Episode 22: Pope starts to excommunicate the English barons

The Pope excommunicates the rebellious English Barons and Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, tries to strengthen his position by nominating his brother Simon to be archbishop of York.

Pope Innocent was not prepared to put up with those barons arrayed against his vassal, the king, and his letter calling on the nobility to return to their obedience quoted in the last Episode, was converted in to a papal Bull of excommunication, recorded by Roger of Wendover:

... We are very much astonished and annoyed that our well-beloved son in Christ, John, the illustrious king of England, gave satisfaction beyond what was expected to God and the Church, and especially to our brother the archbishop of Canterbury and his bishops, some of these showing no due respect, if any, to the business of the Holy Cross, the mandate of the Holy See, and their oath of fealty, have not rendered assistance or shown goodwill to the said king against the disturbers of the kingdom which, by right of dominion belongs to the Church of Rome... Therefore that the insolence of such men may not prevail not only to the kingdom of England, but also to the ruins of other kingdoms and, above all, to the subversion of all matters of Christ, we on behalf of the omnipotent God the Father and the son and Holy Ghost, and of the authority of the apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, lay the fetters of excommunication on all these disturbers of the king and kingdom of England, as well as on all accomplices and abettors of theirs, and place their possessions under the ecclesiastical interdict; and we most strictly order the archbishop (of Canterbury) and his fellow bishops, by virtue of their obedience, solemnly to proclaim this our sentence throughout all England... until such time as the said barons shall give satisfaction to the king for his losses and for the injuries they have inflicted on him, and return to their duty...

What an ally Pope Innocent was proving to be. It was hardly more than a year since England was floundering under the papal interdict and King John himself was excommunicated. But it seems to have been all part of Innocent’s plan to give himself and Rome temporal authority around Europe. On the death, in 1197, of the Emperor Henry VI, he insisted on examining his successor Frederick II, but would not crown him unless he accepted that Naples and Sicily were acknowledged as papal kingdoms that Frederick would hold as the pope’s vassal. We remember that Henry VI held Richard the Lionheart to ransom. When this plan failed, Philip of Swabia was supported by Innocent as a rival and Frederick withdrew to Sicily.

Innocent’s next chess piece was Otto IV, who joined King John at the Battle of Bouvines and died in 1215; whereupon Frederick II re-entered the lists, and reigned as emperor until 1250. Helpful to Frederick was that Innocent also died in 1215. At the Lateran Council of 1215, Innocent was acknowledged as the first pope who would be known as the ‘Vicar of Christ’ - perhaps a similar style to great Muslim caliphs who were known as the ‘Shadow of God on Earth.’ The last Ottoman sultan in Constantinople (now Istanbul) was known by this title until the caliphate was abolished in 1923 by Ataturk.

Ironically, while Innocent was enjoying much political success, his friend from students days in Paris, Stepen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, nominated his brother Simon as the next archbishop of York. King John had wanted Walter de Gray, but Stephen seems to have primed the canons at York to vote for his brother. An embassy was immediately sent to Rome, protesting that Archibishop Stephen was an enemy of the king. If Simon were promoted to the only other English archbisopric, peace, it was held, could not be reached in England. Unsurprisingly, Innocent was in complete agreement, and ordered the chapter of canons to attend at the Lateran Council before 1 November. Meanwhile, Simon was declared ineligible for the position. To make things absolutely clear - and almost certainly with the approval of the pope - Pandulf, sometime papal legate - and the bishop of Winchester suspended Archbishop Stephen from entering his cathedral at Canterbury. He therefore went to Rome a suspended prelate. For good measure, those barons still opposing the king were personally excommunicated by Cardinal Pandulf and Bishop Peter of Winchester.

When Stephen Langton got to Rome at the end of 1215, his suspension was personally confirmed by Pope Innocent until he made peace with and obeyed King John. Innocent also barred Simon ‘forever’ from becoming archbishop of York. If Langton had appeared in Rome in the expectation that the pope would recall their friendship together in Paris, he had miscalculated badly. Furthermore, Innocent then caused the canons of York, who were still in Rome, to elect John’s candidate as archbishop. This was Walter de Gray, who was bishop of Worcester and had taken John’s side in the dispute with the barons. The Lateran conference ended with the declaration of a crusade to the Holy Land.

The papacy was at the height of its powers and would not ride so high again. In less than a century, the popes would be running the Church from Avignon, not in 1309 part of the kingdom of France - but French nevertheless. Most of these popes were French and they did not return to Rome until 1377, by which time the earliest kingdoms of Europe - England and France - had in some ways become all but independent of Rome.

In England, John divided his army into two parts, one part being delegated close to London to prevent those barons in the Temple from marching out and disrupting the country round about. Most of these men were mercenaries, who were commanded by William, earl of Salisbury, described by Roger of Wendover as,

‘lawless people who neither feared God nor regarded men.’

The other half, John led himself northwards, including Flemish crossbow men. On reaching Northampton, his troops burned the houses and buildings of the barons, drove off their cattle, set fire to hedges and the town. According to our chronicler, this was because he wished,

‘to refresh his sight with the damage done to his enemies, and by robbery might support the wicked agents of his iniquity.’

On the routes out of London, the royal forces there, under Lord Salisbury, watched and harassed the barons, seeking to cut off their food supply. They then peeled off into Essex, and the surrounding counties, including Cambridge, Huntingdon, Middlesex, collecting booty, committing rapine, levying imposts on the towns, and burning the property of the barons. It must have been a living hell, which an unnamed individual described thus:

These are the acts of the well-beloved son in Christ, of that pope who protects his vassal in humiliating this noble kingdom...

The well-beloved son was King John and the pope was Innocent III, who would be dead before this year of 1216 was out, as would be the king. But John still lived and as he mopped up the opposition, William de Albany, who held Langar Castle, Nottingham, for the rebels was warned that if he did not surrender he would be captured and starved to death. Or to put this in the words of our chronicler, William

‘should never eat again, but should die a disgraceful death. The besieged were thus in a perplexity in every way and did not know what to do; at length, however, by the general advice of all, they agreed to save their lord from an ignominious death by surrendering the castle rather than, by retaining it, to lose their lord and the castle.’

John then took his forces northwards. They were broken into smaller units the better to extend their slaughter and pillage. I let Roger of Wendover take over the story, in which he refers not only to the royal forces, but to the rebel barons also,

‘The whole surface of the earth was covered with these limbs of the devil like locusts, who assembled from remote regions to blot out every thing from the face of the earth, from man down to his cattle; for, running about with drawn swords, they ransacked towns, houses, cemeteries, and churches, robbing every one, and sparing neither women nor children; the king’s enemies wherever they were found were imprisoned in chains and compelled to pay heavy ransom. Even the priests while standing at the very altars, with the Cross of the Lord in their hands, clad in their sacred robes were seized, tortured, robbed... Markets and traffic ceased... agriculture was at a standstill. They inflicted similar torture on knights and others of every condition; some of them they hung up by their middle, some by the feet and legs, some by the hands, and some by the thumbs and arms, and then threw salt mixed with vinegar in the eyes of the wretches, taking no heed that they were made after God’s image.’

Others were roasted alive, and both sides practised these horrors to get at the victims’ money. Everything in Britain, including the Scottish Lowlands, fell to these robbers, of whom King John and his mercenaries were by far the worst. What happened in short order was the last refuge left for the barons.

In the next Episode, the barons take a fateful step and invite the French king to help them by invading England. Only a brother king would have possibility of mustering the sort of force necessary to overthrow the English king.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain