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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Penitent King: John submits to archbishop Langton, July 1213

King David submits to the reprimand of the prophet Nathan
(BL Royal MS. 2 B VII f.58)
On 16 July 1213, Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, returned to England. This was a momentous occasion. King John had refused to accept Langton’s appointment as archbishop of Canterbury, precipitating an angry dispute between pope and king and provoking Innocent III to impose an interdict on England. For the past five years, most of the senior clergy had been in exile, while in England the sacraments were forbidden. Langton’s arrival in England didn't signal the beginning of a new era but, rather, the hope that one might be on the horizon. The archbishop had come to make peace.

Langton, together with the bishops of London, Ely, Lincoln and Hereford, met King John at Winchester on 20 July. The choice of time and place was significant. Langton had chosen to cross the Channel on a Tuesday – a special day for anyone who, like Langton, was devoted to St Thomas Becket, because it was that day that famously hosted so many of the important events of Becket’s life. To those watching in 1213, Langton’s return might have looked like an ultimatum to King John: choose the path of your father, Henry II, and let this conflict degenerate or choose the path of peace. It was also important that the meeting took place at Winchester. The feast-day of the city’s patron, St Swithun, fell on 15 July, meaning that the city would still be celebrating. Winchester Cathedral was also the coronation church of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and it was St Edward the Confessor who was held up as the model of good kingship for his Angevin successors.   

The scene, as the bishops met the king, was a dramatic one. King John fell down at the feet of the bishops, weeping profusely, and implored them to have mercy on him and the kingdom of England. The bishops lifted him from the ground and led him into the cathedral. In the chapter house, they sung the fiftieth psalm:
‘Have mercy on me, O God, [and] blot out my iniquity... For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me... Deliver me from blood, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol thy justice.’
John swore, with his hand on the Holy Gospels, to defend the Church and her clergy, to destroy iniquitous laws and revive the good laws of his ancestors, especially those of King Edward, and to provide justice for all his people. He also promised to restore Church property that he had seized during the interdict, and offered fealty to Pope Innocent and his successors. The bishops absolved him and then, after Mass had been celebrated, they all sat down with the assembled magnates to enjoy a feast.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John hadn't been reformed in spirit as the bishops had hoped, and that his relationship with his subjects was to deteriorate to the point of civil war.  So it's easy to question John’s sincerity in 1213: was he really sorry for his actions? were his tears genuine? But his meeting with the bishops has to be seen in the context of two, related, traditions. The first was an ancient and widely-used practice that allowed warring groups to make peace through ritual submission, by which one party would publicly humble himself and beg for forgiveness.  The second was a long-held custom that allowed archbishops of Canterbury and their colleagues to reprimand the king when he behaved immorally or illegally. This special power was drawn from the Old Testament prophets, like Samuel and Nathan, who had chastised kings for their wayward behaviour. By such an act, it was hoped, just and equitable rule could be restored to the kingdom and civil war could be prevented.

In this respect, the bishops’ actions in 1213 ultimately failed. But reconciliation with the Church was a vital step towards any future settlement. It allowed Langton and his colleagues to act as peacemakers in 1215, and to help negotiate the terms of peace between the king and his subjects that were embodied in the Charter of Runnymede. Thus the penitence of a king not otherwise known for his humility has a pivotal place in the story of Magna Carta

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