Post-classical history

The Passing of a Great Man

IT HAD BEEN part of the misfortune of Hubert de Burgh that his companion in the shaping of a sound and moderate national policy had died before the surge of opposition came to flood tide. Stephen Langton, one of the truly great figures of English history, passed away on July 9, 1228.

He was an old man when permitted to return to England in 1218, and the years which followed were hard for him. He stood like a guardian angel with drawn sword before the Charter and allowed no hostile hand to be laid on it. When he saw to what a sorry pass the country had been brought by absenteeism and papal exactions, he returned to Rome in 1220 to lay the facts before Honorius; riding slowly and painfully for nearly three months over rough and rocky roads. The Pope, who was eminently reasonable in all things, lent an attentive ear to the arguments of the great archbishop. The result was that Pandulfo was recalled and a promise made that it would no longer be deemed necessary for a legate to reside permanently in England. As a result the primate returned the following year, in great peace of mind and great discomfort of body.

In 1222 he held a synod at Oseney and dictated the drafting and adoption of a new series of constitutions which were so sound in form and yet so advanced in conception that traces of them are still included in ecclesiastical law.

In 1225 he girded himself to the task of riding all the way to Salisbury, where something very interesting was happening. It becomes necessary at this point to pause and tell of a truly great experiment which was being tried in the design and building of English churches.


In 1174 a fire destroyed the Norman choir at Canterbury and the task of rebuilding it was delegated to a great architect named William of Sens, who was brought over from Normandy for the purpose. William of Sens proceeded to make the restoration a reflection of the very best in French construction. In the course of the work, however, he fell from a scaffold and was so badly injured that the completion of the building passed into the hands of a native assistant who is known as William the Englishman. This truly great man, an unsung genius who flashes out of obscurity for this one brief moment, realized that the opportunity had been placed in his hands to cut English architecture free from French leading strings and to create a type of structure which would be forever England. He succeeded in directing into original lines what his predecessor had started, and in doing so began a movement which was reflected immediately in all construction work and came to be called Early English. It was an escape from the massiveness of Norman building into something more delicate and lofty and at the same time an avoidance of the excesses to which the French turned. The pointed arch took the place of the semicircular and led to great developments in high vaulting, The flying buttress came into existence. The sturdy pillar of earlier days changed to more slender and refined piers. The personal contribution of William the Englishman can be found in Canterbury’s Trinity Chapel and especially in the unbroken vista stretching eastward from the choir.

The new movement was well under way when the conviction became fixed in the mind of good Bishop Richard le Poor of Salisbury that the old cathedral erected there by St. Osmund on a hill so high that no word of the services could be heard when the wind was blowing was no longer adequate. He felt that the time had come to see what English brains and hands could accomplish, and on the pleasant meadowland which stretched down to the winding Avon he began the erection of a new cathedral which would be from foundation to the topmost pinnacle of the spire, in conception and execution, in every stone carved for pillar or flying buttress, in every length of timber planed and dressed for altar or rail, as English as the penny and the longbow. It was in his mind also that a greater cohesion of style would be possible if the work could be done in one generation and not allowed to drag over centuries.

The start was made in the year 1220, the direction being put in the hands of an architect and builder named Elias de Derham. This selection proved a most fortunate one. Elias de Derham, appointed a canon of Salisbury and given full control, proceeded to put into effect with skill and dispatch the ideas of the bishop. He gathered about him the best masons in England and he set up a system of prompt delivery of the fine gray stone from the Chilmark quarries sixteen miles away and the black Purbeck marble from the south of Dorset. He obtained some of the “strange devices” which William of Sens had used to unload Caen marble from the ships plying the Channel, and these he used to hoist the carved stone into position on the high walls when the usual system of ramps proved too slow. The work progressed so smoothly, in fact, that by 1225, when Stephen Langton came to Salisbury, a portion of the cathedral was already completed. The Lady Chapel was finished and roofed and slated, and enough of the nave was standing to allow the consecration of three altars. In thirty-three more years the work would be completed (save for the tower and spire, which were built the following century), a record for speed which astonished the world of the thirteenth century in which it was wrought.

It is a matter for deepest regret that no pen has set down in detail what the aging archbishop saw when he reached Salisbury. The pleasant meadows around the rising gray walls had been turned into a town of shops and cutting houses where the chisels of the masons turned the Chilmark stone into graceful forms and the finer tools of the stone carvers evolved the magnificent figures which made the west elevation a portrait gallery of amazing variety and imagination. He must have talked to the artists who were doing all this, the men who spent their whole lives at the work to which they were dedicated. They were different from other men, these absorbed workers in wool tunics of red or green or blue, in shoes of leather bound with thongs, in hoods of soft moleskin, whose eyes turned so often to the sky from which their inspiration came, their faces calm and unvexed by the frets of life in town. He would have been interested in the schools which they had set up in the workshops, where a new generation of young men were learning to carry on.

It is quite possible that Stephen Langton encountered the King during his visit. Henry’s favorite summer home was at Clarendon, a few miles away, and he had fallen into the habit of wandering over to inspect the proceedings. The King knew many of the workmen by name and he talked to them at great length.

Stephen Langton preached the dedicatory sermon in the Lady Chapel, a small but beautifully symmetrical structure with tall slender columns of the Purbeck marble and an arched ceiling of subdued coloring in which burnished red and the voluptuously rich blue of the Middle Ages predominated. The crowds which came to hear the aging primate would be too large for the limited space of the chapel and must have spread out to fill the covered part of the nave. The text from which he spoke is not recorded. This is unfortunate. The man who had led the struggle for Magna Charta must have sensed a continuation of the same spirit, the same urge to better the lot of mankind, in what was transpiring at Salisbury. It would be stimulating to know what he had to say on that score. He realized, no doubt, that the chisel of the mason would be as potent in the end as any words he might utter that day. Perhaps he had enough vision to foresee the truth: that not one sentence he spoke would be preserved, while the beautiful walls of Salisbury would stand for centuries and create reverence in countless hearts.


In his last days the archbishop felt, as William the Marshal had done, the need for a closing period of peace and contemplation. He was more fortunate than the old warrior, moving to the archiepiscopal manor of Slindon, on the edge of the Downs, where he was free at last of the cares of office and the bitterness of political strife. His brother Simon joined him there. Simon had been exiled because he had acted as chancellor to Louis during the brief period when the French prince ruled in London, but he was allowed to return late in 1227. For a few months the brothers, between whom there was a deep bond of affection, were together at Slindon. They sat and looked across the water toward the Isle of Wight and talked, no doubt, of the stirring days through which they had lived.

Stephen Langton was buried in St. Michael’s Chapel at Canterbury in an unadorned stone coffin, and there he remained for more than a century in the peace he had so greatly deserved. On the death of Lady Margaret Holland in 1439 an illuminated alabaster tomb of sufficient size to contain the body of the deceased lady and her two warrior husbands of high lineage was placed in the center of St. Michael’s. To make room for the newcomers, the simple tomb of the great archbishop had to be moved. Space, apparently, was at a premium; at any rate, it was deemed necessary to make a hole in the wall and place him there. The dust of Stephen Langton has remained in this anomalous position ever since, partly in and partly out of the cathedral. To those who reverence his memory it is disturbing to think that he has been thus exposed to wind and rain and the drifting snow while the great cathedral has been filled with the bones and the elaborate tombs of nonentities. It may be, however, that in the end his will be the advantage: that on the last day he will be the quicker to issue forth and go to meet his Judge.

Stephen Langton was fortunate that death came to him in the early part of the thirteenth century. He had been one of the first to sense the awakening which was sweeping men on to great things, and it was easy to die in the belief that, out of this burgeoning of intelligence and spirit, a shining new world would emerge. It was with this belief, no doubt, that he closed his eyes.

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