Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

The Story of Stephen Langton

Here in the South Transept there are not many tombs but there are three memorials to those who fell in the Great War which began in 1914 when Germany declared war on France, and did not end till Armistice Day, 1918. Many years before an Agreement had been made between England, France and Germany that if at any time there was a war Belgium should be neutral—that is to say that no army should march into her country. But the quickest way for the Germans to get to Paris was through Belgium and through Belgium they determined to go in spite of the Agreement. Of course this could not be allowed. Nations as well as people have to learn, as the Prayer Book tells us, that our "duty" is to "be true and just in all our dealings." This was neither. So on the 4th August England declared war on Germany, and bit by bit nearly all the other nations joined France and us to show Germany that "might" was not necessarily "right." A million men of the British Empire gave their lives to serve England and save the honour and freedom of their own country and the countries of the allies. So here in Canterbury Cathedral we look with gratitude on all these memorials to the men who fought as Nelson and Wellington had done a hundred years before, for "God and my Country."

The first of these memorials is to the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the XXI Lancers and underneath in a little case is the book containing all their names. On the other side of the South Transept door are two more. The first, also with a beautifully illuminated book of names, is in memory of the Carabiniers, 1914-1918, and the other commemorates the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers. And leading out of the South Transept is the Warrior's (or St. Michael's) Chapel.

Here also there are tattered flags and memorials to soldiers who fell in the Crimean War; and here, too, is a monument to Sir George Rooke. Over it more well-worn flags are hanging. This Sir George Rooke was a great sailor, whom you will all hear much about by-and-by, for he it was who, in the year 1704, captured Gibraltar from the Spaniards; and, however many other places England has taken and lost, she has, as you know, never given up Gibraltar. Sir George Rooke was born not far from Canterbury, in the little village of St. Lawrence; and when his days of fighting were over, he came back to spend the last years of his life in his old home. There he died, on January 24, 1709, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Canterbury. And after his death this monument was put up in his memory in the Warrior's Chapel, so that all who came to Canterbury Cathedral should be reminded of the great sailor. One other warrior is buried here, surrounded by memorials of fighters, both soldiers and sailors. This is another warrior of the Church, Stephen Langton, the great archbishop. Just as in the north transept we were reminded of Thomas Becket, so here in the south transept we are reminded of Stephen Langton. He, like Becket, fought against his King; but, unlike Becket, he fought not at all to gratify his own ambition, but for the good and advancement of the people of England. When old Archbishop Walter (whose tomb you will see in Trinity Chapel) died, Stephen Langton, who was then Cardinal Langton, and who was living in Rome, was made archbishop by the Pope, who was in those days very much more important and powerful in England than he is now, and who could even venture to say who should or should not be made Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry VIII., as you know, was the first King of England who was bold enough and strong enough to insist that this state of things should be put an end to; and since his reign (except for a short time while his daughter Mary was Queen) the Pope has no more power to say what may or may not be done in England, than the Archbishop of Canterbury has to say what may or may not be done in Italy. But in the reign of King John the Pope was everywhere feared and obeyed; and so now, though the King had wished the Bishop of Norwich to be Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope insisted that Stephen Langton should be. But King John was almost as determined as the Pope. Langton might be made archbishop; that he could not prevent, but come to England he should not.

The quarrel went on for years, the archbishop, meanwhile, living very quietly at Pontigny, in France, and spending his time—for he was a very learned man—in reading and writing books. One thing he did which will never be forgotten. He it was who divided the Bible into Chapters, as we now read it. After six years King John, who all this time was becoming more and more unpopular with his subjects, and who now heard that many of his nobles were constantly going over to Pontigny to visit the archbishop, and beg him to give them advice, found that he must give in. So he signed a charter to say that he would obey the Pope and allow the archbishop to come to England. And soon afterwards Stephen Langton arrived at Winchester, where John then was. The King came out to meet him, and, falling on his knees, begged his pardon. Then a procession was formed, and the King, between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, walked to the cathedral. There the archbishop solemnly forgave him before his people, and there a great service was held for the first time for six years. For, while the quarrel with the Pope was going on, he had forbidden any services to be held in any churches in England. This was called "putting England under an interdict." It is difficult now to think that there was a time when such a state of things was possible; but all of you who have read much history will remember how often, in those days, England was "put under an interdict" by the Pope.

So, for all reasons, every one in England, except the King, was delighted to welcome the archbishop. Langton soon saw how true were the stories which the nobles used to tell him at Pontigny. England was indeed in a terrible state. The country was overrun with robbers, the laws were bad, and the King would do nothing to make things better. At last, in despair, the nobles came again to the archbishop. He too was an Englishman; would he not help them to save England, in spite of the King? And the archbishop, who had always loved his country, and who had only stayed away in France because he saw that if he had insisted on coming back he should have done more harm than good, and might even have caused a war, promised to be their friend. Had they noticed, he asked them, that when, in the great service in Winchester Cathedral, he had forgiven the King, he had made him promise that he would "do away with unjust laws, and would recall good laws?" Now was the time to band themselves together and to remind him of his promise. So the barons, after carefully considering what old laws must be done away with, and what new and good laws must be made in their stead, drew up what they called their Great Charter (the Magna Charta, as it was called in Latin, and which you have all heard of) and reminded the King of his promise. But John had no intention whatever of keeping his word, and no sooner did he hear of the new charter than he began to collect an army to fight the barons.

Then, suddenly, one day the archbishop himself appeared in the King's camp, and reminded him of the service in the cathedral, and of his promise to his people. The King was in a terrible rage. "Rule you the Church," he answered, "and leave me to govern the State." At last, however, he said he would hear what the barons wanted; so sentence by sentence the archbishop read out to him the new charter, which he himself had helped the barons to make. "Why do not they demand my crown at once?" said the King, who was getting more angry at every word. "No liberties will I grant to those whose object it is to make me  their slave."

The archbishop and Lord Pembroke, who was with him, tried in vain to make him alter his mind. But it was of no use, and they had at last to go back to the barons and tell them the King would have nothing to say to them or their charter. This was bad news; but just at the same time came a message to them from London, to tell them that the citizens were all on their side. They could not, of course, open to them the gates of the City, as that would be treason, for which they might all be imprisoned, but if the army of God and the Church (for so the army of the barons was called) were by chance to be in the City they would certainly be made very welcome.

After this message it was easy to see what the Londoners meant. At certain hours, as was well known, the gates were always open. The 24th of May, in the year 1215, fell upon a Sunday, and on that day the gates were left open while the citizens went quietly to church. From time to time there seemed to be an unusual amount of stir and tramping in the streets, but no one would have liked to disturb the service by going out to see what it meant. At last the sermons were over, and the citizens, coming out of church, found the army of the barons had arrived before the walls, had found the gates open, had marched in and taken possession of London. The King could say nothing; they had not been let  in, and who could have imagined that there was any danger in leaving the gates open on a peaceful Sunday morning? However, there they were, and the King now began to see that he must once again give in. The barons were growing stronger and stronger; his own army was dwindling and dwindling. At last, when he had only seven knights left with him, he sent for Lord Pembroke, and said he would meet the barons when and where they liked. As you know, they fixed on a place called Runnymede, not far from Windsor, and there at last, on the 15th of June, he signed and sealed the Great Charter. The next year, on October 16, 1216, King John died.

Stephen Langton was at the time in Rome, and did not come back until two years afterwards. When the "good archbishop," as he was called, landed at Dover he was welcomed in a way which showed him that the people of England had not forgotten the friend who had fought so long and so bravely, not for himself, but for them, for their laws and their liberty.

The little King had been crowned at Gloucester soon after his father's death, but now it was decided that he must be crowned again by Stephen Langton. And so, on the 17th of May, 1220, the coronation of Henry III. took place with all pomp in Westminster Abbey. After the service the Magna Charta was again signed, and this time under the seal of the little King was the seal of the old Archbishop of Canterbury.

Having now done all he could for the good of his country, Stephen Langton thought and said that the time had come for him to cease to take part in public life. England was being well and wisely governed by his old friend the Earl of Pembroke, who was Regent for the little King. He knew, as so few people do know, when his share in public work was done; and so the "good archbishop" went back to his books and his work in and for the Church. By-and-by his brother of whom he was very fond, and who was much younger than himself, was made Archdeacon of Canterbury. Then much of his work was taken off his shoulders, and he himself went to live at one of his country houses at Slindon, not far from Chichester. Here the old archbishop spent the last years of his life, and here, on the 7th of July, 1228, he died. His body was taken to Canterbury to be buried, and there, in the Warrior's Chapel in his own cathedral, you will see the tomb of this warrior of the Church.

And now as we stand before the tomb of this old warrior of the Church we face the Reredos which actually stretches across the tombstone and which has been put up in memory of 6,000 officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the Buffs. On it we read that the memorial "is erected by their comrades and kinsfolk," and underneath are these words: "Their reward is also with the Lord, and the care of them is with the Most High." When you go to Canterbury you must make a point of being in the Warriors' Chapel punctually at 11 o'clock. For "every weekday at 11 o'clock," so Major Tomlinson of the Buffs tells the story, "a young private of the Buffs, chosen by the Regimental Sergeant-Major for his 'good conduct and special attention to duty' goes to the cathedral in order to turn a page of the Book of Life, which rests on a lectern near the Regimental War Memorial in the Warriors' Chapel. The Book contains the names of 6,000 officers and men who fell in the Great War, and in order to keep green in the minds of the younger generation of the Buffs the memory of those who laid down their lives this ceremony was devised. It is all over in a moment: the soldier procures the key and laying aside cap and gloves, unlocks the case and turns over a page; then having closed the case and resumed his cap he salutes the book and marches off." On the next page you will see the picture of the Warriors' Chapel and the private turning the page. People sometimes wonder about the name The Buffs. It is a very old regiment and was founded in May-Day, 1572, when Queen Elizabeth chose a party of the Trained Bands, as they were called, to go to the Lowlands and fight the Spaniards. The uniform was a red coat with buff lining and buff-coloured breeches and stockings. Hence the name the Buffs. Round the chapel are other colours, those of the 1st Battalion brought from India. The Service when they were received in the Warriors' Chapel was broadcast to India. So that the troops still there should take part in it. Then there are the colours of the 2nd Battalion and the four King's Colours belonging to four Service Battalions from Canterbury. These were carried into Cologne after the Armistice. Lastly there are the Colours of the 198th Battalion from Toronto. These Canadian troops were attached during the War to the Buffs, and when the regiment returned to Canada they asked that the colours should stay with the "Mother Regiment" as they called it.


Cathedral Studio, Canterbury

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