1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Langton, Stephen

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LANGTON, STEPHEN (d. 1228), cardinal and archbishop of Canterbury, was the son of English parents; but the date and place of his birth are unknown. Since he became early in his career a prebendary of York, and since his brother Simon (d. 1248) was elected[1] to that see in 1215, we may suppose the family to have been of northern extraction. Stephen, however, migrated to Paris, and having graduated in that university became one of its most celebrated theologians. This was probably the time when he composed his voluminous commentaries (many of which still exist in manuscript) and divided the Bible into chapters. At Paris also he contracted the friendship with Lothar of Segni, the future Innocent III., which played so important a part in shaping his career. Upon becoming pope, Innocent summoned Langton to Rome, and in 1206 designated him as cardinal-priest of S. Chrysogonus. Immediately afterwards Langton was drawn into the vortex of English politics.

Archbishop Hubert Walter had died in 1205, and the election of his successor had raised thorny questions. The suffragans of Canterbury claimed a share in choosing the new primate, although that right had been exclusively reserved to the monks of Canterbury by a papal privilege; and John supported the bishops since they were prepared to give their votes for his candidate, John de Gray, bishop of Norwich. A party of the younger monks, to evade the double pressure of the king and bishops, secretly elected their sub-prior Reginald and sent him to Rome for confirmation. The plot leaked out; the rest of the monks were induced to elect John de Gray, and he too was despatched to Rome. After hearing the case Innocent declared both elections void; and with John’s consent ordered that a new election should be made in his presence by the representatives of the monks. The latter, having confessed that they had given John a secret pledge to elect none but the bishop of Norwich, were released from the promise by Innocent; and at his suggestion elected Stephen Langton, who was consecrated by the pope on the 17th of June 1207. On hearing the news the king banished the monks of Canterbury and lodged a protest with the pope, in which he threatened to prevent any English appeals from being brought to Rome. Innocent replied by laying England under an interdict (March 1208), and excommunicating the king (November 1209). As John still remained obstinate, the pope at length invited the French king Philip Augustus to enter England and depose him. It was this threat which forced John to sue for a reconciliation; and the first condition exacted was that he should acknowledge Langton as archbishop. During these years Langton had been residing at Pontigny, formerly the refuge of Becket. He had addressed to the English people a dignified protest against the king’s conduct, and had at last pressed the pope to take extreme measures. But he had consistently adopted towards John as conciliatory an attitude as his duty to the church would allow, and had more than once entered upon negotiations for a peaceful compromise. Immediately after entering England (July 1213) he showed his desire for peace by absolving the king. But, unlike the pope, he gave ear to the popular cry for redress of political grievances; and persisted in associating with the baronial opposition, even after he was ordered by Innocent to excommunicate them as disturbers of the peace. Langton encouraged the barons to formulate their demands, and is said to have suggested that they should take their stand upon the charter of Henry I. It is uncertain what further share he took in drafting Magna Carta. At Runnymede he appeared as a commissioner on the king’s side, and his influence must therefore be sought in those clauses of the Charter which differ from the original petitions of the barons. Of these the most striking is that which confirms the “liberties” of the church; and this is chiefly remarkable for its moderation.

Soon after the issue of the charter the archbishop left England to attend the Fourth Lateran Council. At the moment of his departure he was suspended by the representatives of Innocent for not enforcing the papal censures against the barons. Innocent confirmed the sentence, which remained in force for two years. During this time the archbishop resided at Rome. He was allowed to return in 1218, after the deaths of Innocent and John. From that date till his death he was a tower of strength to the royal party. Through his influence Pandulf was recalled to Rome (1221) and Honorius III. promised that no legate should be sent to reside in England during the archbishop’s lifetime. In 1222, in a synod held at Oseney, he promulgated a set of Constitutions still recognized as forming a part of the law of the English Church. Beyond this little is recorded of his latter years. He died on the 9th of July 1228, and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, where his tomb, unless tradition errs, may still be seen.

The authorities are mainly those for the reign of John. No contemporary biography has come down to us. Some letters, by Langton and others, relating to the quarrel over his election are preserved in a Canterbury Chronicle (ed. W. Stubbs in the “Rolls” edition of Gervase of Canterbury, vol. ii.). There are many references to him in the correspondence of Innocent III. (Migne’s Patrologia Latina, vols. ccxiv.-ccxvii.). Of modern works see F. Hurter, Geschichte Papst Innocenz III. (Hamburg, 1841–1844); W. F. Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London, 1860–1876), and W. Stubbs’s preface to the second volume of Walter of Coventry (“Rolls” ed.), which devotes special attention to Langton. The MSS. of Langton’s writings are noticed in J. Bale’s Index Britanniae scriptorum (ed. R. L. Poole, 1902); his Constitutions are printed in D. Wilkin’s Concilia, vol. ii. (London, 1737).  (H. W. C. D.) 

Another English prelate who bore the name of Langton was Thomas Langton, bishop of Winchester, chaplain to Edward IV. In 1483 he was chosen bishop of St Davids; in 1485 he was made bishop of Salisbury and provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, and he became bishop of Winchester in 1493. In 1501 he was elected archbishop of Canterbury, but he died on the 27th of January 1501, before his election had been confirmed.

  1. Pope Innocent, however, would not confirm this election, and the disappointed candidate threw himself into the contest between the English barons on the one side and King John and the pope on the other. Later Simon made peace with Henry III. and was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury; he was consulted by Pope Gregory IX. and was sent to France on diplomatic business by Henry III.