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Friday, 21 February 2014

In the finest tradition: the right of English bishops to reprimand the king

Two bishop saints, mid-13thC, BL, Royal 2 B VI, f.11
Recently, the archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols spoke out in the national press against the government’s cuts to welfare spending, labeling the policy ‘a disgrace’ that threatened to abandon society’s most vulnerable to ‘hunger and destitution’. Yesterday, a coalition of 27 Anglican bishops and 16 other faith leaders wrote a letter to the Mirror in support of Nichols’ message. The bishops’ intervention raises an important question about the role of religious leaders in politics, in a modern western world that many would categorise as secular. The prelates should take comfort, though, that they have history on their side.

English bishops since before the Norman Conquest had a duty – a responsibility, in fact – to reprimand kings when they acted immorally. For instance, the tenth-century archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, after catching King Eadwig in flagrante delicto (‘sprawled between his whores, his crown flung off, some way away on the floor’), threatened the king with excommunication, ‘took him by the hand, replaced the crown, and dragged him forcibly from the room.’ Thankfully, no such demand has yet been placed on today’s bishops.

Dunstan’s right to wag his finger at the king was based partly on Biblical precedent. Old Testament prophets, seen as the forerunners of the Christian clergy, had reprimanded King Saul and King David when they sinned. The medieval bishops’ authority was also based on their role in the coronation. Since 973, English bishops had received the coronation oath – a promise to rule justly – from the king. They also anointed him with holy oil. Since bishops made the king, they also were duty-bound to call him to account.

Their remit for overseeing royal action expanded as time went on. Famously, Thomas Becket criticised Henry II for his treatment of the Church and the quarrel escalated to the point of lethal violence. But, in the thirteenth century, the bishops also kept their eye on royal policy more generally, for the good of the wider kingdom. Crucial to this development was Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury 1207-26. Langton was a prodigious scholar of the Bible and took the clergy’s responsibility for chastising wayward kings very seriously.  As archbishop of Canterbury, he put this thought into action by taking it upon himself and his colleagues to enforce Magna Carta. Magna Carta bound the king to act within the law and regulated the king’s treatment of his subjects across society. Whether or not Langton helped to compose the Charter – and there is real doubt that he did – he came to be one of the Charter’s most vigorous supporters.

It was Langton who, in 1225, stepped in with his fellow bishops to pronounce a sentence of excommunication against anyone who dared break the Charter’s terms. This was an important move because, since 1216, the Charter had contained no means of enforcement. The original issue of Magna Carta in 1215 included the security clause, which empowered 25 barons to seize the king’s possessions if he failed to abide by the Charter. When a new version was issued on behalf of the young king Henry III in 1216, this controversial clause was left out. This meant that there was no clear way to call the king to account if he failed to keep Magna Carta. Langton’s decision to use spiritual punishment now gave the Charter teeth. The threat of excommunication was one that the king would have taken very seriously, because the sentence would mark him as an outsider in the Christian community and might also give his subjects licence to rebel.

Langton’s actions in 1225 were a model for his successors. In 1234, a new archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, publicly chastised Henry III in an assembly at Westminster for the king’s willingness to listen to evil counsel, berating him for the damage that his policies were doing to the kingdom and his subjects. Edmund threatened the king with excommunication if he did not mend his ways. Henry listened to the archbishop’s advice and threw out the bad counsellors. In 1237, Edmund enforced Henry’s confirmation of Magna Carta by sentence of excommunication. His later successor, Boniface of Savoy, did the same in 1253 and again, in 1265, the English bishops reiterated the sentence. Although today we might not live in a world where government leaders fear the reprimands of Church leaders, Langton would be pleased to hear (as reported in the Mirror) that at least Mr Cameron was ‘rattled’ by the bishops’ reprimand. Vincent Nichols, Justin Welby and their colleagues should feel assured that they are acting in the finest tradition of the English clergy.  

Read more on bishops, kings and Magna Carta:
S. T. Ambler, ‘The Montfortian Bishops and the Justification of Conciliar Government in 1264’, Historical Research, 85 (2012), 193-209


D. A. Carpenter, ‘Archbishop Langton and Magna Carta: His Contribution, His Doubts and His Hypocrisy’, EHR, 126 (2011), 1041-65

D. L. d'Avray, ‘«Magna Carta»: its Background in Stephen Langton’s Academic Biblical Exegesis and its Episcopal Reception’, Studi Medievali,ser.3, 38:1 (1998), 423-38

B.K. Weiler, ‘Bishopsand Kings in England, c.1066-1215’, in L. K├Ârntgen and D. Wa╬▓enhoven (eds.), Religion and Politics in the Middle Ages:Germany and England by Comparison (De Gruyter, 2013), 157-203

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