The Church and Magna Carta: a Hereford perspective. Hereford Cathedral has powerful reminders of the Church’s role in the story of the first Magna Carta and its implementation

By  Canon Chris Pullin, Canon Chancellor, Hereford Cathedral

We tend to think of Magna Carta as a series of agreements and concessions wrung out of King John by exasperated barons, and that is what it is.  In effect it was a peace treaty between John and the large number of magnates who had thrown off their allegiance to him.  What is less well recognised is the role that the Church played in bringing that treaty to birth.

Medieval bishops were men of great power and influence, sometimes of noble birth.  In most cases they were highly educated, skilled in diplomacy, advisers to the crown, and active in politics.  Their estates were valuable, and supplied men for military service.  At the same time, they served the wider Catholic Church and thus had duties and obligations far beyond their own country.

John had troubles enough with the loss of his ancestral lands in France, and the challenge of raising money to regain them, without taking on the Church as well.  However when Pope Innocent III overruled his candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury in 1206 by appointing Cardinal Stephen Langton, a serious falling out took place.  Langton was a noted scholar who took a particular interest in questions about the just ordering of society.  John barred Langton from the kingdom and seized the property of the archbishopric. The pope responded in 1208 by placing an ‘interdict’ on England which forbade the clergy from performing any of their duties except baptism and granting absolution of sins to the dying. The churches were effectively closed. Many bishops (including Giles de Briouze, Bishop of Hereford) joined Langton in exile in France. John’s reaction was to confiscate all church lands, gaining their considerable income for himself, and thereby filling his war chest without resorting once more to his disgruntled barons.

In 1213 pressure from rebellion at home and the threat of French invasion prompted John to make peace with Innocent III. Langton was accepted, church property returned and the interdict lifted. Additionally, John took the extraordinary step of accepting the pope as his feudal overlord, surrendering England and Ireland to papal authority. No English king had ever done such a thing, and it was deeply resented – but it gained him a supremely powerful ally.

That is the background to the Church’s collaboration in the production of the 1215 Magna Carta.  When the crisis came Langton, with his active interest in the just ordering of society, acted as peace-maker and negotiator between king and barons, and is credited as one of the authors of the 1215 charter.  As the barons took counsel Langton is believed to have produced a copy of the Coronation Charter of Henry I, the Charter of Liberties, and encouraged them to study it as a model (although more than a century old) to guide them.

That Magna Carta’s first clause is ‘The English Church shall be free’ reflects the recent power-struggle with John.  But free from what, or for what?  As with several other fine sentiments expressed in Magna Carta there is no detail to back it up.  The freedom was understood, presumably, to refer to the making of appointments and the holding of lands and property.  It is one of the few unrepealed clauses remaining, but with the Crown constitutionally involved in episcopal appointments, and the Church Commissioners answerable to parliament for the assets of the Church of England, one wonders why it hasn’t been repealed as well!

Writing as I do with a Hereford perspective on the story, the role of bishop Giles de Briouze (or Braose) is worth recounting.  Giles’ father, William, had been one of John’s foremost counsellors, rewarded with castles, land in the Welsh Marches and Ireland, and high office.  For reasons that are still somewhat obscure John turned against William and his entire family and set about destroying them.  William was deprived of his office as Sheriff of Gloucester and of his lands and castles.  His wife Maud and eldest son (also William) were imprisoned by John and starved to death.  Following his return from the exile caused by the interdict, Giles was the only bishop required to pay scutage (a type of tax) in May 1214 – the others were all let off because of the income they had lost during the interdict.  When Giles’ father died John demanded a vast sum of money from him to allow him to claim his inheritance, and four years later in 1215 Giles was still trying to regain the castles his family had lost, the draining effort of which was a contributory factor to his death at the end of that year.  In December 1214 Giles had been forced to act as a witness to a charter in which John deprived his widowed sister of all her proper inheritance from her husband.  Small wonder he joined the rebel barons; he was the only bishop who did.

On May 5th 1215 the rebel barons formally indicated their rebellion, and on May 10th it was Giles who represented them in negotiations with the king at Windsor. The bishop and his supporting barons extracted a promise from the king in advance that ‘he would not arrest or disseise them or their men nor would he go against them by force of arms except by the law of the land and judgement of their peers in his court’.  We recognise in that promise a powerful foreshadowing of clause 39 of Magna Carta, so it’s tempting to think that some of that charter’s most famous words might have been penned by none other than Bishop Giles de Briouze of Hereford, who now lies buried close to the high altar of his cathedral.

A reading of the 1215 charter quickly reveals how many of its clauses were related directly to the moment, with (for instance) named hostages to be released and named Poitevin favourites to be removed from office.  One of those named favourites was Engelard de Cigogné, the Sheriff of Gloucester (and thus usurper of the Briouze family) whose responsibilities at that moment covered Herefordshire as well.  He was the recipient of the writ (we call it The King’s Writ) held by Hereford Cathedral, the only document known definitely to have been written at Runnymede in June 1215.  It was a note swiftly sent out to all sheriffs instructing them to make specific preparations for the new legislation (which would follow).  Given that John appealed to his overlord the pope to overturn Magna Carta within weeks of sealing it it’s one of the few pieces of evidence that any official attempt at implementing its provisions was made. Hereford’s writ is the only one that has survived (although there are enrolled chancery copies of a few others that were sent out).  It is dated June 20th – the day after the rebels renewed their oaths of loyalty to John and copies of the charter began to be prepared.

With Giles de Briouze and the King’s Writ, Hereford Cathedral has powerful reminders of the Church’s role in the story of the first Magna Carta and its implementation, and they add substance to our celebrations in this 800th anniversary year.

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