Today in 1208 Pope Innocent III placed an interdict on the whole of England prohibiting clergy from conducting religious services. It was the last time public daily mass would be stopped in Britain until the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020. King John treated the interdict as a papal declaration of war. Back in 1208, the antagonists in this situation were Pope Innocent III and King John of England. John is viewed by most historians as being a poor ruler because of his inability to get along with others, whether his subjects or European leaders. He was ill-tempered and stubborn, a tyrant who became the villain in the Robin Hood legends.
An interdict, not widely imposed today, is a powerful disciplinary tool of the Catholic Church, more commonly used during the Middle Ages. It denied sacraments and public worship to an individual, a region or state that was not willing to adhere to the laws of the Church. Once imposed, the interdict remained in effect until the wrong has been corrected, so an interdict might last for only a brief period or extend out for years. A blunt instrument, it could be used to penalize the whole for the violations of a few. In the case of King John, the transgressions of one person lead to taking away the religious practices of many. Theologically this is seen as a salutary action, one intended to bring back to health an unhealthy situation and is only imposed as a last resort to achieve compliance with Church law. It was and is designed to be less severe than total excommunication, which automatically excludes those impacted from all Church activity. In recent memory interdicts were imposed on a group of parishioners who physically kept a black priest from entering a chapel; or on a priest found to be widely advocating abortion.
The collision of King and Pope took place in 1205, three years before today’s interdict, when the archbishop of Canterbury died. Hubert Walter had served as both chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury under King John. In his role as chancellor he oversaw the day-to-day affairs of government, and as archbishop he was the leader of the Catholic Church in England. A skilful, effective and powerful leader in contrast with the King. At the time the Archbishop of Canterbury was linked to the Benedictine foundation that dated from the time of Augustine. The archbishops of Canterbury were in full communion with the See of Rome and usually received the pallium from the pope as a sign of their office. The monks had the right to elect the archbishop, but by custom it always had been someone acceptable to the King. Upon Walter’s death, the monks in Canterbury quickly and secretly elected Reginald, as the new archbishop without consulting King John, they did not trust him as he had shown little interest in religious matters. Reginald immediately was sent to Rome with the belief that he could obtain the pope’s approval before the king or bishops would know what happened. The King ignored Reginald’s election and promoted John de Gray, bishop of Norwich, who was loyal to the king.
In Rome, Pope Innocent III had decided to expand the role of the Church into the affairs of state, by taking away from rulers their right to fill ecclesiastical vacancies. The Pope consolidated these appointments under the Vatican. He expanded papal supremacy so successfully that, during his papacy, eight European countries became vassals of the Holy See. As an indication of his ‘high theology’ Innocent had declared himself to be the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the successor of Peter … the mediator between God and man, less than God, greater than man” He wouldn’t hesitate using excommunication and the interdict to exercise Church influence over kings and kingdoms. Innocent using his cunning legal mind saw an opportunity to widen papal influence in England. He dismissed Reginald, because he had been elected in secret, and then Bishop de Gray, because he had been named before the pope had proclaimed the invalidity of Reginald and selected his trusted friend Cardinal Stephen Langton as the archbishop of Canterbury.
The interdict suspended all religious services, denied Mass to everyone except the clergy, took away all the sacraments save confession and viaticum for the dying, and baptism, which had to be done privately. Couples could not be married in the Church and no one could be buried in consecrated Catholic cemeteries. The King retaliated by confiscating lands from the clergy, not offering them any protection and not supporting them financially. Innocent encouraged King Phillip of France to invade England and take the throne. Recognizing the threat of a powerful invasion and aware that the lords of his country would not support him, King John finally succumbed to the pope and received absolution from the Church, but the interdict was not lifted until the Vatican was convinced of John’s sincerity. At last, in June 1214, after six years, the interdict was removed from England. Under the leadership of Archbishop Langton, the king was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which is the basis of English, and later American, constitutional liberties. Among its contents, it addressed freedoms of the Church, political reform, the right to trial by jury, the right of habeas corpus and the principle of no taxation without representation. Pope Innocent would later try to annul this, unsuccessfully.