King John vs the Church

This entry is part 4 of 2 in the series Magna Carta

King John vs the church

In King John’s Magna Carta, the first clause states;

‘We have granted to God and by this charter have confirmed, for us and for our heirs in perpetuity, that the English church shall be free and shall have its rights King John summary and chronologyundiminished and its liberties unimpaired’.


The Position of the Church in 1215

To understand the position of the church in 1215, we have to understand what has gone before in the preceding 150 years.

Critical to understanding Magna Carta is understanding the position of the church in society. King John vs the church might seem like a confrontational statement but many of King John’s decisions and actions seem to be rooted in how he perceives his relationship with the church and to understand that we need to understand the position of the church as it has evolved since the Norman Conquest.

King John vs the Church

East Meon Church

Early Christian churches, aside from the minsters, stood on land that had been given by nobles or lords of the manor. The church served them and their vassals. In return for the land and the building, these lords felt they had the right to appoint the churchmen.

The church therefore was not a separate body, free to make decisions on its own behalf. By the 11th Century however, monks were beginning to demand reform. They wanted to be free to choose their own churchmen and the argument put forward was both radical and brave. They argued that a persons soul was more important than a persons body and therefore if they were in charge of the soul and the king the body, then they were superior to the king.

To elevate themselves to this higher position the priest would have to become celibate and only then could they liberate the church from the control of the laymen.

The ground was laid bare for a struggle, between royal power and the liberated church that would continue for several hundred years but really kicked off soon after the birth of King John. It seems that the battle of King John vs the church began in his cradle.

His father King Henry II had intervened in church politics and placed his trusted friend Thomas Becket in the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that with him in position he would have control of the church. He had not reckoned with Becket once in position, showing his true colours as a reformist. He opposed the King and led Henry to spout his “who will rid me of this troublesome priest” tirade which led to the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. By 1174, with Beckets tomb a shrine for pilgrims Henry placed himself on his knees at the tomb to do penance. The church had managed to bring the King to his knees.

Who was appointing churchmen in 1174, who had control, the King or the church?

The short answer is both. On the face of it the crown relinquished control, conceding to the reforming, the Gregorian, remit. In practise the King was not going to lose control of the church and its wealth.

The monks of St Swithuns in Winchester, received from King Henry II this message;

“I order you to hold a free election, nevertheless I forbid you to appoint anyone save Richard my clerk”

King John when crowned seems to have regarded the church as a source of irritation. Like his brother he understood the politics of keeping men loyal to the crown in the top positions but never trusted the church. He inherited Hubert alter as Archbishop of Canterbury and made him chancellor. When he died King John appears to be glad to be free of him “Now I can be King at last” but what came next put King John and the church at odds with each other.

King John vs the church begins

King John wanted to appoint his own archbishop, the church wanted an election in which their views held sway. The decision was subject to delays and postponement as John tried to maneuver the bishops to his way of thinking. They appealed to Rome, John again asked all parties to postpone the decision but a group of churchmen took their own action and elected a sub prior Reginald and sent him to Rome. Such defiance in the face of the King meant those remaining at Canterbury had to face his wrath. They gave way and elected King John’s choice, John Gray.

Pope Innocent III was intolerant of both positions and cleverly called both invalid and proposed his own candidate, Stephen Langton. King John did not bow his knee to Rome. He rejected Langton after his consecration by the Pope, refused him entry to England and confiscated the estate of Canterbury. The Pope imposed an interdict on England, it was to last six years from 1208 – 1214.

King John seemed untroubled by this as did the people of England. There was no great uprising, it was an irritation, new burial grounds had to be dug as burials could not take place in consecrated ground and other inconveniences but largely the population seemed unaffected.

Although there was not supposed to be any masses or other religious function carried out, priests continued to quietly hear confessions, baptism continued and pilgrimages continued. Churches continued to be built, marriages were valid because the vows at that point in time, did not need to be exchanged in a church.  The sense is that John and the country collectively shrugged their shoulders and said, “so what” to the interdict.

For John it proved to be a financially profitable thing, he took all the assets of the church and then sold them back the right to manage their own affairs.

The Pope and King John both refused to budge and John was excommunicated. Again this suited John well, he had no fear of the Pope or God, he saw it as a chance to rule absolutely in his own right. His profits from the church increased hugely as he took more payments from vacant positions within the church. Why would he settle? If he did not fear God,  any settlement would have to be seriously to his advantage to change his position.

King John did settle his argument with the church but why?

John feared one thing, a successful invasion from France in which he would lose everything. Faced with just that situation, with King Philip of France poised to invade, John submitted to the Pope in front of his barons. He was seen as weak and pathetic in doing so but he was being strategically clever.

The Pope called off the French invasion (or so he thought, in truth the French fleet was destroyed in port at Bruges) and Stephen Langton, the clever, erudite Langton whose diplomacy and negotiations largely orchestrated Magna Carta, came to England. The quarrel King John vs the church reached its conclusion. For more about King John and the Plantagenet era click here


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