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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 39. Innocent and King John of England.


"This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise;

This fortress, built by nature for herself,

Against infection, and the hand of war;

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands;

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth."

—Shakespeare, Richard II., Act II. Sc. 1.


Additional Literature.—The Chronicle of Roger of Wendover (the first of the St. Alban annalists) and the revision and continuation of the same by Matthew Paris (a monk of St. Alban’s, the last and greatest of the monastic historians of England), ed. by H. R. Luard in Rolls Series, 7 vols. London, 1872–1883, vol. II. Engl. vol. II. trans. of Wendover by J. A. Giles, Bohn’s Lib. 2 vols. London, 1849; of M. Paris by Giles, 3 vols. London, 1852–1854.—Memorials of Walter of Coventry, ed. by Stubbs, 2 vols. 1872 sq.—Radulph of Coggeshall: Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. by J. Stevenson, 1875. The Annals of Waverley, Dunstable, and Burton, all in the Rolls Series.—W. Stubbs: The Constitutional Hist. of England, 6th ed. 3 vols. Oxford, 1897, and Select Charters, etc., 8th ed. Oxford, 1900, pp. 270–306.—Gee and Hardy: Documents, London, 1896.—R. Gneist: Hist. of the Engl. Court, Engl. trans. 2 vols. London, 1886, vol. I. 294–332.—E. Gütschow: Innocent III. und England, Munich, 1904, pp. 198.—The Histories of Lingard (R. C.), Green, Milman, Freeman (Norman Conquest, vol. V.).—For Stephen Langton, Dean Hook: Lives of the Abp. of Canterbury, and art. Langton, in Dict. of Natl. Biog.—Also W. Hunt, art. John, in Dict. of Natl. Biog. XXIX. 402–417.—Sir James H. Ramsey: The Angevin Empire, 1154–1216, London, 1903. He calls John a brutal tyrant, hopelessly depraved, without ability in war or politics.


Under Innocent, England comes, if possible, into greater prominence in the history of the papacy than during the controversy in the reign of Alexander III., a generation before. Then the English actors were Henry II. and Thomas à Becket. Now they are Henry’s son John and Becket’s successor Stephen Langton. The pope was victorious, inflicting the deepest humiliation upon the English king; but he afterwards lost the advantage he had gained by supporting John against his barons and denouncing the Magna Charta of English popular rights. The controversy forms one of the most interesting episodes of English history.

John, surnamed Sansterre or Lackland, 1167–1216, succeeded his brother Richard I. on the throne, 1199. A man of decided ability and rapid in action but of ignoble spirit, low morals, and despotic temper, he brought upon his realm such disgrace as England before or since has not suffered. His reign was a succession of wrongs and insults to the English people and the English church.

John had joined Richard in a revolt against their father, sought to displace his brother on the throne during his captivity after the Third Crusade, and was generally believed by contemporaries to have put to death his brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur of Brittany, who would have been Richard’s successor if the law of primogeniture had been followed. He lost Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and Aquitaine to the English. Perjury was no barrier to the accomplishment of his plans. He set aside one wife and was faithless to another. No woman was too well born to be safe against his advances. He plundered churches and convents to pay his debts and satisfy his avarice, and yet he never undertook a journey without hanging charms around his neck.199199    The contemporary annalists know no words too black to describe John’s character. Lingard says, "John stands before us polluted with meanness, cruelty, perjury, murder, and unbridled licentiousness." Green, after quoting the words "foul as hell is, hell itself is defiled with the foul presence of John," says, "In his inner soul John was the worst outcome of the Angevins ... . But with the wickedness of his race he inherited its profound abilities." III. chap. I. Hunt, in Dict. of Nat’l. Biog., XXIX. 406, uses these words, "He was mean, false, vindictive, abominably cruel, and scandalously immoral."

Innocent came into collision with John over the selection of a successor to Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury, who died 1205.200200    He had before come into collision with John over the harsh treatment of the archbishop of Dublin. Works of Innocent III., Reg., VI. 63; Migne, 215, 61; Potthast, 167. The monks of Canterbury, exercising an ancient privilege, chose Reginald one of their number. With the king’s support, a minority proceeded to another election and chose the king’s nominee, John de Grey, bishop of Norwich. John was recognized by the suffragan-bishops and put into possession by the king.

An appeal was made by both parties to Rome, Reginald appearing there in person. After a delay of a year, Innocent set aside both elections and ordered the Canterbury monks, present in Rome, to proceed to the choice of another candidate. The choice fell upon Stephen Langton, cardinal of Chrysogonus. Born on English soil, Stephen was a man of indisputable learning and moral worth. He had studied in Paris and won by his merits prebends in the cathedral churches of Paris and York. The metropolitan dignity could have been intrusted to no shoulders more worthy of wearing it.201201    His scholarly tastes are attested by his sermons, poems, and comments on books of the Bible which still exist in manuscript in the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, Lambeth, and of France. He is falsely credited by some with having been the first to divide the entire Bible into chapters. See Hook, Archbishops of Canterbury, II. 678.most of England’s primates as a faithful administrator and the advocate of English popular liberties.

The new archbishop received consecration at the pope’s own hand, June 17, 1207, and held his office till his death, 1228.202202    Innocent, in his letter to John of May 26, 1207, declared he would turn neither to the right nor to the left in confirming the election. Potthast, 264.fication with fierce resistance, confiscated the property of the Canterbury chapter, and expelled the monks as guilty of treason. Innocent replied with the threat of the interdict. The king swore by God’s teeth203203    This and the expression "by God’s feet" were John’s favorite forms of objurgation. the mutilation of every Italian in the realm appointed by Innocent, and the expulsion of all the prelates and clergy. The sentence was published by the bishops of London, Ely, and Worcester, March 22, 1208.204204    See Migne, 217, 190; Potthast, 286.

The interdict at once took effect, casting a deep gloom over the nation. The church bells remained unrung. The church buildings were closed. The usual ministrations of the priesthood remained unperformed. The great doors of the monasteries were left unopened, and worshippers were only admitted by secret passages. Penance was inflicted upon the innocent as well as the erring. Women, after childbirth, presented themselves for purification outside the church walls. The dead were refused burial in consecrated ground, and the service of the priest was withheld.

John, although he had seen Philip Augustus bend under a similar censure, affected unconcern, and retaliated by confiscating the property of the higher clergy and convents and turning the inmates out of doors with little more than the clothes on their backs. The concubines of the priests were forcibly removed and purchased their ransom at heavy expense. A Welshman accused of murdering a priest was ordered by the king dismissed with the words, "Let him go, he has killed my enemy." The relatives of the fugitive bishops were thrown into prison.

In 1209 Innocent added to the interdict the solemn sentence of the personal anathema against the king.205205    Potthast, 316. dogs not daring to bark."206206    A favorite expression of Matthew Paris.rwich, who had been in his service and now felt he could no longer so remain, was thrown into prison and there allowed to languish to death, covered from shoulders to feet with a cope of lead.207207    Another example of John’s unspeakable cruelty was his treatment of a rich Jew of Bristol upon whom he had made a demand for 10,000 marks. On his refusing, John ordered ten teeth to be taken out, one each day. The executioner dentist began with the molars. The sufferer held out till he had been served this way seven times. He then yielded, giving up the money, which, as Matthew Paris says, he might have done seven days before, thus saving himself all his agony. Luard’s ed., II. 528.

One more weapon lay in the pope’s power. In 1212 John was declared unworthy of his throne, and deposed. His subjects were absolved from the obligation of allegiance, and Christian princes were summoned to execute the sentence and take the crown. Gregory VII. had resorted to the same precarious measure with Henry IV. and been defeated. The bull was published at Soissons by Langton and the exiled bishops. Philip of France was quick to respond to the summons and collected an army. But the success of the English fleet checked the fear of an immediate invasion of the realm.

The nation’s suspense, however, was taxed almost beyond the point of endurance. The king’s arbitrary taxes and his amours with the wives and daughters of the barons aroused their determined hatred. Pressed from different sides, John suddenly had a meeting at Dover with the pope’s special envoy, the subdeacon Pandulf.208208    Shakespeare is responsible for the popular mistake which makes Pandulf a cardinal. King John, Act III. Sc. 1. He served as legate in England, 1217-1221. The official documents call him "subdeacon and familiar to our lord the pope Innocent." checkmate the plans of the French monarch, John gave in his submission, and on May 15, 1213, on bended knee, delivered up to Pandulf his kingdom and consented to receive it back again as a papal fief. Five months later the act was renewed in the presence of Nicolas, cardinal-archbishop of Tusculum, who had been sent to England with legatine authority. In the document which John signed and swore to keep, he blasphemously represented himself as imitating him "who humbled himself for us even unto death." This notorious paper ran as follows: —

"We do freely offer and grant to God and the holy Apostles Peter and Paul and the holy Roman Church, our mother, and to our Lord the pope Innocent and his Catholic successors, the whole realm of England and the whole realm of Ireland with all their rights and appurtenances for the remission of our sins and those of all our race, as well quick as dead; and from now receiving back and holding these, as a feudal dependent, from God and the Roman Church, do and swear fealty for them to our Lord the pope Innocent and his Catholic successors and the Roman Church."209209    Potthast, 416. The Latin in Matthew Paris, Luard’s ed. II. 541-546; a translation is given by Gee and Hardy, 75-79.

John bound himself and England for all time to pay, in addition to the usual Peter’s pence, 1000 marks annually to the Apostolic see, 700 for England and 300 for Ireland. The king’s signature was witnessed by the archbishop of Dublin, the bishop of Norwich, and eleven noblemen. John also promised to reimburse the outlawed bishops, the amount finally settled upon being 40,000 marks.

Rightly does Matthew Paris call this the "detestable and lamentable charter."210210    IV. 479, carta detestabilis quam lacrimabilis memoriae Johannes infeliciter confecit211211    Henry II. had become the feudatory of Alexander III., and Richard I., after resigning his crown to the emperor, had held it for the payment of a yearly rent. Lingard offers extenuating considerations for John’s surrender, which, however, he denominates "certainly a disgraceful act." As a political measure it succeeded, bringing as it did keen disappointment to the warlike king of France. The interdict was revoked in 1214, after having been in force more than six years.

The victory of Innocent was complete. But in after years the remembrance of the dishonorable transaction encouraged steadfast resistance to the papal rule in England. The voice of Robert Grosseteste was lifted up against it, and Wyclif became champion of the king who refused to be bound by John’s pledge. Writing to one of John’s successors, the emperor Frederick II. called upon him to remember the humiliation of his predecessor John and with other Christian princes resist the intolerable encroachments of the Apostolic see.



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