THE great fight of Becker against King Henry for the
independence of the Church was followed by the great
fight of Langton against King John for the independence
of the nation.
John had been false to his father Henry. The last days
of that strong king had been embittered by the
rebellion of his older sons. John, the youngest, was
his favorite. For John's sake, Henry had disowned
Richard and had made war against him. But when the
battles went against the king, and the victorious
nobles brought him a list of the rebels whom he must
pardon, the name at the head of the list was that of
John. Then the sick king turned his face to the wall.
"Now," he said, "let things go as they will,—I
 care no more for myself or for the world."
John had been false also to his brother Richard. You
remember the message from the king of France which came
to John as he sat at the tournament of
Ashby-de-la-Zouche: "The devil is loose; take care of
yourself." Richard-of-the-Lion-Heart had been fighting
in Palestine, trying to take Jerusalem out of the hands
of Saladin. Shipwrecked on his way home, he had been
seized by his enemies, and held for ransom in Germany.
Meanwhile, in England, John had been trying to become
king of England in his place. The "devil" was Richard,
released from prison, returning to his throne.
Then Richard died, killed with an arrow at the siege of
a town in France, and John, becoming king indeed, began
to show himself as false to his people as he had been
false to his father and his brother. The man who stood
 and saved the country, was Stephen Langton.
The kings of England since the Norman Conquest had been
Frenchmen. Their kingdom had included, not England
only, but rich lands in France. And in France they had
lived, coming but rarely to England, partly for the
purpose of fighting against rebellious English, and
partly for the purpose of getting English money with
which to fight rebellious Frenchmen. But when John
became king, most of the French possessions had been
lost. Therefore he lived, much against his will, in
John's great desire was to get back the provinces of
France. But for such a war he needed men and money.
He found his demand for money met by the refusal of the
bishops, and his demand for men met by the refusal of
the barons. The bishops declared that they would not
pay the king's taxes; the barons declared
 that they would no longer fight the king's battles over
The king's struggle with the Church began with the
appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury. That great
place being vacant, there were two men proposed to fill
it. One was chosen by the monks of Canterbury at their
own will; another was chosen by the monks of Canterbury
acting against their own will at the command of the
king. One was the Church's man, the other was the
king's man. The two appealed to the pope. But the
pope, at that moment, was Innocent III., whose supreme
ideal was to carry into effect the principles of
Hildebrand. He proposed to be the spiritual father of
all Europe, having all kings for his sons, and securing
thereby the peace and righteousness of Christendom.
Innocent, accordingly, dismissed both of the applicants
for the archbishopric of Canterbury, and appointed
 Langton was an Englishman, of high character, then
resident in Rome, who for his merits had been made a
The king refused to permit Langton to enter England,
and the pope threatened an interdict. Now, in the
Middle Ages, an interdict was considered worse than a
war and plague combined. It was a withdrawal of the
privileges of the Christian religion from all the
people of the land; once an interdict was pronounced at
Rome, all church bells ceased to ring, all church doors
were closed. There were no more services, and no more
sacraments. Nobody could be baptized, nobody could
receive the saving grace of the Holy Communion, nobody
could be married, nobody could be buried. It meant to
the people, not only an interruption of all the rites
of religion on which they depended, but the serious
peril of their immortal souls.
Innocent threatened to lay England
 under an interdict till John should receive Langton.
And when the archbishop of York was in his turn driven
out of the country for his resistance to an unjust tax,
the threat was executed. First the land was laid under
the interdict; then the king was excommunicated;
finally, the king was declared deposed, his throne was
pronounced vacant, all his subjects were absolved from
their obedience to him, all his enemies were encouraged
to attack him, and in particular his worst enemy,
Philip of France, was commanded to make war upon him.
Then John found himself in evil case. At first, he was
defiant enough, and tried the fortunes of war, but his
barons would not fight, and the war went against him.
Then he submitted. He knelt before Pandulph, the
representative of the pope. He took off his royal
crown and put it into Pandulph's hands. He confessed
himself the "pope's man." And to the pope
 he gave all England, as a conquered king surrenders his
kingdom to his conqueror. The interdict was removed
and Stephen Langton came to Canterbury.
Immediately Langton became the head not of the bishops
only but of the barons.
The first thing which he did, when he released the king
from his excommunication, was to make him swear to keep
the laws of Edward the Confessor. That meant that the
king must observe the ancient customs by which the
liberties of Englishmen were protected before the
Normans conquered England. It speedily became plain,
however, that this was too vague a promise. Having
such a king as John, it was necessary to make the
rights of the people much more definite. John had
inherited, from his Norman ancestors, the idea that the
kingdom belonged to the king. They had taken England
by force, and they proposed to do what they pleased
with it. The king's will, they said, was
 law. But the new England, which had grown up since the
Conquest, was now unwilling to consent to this. The
despotism of the foreign kings had united all the races
of the lands. It had made Angles and Saxons, Britons
and Danes, Englishmen and Normans, into one people.
And this people, with Langton for its spokesman and
leader, was at last arrayed against the king.
Thus the great interdict was followed by the Great
Suddenly, to the surprise of John, the barons met in
arms and demanded a new statement of the relation
between the king and the people. They proposed a
series of laws which should thenceforth govern, not
only the people, but the king. These laws, based on old
customs and traditions much improved by experience,
were drawn up by Langton for the king to sign.
The king postponed and postponed this surrender of his
despotic power. He
ap-  pealed for help to his new master, the pope, under
whose protection he had hoped to overcome his enemies.
But the pope sent him no help. The bishops were
against him, the barons were against him, the people
were against him. He was alone against this demand for
the liberties of the land. Thus he submitted to
England as he had before submitted to Rome.
The place of meeting was an island in the Thames near
Windsor. The king and his courtiers were encamped on
one bank of the river, Langton and the barons were
encamped on the other side, in a wide meadow, whose
name of Runnymede has been famous since that day in the
history of political liberty. There John signed the
Great Charter, "Magna Charter." And after he had
signed it, back he went to his palace, and there rolled
upon the floor in a rage for which he had no words,
gnawing the sticks and straws.
The charter provided for the freedom of
 the Church from the personal will of the king. It
secured all men from imprisonment or seizure except by
process of law. It declared that no new tax should be
imposed except by consent of the common council of the
realm. And a committee of twenty-four stout and
determined barons was appointed to see that the king
It is true that the pope declared the charter was of no
effect. But that was not because of any affection for
John or because of any objection to the liberties of
England. It was because he felt that he should have
been consulted first. That was according to his honest
theory of the proper conduct of the world. It is true
that Langton was recalled to Rome. But it made no
difference. The great thing was done.