Human Rights and an English Priest

Author Melinda Penner Published on 08/14/2014

Probably like most people, I wasn’t interested in history when I was a child. My interest began as an adult. But there is one historical fact that has stuck with me since childhood, but not because of my history textbooks. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 AD at Runnymede. That fact has stuck in my mind because of an episode of My Favorite Martian—Tim and Martin accidentally ended up witnessing the signing of the great document because they dialed the year rather than the time in their time machine.

The Magna Carta is foundational human rights document because it was the first in history that imposed on the sovereign to respect the rights of citizens and limit the ruler’s arbitrary will. It covered the rights of noblemen, not all citizens—but it was a beginning. It is the cornerstone that most modern constitutions are built on. It influenced the U.S. Constitution. The first clause of the Magna Carta protects the freedom of the church, and one of the key people responsible for the document and its signing was the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Stephen Langton was born in the 1150s and probably grew up aware of the conflict over religious freedom between Thomas Beckett and Henry II. These events may have planted ideas that influenced him later in his career. Langton became a priest, studied, and later lectured and wrote on theology in Paris from 1181 to 1206. He would have seen Notre Dame being built. He wrote commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and is most likely the person who determined the chapter markers in the Bibles we use today.

He was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and returned to England in the middle of strife between King John and the English barons. He told the barons of a document he learned about in Paris signed by Henry I in 1031 that the king agreed to recognize certain liberties of the barons. With this precedent in mind, he and the barons drafted the document that would become the Magna Carta. After the rebels took London in 1215, John signed the Magna Carta and Langton’s is the first signature of the witnesses. By this time, Langton was actually siding with the king and used his influence to get John to agree. He continued to act as a mediator finding peaceful ways to resolve disputes and protect the rights the king had agreed to honor. He later authored constitutions that became the basis of ecclesiastical law that have been used for centuries.

Langton died in 1228 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral.