Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we remember when a Pope excommunicated an entire country.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 23rd of March 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

On the 23rd of March in 1208, Pope Innocent III pronounced an Interdict on King John of England and the entire English kingdom. This was essentially an ex-communication of the English people for King John’s refusal to accept Stephen Langford as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This interdict lasted for six years. If you thought some covid restrictions were terrible, imagine being told that you could not go to church, could not receive the sacraments, and could not even be given a funeral or proper burial.

And whose fault was it? Pope Innocent III was known as a particularly tough-headed fellow but King John. Oh boy… he was known for his temper, impiety, greed, and contempt for the English people. And of course, we know him as a conniving pretender to the throne, liar, and thumb-sucking cartoon lion in Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon.

John’s father, King Henry II, was seen as responsible for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett- so this line of Plantagenet English kings had been adversarial to the Pope. And, of course, this is the Middle Ages, so we see this battle as fairly typical between the two rival claimants to authority: the Pope or the temporal ruler.

The Pope’s goal in the Interdict was to get the English people to turn on their king. But it would also lead to anti-clericalism and a national distaste for being run by a foreign spiritual authority.

The question about the interdict that has vexed historians is: how “closed” was the church? We have records that tell us some churchmen fled England as they no longer had a source of income. In some locations, church life would be only slightly affected, and in other places, church life may have continued as usual.

One aspect of life that was not changed was marriage- the rules for who and how and where were notoriously scattered, with most English marriages settled by civil officials. If marriages (and thus dowries and important family connections) had been halted, perhaps the people would have turned on King John. A year after the interdict, Pope Innocent included sweeping reforms on marriage in the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

It seems to have been a financial benefit for the king who collected the tithes that would have otherwise been sent to Rome. So, why did King John ultimately give in to the interdict in 1214?

First, the French. We know the 100 Years War is on the horizon, and John is more afraid of the French than the Pope. Submitting to the Pope and appointing the Pope’s chosen Archbishop John could apply for a special exemption. John told Innocent that he would prepare to go on a Crusade. And, what do you know? If you are a King preparing to go on a crusade, no other Catholic states can declare war on you. French Problem temporarily solved.

And don’t forget how evil a king John was. He was known to take monarchical privilege with the wives and daughters of his barons. He didn’t like the Pope trying to take power, but he despised power grabs from those below him. And it just so happened that the barons, along with the English people, were thinking that reform could put a check on the King’s power.

Innocent and John probably disagreed on many things, but they did share a distaste for anything that smacked of democracy. They might have disagreed on the purview of their respective power, but they certainly didn’t believe that they could be checked by people lower on the Great Chain of Being.

In an ironic twist, the archbishop appointed by the Pope, Stephen Langdon, would help compose the Magna Carta in 1215- that famous document that secured some rights to the English people. John and Innocent would join forces against that document and the Barons it protected. The following story is one of the Baron’s War, but that’s another story for another time.

Today we remember the Papal interdict of England and King John, which was announced on this the 23rd of March in 1208

The Last Word for today comes from Matthew 19:

13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of March 2022 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who knows that the voice of King John in Disney’s Robin Hood is the same actor who played Frederick the Wise in the Luther movie. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man with “fortunes, forecasts, lucky charms” Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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