Successful Resistors in History – Part IX, section 1

I. The Barons at Runnymede (1215):

The barons who confronted King John at Runnymede in 1215, forcing him to sign the Great Charter (Magna Carta) are famous in English legal and constitutional history. This incident was after a series of abuses by the crown; the barons’ dispute with the monarchy had a lengthy history.

John’s father Henry II, had been unhappy with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, after a series of disputes over many years. Finally, Becket had refused to endorse Henry’s plans for reform of the courts, and while Becket was in France, Henry had one of his sons crowned king. As this was a task normally performed by the Archbishop, Henry had two of Becket’s enemies perform the ceremony. Becket, on his return, excommunicated them both. Henry was exasperated: “…who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” he exclaimed.

Four knights took him at his word, and when they confronted Becket in the cathedral, a scuffle broke out, and Becket was murdered.

Becket it seemed, was a martyr. But the successful confrontation at Runnymede 45 years later, between his murderer’s son, and another Archbishop of Canterbury can be considered an ironic and fateful consequence of his bloody death. Stephen Langton was a prolific writer and theologian. Furthermore he was a powerful preacher, and well acquainted with the problems of royal abuse of power; his own father had been forced to flee from England to Scotland on one occasion because of them.

Langton was a principled but determined character. As Archbishop (in August 1213), it was he who acquainted the barons with a commitment made much earlier by Henry I on the occasion of his coronation, granting them specific liberties. Langton had made this discovery whilst in Paris for 25 years, studying scripture and theology. Could these commitments be rewritten in a new document?

Unlike both the king and the barons, Langton didn’t have an axe to grind. The king certainly didn’t like him, but he respected him, and he had one more thing that probably appealed to the unpopular and corrupt king: he didn’t want the king dead.

Langton was able to be what we sometimes call, an “honest broker.” He was able to be an mediator between warring parties, in the national interest. Langton strongly discouraged the aggrieved and aggressive barons from violence against the king, but on their behalf he compelled King John to sign the Magna Carta. His is the first name listed as a witness on the document.

He sought something much more useful for the nation, than the death of their foolish king: the securing of liberties for the English people from tyrannical monarchs. And in this respect, he deserved the lasting admiration of England. The injustice of Becket’s murder could not be avenged in this life, but at last after 45 years, the tables had been turned on a corrupt monarchy. Stephen Langton’s godliness, wisdom and courage in his time, led to the triumph of the forces of resistance to tyranny in England.

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