for Mauger was of illegitimate birth and low, though not servile, birth on his mother’s side. Nevertheless, he had natural gifts. He was very smart and managed to receive enough local patronage as a boy and youth to get a good education, including training in medicine. Thereafter, he entered royal service and appears in documents from Richard I the Lionhearted’s time (1189-1199). He rose to be archdeacon (the chief bureaucratic official in the religious administration) of Evreux in Normandy and Treasurer of the Duchy of Normandy by 1195. He also attended to the king’s health needs. It was shortly after King Richard’s death in 1199 (that is, at the coming to the throne of King John) that Mauger was elected bishop of Worcester. Presumably King Richard had recommended him for the post before he died, but Mauger did not hide the fact of his illegitimate birth, which, as you may know, was a bar, a formal impediment, to Episcopal office in the Middle Ages.


When this information was transmitted to Pope Innocent III, he acted as the canon law directed and set the election aside. Yet, he soon heard wonderful things about Mauger—how good he was, how intelligent, and how effective as a pastor before his uncanonical election to the bishopric of Worcester. So, Innocent launched a full inquiry into the man’s character, and he came to be convinced wholly of Mauger’s learning and decency. When the pope met Mauger, who travelled to Rome for the audience, the latter’s very bearing argued for his admission to the episcopate, and the supreme pontiff, again acting in accord with the canon law, issued an exception to the impediment of illegitimacy and allowed Mauger’s installation as Worcester’s bishop. From then on Mauger seems to have devoted himself to his see with unalloyed vigor. Perhaps his most lasting contribution to ecclesiastical history was his preparation of the documents in favor of the canonization of one of his predecessors, the famous Anglo-Saxon prelate, Wulfstan. Wulfstan was admitted to the catalog of the saints in 1203. Mauger was a good man — almost universally regarded as a good man. Even those who argued points with him acknowledged, to quote one of them, that he was “a just and Godfearing man” and “a son of truth.” He represented the hopes of many men, disabled by being born out of wedlock, yet who aspired to responsible and morally prestigious places. And he loved the church and his flock. Yet, as the conflict between King John and Pope Innocent III grew hotter he could not remain neutral.

Indeed, as I have already implied, Mauger grew ever firmer in supporting Stephen Langton. In the first months of 1208 Innocent lost patience with John and prepared to place England under interdict, an act that would suspend all ecclesiastical services in the kingdom. It was the most radical weapon the pope could use, short of excommunicating, deposing and authorizing a crusade against the English king, all of which weapons Innocent III ultimately did resort to. But in early 1208 the pope made one more try before excommunicating the king. He authorized three bishops to inform John of his obligation to respect and uphold the liberty of the church and to warn him of the interdict to come and to declare it — to impose the interdict-if John still persisted in refusing to admit Stephen Langton to the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury. One of those he chose for the mission was Mauger-Worcester’s wise and universally admired and beloved bishop. They tried, but the king would not yield and, indeed, retaliated by seizing the bishops’ diocesan property, including Mauger’s.

When the bishops published the interdict in their turn on March 24, 1208, they ipso facto also chose exile. Mauger was an old man. One source already refers to him as being of great age when he became bishop of Worcester in the year 1200 and began to devote himself to Wulfstan’s case for sanctity. It appears that the earliest phase of his exile was spent at the famous Augustinian canonry of Saint-Victor in Paris, whose school Mauger may once have attended, but soon he departed for Pontigny. There he processed daily in the Cistercian monastery’s cloister along with this spiritual leader Stephen Langton. Like Stephen Langton, he, too, was saying he was willing to die for what he believed. With opponents (I do not say enemies)but with opponents like these, John was at a decided disadvantage.


Not even now was the situation utterly hopeless. In 1209 Langton decided to try to travel to England personally to negotiate his admission to the see of Canterbury, the lifting of the interdict, and the myriad of difficult matters that had ensued from the dispute and the interdict. His failure-King John and he could not agree on a meeting place or the precise circumstances of the meeting-led to Langton’s withdrawal, that is, the renewal of his exile from England in November 1209. And he remained in exile until July 1213, that is, until John, confronted by the possibility of baronial rebellion at home, decided to capitulate to Pope Innocent III. Most of the time Langton spent at Pontigny, and he never forgot the protection and sustenance the monks there gave him. A handsome endowment that he arranged for the abbey in 1222 underscores the point. But he could also never forget either the company or the support of Bishop Mauger of Worcester. Unfortunately, Mauger did not live to see the liberty of the church vindicated. The good old man died at Pontigny in the habit of a Cistercian monk on July 1st, 1212. It is fairly certain that his tomb became a site of veneration.

Let me make two points to conclude. The reputation and determination of men like Mauger to resist an anointed king did not bring John to heel. It was more the fierce anger of his barons who accomplished this, but they were enormously aided by the ill-fame King John brought on himself by persecuting men, like Mauger, regarded quite literally as saints. This lesson was not lost on later churchmen. Edmund of Abingdon, archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry III and one of that king’s perennial critics, at one point set out on a visit to Rome (which was represented as a journey into exile) following a bitter quarrel with Henry. By this act, the archbishop represented himself as a holy man, a hero, in the tradition of Thomas Becket, Stephen, and Mauger. In the course of these travels, Edmund sickened and died near Pontigny. He was interred at the monastery there and came to have and still has his principal shrine there as Saint Edmund of Canterbury. A few decades later, still another great prelate, William Wickwane, archbishop of York under King Edward I, decided to go to Rome in the same tradition of heroic exile because of a nasty political dispute in England over the liberty of his see, but he too never made it. He did reach Pontigny, however. He arrived there in December 1284 and stopped there briefly, but he “became fatally ill not long afterwards and returned to Pontigny to die on 26 or 27 August 1285.” He, once more, like Mauger and Edmund before him, was buried there. Miracles ensued at William Wickwane’s tomb.

But I end with a different case, one I think that illustrates my point quite well. In 1279, not long before William Wickwane’s death, there had been a visit to the Cistercian monastery of Pontigny from another English churchman and archbishop-to-be, the great Franciscan scholar, John Pecham. It was in 1279 that Pecham received papal nomination as archbishop of Canterbury in the face of King Edward I’s wishes that the office be bestowed on the monarch’s friend and royal chancellor, the bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Burnell. Pecham, who was in Rome, had received orders from the king to handle the case and to obtain Robert Burnell’s translation to the archiepiscopal see. The pope at the time, Nicholas III, however, balked at appointing the royalist bureaucrat Burnell who was leading a scandalous life, or so it was said, with a woman by whom he had fathered several children. So, the pope appointed John Pecham instead. To King Edward I the failure to get the pope’s blessing for Burnell’s appointment to Canterbury reflected either sheer incompetence on John Pecham’s part or a deliberate attempt to undermine him. Not surprisingly, Edward was angry. By now everyone knew or supposed that they knew what angry English rulers did or wanted to do to heroic bishops. Is it any wonder, as one scholar has noted, that “[o]n his journey [from Rome to Canterbury, John Pecham] stopped…at Pontigny, with its memories of his exiled predecessors, Becket, Langton, and Edmund.” And one might add, Mauger. Stopping at Pontigny was nothing less than a warning to the English monarch of what he was up against. Great as he was (and he was a truly great, though violent, king), Edward I backed down. He would not replay the follies of King John’s reign. John Pecham entered Canterbury in peace.

To end the tale and to end my talk today, one sentence will suffice: King John’s ill-treatment of his bishops inadvertently and ironically cemented one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of future bishops who wished to defend the liberty of their faith.