Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Langton, Stephen

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551605Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 32 — Langton, Stephen1892Kate Norgate

LANGTON, STEPHEN (d. 1228), archbishop of Canterbury and cardinal, was son of Henry de Langton, and certainly an Englishman by birth, though from which of the many Langtons in England his family took its name there is no evidence to show. He studied at the university of Paris, became a doctor in the faculties of arts and theology, and acquired a reputation for learning and holiness which gained him a prebend in the cathedral church of Paris and another in that of York. He continued to live in Paris and to lecture on theology there till in 1206 Pope Innocent III called him to Rome and made him cardinal-priest of St. Chrysogonus. Walter of Coventry says that he taught theology at Rome also, and Roger of Wendover declares that the Roman court had not his equal for learning and moral excellence. He had long been on intimate terms with the French king Philip Augustus, and King John of England now wrote to congratulate him on his promotion, saying that he had been on the point of inviting him to his own court. It is clear that Langton was already the most illustrious living churchman of English birth when a struggle for the freedom of the see of Canterbury opened, in July 1205, on the death of Hubert Walter [q. v.] An irregular election of Reginald, the sub-prior, made secretly by some of the younger monks, and a more formal but equally uncanonical election of John de Grey [q. v.], made under pressure from the king, were both alike quashed on appeal at Rome in December 1206. Sixteen monks of Christ Church were present, armed with full power to act for the whole chapter, and also with a promise of the king's assent to whatever they might do in its name; this promise, however, had been given them only on a secret condition, unknown to the brotherhood whom they represented, that they should do nothing except re-elect John de Grey. Innocent now bade them, as proctors for their convent, choose for primate whom they would, ‘so he were but a fit man, and, above all, an Englishman.’ With Langton sitting in his place among the cardinals, the suggestion of his name followed as a matter of course. The monks were driven to confess their double-dealing and that of the king; Innocent scornfully absolved them from their shameful compact; all save one elected Stephen Langton, and the pope wrote to demand from John the fulfilment of his promise to ratify their choice. John in a fury refused to have anything to do with a man whom, he now declared, he knew only as a dweller among his enemies. When Stephen was consecrated by the pope at Viterbo, 17 June 1207, John proclaimed that any one who acknowledged him as archbishop should be accounted a public enemy; the Canterbury monks, now unanimous in adhering to Stephen as the representative of their church's independence, were expelled 15 July, and the archbishop's father fled into exile at St. Andrews. To Innocent's threat of interdict (27 Aug.) John replied in November by giving to another man Stephen's prebend at York. In March 1208 the interdict was proclaimed.

Stephen's attitude thus far had been a passive one. To the announcement of his election he had replied that he was not his own master, but was entirely at the pope's disposal. After his consecration he appealed to his suffragans, in a tone of dignified modesty, for support under the burden laid upon him (Cant. Chron. pp. lxxv–vi), and at once set out for his see; all hope of reaching it was, however, precluded by the violence of John. Pontigny for the second time opened its doors to an exiled archbishop of Canterbury (Martene, Thesaur. Anecdot. iii. 1246–7), and was probably his headquarters during the next five years; a story of his having been chancellor of Paris during this period seems to rest upon a double confusion of persons and of offices (Du Boulay, Hist. Univ. Paris, iii. 711). Throughout those years his part in the struggle between Innocent and John was always that of peace-maker. At the first tidings of the expulsion of the monks he had addressed a letter to the English people, setting the main outlines of the case briefly and temperately before them, warning them of the probable consequences, giving them advice and encouragement for the coming time of trial, and identifying his own interests entirely with theirs; of personal bitterness there is not a trace, and of personal grievances not a word (Cant. Chron. pp. lxxviii–lxxxiii). The same note of mingled firmness and moderation rings through a letter to the Bishop of London, empowering him to act in the primate's stead against the despoilers of Canterbury (ib. pp. lxxxiii–v), and another to the king, warning him of the evils he was bringing upon his realm, and offering an immediate relaxation of the interdict if he would come to a better mind (D'Achéry, Spicilegium, iii. 568). In September 1208 John invited Stephen to a meeting in England, and sent him a safe-conduct for three weeks; he addressed it, however, not to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but to 'Stephen Langton, cardinal of the Roman see;' Stephen therefore could not accept it, as to do so would have been to acknowledge that his election was invalid. A mitigation of the interdict, granted early in 1209, was due to his intercession, and it seems to have been partly his reluctance that delayed the excommunication of John himself. Towards the close of the year he sent his steward to John with overtures for reconciliation; this time the king responded by letters patent, inviting 'my lord of Canterbury' to a meeting at Dover. Thither Stephen came (2 Oct.) with the Bishops of London and Ely; John, however, would go no nearer to them than Chilham; the justiciar and the Bishop of Winchester, whom he sent to treat with them in his stead, refused to ratify the terms previously arranged; and Stephen went back into exile. On 20 Dec. he consecrated Hugh of Wells to the bishopric of Lincoln, Hugh having gone to him for that purpose in defiance of the king's order that he should be consecrated by the Archbishop of Rouen. Next year (1210) John again tried to lure Stephen across the Channel. Stephen declared his readiness to go on three conditions: that he should have a safe-conduct in proper form; that, once in England, he should be allowed to exercise his archiepiscopal functions there; and that no terms should be required of him, save those proposed on his last visit to Dover. He then proceeded to Wissant to await John's reply. It came in the shape of an irregular safe-conduct, not by letters patent according to custom, but by letters close, and accompanied by a warning from some of the English nobles which made him return to France. Envoys from John followed him thither, but failed to move him from his quiet adherence to the terms already laid down. What moved him at last was his country's growing misery. In the winter of 1212 he went with the bishops of London and Ely to Rome, to urge upon Innocent the necessity of taking energetic measures for putting an end to the state of affairs in England. In January 1213 the three prelates brought back to the French court a sentence of deposition against John, the execution of which was committed to Philip of France. In May John yielded all, and far more than all, that he had been refusing for the last six years, and issued letters patent proclaiming peace and restitution to the archbishop and his fellow-exiles, and inviting them to return at once. At the end of June or beginning of July they landed at Dover; on 17 or 18 July John met them at Porchester, fell at the archbishop's feet with a 'Welcome, father!' and kissed him. Langton's eagerness to forgive overleapt the bounds of the pope's instructions and the usual forms of ecclesiastical procedure, and without more ado he performed his first episcopal acts in England on Sunday 20 July, by absolving his sovereign in the chapter-house of Winchester Cathedral, and afterwards celebrating mass in his presence and giving him the kiss of peace.

Stranger to his native land as he had been for so many years, intimate friend of a foreign and hostile sovereign as John charged him with being, faithful and submissive servant of a foreign pontiff as he undoubtedly was, Stephen nevertheless fell at once, as if by the mere course of nature, into the old constitutional position of the primate of all England, as keeper of the king's conscience and guardian of the nation's safety, temporal as well as spiritual. On 4 Aug. 1213 he was present at a council at St. Albans, where the promises of amendment with which John purchased absolution were renewed by the justiciar in the king's name, and in a more definite form; the standard of good government now set up being 'the laws of Henry I,' in other words, the liberties which Henry had guaranteed by his charter. On 25 Aug. Stephen opened a council of churchmen at Westminster with a sermon on the text, 'My heart hath trusted in God, and I am helped; therefore my flesh hath rejoiced.' 'Thou liest,' cried one of the crowd; 'thy heart never trusted in God, and thy flesh never rejoiced.' The man was seized by those who stood around him and beaten till he was rescued by the officers of justice, when the archbishop resumed his discourse. He had, it seems, specially invited certain lay barons to be present at the council; at its close he brought forth and read out to them the text of Henry's charter, and exchanged with them a solemn promise of mutual support for the vindication of its principles, whenever a fitting time should come. The time was close at hand. John, having exasperated his already sorely aggrieved barons by demanding their services for an expedition to Poitou, was at that very moment on his way to punish by force of arms the refusal of the northern nobles. Stephen hurried after him, overtook him at Northampton, and remonstrated strongly, but in vain; he then followed him to Nottingham, and there, by threatening to excommunicate every man in the royal host save the king himself, compelled him to give up his lawless vengeance and promise the barons a day for the trial of their claims. The dispute, however, was no nearer settlement when the legate Nicolas of Tusculum came to raise the interdict and receive a repetition of John's homage to the pope. Stephen's attitude in this last matter is not quite clear. Matthew Paris represents him as strongly opposed to the whole transaction, stating that when Pandulf [q. v.], on his return to France in the spring of 1213, trod under foot the money which had been given him as earnest of the tribute, the archbishop 'sorrowfully remonstrated' (Chron. Maj. ii. 546), and that he not only 'protested with deep sighing, both secretly and openly,' against John's homage to Nicolas, but even appealed against it publicly in St. Paul's (ib. iii. 208). But the writers of the day mention nothing of the kind, and Matthew's story probably represents rather his own view, coloured by the experiences of a later time, of what the archbishop's feelings and actions ought to have been than what they actually were. By the opening of next year, however, Stephen and the legate differed upon another ground. Nicolas was using his legatine authority to support the king in filling up vacant abbacies according to his royal pleasure, without regard either to the general interests of the English church or to the diocesan and metropolitical rights of the bishops and their primate. They discussed the matter in a council at Dunstable in January 1214, and thence Stephen despatched to the legate a notice of appeal against his conduct. Nicolas, with the king's concurrence, sent Pandulf to oppose the appeal at Rome; there the case was hotly argued between Pandulf and Stephen's brother Simon [see Langton, Simon]; and though for the moment Stephen's opponents seemed to have gained the pope's ear, his expostulations were probably not altogether useless, for in October Nicolas was recalled.

At Epiphany 1215 the aggrieved barons went in a body to John and demanded the fulfilment of Henry's charter. Again Stephen took up the position of mediator; he was one of three sureties for the redemption of the king's promises before the close of Easter. When at the end of that time the barons rose in arms he remained at the king's side, not as his partisan, but as the advocate of his subjects; together with William Marshal, earl of Pembroke [q. v.], he carried overtures of reconciliation from John to the barons at Brackley (April), and it was he who brought back and read out to the king the articles which were at last formally embodied in the Great Charter (15 June). The Tower of London was then entrusted to him till a dispute about its rightful custody should be settled, and Rochester Castle, which was also in dispute between the see of Canterbury and the diocesan bishop, was likewise restored to him. Some three months later John summoned him to give up both fortresses, but Stephen refused to do so without legal warrant. Meanwhile John had succeeded only too well in misrepresenting to Innocent III the actions and motives of the constitutional leaders, including the archbishop. On 16 Aug. Stephen and his suffragans, gathered at Oxford for a meeting with John, received a papal letter bidding them, on pain of suspension, cause all 'disturbers of king and kingdom' to be publicly denounced as excommunicate throughout the country on every Sunday and holiday till peace was restored. As no names were mentioned the application of the sentence was uncertain; the archbishop and bishops, therefore, after some hesitation, published it at Staines on 26 Aug. Once published, however, they took no further notice of it till the pope's commissioners, Pandulf and the Bishop of Winchester, summoned Stephen to urge upon his suffragans and enforce in his own diocese its public repetition on the appointed days. Stephen, on the point of setting out for a council at Rome, answered that he believed the sentence to have been issued by the pope under a misapprehension, and that he would do nothing further in the matter till he had spoken about it with Innocent himself, whereupon the commissioners suspended him from all ecclesiastical functions. Ralph of Coggeshall says that they shouted their sentence after him as he set sail, and Walter of Coventry that Pandulf followed him across the sea to deliver it. He accepted it without protest; he was, in fact, contemplating escape from a sphere in which all his efforts seemed doomed to failure, by withdrawal to a hermitage or a Carthusian cell. From this project he was warmly dissuaded by Gerald of Wales (Gir. Cambr. Opp. i. 401–7); but he seems to have still cherished it on his arrival at Rome. Confronted there by two envoys from John, who charged him with complicity in a plot of the barons to dethrone the king, and contempt of the papal mandate for the excommunication of the rebels, he made no defence, but simply begged to be absolved from suspension. Innocent, however, confirmed the sentence 4 Nov. Matthew Paris (Hist. Angl. ii. 468) adds that he even, at John's instigation, proposed to deprive the archbishop of his see, but was dissuaded by the unanimous remonstrances of the other cardinals. Reading this story by the light of Gerald's letter we may well suspect it to be but a distorted account of a resignation voluntarily tendered by Stephen himself. Again he submitted in silence. He spent the winter at Rome, and in the spring was released from suspension, on condition of standing to the pope's judgment on the charges against him, and keeping out of England till peace was restored. The first condition expired with Innocent III in July 1216; the second was fulfilled in September 1217, when the treaty of Lambeth rallied all parties round the throne of Henry III; and the primate came home once more, 'with the favour of the Roman court,' in May 1218 (Ann. Worc. and Chron. Mailros, ann. 1218).

For nearly two years he was free to devote himself entirely to the ecclesiastical duties of his office. He at once began preparations for a translation of the relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury; shortly afterwards Pope Honorius III commissioned him to investigate, conjointly with the abbot of Fountains, the grounds of a proposal for the canonisation of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln [q. v.]. In the spring of 1220 Honorius ordered that the unavoidable irregularities of the young king's first crowning [see Henry III] should be set right by a second coronation, to be performed at Westminster, according to ancient precedent, by the Archbishop of Canterbury; this order was joyfully obeyed by Stephen on Whitsunday, 17 May. On this occasion the primate gave an address to the people, exhorting them to take the cross, and published Honorius's bull for the canonisation of St. Hugh. On 7 July he presided over the most splendid ceremony that had ever taken place in his cathedral church, the translation of the relics of St. Thomas, amid a concourse of pilgrims of all ranks and all nations, such as had never been seen in England before, for all of whom he provided entertainment at his own cost, in a temporary 'palace' run up for the occasion on a scale and in a fashion so astonishing to his contemporaries that they 'thought there could have been nothing like it since Solomon's time.' Immediately after Michaelmas he set out for Rome, 'on business of the realm and the church.' He carried with him a portion of the relics of St. Thomas, and at the pope's desire the first thing he did on his arrival was to deliver to the Roman people a sermon on the English martyr. He demanded of the pope three things: that all assumption of metropolitical dignity by the Archbishop of York in the southern province should be once more forbidden; that the papal claim of provision should never be exercised twice for the same benefice; and that during his own lifetime no resident legate should be again sent to England. This last demand aimed at securing England's political, as well as ecclesiastical, independence against a continuance of the dictation to which she was at present subject from Pandulf. Honorius not only granted all three requests, but at once desired Pandulf to resign his office as legate (Cont. Flor. Wig. ann. 1221; Matt. West. ann. 1221). Stephen did not return to England till August 1221, having stopped on the way in Paris, where he was commissioned by the pope to assist the bishops of Troyes and Lisieux in settling a dispute between the university and its diocesan (Denifle, Chart. Univ. Paris. pp. 98, 102). Early next year he met his fellow-primate of York on the borders of their respective provinces; they failed to settle the questions of privilege in debate between their sees; but in the hands of Stephen Langton and Walter de Grey [q.v.] the debate was a peaceful one, and fraught with no danger to either church or state. On Sunday, 17 April 1222, Stephen opened a church council at Osney which is to the ecclesiastical history of England what the assembly at Runnymede in June 1215 is to her secular history. Its decrees, known as the Constitutions of Stephen Langton, are 'the earliest provincial canons which are still recognised as binding in our ecclesiastical courts.'

From the establishment of ordered freedom in the church the archbishop turned again to the vindication of ordered freedom in the state. Already, in January 1222, he had had to summon a meeting of bishops in London to make peace among the counsellors who were quarrelling for mastery over the young king, in which he succeeded for the moment by threatening to excommunicate the troublers of the land. A week after Epiphany 1223 he acted as leader and spokesman of the barons who demanded of Henry III the confirmation of the charter. The shift with which William Brewer tried to put them off in the king's name—'the charter was extorted by violence, and is therefore invalid'—provoked the one angry outburst recorded of Stephen Langton: 'William, if you loved the king, you would not thus thwart the peace of his realm;' and the archbishop's unusual warmth startled Henry into promising a fresh inquiry into the ancient liberties of England. For this, however, Henry seems to have substituted an inquiry into the privileges of the crown as John had held them before the war (Fœdera, i. 168). It was probably in despair of getting rid by any other means of the foreigners who counselled or abetted such double dealing as this, that Stephen and the other English ministers of state suggested to the pope that the young king should be declared of age to rule for himself. A bull to that effect, issued in April, probably arrived while the primate was absent on a fruitless mission to France, in company with the bishops of London and Salisbury, to demand from Louis VIII, who had just (August) succeeded to the crown, the restoration of Normandy promised to Henry by the treaty of Lambeth. Some time in the autumn the bull was read in a council in London. The party of anarchy among the barons, headed by the Earl of Chester and Falkes de Breauté [q.v.], attempted to seize the Tower, and, failing, withdrew to Waltham. Stephen and the bishops persuaded them to return and make submission to the king, but they still refused to be reconciled with the justiciar, Hubert de Burgh [q.v.], and from the Christmas court at Northampton they withdrew in a body to Leicester. The archbishop again, on St. Stephen's day, excommunicated all 'disturbers of the realm,' and then wrote to the 'schismatics' at Leicester that unless they surrendered their castles to the king at once he would excommunicate every one of them by name; this 'communication and commination' brought them to submission 29 Dec. In June 1224, when a fresh outrage of Falkes compelled the king to proceed against him by force, the archbishop sanctioned the grant of an aid from the clergy to defray the cost of the expedition, accompanied Henry in person to the siege of Bedford Castle, and excommunicated the offender. He absolved him, indeed, soon after at the bidding of Pope Honorius, whose ear Falkes had contrived to gain; but by that time Falkes was on the eve of surrender, and when his wife appealed to the archbishop for protection against the claims of a husband to whom she had been married against her will, Stephen successfully maintained her cause, and that of England's peace, against both Falkes and Honorius. On 8 Oct. the archbishop was at Worcester, deciding a suit between the bishop of that see and the monks of his chapter. At Christmas he was at Westminster with the king, when Hubert de Burgh, in Henry's name, demanded a fifteenth from clergy and laity for the war in Poitou. Led by the primate, the bishops and barons granted the demand (2 Feb. 1225), on condition that the charter should be confirmed at once; and this time the condition was fulfilled. A fresh difficulty with Rome threatened to spring up at the close of the year, when a papal envoy, Otto, arrived with a demand that in every conventual or collegiate church the revenue of one prebend, or its yearly equivalent, should be devoted to the needs of the Roman court. Once more the difficulty was turned by the primate. By his advice the matter was deferred to a council at Westminster on the octave of Epiphany (1226). The king's illness and the absence of several bishops, including, it seems, Stephen himself, caused a further postponement till after Easter; and then the rejection of the pope's claim was a foregone conclusion, for meanwhile Stephen had persuaded Honorius virtually to abandon it by recalling Otto. Having thus, as he trusted, secured the liberties of the state and the church in general, Stephen in 1228 applied himself to recover for his own see certain of its ancient privileges and immunities which had fallen into desuetude. He offered the king three thousand marks for their restoration, but proved his case so clearly that Henry remitted the offer. Shortly afterwards the archbishop fell sick, and withdrew to his manor of Slindon, Sussex, where he died. The dates of his death and burial are given by the chroniclers of the time in a strangely conflicting and self-contradictory way; the most probable solution of the puzzle seems to be that he died on 9 July 1228, and was buried on the 15th at Canterbury, whither his body had been transported from Slindon on the 13th (Gerv. Cant. ii. 115; Rog. Wend. iv. 170; Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. iii. 157, and Hist. Angl. ii. 302; Ann. Worc. ann. 1228; Cont. Flor. Wig. ann. 1228; Stubbs, Reg. Sacr. Anglic. p. 37). Five years later Bishop Henry of Rochester proclaimed that he had seen in a vision the souls of Stephen Langton and Richard I released from purgatory, both on the same day. The pope himself did not hesitate to declare, a few months after the primate's death, that 'the custodian of the earthly paradise of Canterbury, Stephen of happy memory, a man pre-eminently endued with the gifts of knowledge and supernal grace, has been called, as we hope and believe, to the joy and rest of paradise above.' A tomb, fixed in a very singular position in the wall of St. Michael's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, is shown as the resting-place of his mortal remains; but the tradition is of doubtful authenticity.

Stephen Langton's political services to his country and his national church were but a part of his work for the church at large. A great modern scholar has called him, 'next to Bede, the most voluminous and original commentator on the Scriptures this country has produced.' It was as a theologian, 'second to none in his own day' (Ann. Wav. ann. 1228), that he was chiefly famed throughout the middle ages. He left glosses, commentaries, expositions, treatises, on almost all the books of the Old Testament, besides a large number of sermons. The many copies of these various works preserved in the university and college libraries of Oxford and Cambridge, at Lambeth Palace, and in different libraries in France, bear witness to the lofty and widespread esteem in which they and their author were held. The only portion of Stephen's writings which has been printed, except the few letters already referred to, is a treatise on the translation of St. Thomas the Martyr, probably an expanded version of the sermon preached on that occasion. One memorial of his pious industry is still in daily use: either in the early days when he was lecturing on theology, or during one of his periods of exile, 'he coted the Bible at Parys and marked the chapitres' (Higden, Polychronicon, l. vii. c. 34, trans. Trevisa) according to the division which has been generally adopted ever since. His literary labours were not confined to theology; he was, moreover, an historian and a poet. He wrote a 'Life of Richard I,' of which the sole extant remains are embodied in the 'Polychronicon' of Ralph Higden, who 'studied to take the floures of Stevenes book' for his own account of that king (ib. c. 25). Several bibliographers mention among Langton's writings two other historical works: a 'Life of Mahomet' and 'Annals of the Archbishops of Canterbury.' Of the former, however, nothing is now known, while the ascription of the latter to Stephen seems to have originated in a confusion between the owner and the author of two manuscripts now in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (lxxvi and cccclxvii). In Leland's day Canterbury College, Oxford, possessed a poem in heroic verse called 'Hexameron,' and said to be written by Langton, and Oudin mentions a 'Carmen de Contemptu Mundi' among the manuscripts at Lambeth. Both of these seem to be now lost, but a rhythmical poem entitled 'Documenta Clericorum,' ascribed to the same writer, is still in the Bodleian Library (Bodl. MS. 57, f. 66 b). More interesting still is a 'Sermon by Stephen Langton on S. Mary, in verse partly Latin, partly French,' of which a thirteenth-century manuscript is preserved in the British Museum (Arundel 292, f. 38). The sermon begins and ends with a few Latin rhymes; its main part is in Latin prose, and its text is, not a passage from Scripture, but a verse of a French song upon a lady called 'la bele Aliz,' to which the preacher contrives very skilfully to give an excellent spiritual interpretation. Another copy of this sermon, followed by a theological drama and a long canticle on the Passion, both in French verse, was found in the Duke of Norfolk's library by the Abbé de la Rue, who attributed all three works to the same author ( Archæologia, xiii. 232–3); but it is doubtful whether their juxtaposition in this manuscript is more than accidental (Price, note to Warton, Hist. Engl. Poetry, 1840, ii. 28). There is, however, other evidence of the interest with which the greatest scholar of his day regarded the vernacular tongue of the land where his learning had been acquired. The earliest legal document known to have been drawn up in England, since the Conqueror's time, in any language other than Latin, is a French charter issued by Stephen Langton in January 1215 (Rot. Chart. 209). The land of his birth needs no other proof of his loyalty to her than the Great Charter of her freedom.

[The chief original authorities for Stephen Langton's life are a Canterbury Chronicle printed in Bishop Stubbs's edition of Gervase of Canterbury, vol. ii., appendix to preface; Roger of Wendover; Walter of Coventry; Matthew Paris; Ralph of Coggeshall; Annales Monastici; Royal Letters (all in Rolls Series); Close and Patent Rolls (Record Commission); and the Life and Letters of Innocent III (Migne, Patrologia, vols. ccxiv. ccxv.). For his political career, see Stubbs's Constitutional History and Preface to W. Coventry, vol. ii. A full biography of him has yet to be written; we have only sketches of his life, character, and work, from three very different points of view, by Dean Hook in his Archbishops of Canterbury, by Mr. C. E. Maurice in his English Popular Leaders, and by the Rev. Mark Pattison in the Lives of the English Saints edited by Dr. Newman. His Constitutions are printed in Wilkins's Concilia, vol. ii., and his Libellus de Translatione S. Thomæ at the end of Lupus's Quadrilogus and Dr. Giles's Sanctus Thomas Cantuariensis. His sermon on 'la bele Aliz' is translated in T. Wright's Biographia Britannica Literaria, vol. ii.]

K. N.