Episode 17: King John now starts to play off Langton against Pope Innocent III

Divide and rule: without much help from King John, the English clergy, headed by Stephen Langton, disagreed all but violently with the papal legate, which is to say with the pope himself.

John held Christmas, 1212, at Windsor with a small company of knights. As can be imagined, the king was on edge and had recently had done to death a great supporter, and skilful official, Geoffrey of Norwich, whom he had at Nottingham Castle. According to the chronicle, he was ‘exquisitely’ tortured for reasons which are not given. Despite being instructed by the pope to cancel his invasion of England, Philip II was in no mood to acquiesce, particularly, as he said, he had spent £60,000 on the mission already.

Local English bailiffs had made lists of ships in ports that were serviceable for defence. Reginald, count of Flanders, had come to England the previous year, having been dispossessed by the king of France. Troops were mustered at Barham Down, near Canterbury, at Ipswich, and elsewhere, numbering upto 60,000 - probably an exaggeration, but too many to be victualled, and they were stood down.

As Roger of Wendover wrote of 1213:

The army... including chosen knights and their followers (were) all well armed; and had been of one heart and one disposition towards the king of England, and in defence of their own country, there was not a prince under heaven against whom they could not have defended the kingdom of England.

The king determined to engage his enemies at sea, to drown them before they landed, for he had a more powerful fleet than the French king, and in that he placed his chief means of defence.

John sent money and men to support the Count of Flanders against Philip II, whose troops were ransacking the county of Flanders. The English cut the cables of at least a hundred French ships, but their troops were unable to withstand an onslaught by the French and escaped to their own ships. However, damage to the French navy was irreparable. John withdrew to England.

One successful event for John was that the justiciary of the kingdom, Geoffrey FitzPeter, died in October 1213. It was said that the king really feared him for being related to all the great nobles of England. He was also upright and noble-minded. When John heard of the death, he was reported to have said:

‘When he gets to hell, let him greet Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury, for he will doubtless find him there... By the feet of the Lord, I am now for the first time king and lord of England.’

John called on the barons to meet him at Portsmouth, a command that was little heeded, ostensibly because John had not yet been fully absolved by the pope, and the interdict, though much relaxed, was not yet formally lifted. The king had intended to sail for Poitou to start the re-conquest of his lost French dominions, but made do instead with a jaunt over to Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, and back.

As for Peter the Hermit, or Peter of Wakefield - he is not to be confused with Peter the Hermit who took part in the First Crusade more than a century earlier - Peter of Wakefield was hanged with his son at Wareham, Dorset. Peter had asserted, in his defence, that as the pope was now the overlord of England, his prophecy had come true. Inevitably, this cut no ice with King John who also had father and son dragged by horses through the streets to the gallows.

The year 1214 duly dawned and, as we know, in negotiations, the devil is in the detail. The Church and the king’s commissioners could not agree on what was owed to the clergy during the interdict or agree on these costs and John’s financial exactions. Nothing new there, for it is ever thus when men cannot agree on money. Stephen Langton and his fellow exiles had returned to England and the primate was soon to show whose side he was really on in the financial dispute.

First, John was to appear at St Paul’s, London, and before the clergy and barons of the kingdom to make another resignation of his crowns to the papacy. This duly happened and there was much weeping for joy - crocodile tears, one imagines, from John. He swore obedience to the pope and promised to compensate the priesthood by Easter 1215.

I may have given the impression that the clergy did very well. Some exalted priests certainly did, but far from all priests lived like prelates or monks in monasteries. There were about 9,000 parishes in England, each with a priest, who was as poor as the people he served. He received some payment for performing the duties of baptism, marriage, and funerals, and he worked in his own fields - known as the glebe - like anyone else. Many were secretly married.

Archbishop Stephen and other prelates had met the king in London, probably at the Temple Church, in October 1213. The king’s representatives had made an offer of 100,000 silver marks immediately, saying that if more were found to be owing after inquiries this also would be paid. A new legate had recently arrived in England, Bishop Nicholas of Tusculum, who was angry that the English prelates were not biting the king’s hand off.

He accepted John’s offer for them, gaining for himelf the reputation that ‘he took the king’s side more than was right.’ This pleased John because his cash offer was barely a third of the claim. A further meeting was scheduled and held at Reading Abbey on 6 November when everyone turned up with written lists of their losses. You can imagine the scene as greedy men, like greedy creditors today, inflated their claims.

At about the same time, Pope Innocent sent a letter to Legate Nicholas, part of which makes very interesting reading. The legate is to fill senior vacancies either by election or canonically by appointment, and those preferred are to be ‘remarkable, not only for their way of life, but also for ther learning, and at the same time faithful to the king, and use to the kingdom.’ ‘Faithful to the king and of use to the kingdom,’ need I say more? Roger of Wendover describes this method as ‘the evil old custom of England.’ Those who sought an appeal to Rome were prevented by the new legate from taking any money for the journey from their church or abbey.

Archbishop Stephen and his suffragans met at Dunstable Abbey early in 1214 when the appointment of ‘unfit persons’ was depricated, and he sent to the legate, who was at Burton Abbey, Staffordshire, prohibiting him from making bishops and other senior clergy.

Bishop Nicholas ignored this and sent Pandulph to Rome where Stephen’s character was vilified. The legate described the archbishops and his bishops as ‘too strict and covetous.’ Simon de Langton, Stephen’s brother, was at Rome and tried to obtain an audience of the pope without success. It is his report of the legate’s words that is used here.

If the Church had managed to remain united against the king, who was an intolerable ruler, there might have been signed a Magna Carta that stuck. There was evidently a personality clash between king and archbishop, with John in the ascendant for now, having divided pope and legate from Langton and the English prelates, or at least some of the prelates.

With trouble at home and abroad, John submitted to the pope and permitted Stephen Langton to take up his post as archbishop of Canterbury. The king’s excommunication was revoked, an extremely important matter, for even King John very probably believed in Catholic Christianity.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain