Thursday, March 23, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember the time a Pope (effectively) excommunicated an entire country.

It is the 23rd of March 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


We are keeping things Medieval for another day here on the Almanac- yesterday with the Knights Templar, today with some heavy hitters in the Medieval political world and Church, and all of this as a lead-up to this weekend’s Weekend Edition in which we will be doing a deep dive into the Crusades.

We have two major characters in today’s story- Pope Innocent III and King John of England. A quick word about each: Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) fits the bill of the Medieval Pope who, not content with spiritual rule over the church, would also take on political rivals. He considered himself the “Vicar of Christ on Earth”- a language not previously used. He believed himself to be “lower than God but higher than man”. He would keep the Crusades going but expand them beyond the Middle East with Crusades in Europe against supposed heretics. He would also call the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215- perhaps the most important Medieval councils. It would attempt to reform the church and expand the Crusades. This council is where the doctrine of Transubstantiation became Catholic doctrine (that is, the bread and wine at communion change in substance to the body and blood of Jesus).

As for King John of England- perhaps you’ve heard the song that goes:

He sits alone on a giant throne
Pretendin' he's the king

A little tyke who's rather like

A puppet on a string

And he throws an angry tantrum

If he cannot have his way

And then he calls for his Mum

While he's suckin' his thumb

You see, he doesn't want to play

Too late to be known as John the First

He's sure to be known as John the worst

A pox on that phony king of England!

That’s right- from Disney’s animated Robin Hood- the most often referenced movie on this podcast over its 4-year run.

John and Innocent were on a collision course when the Archbishop of Canterbury died, and some English monks quickly elected a new Archbishop. This led to a conflict with John, and the monks went to Rome asking Innocent for help. Innocent proposed Stephen Langton- a Cardinal who was serving in France. John, who was at war with the French, would not allow Langton to become Archbishop because of his proximity to the French King.

Everything came to a head on the 23rd of March in 1208. It was Easter Sunday and England's last regular church service for five years. Innocent used the power of interdiction to close all churches- no masses, marriages, or funerals were allowed. John began trying to confiscate church territory and would keep the tithes normally sent to Rome for himself.

The only thing priests (at least the ones who weren’t beaten, killed, or fled to the continent) could do was baptize babies and hear confessions from the dying. It was probably most jarring for the people who could no longer have their family members buried on church grounds- this was seen as an important practice for the faithful to ensure a hasty expedition to blessedness. Instead, the dead would be carried outside town and thrown in the graves usually reserved for the transient and criminals.

Priests could continue to say private masses, and pilgrims were allowed sanctuary in churches, but the regular mass was not said, nor confessions heard. This may not have had the intended effect on some as church attendance and participation would not initially recover once the interdict was lifted (it was after the interdict at that 4th Lateran Council that Innocent made its canon law to say confession and receive the sacrament at least once a year).

Ultimately it was a combination of the English people's frustration with King John and John’s war with France that led him to relent. John allowed Langton to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and the interdict was lifted in 1213. Langton also absolved John’s ex-communication.

And in all of this, the English nobility became concerned with the expanding power of the English king- especially with a reckless king like John. This would lead them to draft an important document: the Magna Carta to establish feudal rights- a kind of proto-Constitution.

And all of it stemmed from the interdict laid upon the entire kingdom of England by the Pope on easter Sunday- March 23rd, in 1208.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary from Psalm 130- this version from the rhyming Scottish Metrical Psalter:

 1  Lord, from the depths to thee I cried.

 2     My voice, Lord, do thou hear:

    Unto my supplication's voice

       give an attentive ear.


 3  Lord, who shall stand, if thou, O Lord,

       should'st mark iniquity?

 4  But yet with thee forgiveness is,

       that feared thou mayest be.


 5  I wait for God, my soul doth wait,

       my hope is in his word.

 6  More than they that for morning watch,

       my soul waits for the Lord;


    I say, more than they that do watch

       the morning light to see.

 7  Let Israel hope in the Lord,

       for with him mercies be;


    And plenteous redemption

       is ever found with him.

 8  And from all his iniquities

       he Isr'el shall redeem.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of March 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by the “Blabberin' jabberin', Gibberin' jabberin', Blunderin' plunderin', Wheelin' dealin” Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who has read rumors that a new anthropomorphic Robin Hood could be on its way- Oo-de-lally! I’m 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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