Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1658/The Pope and Magna Charta

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From The Contemporary Review.



About two years ago, in speaking of the conflict of S. Edmund of Canterbury against Henry III. for the liberties of the Church, I pointed out that his contest was only one of many periods in the continuous resistance to royal excesses, in behalf of the laws and liberties of England, maintained by S. Anselm, S. Thomas, Archbishop Langton, and S. Edmund. I might have added, by Archbishop Richard, his immediate predecessor. This statement was next day met by the old taunt that the pope condemned Magna Charta. I then shortly pointed out the distinction, here again asserted, between the mode in which the Great Charter was obtained, and the contents or merits of the Great Charter itself. The former, not the latter, was condemned.

Before I enter upon this point, I cannot refrain from quoting a passage from the preface of Professor Stubbs, in his volume of "Documents Illustrative of English History." And in doing so I must express my grateful sense of the service he has rendered to historical truth. His small volume stands alone for learning and discernment.

Describing the period I was speaking of, he says: —

The political situation may generally be stated thus: Since the Conquest, the political constituents of the nation had been divided into two parties, which may be called the national and the feudal. The former comprised the king, the ministerial nobility, which were created by Henry I. and Henry II., and which, if less richly endowed than that of the Conquest, was more widely spread and had more English sympathies; the other contained the great nobles of the Conquest, and the always large but varying body of lower vassals, who were intent on pursuing the policy of foreign feudalism. The national party was also generally in close alliance with the clergy, whose zeal for their own privileges extended to the defence of the classes from whom they chiefly sprang, and whose vindication of class liberties maintained in the general recollection the possibility of resisting oppression.
The clergy may be roughly divided into three schools—the secular, or statesman school; the ecclesiastical, or professional; and the devotional, or spiritual. Of these the representative men are Roger of Salisbury, Henry of Winchester, and Anselm of Canterbury. Thomas the Martyr more or less combines the characters of the three throughout his life. The three stages through which he passed—that of chancellor, that of primate, and that of candidate for martyrdom (sit venia egregio auctori)—answer well to the three schools of the clergy. Throughout the whole period, the first of these schools was consistently on the side of the king, the last as consistently on the side of the nation; the second, when its own privileges were not in danger, as from the peace of the Church, in 1107, to the Beckett quarrel, and after the conclusion of that quarrel, continuously on the same side. No division of the clergy ever sympathized with the feudal party.[1]

Again Mr. Stubbs writes: —

From the beginning of the thirteenth century the struggle is between the barons, clergy, and people on one side, and the king and his personal partisans, English and foreign, on the other. The barons and prelates who drew up the charter were the sons of the ministerial nobles of Henry II., the imitators of S. Anselm and S. Hugh, of Henry of Winchester and Thomas of Canterbury.[2]

But does not this show that if the spiritual prelates were with the people, they were certainly with the pope, by whom they were canonized? How, then, was not the pope with the people and its Christian liberties?

I will now give evidence of my assertion that the barons, and not the contents of the charter, were condemned by Innocent III.

I. Let us first examine the antecedents of the conflict between John and the barons, out of which the Great Charter arose.

It is simply impossible to form an adequate conception of this conflict unless we go back to the reign of our earlier kings. Mr. Stubbs, in his valuable work "The Memorials of S. Dunstan," gives the promissio regis, or the oath taken at his coronation by the Saxon king Edwy, which is as follows: —

This writing is written, letter by letter, after the writing that Archbishop Dunstan delivered to our lord at Kingston, on the day that they hallowed him king; and he forbade him to give any pledge except this pledge which he laid up on Christ's altar, as the bishop directed him: "In the name of the Holy Trinity I promise three things to the Christian people, my subjects: first that God's Church and all Christian people of my dominions hold true peace; the second is that I forbid robbery, and all unrighteous things, to all orders; the third, that I promise and enjoin in all dooms justice and mercy, that the gracious and merciful God, of His everlasting mercy, may forgive us all who liveth and reigneth."[3]

Here we have the germ of the oaths and charters of the Norman times.

It may be indeed true that there did not exist any very precise code to which the people of England, after the Conquest, were always appealing as to "the laws of good King Edward." Nevertheless there was a well-known tradition of ecclesiastical and popular liberties partly written, but chiefly unwritten, descending from the legislation and the usage of Saxon times. These liberties were frequently violated, even by the Saxon kings. Edward the Confessor wielded an authority, from his known integrity and fidelity to God and his people, which enabled him to promote ecclesiastics in a way hardly consistent with the perfect freedom of elections. The electors acquiesced in what was well done, though in the doing of it a good king set a dangerous example for bad kings to quote. The laws and liberties of England were guaranteed by the coronation oaths of every sovereign. Saxon and Dane alike swore to preserve them. William the Conqueror and his successors, in like manner, bound themselves by, their coronation oaths to respect them.

But the conflict between traditional liberties and royal customs, which began before the Conquest, became sharper and less tolerable after the Conquest. The rule of our foreign kings was especially despotic, and, under them, the conflict between legal rights and royal usages brought on the conflict of S. Anselm with Henry I., and the martyrdom of S. Thomas of Canterbury under Henry II.

These laws and liberties may be divided and classed under two heads: first, the liberties of the Church, in its tribunals, goods, appeals, and elections; and secondly, the liberties of the people in respect to inheritance, taxation, military service, and the like.

We need only to take one example which will serve as the illustration and proof of what I assert.

Henry I., at his coronation, issued a charter of liberties. It is, in fact, an amplification of the coronation oath, which runs as follows: —

In the name of Christ I promise to the Christian people subject to me these three things. First, that I will order, and according to my power will take care, that the Church of God and all Christian people shall enjoy true peace by our will at all times: secondly, that I will forbid rapacity and iniquity to all degrees of men: thirdly, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments, that God, who is pitiful and merciful, may grant to me His mercy.[4]

This was the bond given by the king to his people, upon which he received the threefold sanction of election by the nation, unction by the Church, and homage from his vassals. This oath is also a limitation of the excesses of William I. and William Rufus. It is also a renunciation of the unlawful customs of the latter, and a restoration of the lawful freedom of the people. This, in fact, is what was intended by the "laws of King Edward." And in this outline we see exactly the causes of conflict, namely, the oppression of the Church by the royal power in the case of vacancies and elections, and the oppression of the barons and tenants by exactions of money and taxation. [5]

The charter of Henry I. runs as follows: —

In the year of the incarnation of our Lord 1051, Henry, son of William the king, after the death of his brother William, by the grace of God king of the English, to all the faithful health.
i. Know ye that by the mercy of God, and common counsel of the barons of the whole kingdom of England, I have been crowned king of the same kingdom; and forasmuch as the kingdom has been oppressed by unjust exactions, I, in the fear of God, and in the love I bear towards you, first set free the Holy Church of God, so that I will not sell or pledge (its goods). Nor on the death of archbishop, bishop, or abbot will I receive anything of the domain of the Church, nor of its members, until a successor shall enter upon it. And all evil customs by which the kingdom of England was unjustly oppressed I will take away, Which evil customs I here in part recite.

Then follow the articles. The second article relates to inheritance.

The third and fourth to widows.

The fifth to coinage and false money.

The sixth to pleas and debts; the six following to dues, and sureties, and murder, and forests, and the like.

The thirteenth is, "The law of King Edward I restore to you, with the amendments by which my father, with the advice of his barons, amended it."[6]

I have given this outline of the charter of Henry I. more fully because it is in germ the Magna Charta of Runnymede. In the following reign Stephen issued two charters in the same express terms. The first, which is the shorter, runs as follows: —

Know ye that I have granted, and by this my present charter have confirmed, to all my barons and men in England, all the liberties and good laws which Henry, king of the English, my uncle, gave and granted to them; and I grant to them all good laws and good customs which they had in the time of King Edward.

Nevertheless Stephen went to war with his barons and his bishops. Both parties fought with foreign mercenary troops, to the great misery of the English people.[7]

Henry II. swore, at his consecration, to respect the same laws and liberties. He also issued a charter of liberties; and in a parliament in London, "he renewed the peace, and laws, and customs which obtained from ancient times throughout England."[8] Through the whole of his reign Henry endeavoured to enforce his royal "customs," the "avitas consuetudines" of his ancestors, as against the laws and liberties of England. On one occasion, when he swore by God's eyes that he would exact a certain payment from tenants of land, S. Thomas, to protect the people from an oppressive custom, withstood him, saying, "By the eyes by which you have sworn, not a penny shall be paid from all my land!" The constitutions of Clarendon were in direct violation of the laws and liberties to which the king had bound himself by oath and by charter. They violated the liberties of the Church in its tribunals, appeals, elections.

In the reign of Henry II., the conflict was chiefly with S. Thomas and the Church. The barons sided with the king. They were siding with the stronger, little knowing that they were preparing a scourge for their own back; and that their own turn would come next. In truth, the conflict is always one and the same — the king sometimes against the barons, sometimes against the bishops, sometimes against both: it is always the same in kind — that is, of the royal customs violating the laws and liberties, civil and ecclesiastical, of the English people.

We come now to the reign of John. Mr. Stubbs says that the reign of Richard had separated the interests of the crown from the interests of the people. The reign of John brought the interests of the people and those of the barons into the closest harmony.[9] Both alike suffered from arbitrary and excessive taxation, from delay of justice, exactions of military service out of England, that is, in France, outrages of every kind, both public and domestic. Before I go into detail, I will give the picture of King John from a recent historian.

Mr. Greene, in his "History of the English People," a book of great value, but marred by great inaccuracies, like the historical writings of Lord Macaulay, quotes in English the line of the old chronicler: —

Sordida fœdatur, fœdante Johanne, Gehenna.

"Foul as it is, hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John." The terrible verdict of the king's contemporaries has passed into the sober judgment of history. In his inner soul, John was the worst outcome of the Angevins. He united into one mass of wickedness their insolence, their selfishness, their unbridled lust, their cruelty and tyranny, their shamelessness, their superstition, their cynical indifference to honour or truth. In mere boyhood, he had torn with brutal levity the beards of the Irish chieftains who came to own him as their lord. His ingratitude and perfidy had brought down his father's hairs with sorrow to the grave. To his brother he had been the worst of traitors. All Christendom believed him to be the murderer of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. He had abandoned one wife and was faithless to another. His punishments were refinements of cruelty, the starvation of children, the crushing old men under copes of lead. His court was a brothel, where no woman was safe from the royal lust, and where his cynicism loved to publish the news of his victims' shame. He was as craven in his superstition as he was daring in his impiety. He scoffed at priests, and turned his back on the mass, even amidst the solemnities of his coronation, but he never stirred on a journey without hanging relics round his neck.[10]

At his coronation in 1199, John swore, in the hands of Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury, to preserve the liberties of the Church, and the laws of the land.[11]

In the year 1200, John began his career of tyranny by seizing all the possessions of the archbishop of York.[12] The archbishop excommunicated the officers who had seized his manors. John was enraged at this, but still more enraged because the archbishop had forbid the collection of a plough-tax in his diocese.

In the year 1203, the shameless vices of the king, and the loss of his castles in Normandy, caused the barons who were with him in France to forsake the court.[13] He then returned to England, and exacted of the barons a seventh part of their goods: he committed also all manner of rapine by violence against the Church and convents. [14]

John had shown himself to be vicious, sensual, violent, false, tyrannical, and a violator of his coronation oath by infractions of the liberties of the Church and of the laws of the land. But hitherto the authority and statesmanship of Archbishop Hubert had in some degree restrained him. In 1205 the archbishop died; and on hearing of his death, John said exultingly, "Now for the first time I am king of England."[15]

From this date opens a new chapter in John's history.

In order to force his favourite, John de Gray, into the see of Canterbury, he overbore the freedom of the electors.

The pope annulled the election and chose Stephen Langton, who was already cardinal priest of St. Chrysogenus. This was in the year 1207. He was elected by the monks, and consecrated in Rome. John in his fury, refused to receive the archbishop, and drove the monks of Canterbury out of England. The pope, after sending many envoys and writing many letters to the king without effect, threatened to lay an interdict upon the kingdom. John persisted in his obstinacy, and the interdict was promulgated on March 23, 1208. He then confiscated the property of the bishops, abbots, priors, and clergy; and seized all their goods for his own use.[16] He inflicted all manner of personal indignities and cruelties upon ecclesiastics. Being conscious that his enormities had alienated the barons from him, he endeavoured to compel them to renew their homage. His despotism became minutely vexatious. He forbade the taking of birds throughout England; and commanded the hedges and ditches which protected the harvest-lands to be destroyed.[17] He exacted homage of all freeholders, even from boys of twelve years old; and compelled, for that purpose, the Welsh to come to Woodstock. He then turned his exactions and cruelties, which are well known, against the Jews, both men and women. In the year 1210, he exacted by violence, vellent nollent, a hundred thousand pounds sterling from the clergy, which Matthew Paris calls exactio nefaria. At the same time, he starved to death the wife and son of one of his nobles.[18] The rapine and violence of John on every class of his people steadily growing more intolerable, the pope on their appeal absolved his subjects from their allegiance, and forbade them to consort with him in mensa, consilio et colioquio. Geoffrey of Norwich, a judge of the exchequer, therefore resigned his office. He was thrown into prison and laden with a cope of lead, under which he soon died.[19] Many nobles, prelates, and others, fled from England and died in exile. By John's command twenty-eight youths, surrendered by the Welsh as hostages, were hanged at Nottingham before he would take his food. He was then warned of the defection of his barons, from whom, by terror, he extorted sons, nephews, and kinsmen as hostages. I have simply taken the chief points of the narrative of Matthew Paris. But it is impossible to give an adequate idea of the misery of the people of England under the tyranny of John. A perpetual cry went up from the face of the whole land. It is said that there was hardly a noble family on which John had not inflicted the indelible stain of some moral outrage. I have briefly brought these things together in order to show that it was in the cause of the whole people that the pope had throughout exerted his authority. He protected their liberties and their laws. The whole power of Innocent had been used to restrain the violence of the king. When, therefore, nothing availed, the archbishop, with the bishops of London and Ely, laid before the pope John's manifold rebellions and enormities, "multimodas rebelliones et enormitates." The pope then, with the unanimous assent of the English people, save only the partisans of John, pronounced the sentence of deposition against him.[20] In the face of this, John exacted of all the religious houses a declaration that what he had extorted from them by violence had been given by them freely. In 1213, the archbishop and bishops, with the concurrence of barons and people, promulgated the sentence of deposition, and the king of France was charged with its execution. Great military preparations were made for the purpose in France. John likewise collected numerous forces in Kent. Nevertheless he knew himself to be excommunicated and deposed, detested by his people, forsaken by his barons, except a few partisans, and threatened with invasion by a powerful enemy. In this strait two Templars found him at Dover, and told him that a way of escape was yet open; that they were sent by Pandulph, who was on the coast of France, to propose an interview; that if he would submit and obey the Church, all might yet be averted. If not, they said the king of France was at hand, with the exiled bishops and laymen of England; and that the king of France had letters from nearly all of the nobles of England, binding themselves by fidelity to him.[21]

Matthew Paris gives the following account of these events: —

When the king had heard these things he was humbled, though against his will, and perturbed in mind, seeing that the peril of confusion hung over him on every side. Sunk therefore in despair, he acquiesced, whether he would or no, in the persuasions of Pandulph, and made his peace in a form shameful to himself. ... The sum of which is that the king, laying aside rancour against every one, would recall all whom he had proscribed, and gave indemnity for all offences and losses.[22]

At another interview at Dover, on May 15, 1213, John resigned his crown to the pontiff, as a feudatory to the Holy See. At Michaelmas following, in the cathedral church of St. Paul, London, John renewed his submission to Nicholas, cardinal bishop of Tusculum. The words in which this act was done are as follows: —

We will that it be known, that since we have in many things offended God, and our Holy Mother the Church, and therefore have great need of divine mercy, and have nothing that we can worthily offer in satisfaction to God and the Church, but ourselves and our kingdom:
We therefore being willing to humble ourselves for His sake (who for us humbled Himself even unto death), the grace of the Holy Ghost moving us, being neither led by force, nor constrained by fear, but by our free good will, and by the common counsel of our barons, we offer, and freely grant, to God, and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and to the Holy Roman Church ... the kingdom of England and Ireland, etc.[23]

Lingard not unreasonably calls this "a disgraceful act." [24] It was certainly disgraceful to John, for in doing it he was insincere. It was a bid for the help of the pope against the barons. They had invoked the authority of the pope against him; but he, by making the pope his feudal suzerain, endeavoured to protect himself against them. By the same act he thought to defeat also the hopes of the king of France. It was an act of cunning, simply out of interest and fear. In this sense it may well be called a disgraceful act. But was vassalage or feudal dependence upon the head of the Christian world a disgrace to kings? If so, John was not alone in his shame. It was the condition of most of the princes of Christendom. Nay, they were vassals one to another. The king of Scotland was vassal to the king of England; and the king of England was vassal to the king of France. Both were often seen in public on their knees, swearing fealty, and doing homage to their feudal lord. John was present when William of Scotland subjected his crown to the king of England; and nine years before, Peter of Arragon voluntarily made himself vassal of Innocent III., binding himself to pay yearly 250 ounces of gold to the Holy See. John's own father, Henry, was feudatory of Pope Alexander III. Henry II. acknowledges this in a letter written to the pope, preserved by Peter of Blois, his own secretary. In the year after his absolution, he wrote thus: — "Vestræ jurisdictionis est regnum Angliæ, et quantum ad feudatarii juris obligationem vobis duntaxat obnoxius teneor et astringor."[25] Richard, John's brother, resigned his crown to the emperor of Germany, and held it on the payment of a yearly rent. John simply did what all these had done before him. But the sting to Englishmen is that the king of England became vassal to an Italian priest. And the nursery tales which pass for history in England have concealed the fact that the whole of the Christian empire of Europe was founded on the same principle. The supreme civil power of Christendom was dependent on the supreme spiritual authority. The pontiffs created the Empire of the West: they conferred the imperial dignity by consecration; they were the ultimate judges of the emperor's acts; with power of deprivation and deposition. The Christian world at that day saw nothing disgraceful in this sacred Imperial jurisprudence.

Let us, however, understand what the feudal dependence involved. It did not create the liability to deposition, for John had been deposed already. All Christian princes by the jurisprudence then in force were liable to deposition. But the feudal relation is expressed in the form of oath taken by John. He promises fidelity to his liege lord, and binds himself to defend him against all conspiracy and danger of life and limb; and to reveal to him all plots, and to defend the patrimony of Peter.[26]

A feudum is an immovable possession, held as to its dominium utile, or usufruct, of a superior, who has the dominium supremum, or suzerainty, with the condition of fidelity and personal service.

John therefore, by surrendering his crown, bound himself to exercise his royal power in conformity with law. The head of the Christian world became security for this obligation. But all Christian princes were bound to use their power in conformity to law. The submission of John did not deprive his people of the power of legislation, but he thereby bound himself to the pope to observe faithfully the laws of the land as made by them. His dependence upon the pope was for the conservation of the liberties of the people. It is acknowledged by all historians that, down to the surrender of the crown, the pope had supported the archbishop, the barons, and the people against the king. He had multipliciter et multoties, in a multitude of ways and seasons, as Matthew Paris says, admonished, counselled; expostulated, threatened John, to bring him to law and reason. But John persisted in spoiling, robbing, harrying, afflicting, outraging his people by private wrongs and public wars. All remedies had failed. Excommunication, interdict, deposition all had been tried in vain. At last John surrenders himself. Innocent for the first time prevailed. He thereby became the arbiter accepted by both contending parties. The barons, through the archbishop, and also directly in person, had long invoked his help. John would not listen. Now, at last, he submitted himself; and the barons were counselors and partakers of his act of submission. The great council of the barons united in the act. The cession of the crown was made by their advice, and with their consent.[27] They had suffered under John and his ancestors until England had been wounded and torn by domestic strife, and desolated by civil wars. At last they, and the head of the Christian world, had brought John to submission to the law of Christendom. Their object was the salvation of England. It is clear as day that Innocent's motive was the protection of the people and of the laws and of the liberties of England against the tyranny, perfidy, and personal vices of the worst of kings. A thousand marks a year, or £6,000 — that is, 700 from England and 300 from Ireland — was required in acknowledgment of feudal dependence. When this sum is compared with the sum awarded to the bishops alone as indemnity, namely, 100,000 marks, or £600,000, it is a mere quit-rent.

And here it is of great importance that the action of the barons in this surrender of the crown should be put beyond doubt. They were the national party: they represented the people of England: they have been, in all histories great and small, represented as the partisans of the liberties of England. In them, we are told, the liberties of England were condemned at least, if not cursed, by the pope.

Now, as I have said, we have positive evidence that they were counsellers and partakers in the act of surrender.

First, we have the evidence of William Mauclerc, John's envoy to Rome, who writes to the king describing his interview with the pope in the Lateran, and states that after his interview four envoys of the barons came "deferentes litteras magnatum Angliæ." The substance of the letters Mauclerc gives as follows, that all the barons of the whole of England implored the pope to admonish, and, if need be; to compel the king to preserve inviolate their ancient liberties, confirmed b y the charters of John's ancestors, and by his own oath. He added further —

They implore the pope to aid them in this, as it was well known to him that they had boldly opposed the king in defence of the liberty of the Church, at the bidding of the pope, and that the annual payment which the king had granted to the pope and the Roman Church, and the other honours which he had given to the Church of Rome, had been granted and given, not spontaneously, nor out of devotion, but even out of fear, and by their coercion.[28]

The date of this is 1214, a year after the surrender of the crown.

The act of surrender is thus given by Matthew Paris: — "On the 13th of May, 1213, the king, with Pandulph, the earls, the barons, and a great multitude, met at Dover, and unanimously agreed in the forma pacis, or the engagement of peace."[29]

Again: "The king of the English and Pandulph, cum proceribus regni, with the chief men of the kingdom, met at the house of the Knights Templars at Dover, on May 15th," and surrendered the crown.[30]

We come now to a critical period, which, if rightly understood, gives the key to the action and intention of the pope in the condemnation of the Great Charter.

John had made peace by submission, and by a promise to observe the laws and liberties of England. He had bound himself to make restitution for his exactions and spoliations. This peace was hardly concluded before John broke it. Manifestly, he had never intended to keep it. His submission was simply to steal a march upon the barons, and to renew his conflict with fresh advantage.

After his absolution he convened a jury at S. Albans, to assess the compensation due to the clergy; but he took care to be absent, so that nothing was done.

A second meeting was held at Westminster. John was again absent; again they could do nothing. Then there came up a cry from the country, barons and people together, demanding the fulfilment of his engagements.

While the council was sitting, news came that the king was advancing with an armed force. He was on his way to levy war against the barons of Northumberland for refusing to go with him to the wars in France. Archbishop Langton met him at Nottingham, and reminded him that to make war on his liegemen was a violation of his oath of peace. With shouts of passion he at last turned back. In September — that is, three months after the peace had been made — the cardinal bishop of Tusculum came to adjudicate the matter still in dispute between the king and the clergy. At Michaelmas, in a council held at London, the king pretended to issue a commission to estimate the sums extorted by his officers. But once more it came to nothing. He was visibly dissembling. He then tried to detach the bishop from the clergy, by offering a restitution to each severally. They referred the proposal to Rome; which suggestion the king caught at, both because of the delay and because he hoped to make the pope believe the bishops and clergy to be greedy, grasping, and exorbitant. In this he succeeded. The cardinal legate was gained by the king, and began, by his own authority, to fill up the vacant benefices and churches. The archbishop and his suffragans appealed to Rome; but the legate persisting, in January, 1214, both parties sent their envoys to Rome. On July 1, 1214, the legate removed the interdict, which had lasted six years, three months, and fourteen days. He had hardly left S. Paul's church before a vast multitude of every condition came, laying before him all that they had suffered in limb and property by the exactions and violence of the king's officers. In truth, the peace was no peace, and the settlement settled nothing. The king was dissembling, levying war on the barons, and oppressing the Church and the people as before.

The barons therefore consulted for their common safety. At this critical moment, the archbishop produced the charter of Henry I., and the barons at once accepted it as the basis of their demands. Thus far they acted in perfect legality. At this moment the defeat of the king's army at Bovines left John without a party in France, and deserted by the barons of England. He then surrounded himself with mercenaries. On January 7, he went to London; and at the New Temple the barons came to him with an ostentatious display of military preparation, to demand of him the observance of the charter of Henry I. He met this by a double trick; the one a postponement till Easter, the other the assumption of the cross of the Crusade. Once more, with a view to separate the bishops from the barons, and the Church from the people, John granted a charter of liberties to the Church in England. This charter was sent to Rome and confirmed. The pope was thereby led to believe that John's intentions were sincere. The barons persevered in their demands. The king was at Woodstock, and the archbishop remained with him, trying to induce him to grant the demands of the barons. Nearly the whole baronage of the realm rose in arms, and came with their retainers to Brackley. Here was their first false step. They demanded the charter. John answered with scorn that he would never grant liberties which would make him a slave. But they were, with one or two exceptions, the liberties he had already sworn to observe. They then appealed to force — defied the king, renounced their homage, and levied war upon him. Their army was led by Robert Fitzwalter, under the name of "the army of God and of the Holy Church." They came in haste to London. They summoned every man to join them, under pain of being treated as a public enemy. Excepting the king's foreign garrisons, the whole country north of the Thames was in open rebellion. The courts of justice ceased to sit; no man would pay any dues or acknowledge the king's authority. John yielded a second time, and demanded a day for interview with the barons. On June 18, 1215, they met at Runnymede. The Magna Charta was accepted by the king; but on the spot he sent envoys to Rome to urge its nullity, as being extorted by rebellion, and in disregard of the suzerainty of the Holy See.

It is evident that John, seeing himself helpless in all other ways, determined to bring down the spiritual authority of Innocent upon the barons. He therefore, with great skill, deceived the pope, and roused his indignation against them. For this end, he heaped together everything that could excite his anger. He told Innocent that the barons made light of his letters; that the archbishops and bishops neglected to put them in execution; that he had told them in vain that England was the patrimony of S. Peter, and that he held of the Roman Church; that he had taken the cross; that as a crusader he desired to treat with them in humility and meekness; that he had offered them the abolition of all evil customs and all griefs; that they were bent on troubling the kingdom; that he had dismissed his foreign troops, though in so doing he had deprived the crusade of most important and powerful aids, etc.[31] It is impossible to carry diplomatic craft to a higher perfection.

John simply deceived the pope into a belief that he was sincere, and that the barons, and even the bishops, were rebels to him, and contumacious to the Holy See. But he went even beyond this. He forged the seals of the bishops, and wrote everywhere abroad in their name, saying that "the English were detestable apostates, and that the king and the pope would confirm their possessions to whomsoever would take up arms against them."

Again, in the month of September, after the acceptance of the charter in June, he wrote saying that the barons were devoted to him before he submitted to the Holy See, and from that time turned him, and "especially, as they publicly said, for that cause they violently rose against him."[32] It was no wonder that the pope was offended and incensed.

In all this, the dissimulation of John outdid itself. Innocent had no choice. On the 24th of August, the envoys received apostolic letters condemning the barons.[33]

II. We have now traced the antecedents of the Great Charter, and we may estimate its condemnation, and the motives and extent of that condemnation.

  1. The event is recorded by Matthew Paris in these words — "Then the pope, after deliberation at his will, by a definitive sentence condemned and annulled the oft-named charter of liberties of the kingdom of England, though it contained things pious and just, as a careful inspector may see."[34] The pope nowhere denies that it contained "pia et justa;" but things pious and just may be demanded in a way contrary both to justice and to piety; and this is my contention.
  2. The pope here explicitly declares the cause of the condemnation, namely: —
    1. That the barons had levied war against their sovereign.
    2. That he was a feudal vassal of the Holy See.
    3. That he had taken the cross.
    4. That their cause was already in appeal before the Holy See.
    5. That they had taken the law into their own hands.
  3. There is not here so much as a sing1e word as to the contents of the Great Charter.
  4. The first part of it was the charter of ecclesiastical liberties granted by John, and already confirmed by Innocent.
  5. All other details, social, economical, and political, had been for centuries in use, and confirmed by successive sovereigns, in full peace and communion with the Holy See. It was in behalf of these same laws and liberties that the pope had been for years admonishing and urging the king. They had been already embodied in successive charters, on which no shadow of censure from Rome had ever fallen.
  6. The very same laws and liberties, with only three or four exceptions, were, within a year of the condemnation of the Great Charter of John, confirmed by Gualio, legate of the pope, in the charter of Henry III.; and these exceptions were not made by the pope, but by the barons themselves, into whose hands the government of the kingdom during the minority of the king had fallen.[35]

It would seem to me, therefore, to be proved even to demonstration that the pope condemned not the Charter, but the barons; not the laws and liberties set down in the Charter but the way and action by which the barons had wrung it from their sovereign. The pope quashed and annulled the Charter as a contract, and forbade either side to plead or to act upon it; but not one word as to its contents is to be found.

The only argument that I can conceive to the contrary is that the pope, in his letter of cassation, describes the Charter as "turpis et vilis, illicita et iniqua."[36] But this, again, is evidently said of the whole action by which the king was forced by his own liegemen into a submission and a humiliation second only to that of the surrender of his crown. There is not a shadow of evidence to show that these epithets apply to the laws or liberties as expressed in the Charter.

On all these grounds, therefore, I affirm once more that in condemning the Charter, Innocent condemned the action of the barons, and not the liberties of England.

In order to bring this out more clearly, we will sum up the chief contents of the great charter of liberties.

It begins with a recital of the charter of liberties issued on January 15, 1215, and confirmed by the pope, which begins "Anglicana Ecclesia libera sit, et habeat jura sua integra, et libertates suas illæsas."

This certainly was not condemned by Innocent.

Then follow sixty-two articles, relating to inheritance, taxation, common pleas, trial by peers, weights, measures, imprisonment, safe-conducts, and the like.

A man must be not a little credulous who can believe that Innocent III. saw in these details the subject-matter of a pontifical condemnation. They had been the laws and liberties of England for generations; and no pope had ever seen in them matter for his supreme cognizance. What Innocent was really dealing with was what I may call the constitutional law of Christian kingdoms, and of the jurisprudence of the Christian world. In this, authority and liberty are both sacred; despotism and rebellion both crimes against God and man. The pope, as supreme judge, took cognizance of these causæ majores, these high causes of Christian civilization; but that he should occupy himself about such matters as the details of Magna Charta could only come — as an Englishman, I take leave to say — into the head of an Englishman, and then only if he be either innocent of history or a scientific historian. The thirty-fifth article runs: —

Let there be one measure for wine throughout all our kingdom, and one measure for beer, and one measure for oats — that is, the London quartern; and one breadth for cloth, dyed russet, and hauberk—that is, two ells within the listings; and let it be with weights as with measures.

The pastoral vigilance of popes is great, but it hardly reaches to the weights and measures and quarterns and ells and gallons of Christendom.

Mr. Stubbs seems to me to confirm the view I have been maintaining. He says: —

In the ecclesiastical disputes, which are the next feature of the reign, John had to contend with the greatest of all the successors of Peter, and with a spirit in the national Church which was unquestionably maintained by the knowledge of the great power and success of the pope in other parts of Christendom. The barons refrained from taking advantage of those peculiar difficulties, nor did their overt opposition to the king begin until his relations with the papacy had changed. As soon as the papal authority begins to back the royal tyranny, the barons determined to resist; and the Church, having recovered, in Archbishop Langton, its natural leader, resumes its ordinary attitude as the supporter of freedom.[37]

And afterwards he adds: — :The country saw that the submission of John to Innocent placed its liberty, temporally and spiritually, at his mercy; and immediately demanded safeguards.

That is, the charter of Henry I. And again: —

The personal hatred which John had inspired ... was so strong ... that, had it not been for the king's death, England would have most probably carried out a change in dynasty.[38]

I would venture to slightly differ in some points from this statement.

The ecclesiastical disputes did not rally the barons to the support of the Church in the time of John, any more than in the time of Henry II. With few exceptions, the barons sided with Henry against S. Thomas. On the other hand, Mr. Stubbs has truly discerned that the "spiritual and devotional" bishops, exceptions again excepted, were always on the side of popular freedom. The barons acted with the pope so long as he endeavoured to bring the king to reason in their own interests; but they opposed both the king and the pope when Innocent censured their rebellion. This shows that neither before nor afterwards were they acting in co-operation with any cause of law or liberty except their own. They had appealed to the pope as much as, if not oftener than, the king. They not only accepted the pontifical deposition of the king, but afterwards, when he had been absolved and restored, they secretly transferred their allegiance to the king of France. Tyrant as John was, the barons were guilty both of treason and rebellion. Their opposition to Innocent began when he told them so. The pope gave support, not to John's tyranny, but to the king's right. He offered to hear both parties; but the barons would not listen, and levied war. Innocent, before John's surrender, had not backed them in rebellion, but in their just demands; and he backed John afterwards, not in tyranny, but in his honour as a king. Nowhere did Innocent pronounce on the merits of either side. He expressly declared, in his condemnation of the barons, that they had refused all proposals of judicial settlement. So much for the barons in their relation to the Church. But, as Mr. Stubbs truly notes, "the ordinary attitude" of the Church in England in that day, as everywhere and always, was as "the supporter of freedom;" and the archbishop was "its natural leader," a true successor of S. Anselm and S. Thomas, in its conflict for liberty. And with this notable difference from the barons: they rarely, if ever sided with the Church in its conflict for its own liberties. The Church always sided with them and with the people, in their conflict for the laws and liberties of England. This brings out more luminously than I could hope to do the thesis I have undertaken to defend.

Once more, it may be urged that so absolute was the condemnation of the Charter, that even Cardinal Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended ab ingressu Ecclesiæ et a divinis for the part he had in it. Nothing, perhaps, will bring out more clearly the distinction I have drawn above, between the condemnation of the barons and the condemnation of the matter of the Charter, than the suspension of the archbishop.

Believing that the legate had been gained over by the king and his adherents, and that the mind of the pope had been biased by partial informations laid before him by the archbishop of Dublin and the bishop of London, whom the king had sent to Rome, so as to be really deceived, the archbishop decided on going in person to Rome. A bull then arrived to excommunicate all the disturbers of the king and realm of England. The archbishop was already on board ship when the bishop of Winchester and Pandulph came and urged him to publish the bull throughout the province of Canterbury. The archbishop, believing the Bull to be obreptitious, and that, if he could lay before the pope the full and true state of the case, it would be arrested, would not publish it. The two commissioners then used their powers given in the bull to suspend the archbishop from his office. Without contention or remonstrance, he proceeded to Rome. On his arrival he found the pope greatly incensed, and on his petition to be released from suspension Innocent answered: —

Not so, brother; you will not so easily get absolution for all the harm you have done, not to the king of England only, but to the Roman Church. We will take full counsel with our brothers here, what your punishment must be.

The Fourth Council of Lateran was then sitting, and the archbishop took his place in it; but he was under suspension from November 12 to the Easter following.

On this it is to be said that there is not one word to show that the subject-matter of the charter was condemned. The harm done to the king was the encouragement given to the barons in their armed opposition; the harm done to the Roman Church was both the violation of the suzerainty of the Holy See, and refusal to publish the excommunication. The cause of his suspension was not one of detail, but of the alta politica of the civil and ecclesiastical jurisprudence of Europe at that time. There is no doubt that John was a tyrant, and as little doubt that the barons were rebels; and it cannot be de- nied that the archbishop was in contumacy. Under the conditions of the law then existing, no other judgment could be formed.

It is a simple stupidity to judge such questions by the laws of the nineteenth century. Before the merits of the Magna Charta could be tried, the rebellion of the barons, and the contumacy of the archbishop, must first be judged. And it is to this I have endeavoured to direct the attention of those who, in their endeavour to make men believe that the Catholic Church is the friend of despotism and the enemy of liberty, shut their eyes to history, and yet believe themselves to be scientific.

Let Innocent III. declare for himself the motives of his condemnation.

In his apostolic letters,[39] addressed to all whom they may concern, he first sets forth that John, king of England, had grievously offended against God and the Church; that therefore he had been excommunicated, and his kingdom laid under interdict; that at last, by God's grace returning to himself, he had repented, and made satisfaction humbly to God and the Church, recompense for losses, restitution for what he had seized, and had given full liberty to the Church in England. The pope, therefore, absolved him, and received him to the oath of fidelity and feudal dependence. After this he took the cross of the Crusade. The pope then narrates how the barons rose against him, and how, after many efforts of conciliation, he had written to annul all plots and conspiracies, and to exhort the barons to respect the royal authority, and to prefer to him their demands, not insolently, but with humility. He states further, that he had written to the king, enjoining him to treat the barons and nobles with due gentleness, and to concede their just petitions.

The barons, he adds, did not wait for his messenger, but in violation of their oath of fidelity, and making themselves judges and executors in their own cause, they, being vassals, publicly conspired against their lord — soldiers, against their king; and united with his enemies to make war against him; laid waste his lands, and seized by treachery the city of London, the seat of the kingdom. The pope then recounts the proposals of the king which they had rejected; and finally that they had, by force and fear, extorted from the king a convention which was vile and base, and moreover illicit and wicked, in derogation and diminution of the right and honour of the king.

Innocent then annuls the Charter, and forbids either side to observe it, under pain of excommunication: quashing, he says, as well the Charter as its obligations and engagements, whatsoever they be, and altogether depriving them of all obliging force.

Now, in all this there is not a word as to the subject-matter of the Charter itself. In the same terms he wrote also to the barons: —

Præsertim enim in causa vestra vos judices et executores feceritis: eodem rege parato, in curia sua, vobis per pares vestros secundum consuetudines et leges regni, justitiæ plenitudinem exhibere: vel coram nobis, ad quos hujus causæ judicium, ratione Domini, pertinebat.

He then adds: —

Cum igitur illa compositio (since therefore the compact), qualis qualis (of whatever kind it be), to which by force and fear you constrained him, is not only vile and base, but unlawful and wicked, so as to be reprobated by all, chiefly because of the manner in which it was made, maxime propter modum, we therefore, etc.

The pope then annuls it as before. Innocent further says: —

As we will not that the king be deprived of his right, so we will that he desist from oppressing you, lest the kingdom of England be oppressed by evil customs or unjust exactions.

He then bids them send envoys, that in the council, where the bishops of England were present, the disputes might be treated and terminated, "so that the king might be content with his right and honour, and the clergy and people at large might enjoy peace and liberty."[40]

Now, in these, which are the governing documents of the whole question, there is not so much as a word as to the contents of Magna Charta. Indeed, it is expressly excluded — "Compositio illa, qualis qualis" (whatever its quality may be). Again, there is a distinct recognition of "grava,ina, pravæe consuetludines, iniqua exactiones." Finally, "maxime propter modum" declares the chief motive to be the manner in which the barons had exacted the Charter by force and fear.

I have thus far examined the subject as if it were incumbent upon me to prove that Innocent did not condemn the contents of the Charter. But it is for those who say that he did so to give proof of their assertion. I have not to prove a negative, and may well wait till they bring evidence. Hitherto I have heard none. And I take leave to say that none has been brought because none can be found, and none can be found because no such evidence ever existed.

I am well aware that Mr. Freeman has said —

In the latter days of John, and through the whole reign of Henry III., we find the pope and the king in strict alliance against the English Church and nation. The last good deed done by a pope towards England was when Innocent III. sent us Stephen Langton. Ever afterwards we find pope and king leagued together to back up each other's oppressions and exactions. The papal power was always ready to step in on behalf of the crown, always ready to hurl spiritual censures against the champions of English freedom. The Great Charter was denounced at Rome; so was its author, the patriot-primate.[41]

I hope that I have set this last sentence in its true light. The rest of this quotation needs a separate treatment. If Mr. Freeman and Mr. Bryce had mastered the history of the Catholic Church with the breadth of grasp with which they have treated the Holy Roman Empire, the work of Mr. Bryce, and the review of it by Mr. Freeman, would be two historical documents of unequalled value. It is the absence of this (which is the main element in medieval history) that disturbs the balance of their judgment. The action of the pontiffs in sustaining the sovereignties of the Christian world was prompted, not by despotic affinities, but by the words of Holy Writ, "Let every soul be subject to higher powers; for there is no power but from God; and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God."[42] But on this we cannot enter now.

  1. Stubbs' Documents, pp. 31, 32: Oxford, 1874.
  2. Ibid. p. 33.
  3. Memorials of S. Dunstan, p. 355.
  4. Stubbs' Documents, p. 99.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. p. 100.
  7. Ibid. pp. 114, 119.
  8. Ibid. p. 129.
  9. Ibid. p. 129.
  10. Greene's History of the English People, p. 118.
  11. Matthew Paris, Ed. Madden, London, 1866, vol. ii. p. 80.
  12. Ibid. p. 87.
  13. Ibid. pp. 96, 97.
  14. Ibid. p. 99.
  15. Ibid. p. 104.
  16. Ibid. p. 114.
  17. Ibid. p. 19.
  18. Ibid. pp. 119–124.
  19. Ibid. p. 126.
  20. Ibid. p. 130.
  21. Ibid. p. 134.
  22. Ibid. p. 135.
  23. Rymer, Fœd. tom. i. p. 176.
  24. Vol. ii. ppp. 131–2.
  25. Ibid. p. 19, note.
  26. Rymer Fœd. tom. i. p. 177.
  27. Lingard, vol. ii. p. 333.
  28. Rymer, Fœd. tom. i. p. 207.
  29. Matthew Paris, vol. ii. p. 135.
  30. Ibid. pp. 135–136.
  31. Rymer, Fœd. tom. i. p. 200.
  32. Ibid. p. 207
  33. Ibid. p. 208.
  34. Matthew Paris, p. 162.
  35. Mr. Greene says that the articles omitted in the first charter of Henry III. were re-inserted under the influence of Archbishop Langton. I do not find the evidence of this statement. Neither Matthew Paris nor Hovenden, so far as I can see, say so: and the Annals of Dunstaple, quoted by Mr. Stubbs (Documents, etc., p. 323), expressly say that in the year 1225, when the king had attained majority: — "Libertates prius ab eo puero concessas, jam major factus, indulsit." This does not indeed exclude, but it does not imply, any re-insertion of articles.
  36. Rymer, tom. i. 204.
  37. Stubbs' Documents, p. 269.
  38. Ibid. p. 270.
  39. Rymer, Fœd. tom. i. pp. 203–4.
  40. Ibid. p. 205.
  41. The Growth of the English Constitution, pp. 76, 77.
  42. Rom. xiii. 1, 2.