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Sunday, 23 March 2014

23 March 1208: an interdict is laid on England

Church bells were silent until
1214 
(BL, Royal 14 C VIII, f.94)
On 23 March 1208, English bishops under orders from Pope Innocent III laid a general interdict on England and Wales. The sacraments were forbidden to the entire kingdom: no-one was allowed to attend Mass, receive extreme unction or bury their deceased relatives in consecrated ground with religious ceremony. Only the baptism of infants and the confession of the dying were permitted. This state lasted for over six years, until the interdict was lifted, on 2 July 1214.

The pope resorted to this drastic measure because King John had refused to accept the pope’s candidate for the post of archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton was a famed scholar of the Bible, who had spent some years at the schools of Paris studying theology. Innocent, who had also studied at Paris, had known Langton for twenty years and the two shared an attachment to St Thomas Becket. When a dispute arose between King John and the monks of Canterbury, in 1206, about who should succeed to the most senior Church office in England, Innocent took the opportunity to establish his own candidate in the see. But a university professor, who had been living abroad for years in the kingdom of John’s rival, was not the sort of archbishop that the king of England had in mind, nor was John impressed by how the pope had undermined the royal right to influence the election. John refused to budge, forcing Innocent’s hand.

What impact did the interdict have on the people of England? The account of Ralph of Coggeshall, the Cistercian chronicler who recorded the results of an interdict placed on France in 1200, suggests that the effects would have been deeply felt:
‘O what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs, the cessation of divine office, the withholding of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, the people no longer flocking to the famous celebrations of saints days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, of whom the stink infected the air and the horrible sight filled with horror the minds of the living’
Indeed, Ralph’s response to the interdict laid on England was so extreme that, after John’s settlement with the pope, he removed it from his chronicle.

The punishment did little, though, to sway King John. With senior churchmen forced into exile, the king was able to take the profits from Church lands. John pocketed the tidy sum of £100,000 – less than half of which he was ever to pay back. In the end, it was the threat of rebellion at home and invasion from France that forced John to bow to the pope and accept Langton as archbishop of Canterbury.  And the interdict had done nothing to soften John’s reputation for impiety, nor to discourage the king’s subjects from joking, ‘How far that stag has grown without ever attending Mass!’ 

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