The great fight of Becker against King Henry for the independence of the Church was followed by the great fight of Langton against King John for the independence of the nation.
John had been false to his father Henry. The last days of that strong king had been embittered by the rebellion of his older sons. John, the youngest, was his favorite. For John's sake, Henry had disowned Richard and had made war against him. But when the battles went against the king, and the victorious nobles brought him a list of the rebels whom he must pardon, the name at the head of the list was that of John. Then the sick king turned his face to the wall. "Now," he said, "let things go as they will,—I care no more for myself or for the world."
John had been false also to his brother Richard. You remember the message from the king of France which came to John as he sat at the tournament of Ashby-de-la-Zouche: "The devil is loose; take care of yourself." Richard-of-the-Lion-Heart had been fighting in Palestine, trying to take Jerusalem out of the hands of Saladin. Shipwrecked on his way home, he had been seized by his enemies, and held for ransom in Germany. Meanwhile, in England, John had been trying to become king of England in his place. The "devil" was Richard, released from prison, returning to his throne.
Then Richard died, killed with an arrow at the siege of a town in France, and John, becoming king indeed, began to show himself as false to his people as he had been false to his father and his brother. The man who stood against him, and saved the country, was Stephen Langton.
The kings of England since the Norman Conquest had been Frenchmen. Their kingdom had included, not England only, but rich lands in France. And in France they had lived, coming but rarely to England, partly for the purpose of fighting against rebellious English, and partly for the purpose of getting English money with which to fight rebellious Frenchmen. But when John became king, most of the French possessions had been lost. Therefore he lived, much against his will, in England.
John's great desire was to get back the provinces of France. But for such a war he needed men and money. He found his demand for money met by the refusal of the bishops, and his demand for men met by the refusal of the barons. The bishops declared that they would not pay the king's taxes; the barons declared that they would no longer fight the king's battles over seas.
The king's struggle with the Church began with the appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury. That great place being vacant, there were two men proposed to fill it. One was chosen by the monks of Canterbury at their own will; another was chosen by the monks of Canterbury acting against their own will at the command of the king. One was the Church's man, the other was the king's man. The two appealed to the pope. But the pope, at that moment, was Innocent III., whose supreme ideal was to carry into effect the principles of Hildebrand. He proposed to be the spiritual father of all Europe, having all kings for his sons, and securing thereby the peace and righteousness of Christendom. Innocent, accordingly, dismissed both of the applicants for the archbishopric of Canterbury, and appointed Stephen Langton. Langton was an Englishman, of high character, then resident in Rome, who for his merits had been made a cardinal.
The king refused to permit Langton to enter England, and the pope threatened an interdict. Now, in the Middle Ages, an interdict was considered worse than a war and plague combined. It was a withdrawal of the privileges of the Christian religion from all the people of the land; once an interdict was pronounced at Rome, all church bells ceased to ring, all church doors were closed. There were no more services, and no more sacraments. Nobody could be baptized, nobody could receive the saving grace of the Holy Communion, nobody could be married, nobody could be buried. It meant to the people, not only an interruption of all the rites of religion on which they depended, but the serious peril of their immortal souls.
Innocent threatened to lay England under an interdict till John should receive Langton. And when the archbishop of York was in his turn driven out of the country for his resistance to an unjust tax, the threat was executed. First the land was laid under the interdict; then the king was excommunicated; finally, the king was declared deposed, his throne was pronounced vacant, all his subjects were absolved from their obedience to him, all his enemies were encouraged to attack him, and in particular his worst enemy, Philip of France, was commanded to make war upon him.
Then John found himself in evil case. At first, he was defiant enough, and tried the fortunes of war, but his barons would not fight, and the war went against him. Then he submitted. He knelt before Pandulph, the representative of the pope. He took off his royal crown and put it into Pandulph's hands. He confessed himself the "pope's man." And to the pope he gave all England, as a conquered king surrenders his kingdom to his conqueror. The interdict was removed and Stephen Langton came to Canterbury.
Immediately Langton became the head not of the bishops only but of the barons.
The first thing which he did, when he released the king from his excommunication, was to make him swear to keep the laws of Edward the Confessor. That meant that the king must observe the ancient customs by which the liberties of Englishmen were protected before the Normans conquered England. It speedily became plain, however, that this was too vague a promise. Having such a king as John, it was necessary to make the rights of the people much more definite. John had inherited, from his Norman ancestors, the idea that the kingdom belonged to the king. They had taken England by force, and they proposed to do what they pleased with it. The king's will, they said, was law. But the new England, which had grown up since the Conquest, was now unwilling to consent to this. The despotism of the foreign kings had united all the races of the lands. It had made Angles and Saxons, Britons and Danes, Englishmen and Normans, into one people. And this people, with Langton for its spokesman and leader, was at last arrayed against the king.
Thus the great interdict was followed by the Great Charter.
Suddenly, to the surprise of John, the barons met in arms and demanded a new statement of the relation between the king and the people. They proposed a series of laws which should thenceforth govern, not only the people, but the king. These laws, based on old customs and traditions much improved by experience, were drawn up by Langton for the king to sign.
The king postponed and postponed this surrender of his despotic power. He appealed for help to his new master, the pope, under whose protection he had hoped to overcome his enemies. But the pope sent him no help. The bishops were against him, the barons were against him, the people were against him. He was alone against this demand for the liberties of the land. Thus he submitted to England as he had before submitted to Rome.
The place of meeting was an island in the Thames near Windsor. The king and his courtiers were encamped on one bank of the river, Langton and the barons were encamped on the other side, in a wide meadow, whose name of Runnymede has been famous since that day in the history of political liberty. There John signed the Great Charter, "Magna Charter." And after he had signed it, back he went to his palace, and there rolled upon the floor in a rage for which he had no words, gnawing the sticks and straws.
The charter provided for the freedom of the Church from the personal will of the king. It secured all men from imprisonment or seizure except by process of law. It declared that no new tax should be imposed except by consent of the common council of the realm. And a committee of twenty-four stout and determined barons was appointed to see that the king obeyed it.
It is true that the pope declared the charter was of no effect. But that was not because of any affection for John or because of any objection to the liberties of England. It was because he felt that he should have been consulted first. That was according to his honest theory of the proper conduct of the world. It is true that Langton was recalled to Rome. But it made no difference. The great thing was done.