Let us talk of a time of crisis, a time of flooding and the threat of epidemic disease a time when nation turned against nation and England turned on itself with bitter divisions; yes, let’s talk about 2020. We live in a remarkably turbulent time which chimes uncannily with the Revelations of John the Divine to the extent that I panic if I ever see four horsemen together. But we could also be talking about the year 1207, the year that Stephen Langton was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Innocent place England under the Interdict. My aim is to tell the story of the Langton brothers, and particularly Simon, of whom little is known. I will tell their tale against the backdrop of the turbulent times in which they lived. In so doing I hope to tell a tale of not much religion and a whole heap of politics, of a time when England struggled through internal conflict and foreign invasion and when excommunication, often seen by modern historians as a dreaded curse, was banded about like detention notices in a student teacher’s classroom. Mostly, we shall cover the whole sorry mess that was the stewardship of John, King of England. I have read recent revisionist histories of the reign of King John and I am not convinced of his fitness to rule. Bear with me if you feel that my account of his reign is too one sided.
We need to re-enter a world where church and state both claimed the right to punish miscreants. In the last years of the Twelfth Century itinerant justiciers were sent to Canterbury to dispense justice under the jurisdiction of the spectacularly named Oger, son of Oger. Some of the accused were tried in the monastery’s ordeal pit, others, such as Elfgar of Hollingbourne and William Hart were both pledged to the judgement of water in the monks’ court. Both were cleansed. That is to say, they were bound with ropes and sunk straight to the bottom of the water thus “proving” their innocence. We assume they were fished out before paying the ultimate price.
In the wider world the Crusades were in full swing and Francis of Assisi was founding his order, the Pope ruled supreme in Catholic Europe and Genghis Khan was battering his way through the Great Wall of China to invade Peking.
However, somewhere along the way, onto this tumultuous political scene stumbled two brothers who were to have a lasting impact on local and national politics and doctrine and it is their tale I wish most to focus on while shading in some of the background as we go.
My interest in the Langton brothers started the day my career brought me to Simon Langton School in the 1980s and was fuelled by the prayers said for them at the annual commemoration service in the Cathedral. Travels throughout Kent brought the Langton family to my attention regularly. A good friend of mine lives in Langton Green near Tunbridge Wells and many are the pints we have shared in the Langton Arms. My favourite Sunday walk takes me from my house up into East Blean Woods and past Langton Lodge and every day I drive down Langton Lane to work at the Simon Langton School.
First, however, let us consider Canterbury in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Today we know the city as a pleasant and somewhat parochial place, largely out of the sphere of influence and deluged with European tourists. Strangely, Americans seem far fewer on the ground at the moment. In 1200 it was a rapidly growing city with a population of over 6, 000. The poor lived in and around the area of Northgate, whilst the wealthy tended to live around the growing cathedral. A thriving Jewish quarter could be found off Stour Street and the area around the river was largely undeveloped. Significant stone houses were popping up in Palace Street and what we now know as the High Street.
King John’s accession to the throne was as messy and chaotic as his subsequent management of the kingdom. Nevertheless, it necessitated him spending a deal of time in Canterbury. Following his investiture in 1199, John was again crowned King of England two years later in Canterbury Cathedral by the duplicitous Archbishop Hubert Walter on the occasion to his marriage to the twelve year old Isabella here in the cathedral on March 25th 1201. The first of several royal weddings Canterbury was to host. This is not the fairy tale love match we might expect from a Royal wedding however. John had already been married once and there are strong suspicions that the bride was below the age of consent i.e. under twelve. So we can perhaps add the accusation of cradle-snatcher to John’s charge sheet. Of his bride, Matthew Paris was to write uncharitably – but let us point out that there are very few people of whom Paris seems to approve – “She was more Jezabel than Isabella” and he further claimed she was “shrewish, adulterous, incestuous woman who practiced the black arts.” It is difficult to imagine what else he could accuse her of having covered just about the whole panoply of female medieval crimes.
In 1205, Archbishop Hubert Walter died of a fever at Teynham and was buried in the cathedral near the shrine of St Thomas. It is said that when the news reached John he replied, “Good. Now at last I am King of England.” He immediately repaired to Canterbury to avail himself of the Archbishop’s effects of a few thousand marks. Now at last came his chance to appoint an Archbishop truly loyal to him. The right to choose the next Archbishop, however, was with the monks of Christ Church. By midnight they had elected Sub Prior Reginald to the post and sent him off to Rome for ratification.
John, meanwhile, was considering the nomination of his friend, personal secretary and Bishop of Norwich, John de Gray. Now, whilst John was a political operator of the highest skill and duplicity, he was matched in Rome by an equally artful Pope in Innocent III. He too had an interest in the election of Archbishop of Canterbury and circumstances presented him with a pleasing opportunity.
Word, meanwhile, got back to John about the monks’ activities and he set out for Canterbury again with a huge entourage to beard the monks in their den. As soon as he arrived at the Cathedral John strode straight round to the Chapter House. Faced with the wrath of the King, who invoked the right to put out their eyes if he so chose, the monks immediately capitulated and denied that any election of Sub Prior Reginald had ever taken place. They offered to support John’s choice of de Gray and also to throw in 500 marks to defray the King’s expenses. Satisfied, John packed six of the monks off to request Innocent’s ratification of the new candidate.
The wily Pontiff Maximus saw a perfect chance to claim Canterbury for himself. Declaring neither de Gray or Reg suitable for the post he proposed his own man, a theologian of Paris and cardinal then in Rome. Step forward Stephen Langton. Reluctantly, the Canterbury monks accepted the higher authority’s recommendation and resigned themselves to their lot.
News reached John who was by now in a fury. He saw himself betrayed by the monks who had first attempted to elect an Archbishop behind his back and then concurred with a foreign power in the election of another candidate. He sent the Sheriff of Kent to burn the monks out of their house if necessary and duly he arrived at Canterbury with an armed band whereupon the monks, with Prior Siitingbourne at their head, fled to Flanders. Stephen Langton he flatly refused to allow into the kingdom or recognize him as Archbishop of Canterbury
The Pope replied by slapping an Interdict on England.
So who was this man Stephen Langton?
The Langton brothers were three, Stephen, Walter and Simon, the sons of Henry Langton of Langton by Wragby in Lincolnshire. I have tried on three occasions to make contact with the village, its church and neighborhood watch but a deafening silence has been returned from that part of Lincolnshire. We know little of what formal schooling the boys may have enjoyed but we do know that both Stephen and Simon were educated at the University of Paris – eschewing the new fangled colleges of higher education in Oxford. Between 1179 and 1215 a third of all students at the University of Paris were English. Stephen went on to take an eminent professorship after studying under the acclaimed tutor Peter the Chanter. Of his many achievements, Stephen Langton is credited with organizing the books of the Bible into chapters to make them more accessible. As a theologian he was soon forgotten, but as a preacher and commentator his reputation proved more durable and his sermons sometime appear at the time under then name of Stephen with the Tongue of Thunder.
If we contrast the character of King John with that of Stephen Langton we get a very marked contrast. John is described in some sources as having “quasi-autistic tendencies”. Most historians agree on him as a peevish and cross-grained man and as a youth his anger was described by Richard of Devizes thus:
“His whole person became so changed as to be barely recognizable. Rage contorted his brow, his burning eyes glittered, bluish spots discoloured the pink of his cheeks.”
By contrast, Stephen Langton was devout, occasionally hesitant and driven by the highest integrity. They were never going to get on.
Not that Stephen Langton couldn’t act decisively when the times called for it. In anti-Semitic England, namely Oxford in 1222, a church deacon was defrocked by a council chaired by Stephen Langton for the crime of having fallen in love with a jewess and had himself circumcised on her behalf. He was taken outside the town walls and burned for his crime.
Stephen Langton’s career, however, is marked by strength, dignity, courage and great deeds. His brother Simon’s by the same strength and courage though few lasting great deeds. In some ways this is why I like him more. Rather like an errant Coleridge to his brother’s more fastidious Wordsworth, Simon Langton shows himself as a man of utmost integrity, often putting his principles before his own personal interests and sometimes prepared to cut his nose off to spite his face. Whereas Stephen appears measured and thoughtful, possibly able to see with longer vision, Simon is passionate to the point of hot headedness. Typical Langton boy then.
Powicke tells us that,
“Simon, so we may read between the lines, was more ardent, a less balanced man than the Archbishop, inclined to headstrong speech and violent partisanship.”
Moreover, he made the big mistake of angering those who would prove to be his biographers, albeit in the margins of medieval history. The Twitterati of their age, monks, just with access to more characters. Notably, Gerald of Wales, Roger of Wendover, Gervase of Canterbury and Matthew Parris.
So, by 1208, Stephen Langton inherited, or rather didn’t, an Archbishopric unrecognized by its King in a country under the force of an Interdict slapped on it on April 23rd, later to be St George’s day. He was forbidden from taking up office until 1213 and remained in exile in France and Rome.
Let us pause, however, to consider what the Interdict might mean to the country.
On the face of it, it is pretty severe. It was an instruction to the English clergy to down tools and prevented them from overseeing services. In effect it meant that none of the regular church services could be held on Sundays or feast days and no-one could be buried in consecrated ground or married in church. Mass could only be celebrated once a week in monasteries and then only behind closed doors. John cocked a fabulous snook at the monks of Christ Church by allowing the monks of Augustines to celebrate mass in the Christ Church monastery. Parsons did baptise infants and absolve the dying but for six long years the faithful languished in metaphorical limbo – the dead, presumably in the actual one. Nightmare stories abound of coffins being hung from trees in churchyards awaiting a time when they could be interred holily. Rather like today, it must have felt like the end of days.
Innocent further upped the ante by excommunicating John personally. One by one the bishops and abbots left England for exile in Paris or Rome. The bishops of London, Ely, Worcester, Hereford and York all left, whilst Lincoln, Chichester and Exeter were vacant already. Archbishop Langton oscillated between France and Rome. The effect of this, of course, was to give John unrivalled freedom to do exactly as he wished, which was pretty much what he did. As such the excommunication really didn’t work. In fairness, both Henry VIII and Elizabeth viewed their own personal excommunications with equal equanimity.
John relished the freedom from ecclesiastical constraint while all the time appearing to enter into conciliatory negotiations with Innocent’s legates. In 1208 he twice granted Simon Langton safe passage to England and an audience with himself at Winchester to plead his brother’s case, but both visits resulted in nothing. John complained of Simon Langton that “He said he could do nothing for us unless we put ourselves at his mercy.” John was clearly playing for time, but one wonders at the courage of Simon Langton in facing the despot in his lair.
Stephen Langton made one journey to England himself to parley with the King, but made it no further than Dover. John refusing to go no further than Chilham. On another occasion, Stephen headed as far as Wissant to meet John before turning back after close friends counselled he was in mortal danger. In Langton’s hesitancy we see a keen remembrance of the penalty churchmen face when church and state collide. The shadow of Becket must have passed before him as he made his decision. Presumably, brother Simon acquiesced in this and one assumes the brothers enjoyed each others frequent company in exile.
Innocent now played his final card which, like a bee sting, could only be used once. He began measures to formally depose John, urging Philip Augustus of France to invade and seize the throne by force. A Papal Bull was written and in Stephen Langton’s pocket by April of 1213 and John was given until June 1213 to submit.
By this time John knew the game was up. He assembled an army and camped it on Barham Downs and made his own headquarters at the House of the Templars at Ewell near Dover. Barham Downs is a peculiarly regular feature in the history of this part of the world. There is evidence that Caesar once massed an army there and much later on in the nation’s history Charles I enjoyed a leisurely picnic there with his fiancé before heading on to Canterbury. John was, by now, making all the right noises. Not only did he agree to receive Stephen Langton and the exiled monks, but, without consulting his ministers, in a stroke of devious cunning, he surrendered to the Pope the entire realm of England and Ireland. To celebrate he retired to Barham Downs for a celebration. One chronicler wrote “And a truly joyful day it was, the monarch making merry with his bishops and nobles.”
This peace was short-lived, the country slowly gave way into baronial rebellion against King John. The rebellion was haphazard and short lived, but the barons’ demands were moderated and presented to the King in such a way that he could, temporarily at least, agree to them, thanks mostly to the efforts of Stephen Langton. He, more than anyone else, caused Magna Carta to be sealed and his is the first signature on the document. The cast list of those at Runnymede reads like a who’s who of early thirteenth Century politics.
Meanwhile, events in York proved to be very interesting for the Langton boys. Since returning to England. Simon Langton had taken up duties as prebend of Strenshall in Yorkshire, a living that brought with it the additional title of canon of York Minster. In 1215, as the post fell vacant, his fellow canons elected Simon Langton to succeed as Archbishop of York. What a prospect for John to have the two powerful Archbishoprics in the kingdom filled by his former opponents? And they two close brothers? A clear testament to how their powers had grown during the period of turmoil. For John the threat was insupportable and he immediately sent messages to Rome to appeal to Innocent against the appointment and his messages found Innocent sympathetic. The appointment of Simon Langton as Archbishop of York was quashed on the direct order of the Pope.
When I contacted York Minster a year or so back to press them for details on Simon Langton and his annulment, I was lucky enough to chat with the Venerable John Barton, John Sentanu’s principal advisor, who was convinced I was making a prank call. When I asked him why he thought I was sending him up, he told me that he lived in Canterbury and had for time in the early ‘eighties taught History at Simon Langton Boys’ School. Small world.
Innocent’s decision seems to have arisen from the anger he felt towards the barons of England, who clearly had enjoyed the support of the Langton brothers, to subjugate his vassal John and force him to seal Magna Carta. Revenge was swift and unyielding. Stephen Langton was suspended from his Canterbury position and Simon Langton’s appointment was annulled forever.
Innocent announced in September that Magna Carta was “not only shameful and base but also illegal and unjust. We refuse to overlook such shameless presumption which dishonours the Apostolic see, injures the King’s rights, shames the English nation and endangers the Crusades.
In face of this severe setback to his hopes, the less measured and more volatile character of Simon is visible here. He clearly didn’t take Innocent’s decision kindly and set off over the Alps to Rome to appeal to the Pope directly. That must have been some journey with horse and mule, navigating mountain passes, cold at times and unfriendly. It must have been a journey that you would really have to want to make and yet history of the time describes visits between London and Rome with all the frequency of a high speed rail link.
Either way, Simon Langton’s journey served him no favours. Not only did Innocent refuse to change his mind he also extracted from him a promise that he would not again seek high office without first requesting the Pope himself. Subsequent events show us that this promise was agreed to grudgingly for in 1216 Langton made an allegiance that was to cost him close proximity to his brother for over 10 years. Perhaps in reaction to his brother Stephen’s suspension from office as well by the Pope for his part in Magna Carta, or as a result of his own personal chagrin, Simon Langton joined the French invasion force headed for England and served as Louis’ chancellor in his attempt to seize the English crown.
Louis landed at Richborough in 1216 with Simon Langton in tow. They sensibly ignored Dover Castle and headed straight for Canterbury, where Alexander, King of Scotland was bound to offer allegiance to Louis. Though Louis’ invasion was, ultimately, unsuccessful, Canterbury remained, technically at least, in French hands until a few months later when John finally burst from dysentery after his farcical affair in The Wash – an escapade that seemed to sum up his whole reign.
Though fighting was occasionally fierce, most notably John’s brutal siege of Rochester and then its castle, full scale rebellion was thwarted by John’s death. The barons were presented with a child king, Henry III, who they took to immediately as being a) too innocent as yet to have a claim on their lands and b) not French. Two counts that Louis could probably not claim. John’s death was a disaster for Louis and his invasion and he quickly realized he could no longer pursue his tenuous claim. This rather left Simon Langton stranded as the barons’ support for Louis began to wane. Having backed the wrong horse he had no option but to again seek exile in France and he was excommunicated in writing for his part in the rebellion, just for good measure. The futures of both brothers had dipped dramatically. Stephen was temporarily suspended from his position whilst Innocent’s rage over rebellion in England was given full vent. Simon went to Rome for absolution in 1218 and surrendered all his benefices. What must have seemed like a cruel game of ecclesiastical snakes and ladders was in time brought to some semblance of normality and the character and usefulness of the man is shown in that within another two years Simon had again become a Papal subdeacon and moved to Paris where he was appointed a canon of Notre Dame.
Even so, his name in England remained synonymous with danger and a rumour in 1220 that he might be allowed to return home elicited a passionate protest from a large group of magnates.
Meanwhile, Stephen had begun to gain favour with the new King Henry III and was to officiate at the translation of Becket’s bones from their place of residence in the cathedral Crypt to a new and exalted position in the Trinity Chapel to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his martyrdom. Langton’s term as Archbishop had begun badly and received further severe setbacks, but the task of moving the Martyr’s bones was to be a crowning success.
Throughout the early 1220s Simon Langton remained in exile. He was visited by his brother in Paris in 1223 but otherwise must only have communicated by letter, none of which have survived. However, in 1227, now old and infirm, Stephen Langton used his influence at the court of King Henry to persuade both King and Pope to allow Simon to return home. Enough water had flowed under the bridge and old scores were forgotten. Simon was granted passage to England, named Archdeacon of Canterbury and he finally returned to Dover on July 25th 1227.
The Archdeacon’s role granted him authority over all churches of the diocese, giving him power to choose and remove rural deans and also, appropriately, the rich livings of Teynham and Hackington. Which brings us to St Stephen’s which is where the Archdeacon traditionally lived. This was only ratified when the monks of Christ Church were assured that no secular college of canons would be established to rival them. However, Langton’s first job was to build a new official mansion at Hackington called New Place. Seven months after he returned his brother, Stephen, died at his manor of Slindon in Sussex.
Stephen Langton was buried in the Cathedral as befitted an Archbishop. Quite why his feet now jut so spectacularly out of the chapel wherein he lies interred has never been properly explained to me, yet it seems bizarre that such a faithful servant of Church and country should be left, quite literally, foot loose and fancy free in such an undignified manner.
It is my belief that in the next twenty years Simon Langton did the best work of his life – namely making a nuisance of himself and keeping the monks of Christ Church on their toes.
His brother was finally succeeded by Archbishop Edmund Rich – afterwards St Edmund, another ecclesiast to give his name to a local school in Canterbury – and Simon and he seemed to make a strong allegiance to each other and alliance together, though there is little evidence at all to place Simon Langton in England a great deal between 1229 and 1237. A rumour of his death – a la Mark Twain – reached the Royal Court in 1232 and even led to the appointment of a replacement until the truth was uncovered. He seems to have been held in high regard by the new Pope Gregory IX, but it is fair to say that these years were marked by a bitter and long running feud with the monks of Christ Church in which, for the most part, he seems to have been in the right.
Simon Langton castigated the monks for failing to live according to the doctrine of their founder. In this he is in good, and familiar company – Gerald of Wales, yet again on record complaining about the Christ Church excesses.
“No less than 16 of the most costly dishes were heaped upon the table. Fish, roast, boiled, stuffed and fried, and many more dishes made with eggs and pepper. Above all there was such an abundance of strong drink, claret, mead and mulberry juice that the good beer of England – made at its best in Kent – found no place among it.”
The monks also cleverly kept to the Benedictine rule of not eating meat only in the refectory. Elsewhere they were free to consume pork, beef or mutton.
The other significant event in the 1230s for Simon Langton was the death of his brother Walter in 1236. We know little or nothing of this shadowy third brother, but we do know that he left significant debts outstanding to prominent jews of York and that Simon was to take these up as part of his duty of executing his brother’s will. Perhaps age had curbed his impulsiveness though he seems, by now, keen to insist on the strict letter of the law in the monasteries and, one hopes, in his own life. Following the execution of his brother’s will he set his canon ecclesiastically, metaphorically and otherwise against the monks of the cathedral.
In 1236, Canterbury saw yet another Royal wedding as King Henry III married Eleanor of Provence on a freezing January day at the cathedral. It is safe to assume that Simon Langton would have been a guest at the happy occasion. He was certainly instrumental at this time in welcoming and providing patronage for the Franciscan order to Canterbury and with providing them a home behind Stour Street.
At a meeting of the legatine council in London on November 20th 1237 he caused a stir by denouncing corruption in the house of Christ Church. The accusation made by Simon Langton and Archbishop Edmund was that priory records had been tampered with to favour the monks’ rights and customs – a very serious charge. So serious in fact that Both Langton and Edmund set off for Rome to argue their case in person to Gregory. The upshot was that in 1238 the monks of Christ Church were excommunicated for their “persistently contumacious” attitude, particularly after Bartholomew of Sandwich confessed to burning a charter which showed itself favourable to the Archbishop and the Prior admitted he had “re-written a charter of St Thomas’. The disgraced Prior was removed. For this act Langton was to attract the lasting rancour of the monastery.
When Pope Gregory began to make noises about lifting the excommunication in 1240, Langton threatened to set out for Rome yet again but, by now, a sense of being “too old to cross the Alps again” silenced him.
He died in 1248 and it is thought was buried in the Church or Church Yard at Hackington though this is not proven. His last years were characterized by acts of benefit to the poor and we can assume that his enmity with the monks of Canterbury cost him a more prominent and lasting resting place in the Cathedral. Amongst the provisions of his will was money left for the second gift to the Hospital for Poor Priests in Stour Street, for the comfort of aged and infirm clergymen. Sadly, what valedictory words were left of him were not written by the Franciscans, but by the monks of Christ Church and their acquaintances. Gevase of Canterbury describes his memory as simply “accurs’d” and Matthew Parris went on to write that “having upset the peace of two kingdoms it was not wonderful that he became a perturber and prosecutor of the church at Canterbury.”
And so in their own way, the two boys from Lincolnshire quietly transformed the city in which they worked and left a national stamp on the country.
The penultimate word on Simon Langton goes to Maurice Powicke, who describes him thus:
“He stood high in the favour of Pope and King, and exerted an influence in England, France and Rome far greater than any archdeacon of Canterbury – important though that dignitary was in those days – could hope to possess. He was a friend and patron of the Franciscans; but his actions alienated the monks and he was execrated at St Albans as whole-heartedly as the memory of Stephen was cherished.”
When I think of Simon Langton, the man, I think of someone who embodies the greatest of the political or social virtues, that of laying down his own interests for the pursuit of truth, or integrity, or honesty, whatever you wish to call it. But this man, about whom so few facts are known, fought a lifelong war against what he saw as injustice. First, against a cruel despotic king, and suffered grievously for it, second against a Pope whose interests were always in Rome and who saw England merely as another jewel of empire and finally against the monks of Canterbury who were already living beyond their means and beyond their teachings and were soon to be rightly lampooned by Chaucer. And yet, no matter whatever the setback, he always bounced back.. A man who embodies integrity and who, as such, can be no better beacon for our young men and women in the shifting sands of the Twenty First Century. For him a plaque on a wall is not nearly enough, and I am proud that the school still flourishes in his name.
Headteacher, Simon Langton Boys’ School