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When England was under Interdict

By Danièle Cybulskie

There are plenty of reasons to dislike England’s King John. Whether it’s his loss of much of England’s land on the continent, his loss of much treasure in the sea, the possible murder of his nephew, Arthur, or the starvation of those who spoke ill about him, he wasn’t loved much in his own time, nor is he loved much today. But there was yet another reason for his subjects to hate him: under his rule, England was placed under papal interdict from 23 March 1208 to 2 July 1214.

In medieval Europe, there came to be a general consensus that the pope, as the representative of the divine on Earth, was the ultimate authority, and that even kings and queens were subject to his decrees. Naturally, kings and queens weren’t crazy about the idea, which is one of the reasons John got into a spat with the pope – Innocent III – to begin with. Although popes were technically at the top of the pyramid, they didn’t have much in the way of military might (relatively speaking) to enforce their rules. They did, however, have the full spiritual weight of the church.

If a ruler proved obstinate in his rejection of the pope’s will, the pope could place his realm under interdict. In short, this meant that the realm was treated almost as if everyone in it was excommunicated: priests were severely restricted in how they could minister to their flocks (as we’ll see in a moment). This put the souls of stubborn rulers’ subjects into danger of hellfire, the idea being that a king would be put under so much pressure from his subjects (and his conscience) that he would eventually relent and go along with the pope’s wishes.

Placing a realm under interdict wasn’t done lightly. After all, it was the pope’s responsibility to care for Earthly souls, not to endanger them, and despite modern conspiracy theories, popes did care for their people. The instructions given by Innocent III to priests during England’s time under interdict show both the restrictions placed on them, and Innocent’s desire to still manage to care for the English people, who (he recognized) were collateral damage in his spat with John.

The first concern Innocent addresses is the fact that priests are running out of holy oil (chrism) for baptism. Although they were not permitted to bless more oil for this purpose, Innocent did not forbid baptism. Given that babies were believed to have been born with original sin, it was critical for them to be baptized as soon as possible, as they would otherwise be consigned to hell if they died. He says that since new oil, “cannot be consecrated on Maundy Thursday, old must be used in the baptism of infants, and, if necessity demands it, the bishop or priest must mix the oil with the chrism so that it will not run out”. Although the chrism would be spread thin, the babies’ souls would be safe.

Baptisms, says Innocent, may “be celebrated in the usual manner with old chrism and oil inside the church with shut doors, no lay person being admitted save the godparents.” Likewise, pilgrims may be allowed into monasteries “not by the greater door, but by a more secret place.” He says, “Let church doors remain shut except at the chief festival of the church, when the parishioners and others may be admitted for prayer into the church with open doors.” The community aspect of Christian worship during this time was to be extremely muted. “Priests,” Innocent says, “may say their own hours and prayers in private”; however, “Let neither the gospel not the church hours be observed in the accustomed place, nor in any other, even if the people assemble there”. Regular masses, then, were not to be observed.

Matthew Paris draws an image of bells being rung referring to the relaxation of the papal interdict. British Library MS Royal 14 C VII f. 94

(It’s worth taking a moment here to note that marriages would not have been much affected by the interdict, as a church ceremony wasn’t necessary for a marriage to be legitimate. That was something that Innocent dearly wanted to remedy, however, and he took steps to that effect in tightening the church’s stance on marriage at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 – two years after England’s papal interdict had been lifted.)

Known for being a very rigid pope, it’s not surprising that Innocent felt the need to write that “penance is to be inflicted as well on the healthy as well as the sick; for in the midst of life we are in death”. The continuation of penance might not have been welcome news, but English priests and their parishioners would be relieved to read that, “Priests shall visit the sick, and hear confessions, and let them perform the commendation of souls in the accustomed manner.” The end of this sentence, though, would have horrified them: “[priests] shall not follow the corpses of the dead, because they will not have church burial.” This meant that although a person could be blessed by a priest at the moment of their death, their body would not be buried in the churchyard. This would have been extremely upsetting for the mourners. Where would they bury their dead? Would they have to wait for John to relent? Would being buried in unsanctified ground mean the person’s soul might not reach heaven after all?

Eventually, John did relent in 1213, submitting himself to Innocent III as one of his faithful flock, and promising cash payments. It’s hard to know if this was compassion for his subjects or (what might be more likely) shrewdness, as John was to rely on Innocent’s support when the Magna Carta was forced upon him shortly thereafter. Either way, it’s safe to say that England must have let out a collective sigh of relief to have their normal religious rituals resume, with all the spiritual comfort that came with their being performed correctly and in full.

You can read the rest of Innocent III’s instructions to English priests as well as John’s submission in Medieval England: A Reader. This translation (found in that collection) is by H. Gee and W.G. Hardy.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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