Stephen Langton (died 1228) served as England's Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical office in the land. He played an important role in events surrounding the fabled Magna Carta, signed by the English king in 1215. Though the document specified certain rights to England's landed aristocracy, it is sometimes heralded as the first formal declaration of human rights in history.
Little is known about Langton's life outside of his writings on theological matters and his tenure as an emissary between his onetime foe, King John, and the English barons. Not even a portrait of him survives. He was thought to have hailed from Lincolnshire, in the north of England, and was likely born in the mid-1150s. His father, Henry, possessed a small manor home and some property there, where ancestors from Denmark had likely settled some 200 years earlier. Around Lincolnshire at the time of Langton's youth were several famous monasteries and abbeys, and he came of age during a period of strife between the church and monarch in England. Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189, named his chancellor, a layman, as head of the church in England. Thomas a Becket, however, came to oppose Henry's increasing thirst for power, and fled to the Continent for a time. Before he left, he hid in the Lincolnshire area, and was sheltered by the monks of the Gilbertine order. The quarrel was mended for a time, but supporters of the king murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. All of this occurred during Langton's childhood.
Both Langton and his brother Simon opted to become members of religious orders. He later wrote that his decision to enter a monastery scandalized his father. Langton served as prebendary at York for a time-a member of clergy who receives a stipend-and went to Paris around 1181. He studied there among the loose coalition of masters and pupils at what would become the famed Universite de Paris, then taught there himself until 1206. During his student days he befriended an Italian cleric, Cardinal de Conti, who would later play an important role in his life. At the time, Paris was the Western world's most renowned center of learning, and was especially famed for theologians continuing the work of early Christian scholars, who formulated the principal doctrines of the faith. Paris was a small city at the time, mostly situated on the Ile de Paris, and during the entire 25 years of his stay there, Langton could hear the noises of the workers who built the Notre Dame cathedral. Langton's tutor, Peter the Chanter, wrote critically of the grandiosity and expense of this church.
Langton earned a doctorate in arts and theology from Paris, and began delivering what were termed questiones, or lectures on theological or moral problems. He also wrote extensively on the Bible. An important Vulgate, or common edition, appeared from the Universite de Paris theologians during the thirteenth century, and Langton worked on the project himself. He is credited for dividing the books of the Bible into chapters. The Paris Vulgate served as the standard version for the next two centuries, and the first printed-not hand-copied, as was the method in Langton's day-editions of the bible from Johann Gutenberg's press were based on this revision. The chapter divisions he devised were still in use eight centuries later.
Langton penned theological treatises and discourses on the topics of heaven, hell, transubstantiation, and prayer. Answering the question of whether the devil sins with all his might, Langton wrote: "The devil wishes to be either good or bad. If the former, when he does evil he must feel the sting of a biting conscience, that is to say, synderesis ; and authority says that synderesis is extinct in the devil. If he wishes to be bad, he wishes to deserve punishment and so to be punished. It may well be that the devil is so obstinate that he wishes to be bad and yet does not wish to be punished."
During the course of his career in Paris, Langton and his questiones, along with extensive commentaries he wrote on books of the Old and New Testaments, brought him such renown that he became known as "Stephen with the Tongue of Thunder." He was summoned to Rome by Pope Innocent III, the former Cardinal de Conti, who recognized in Langton an ally in his battle with the new king of England. The favorite, but youngest son of Henry II, John was given lands in France, the earldom of Gloucester, and the lordship of Ireland, which caused resentment among his brothers. When the eldest succeeded to the throne in 1189 as Richard I (the Lionhearted), John promised to remain in France. But he conspired against his brother, attempting to seize the throne while Richard was away on a Crusade to the Holy Land. In the spring of 1199, Richard died and John ascended to the throne.
During his reign, John became embroiled in a dispute with the church over the throne's right to appoint bishops. It was a dispute that stretched back to the time of Thomas a Becket. John had a formidable foe in Pope Innocent III, who was consolidating the church's political power at this time after a noticeable decline of the Holy Roman Empire. After the death of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1205, the king and the English clergy failed to come to an agreement on an acceptable successor. The Pope favored Langton, and named him a cardinal priest of St. Chrysogonus in 1206. The following spring, he was elected the archbishop of Canterbury by the monks of Christ Church in a vote at which Innocent was present. He was consecrated on June 17, 1207.
The move deepened the crisis between John and Rome. The king barred the new archbishop from entering England, and then began demanding revenues from churches, monasteries, and other religious institutions. In response, Innocent placed England under an Interdict, which prohibited Mass, marriages, and even church bells from ringing, beginning in March of 1208. The following year, hoping to end the stalemate, Langton sailed to Dover and sent word to the throne that he would negotiate with the king there. John, however, refused to travel farther than Kent, and Innocent then excommunicated the king in November of 1209. Meanwhile, in domestic matters, John was encountering opposition from his barons, who resented the increase in taxation necessary to finance an ongoing war with France. In 1199, 1201, and 1205, John promised his barons certain rights, but continued to ask them for more money.
For several years Langton lived in Pontigny, a Cistercian monastery in Auxerre. Historians know that during this period his father, Henry of Langton, was forced to flee to Scotland, because he feared trouble from the king or his agents. By 1212, John was planning an incursion into France to regain lands he had lost to its king, Philip II, in 1204. Worried that the French would ally with the Pope against him and invade England, John decided to make peace with Innocent. In November, he agreed to recognize Langton as the archbishop of Canterbury. In May of 1213, John symbolically surrendered his crown to Pandulf, the papal legate, who then returned it to him with the church's blessing at Ewell, near Dover.
Langton arrived in England in July of 1213. He and the other prelates met with John at Winchester, and absolved him from the order of excommunication. Problems between John and the barons continued, however, and the archbishop soon became involved as well. A 1212 plot to murder or at least desert the king in a battle with the Welsh came to light, and Langton forced John to provide a fair trial for the accused barons. In August of 1213, he delivered a sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral in London before an assemblage of barons and clergy. That same day, he allegedly met in private with some of the barons and revealed that during his studies in Paris, he learned of a charter from the year 1031, written on the occasion of Henry I's coronation. In it, the king granted the barons specific liberties.
With this legal precedent in mind, the barons created a new document, called the Unknown Charter because historians did not know of its existence until 1893. John balked at signing it, and the barons contemplated using force. Langton became the intermediary between the king and barons, and strongly discouraged the use of violence. Meanwhile, John's campaign against France had gone badly, and civil strife arose in England. Outright war erupted in May of 1215, and rebels captured London. After negotiating with them, the king met with the barons at a site called Runnymede, on the Thames River in Surrey, on June 19, 1215. There he signed their Magna Carta, or Great Charter. By this time, Langton had sided with the king against the barons, and was serving as his commissioner. It is thought that Langton, nevertheless, played a key role in the document's original drafting, and likely authored the first clause that granted the church and its bishops full ecclesiastical freedom. His is the first signature of witness on the document.
The Magna Carta formed the basis of English constitutional law by limiting the powers of the crown, enshrining feudal rights, and guaranteeing the freedom of the church. Other clauses formally recognized the customs of the towns, and stated that both subjects and communities had certain rights that the king could not encroach upon. Other areas of the document confirmed the validity of a trial by jury and idea of habeas corpus-that a person must be brought before a court in person to determine if the detention is lawful.
The Magna Carta, despite the historical myth surrounding it, had a short life span. Other barons refused to accept it, and John appealed its terms to the Pope, who was now firmly on his side in the war against the barons. Innocent issued an order of excommunication for the barons, but Langton refused to publish it. His former ally in Rome then suspended him. John died the following year, and his son Henry III, not yet of majority, inherited the throne. Langton was reinstated to his Archbishopric in 1218. His role in forcing the removal of the papal legate in 1221 served to give his office of archbishop at Canterbury even more independence, for the absence of the representative from Rome made Langton legatus natus, or legate in his own right. In 1222, he authored a set of constitutions that formed the basis of English ecclesiastical law, and were still used by the courts seven hundred years later. In 1225, the Magna Carta was reissued, and seventeenth century alterations like the Petition of Right and the Habeas Corpus Act helped make it more than a just a document that confirmed feudal privileges. The U.S. Constitution contains several phrases that are clearly linked to it. Langton died in Sussex in July of 1228. He was buried at the Canterbury Cathedral.
Dickinson, Patrick, A Durable Fire, Chatto and Windus, 1962.
Powicke, F. M., Stephen Langton: Being the Ford Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford in Hilary Term 1927, Barnes and Noble, 1965.