Episode 13: Pope Innocent III and the road to Magna Carta mapped

How the Pope overrode King John's nomination for a new archbishop of Canterbury and started to map the road to Magna Carta.

King John was at Tewkesbury at Christmas 1204, but stayed only one day. News was received that Chinon Castle, a favourite resort of the Plantagenets, had been given up to the French king. The town and castle still stand on the river Vienne, about six miles before it joins the Loire.

The castle was much increased in size by Henry II and became his adminstrative centre in France. It was made famous in the English-speaking world in the 1960s, when James Goldman wrote the play The Lion in Winter which was staged on Broadway, New York. It was made into a very good film in 1968 when Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn respectively played the king and Queen Eleanor. I cannot help imagining that John's next and abortive mission to France was not unconnected to the loss of Chinon.

From 14 January till 22 March, the country suffered a terrible freeze and agricultural prices rose spectacularly, which is no more than an inference from the fact that, by the summer, corn had reached fourteen shillings a load, according to Roger of Wendover. He probably does not give us the earlier, normal cost as anyone reading his manuscript would have remembered that bad winter and its effect on prices.

At Whitsuntide, the king had raised a large army and had ships waiting at Portsmouth, but for unknown reasons, Hubert, the old archbishop of Canterbury, dissuaded him from crossing over to France. Instead, John sailed for a couple of days with a few men, within sight of the English coast, before putting in at Studland, near Wareham, in Dorset.

That was the extent of the 1205 campaign to France, but John then levied yet another tax on everyone from the nobility and the Church down, blaming the barons for failing to support him in recovering his inheritance.

What next turned out to be of the greatest importance was the death of Hubert Walter, archbishop of Canterbury, on 13 July 1205 and the disputed elevation of his successor. King John was not at all sorry to see the back of Hubert, whom he had come to suspect as being too partial to the interests of King Philip II of France.

However, the conventual church of Canterbury - whose monks were entitled to elect the next archbishop - secretly elected one of their own number Reginald, the sub-prior, on condition that the matter be strictly confidential until a party from Canterbury had arrived in Rome, in hopes of obtaining Pope Innocent's approval, and consecration of Reginald in the Eternal City.

However, no sooner had Reginald and his supporters arrived in Flanders - out of King John's reach - than Reginald announced his elevation. He also showed anyone who asked the conventual letters confirming his success. Reading Roger of Wendover, it seems that Reginald hoped to arrive in Rome and present Innocent with a fait accompli. Reginald did not know his man, for Innocent said that he could not make a hasty decision.

Meanwhile, the monks remaining in Canterbury, were enraged that Reginald had broken the agreement to keep the matter secret, no doubt especially because they were left behind in England and might well become victims of the king's wrath. John played a careful hand for once.

Although he was furious about the appointment of Reginald, he received a delegation from the priory church requesting that the monks might hold a new election. He entertained them kindly and 'intimated', as Roger put it, his desire that they might elect John de Gray, bishop of Norwich, who was a friend of the king's and knew all his secrets.

Just to be on the safe side, John attended the election and, unsurprisingly, Bishop John of Norwich was elected, and the king put him in possession of all the property belonging to the archbishopric. (We remember, I trust, that during a church vacancy a king enjoyed the usufruct, the income of a Church estate, in the case of Canterbury, a vast archipiscopal estate).

Things must have appeared to be proceeding well in England and John set off for Poitou with another fleet and his army on 25 June 1206, landing on 9 July at Rochelle, a port remaining to him. The people of the Poitevin provinces rallied to his standard, and gave promises of money and assistance. Heartened, the king took much of the province, including the important castle of Montauban, on 1 August, which he battered with siege engines.

Roger of Wendover wrote:
After some time the English prevailed, and the garrison falling, the well fortified castle of Montauban was taken, a castle that one time Charlemagne could not subdue after a seven-year siege; and the names of the nobles and illustrious men who were taken in the castle with their horses, arms, and spoils were innumerable.

King John must have been popular among his knights for such a catch of French noblemen to ransom. However, unnamed, foreign religious men then took it upon themselves to arrange a two-year truce with King Philip, though why John would have agreed to yet another treaty with such a devious ruler is baffling.

While all this was happening, the papal legate, John of Ferentino, turned up in England, held a council at Reading - of which there is no report - and collected a considerable amount of money for the Holy See.

As Roger of Wendover put it:
after which the hasty traveller packed up his baggage and started for the sea coast, where he bade farewell to England. It is perhaps no accident that Pope Innocent, soon after the departure of his much enriched legate, then also rejected King John's choice of John de Gray as archbishop of Canterbury. One imagines that if this announcement had been made before Legate Terentino had left the kingdom, he would have been relieved by John's officials of the money he had collected for the pope.

Hence, no doubt, Roger's neat description of Terentino as the 'hasty traveller.' Nothing changes, as we have noted already: money ruled, and still rules. Today clerics nominated as bishops and other prelates in the Roman Church must make a payment to the Vatican for their appointment.

The amount depends on the wealth of the bishopric or other high ecclesiastical jurisdiction. I understand that to be nominated as a cardinal in the United States, the nominee must find several million dollars. These sums are usually provided by wealthy parishioners and friends.

Of course, the Church is a very large orgaization with more than a billion adherents, and unquestionably needs much money to function. Greater openness might not come amiss, however. Pope Innocent sought to soften the blow on King John by sending with his written decision, on 21 December 1206, some particularly fine jewels, knowing, it was said, how covetous the English king was of precious stones. Sub-prior Reginald and John de Gray were both set aside, and in June 1207, those members of the conventual church of Canterbury who were in Rome were caused to elect Stephen Langton.

Again, Roger of Wendover:
The aforesaid elections being thus annulled, our lord the pope, being unwilling to permit the lord's flock to be any longer without the care of a pastor, persuaded the monks of Canterbury... to elect master Stephen Langton, a cardinal-priest; a man... skilled in literary science, discreet and accomplished in his manners... the monks replied that they were not allowed, except by the king's consent and the choice of the canons... to make any election without them... To which the pope responded: 'You may think that you have plenary powers in the church of Canterbury, but it is not the custom that the consent of princes is to be waited for concerning elections made at the apostolic see; therefore, by virtue of your obedience, and under penalty of our anathema, we command you... that you fully suffice for making the election.' The monks dreading the sentence of excommunication, although reluctantly and with murmuring, gave their consent.

On 17 June, the chapter carried Stephen Langton to the altar at the church in Viterbo, and chanted the Te Deum, while the pope consecrated him personally. King John had just levied a tax of a thirteenth on moveables, and had received a visit from his nephew Otto, the holy Roman emperor and given him 5,000 marks in silver. He could hardly have expected what he was about to hear from Rome. The increasing power of the Church, particularly the power of papal excommunication, was palpable.

John went over the top in rage that his chosen nominee, John de Gray, was rejected - understandable rage - but extremely foolish, as if Philip of France were not enough of an enemy without also making an enemy of Pope Innocent. The road to Magna Carta was being mapped.

No matter what John wanted, Pope Innocent annulled the appointment of the king’s choice and consecrated Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain