Stephen Langton

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Stephen Langton
Archbishop of Canterbury
Statue of Langton from the exterior of Canterbury Cathedral
Statue of Langton from the exterior of Canterbury Cathedral
Appointedc. 1207
Term ended9 July 1228
PredecessorJohn de Gray
SuccessorWalter d'Eynsham
Consecration17 June 1207
by Innocent III
Created cardinal1206
by Pope Innocent III
RankCardinal priest of San Crisogono
Personal details
Bornc. 1150
Died9 July 1228
Slindon, Sussex
BuriedCanterbury Cathedral
DenominationCatholic Church
ParentsHenry Langton

Stephen Langton (c. 1150 – 9 July 1228) was an English cardinal of the Catholic Church and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207 until his death in 1228. The dispute between King John of England and Pope Innocent III over his election was a major factor in the crisis which produced the Magna Carta in 1215. Langton is also credited with having divided the Bible into the standard modern arrangement of chapters used today.

Early life and career[edit]

His father was Henry Langton, a landowner in Langton by Wragby, Lincolnshire. Stephen Langton may have been born in a moated farmhouse in the village,[1] and was probably educated in his local cathedral school. He could also have been born at Friday Street, Surrey, according to local legend.[2]

Stephen studied at the University of Paris and lectured there on theology until 1206, when Pope Innocent III, with whom he had formed a friendship in Paris, called him to Rome and made him cardinal-priest of San Crisogono, Rome.[3][4] His piety and learning had already won him prebends in Paris and York[5] and he was recognised as the foremost English churchman.

His brother Simon Langton[6] was elected Archbishop of York in 1215, but that election was quashed by Pope Innocent III.[7] Simon served his brother Stephen as Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1227.[6] Simon and Stephen had another brother named Walter, a knight who died childless.


Arms displayed by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the signing of Magna Carta in 1215: Argent, a cross quarter-pierced gules

On the death of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1205, the election of a successor encountered difficulties: some of the younger canons of the cathedral chapter elected Reginald, the subprior of Christ Church, Canterbury, as Archbishop while another faction under pressure from King John chose John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich. Both elections were quashed on appeal to Rome, and sixteen canons of the chapter, who had gone to Rome with a mandate to act for the whole chapter, were ordered to proceed to a new election in presence of the Pope. The choice fell upon Langton and he was consecrated by the Pope at Viterbo on 17 June 1207.[8]

There followed a hard political struggle between John of England and Pope Innocent III. The King proclaimed as a public enemy anyone who recognised Stephen as Archbishop. On 15 July 1207, John expelled the Canterbury chapter, which was now unanimous in support of Stephen. In March 1208, Pope Innocent III placed England under an interdict and at the close of 1212, after repeated negotiations had failed, he passed sentence of deposition against John, committing the execution of the sentence to Philip II of France in January 1213.[8]

In May 1213 King John yielded and thus in July, Stephen and his fellow exiles returned to England. Till that moment, he had lived since his consecration at Pontigny Abbey in Burgundy.[9] His first act as Archbishop was to absolve the King, who swore an oath (which he almost immediately violated) guaranteeing that unjust laws should be repealed and the liberties granted by Henry I should be observed.

Stephen now became a leader in the struggle against King John. At a council of churchmen at Westminster on 25 August 1213, to which certain barons were invited, he read the text of the charter of Henry I and called for its renewal. In the sequel, Stephen's energetic leadership and the barons' military strength forced John to grant his seal to Magna Carta (15 June 1215).[10]

Plaster maquette of Stephen Langton by John Thomas at Canterbury Heritage Museum

Since King John now held his kingdom as a fief of the Holy See the Pope espoused his cause and excommunicated the barons. For refusing to publish the excommunication the king had Stephen suspended from all ecclesiastical functions by the papal commissioners[11] and on 4 November this sentence was confirmed by the Pope, although Stephen appealed to him in person. He was released from suspension the following spring on condition that he keep out of England until peace was restored, and he remained abroad till May 1218. Meanwhile, both Pope Innocent and King John died and all parties in England rallied to the support of Henry III.

Stephen Langton continued under Henry's reign to work for the political independence of England. In 1223 he again appeared as the leader and spokesman of the barons, who demanded that King Henry confirm the charter. He went to France on Henry's behalf to call on Louis VIII of France for the restoration of Normandy, and later he supported Henry against rebellious barons. He obtained a promise from the new pope, Honorius III, that during his lifetime no resident papal legate should be again sent to England, and won other concessions from the same pontiff favourable to the English Church and exalting the see of Canterbury.

Of great importance in the ecclesiastical history of England was a council which Stephen opened at Osney on 17 April 1222; its decrees, known as the Constitutions of Stephen Langton,[12] are the earliest provincial canons which are still recognised as binding in English Church courts.


Stephen Langton died at Slindon, near Chichester, Sussex, on 9 July 1228. He was buried in open ground beside the south transept of Canterbury Cathedral. St Michael's Chapel was later built over this ground (now the Buffs Regimental Chapel), and the head of his tomb projects into the east end of this chapel, under its altar, with the foot outside it.

The "Stephen Langton Trail", devised to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, starts in Langton by Wragby and leads to Lincoln Cathedral, where there is an original copy of the charter.[13]


Langton wrote prolifically. His many sermons and his glosses, commentaries, expositions, and treatises on almost all the books of the Old Testament are preserved in manuscript[14] at Lambeth Palace, at Oxford and Cambridge, and in France.

According to F. J. E. Raby, "There is little reason to doubt that Stephen Langton ... was the author" of the famous sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus.[15]

The only other of his works which has been printed, besides a few letters (in The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs, ii. London, 1880, Rolls Series, no. 71, appendix to preface) is a Tractatus de translatione Beati Thomae (in J. A. Giles's Thomas of Canterbury, Oxford, 1845), which is probably an expansion of a sermon he preached in 1220, on the occasion of the translation of the relics of Thomas Becket; the ceremony was the most splendid that had ever been seen in England. He also wrote a life of Richard I, and other historical works and poems are attributed to him.

Chapters of the Bible[edit]

Classically, scrolls of the books of the Bible have always been divided by blank spaces at the end (petuhoth) or middle (setumoth) of the lines. However, Langton is believed[16] to be the one who divided the Bible into the standard modern arrangement of chapters. While Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro is also known to have come up with a systematic division of the Bible (between 1244 and 1248), it is Langton's arrangement of the chapters that remains in use today.[17]


  1. ^ Christopher Holdsworth, Stephen Langton, Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  2. ^ "Stephan Langton Inn, Friday Street". What Pub. Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  3. ^ Stephen Cardinal Langton. The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. Retrieved 22 November 2008.
  4. ^ British History Online Archbishops of Canterbury. Retrieved 11 September 2007.
  5. ^ British History Online Canons whose Prebends cannot be identified. Retrieved 11 September 2007.
  6. ^ a b British History Online Archdeacons of Canterbury. Retrieved 14 September 2007.
  7. ^ Fred A. Cazel Jnr, Simon Langton, Oxford Online National Dictionary of Biography, 2004
  8. ^ a b Bartlett, Robert England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075–1225 Oxford: Clarendon Press 2000 ISBN 0-19-822741-8 pp. 404–405
  9. ^ Powicke, F.M., "Stephen Langton", Theology, Volume 17, Issue 98
  10. ^ Smith, Esther (2000), "Langton, Stephen (c. 1155–1226)", Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature (online ed.), Greenwood, retrieved 20 August 2010 (subscription required)
  11. ^ Ambler, Sophie. "Stephen Langton". Magna Carta Trust.
  12. ^ White, John William. "The Oxford Constitutions of Stephen Langton,...", The British magazine, London Vol. 25, (Jun 1844): 615–622
  13. ^ "Stephen Langton Trail", The Long Distance Walkers Association
  14. ^ Baldwin, John W. "Master Stephen Langton, Future Archbishop of Canterbury: The Paris Schools and Magna Carta". The English Historical Review, vol. 123, no. 503, 2008, pp. 811–46. JSTOR
  15. ^ The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse, Oxford, 1959, p. 496.
  16. ^ Moore, G.F. The Vulgate Chapters and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible, 1893, at JSTOR.
  17. ^ Hebrew Bible article in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

External links[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by