1902 Encyclopedia > Stephen Langton

Stephen Langton
English prelate
(c. 1150 - 1228)

STEPHEN LANGTON, (c. 1150-1228), cardinal, forty-fourth archbishop of Canterbury, was born about the middle of the 12th century; the place of his birth is unknown, but his family almost certainly belonged to Yorkshire. He had already been made a prebendary of York, most probably at an early age, when he went to France and entered the university of Paris; there he soon rose to distinction alike in philosophy and theology, and ultimately, it is said, became chancellor or at least attained high rank in the governing body. One of his fellow students and intimate friends in Paris was Lothario, the nephew of Clement III., who when he in 1198 succeeded Celestine III. as Innocent III. forthwith appointed Langtoii to a post in his household. In 1206 he became cardinal priest of St Chrysogonus, a promotion on which he received the written congratulations of his sovereign King John. It was shortly after this that he first became involved in the great constitutional struggles with which his name is so honourably associated. In 1205 Hubert Walter of Canterbury had died, and there were urged at Rome the claims of two rival candidates for the vacant see,—Reginald the subprior of Christ Church, Canterbury, who had been the sudden and unauthorized choice of a majority of the monks, and John de Gray, bishop of Norwich, whom the dissenting minority had subsequently elected with the royal sanction. Setting aside both claims, and also the appeal of the suffragans of Canterbury with the chapter, who maintained that the right of election was theirs, Innocent commanded the monks then present in Rome to proceed to a new election in his presence, Langton being the candidate set before them. Elected he accordingly was, and afterwards consecrated by the pope himself at Viterbo in June 1207. John immediately retaliated by banishing the monks of Canterbury, afterwards writing an angry and threatening letter to the pope. Innocent replied with firmness, but, finding John immovable, ultimately declared his resolution to enforce submission to his will by laying England under an interdict, a resolution which was carried into effect in March 1208. For the next few years, all negotiations for his admission to his see having failed, Langton had his home in the Cistercian monastery of Pontigny near Sens in France, which thus became a principal resort of English malcontents and refugees. In the summer of 1212 he accompanied the bishops of London and Ely to Rome, and it was in consequence of their representations that deposition was passed upon John ; the same prelates were also present at the great assembly of Soissons (April 1213), where a crusade against the king of England was set on foot, under the leadership of Philip of France. In the following May John made his peace, agreeing to recognize Langton, receive the exiled clergy, and restore the property which he had confiscated. Langton did not actually reach England till July, when (July 20, 1213) he performed his first episcopal act by pronouncing the absolution of the excommunicated John, who swore that all the laws of his grandfather Henry I. should be kept by all throughout the kingdom, and that all unjust laws should be utterly abolished. This oath the king was held by the archbishop to have violated almost immediately in levying war irregularly against the barons who had not illegally, deserted him at Portsmouth ; and at the meeting held in St Paul's, London, on August 25, 1214, it was Langton who produced the old charter of Henry I., and suggested the demand for its renewal, a suggestion which in the following year issued in the concession of Magna Charta at Runnyrnede. Soon afterwards the archbishop left England for Rome to attend the fourth Lateran council, but not before he had by the commissioners of the pope been pronounced contumacious, and declared to be suspended for his refusal to publish the excommunication of the English barons who had joined in obtaining the great charter. At Rome, where the sentence of his suspension was confirmed, he remained from November 1215 till May 1218; in September of the latter year he presided in the council held at London, where Magna Charta was solemnly confirmed ; and on May 17, 1220, he officiated at the re-coronation of Henry III. In the same year the "translation" of St Thomas of Canterbury took place. Among the fragmentary notices we possess of the remainder of Langton's life are mentioned his demand in name of the barons for royal confirmation of the charter at London in 1223. He died at Slindon on July 9, 1228.

The principal authority for the events of the life of Langton is the Chronicle of Roger of Wendover. See Hook's Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. ii. ; Pearson's History of England, vol. ii. ; and Pauli's continuation of Lappenberg's Geschichte von England, vol. iii.

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