This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth."
—Shakespeare, Richard II., Act II. Sc. 1.
Under Innocent, England comes, if possible, into greater prominence in the history of the papacy than during the controversy in the reign of Alexander III., a generation before. Then the English actors were Henry II. and Thomas à Becket. Now they are Henry’s son John and Becket’s successor Stephen Langton. The pope was victorious, inflicting the deepest humiliation upon the English king; but he afterwards lost the advantage he had gained by supporting John against his barons and denouncing the Magna Charta of English popular rights. The controversy forms one of the most interesting episodes of English history.
John, surnamed Sansterre or Lackland, 1167–1216, succeeded his brother Richard I. on the throne, 1199. A man of decided ability and rapid in action but of ignoble spirit, low morals, and despotic temper, he brought upon his realm such disgrace as England before or since has not suffered. His reign was a succession of wrongs and insults to the English people and the English church.
John had joined Richard in a revolt against their father, sought to displace his brother on the throne during his captivity after the Third Crusade, and was generally believed by contemporaries to have put to death his brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur of Brittany, who would have been Richard’s successor if the law of primogeniture had been followed. He lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Aquitaine to the English. Perjury was no barrier to the accomplishment of his plans. He set aside one wife and was faithless to another. No woman was too well born to be safe against his advances. He plundered churches and convents to pay his debts and satisfy his avarice, and yet he never undertook a journey without hanging charms around his neck.198
Innocent came into collision with John over the selection of a successor to Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury, who died 1205.199 The monks of Canterbury, exercising an ancient privilege, chose Reginald one of their number. With the king’s support, a minority proceeded to another election and chose the king’s nominee, John de Grey, bishop of Norwich. John was recognized by the suffragan-bishops and put into possession by the king.
An appeal was made by both parties to Rome, Reginald appearing there in person. After a delay of a year, Innocent set aside both elections and ordered the Canterbury monks, present in Rome, to proceed to the choice of another candidate. The choice fell upon Stephen Langton, cardinal of Chrysogonus. Born on English soil, Stephen was a man of indisputable learning and moral worth. He had studied in Paris and won by his merits prebends in the cathedral churches of Paris and York. The metropolitan dignity could have been intrusted to no shoulders more worthy of wearing it.200 While he has no title to saintship like à Becket, or to theological genius like Anselm, Langton will always occupy a place among the foremost of England’s primates as a faithful administrator and the advocate of English popular liberties.
The new archbishop received consecration at the pope’s own hand, June 17, 1207, and held his office till his death, 1228.201 The English king met the notification with fierce resistance, confiscated the property of the Canterbury chapter, and expelled the monks as guilty of treason. Innocent replied with the threat of the interdict. The king swore by God’s teeth202 to follow the censure, if pronounced, with the mutilation of every Italian in the realm appointed by Innocent, and the expulsion of all the prelates and clergy. The sentence was published by the bishops of London, Ely, and Worcester, March 22, 1208.203 They then fled the kingdom.
The interdict at once took effect, casting a deep gloom over the nation. The church bells remained unrung. The church buildings were closed. The usual ministrations of the priesthood remained unperformed. The great doors of the monasteries were left unopened, and worshippers were only admitted by secret passages. Penance was inflicted upon the innocent as well as the erring. Women, after childbirth, presented themselves for purification outside the church walls. The dead were refused burial in consecrated ground, and the service of the priest was withheld.
John, although he had seen Philip Augustus bend under a similar censure, affected unconcern, and retaliated by confiscating the property of the higher clergy and convents and turning the inmates out of doors with little more than the clothes on their backs. The concubines of the priests were forcibly removed and purchased their ransom at heavy expense. A Welshman accused of murdering a priest was ordered by the king dismissed with the words, "Let him go, he has killed my enemy." The relatives of the fugitive bishops were thrown into prison.
In 1209 Innocent added to the interdict the solemn sentence of the personal anathema against the king.204 The bishops who remained in England did not dare publish it, "becoming like dumb dogs not daring to bark."205 John persisted in his defiant mood, continued to eke out his vengeance upon the innocent, and sought to divert the attention of his subjects by negotiations and wars with Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Geoffrey, archdeacon of Norwich, who had been in his service and now felt he could no longer so remain, was thrown into prison and there allowed to languish to death, covered from shoulders to feet with a cope of lead.206
One more weapon lay in the pope’s power. In 1212 John was declared unworthy of his throne, and deposed. His subjects were absolved from the obligation of allegiance, and Christian princes were summoned to execute the sentence and take the crown. Gregory VII. had resorted to the same precarious measure with Henry IV. and been defeated. The bull was published at Soissons by Langton and the exiled bishops. Philip of France was quick to respond to the summons and collected an army. But the success of the English fleet checked the fear of an immediate invasion of the realm.
The nation’s suspense, however, was taxed almost beyond the point of endurance. The king’s arbitrary taxes and his amours with the wives and daughters of the barons aroused their determined hatred. Pressed from different sides, John suddenly had a meeting at Dover with the pope’s special envoy, the subdeacon Pandulf.207 The hermit, Peter of Wakefield, had predicted that within three days of Ascension Day the king would cease to reign. Perhaps not without dread of the prediction, and not without irony to checkmate the plans of the French monarch, John gave in his submission, and on May 15, 1213, on bended knee, delivered up to Pandulf his kingdom and consented to receive it back again as a papal fief. Five months later the act was renewed in the presence of Nicolas, cardinal-archbishop of Tusculum, who had been sent to England with legatine authority. In the document which John signed and swore to keep, he blasphemously represented himself as imitating him "who humbled himself for us even unto death." This notorious paper ran as follows: —
"We do freely offer and grant to God and the holy Apostles Peter and Paul and the holy Roman Church, our mother, and to our Lord the pope Innocent and his Catholic successors, the whole realm of England and the whole realm of Ireland with all their rights and appurtenances for the remission of our sins and those of all our race, as well quick as dead; and from now receiving back and holding these, as a feudal dependent, from God and the Roman Church, do and swear fealty for them to our Lord the pope Innocent and his Catholic successors and the Roman Church."208
John bound himself and England for all time to pay, in addition to the usual Peter’s pence, 1000 marks annually to the Apostolic see, 700 for England and 300 for Ireland. The king’s signature was witnessed by the archbishop of Dublin, the bishop of Norwich, and eleven noblemen. John also promised to reimburse the outlawed bishops, the amount finally settled upon being 40,000 marks.
Rightly does Matthew Paris call this the "detestable and lamentable charter."209 But although national abasement could scarcely further go, it is probable that the sense of shame with which after generations have regarded John’s act was only imperfectly felt by that generation of Englishmen.210 As a political measure it succeeded, bringing as it did keen disappointment to the warlike king of France. The interdict was revoked in 1214, after having been in force more than six years.
The victory of Innocent was complete. But in after years the remembrance of the dishonorable transaction encouraged steadfast resistance to the papal rule in England. The voice of Robert Grosseteste was lifted up against it, and Wyclif became champion of the king who refused to be bound by John’s pledge. Writing to one of John’s successors, the emperor Frederick II. called upon him to remember the humiliation of his predecessor John and with other Christian princes resist the intolerable encroachments of the Apostolic see.