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Witch Hunts in Medieval England: The Trial of Walter Langton

By Kathryn Walton

In 1301 Walter Langton, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, was accused of using sorcery to acquire a large fortune and gain the favour of the king. His lengthy and inconclusive trial shows that accusations of witchcraft made at this time were often motivated by politics rather than fear.

It is a common misconception that hunting and burning witches was common across the Middle Ages. In England and much of western Europe, witch hunts did not really start until the latter half of the sixteenth century, and they did not become prominent until well into the early modern period.

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Prior to the mid-fifteenth century attitudes towards magic in England were actually somewhat lenient. While the church certainly condemned practices that it deemed magical, punishments at the time were not severe, and there was not really any widespread persecution of magic. Magic and magical practices were a common and generally accepted part of many people’s lives.

The idea of a witch was not even fully defined until well into the 15th century. Johannes Nider’s Formicarius is one of the first texts to really develop the idea of the witch, and it was not written until the 1430s. For more on the development of the figure of the witch in the fifteenth century, check out “From Magic to Maleficium: The Crafting of Witchery in Late Medieval Text.”

Accusations of witchcraft that did occur in the fourteenth century and before were often motivated by politics rather than by fear. This was certainly the case when Walter Langton, the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, was accused of sorcery.

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Who was Walter Langton?

Walter Langton was one of the most important administrative figures of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. He was probably born in Church Langton parish, Leicestershire, and was the son of Simon and Amicia Peverel. He got his start in the court of Edward I as a wardrobe clerk and after a series of upward moves (mostly through the wardrobe), he eventually made his way up to treasurer of the exchequer. In 1296 he was elected as the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. These are just a few of his positions. He held many prominent and influential positions in both the church and in the court throughout his life.

Walter Langton, 18th c. drawing of a now lost stained glass depiction in Lichfield Cathedral – Wikimedia Commons

Langton was particularly important to King Edward I and especially favoured by him. According to Roy Martin Haines, who has a great entry on Langton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, people at the time noticed how much the king favoured him. Walter of Guisborough called him the king’s favourite and indicated that Langton was the person who dealt with all the cumbersome business of the kingdom, even overshadowing the chancellor. Queen Margaret is quoted in The Liber epistolaris of Richard de Bury, as referring to Langton as “the King’s right eye.”

But not everyone was as fond of him as the king. Such favouritism from the king would of course lead to jealousy and a desire in other courtiers to see his position reduced.

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One man named Sir John Lovetot seemed particularly determined to ruin Langton. Scholars have not fully determined what exactly caused Lovetot’s animosity towards Langton. We do know that Langton had a longstanding relationship with the Lovetot family. His connection with the Lovetots went back to at least 1291 when Langton was presented with the living of Adlingfleet, Yorkshire by John Lovetot’s father. The family remained closely connected after that, and John’s younger brother Nicholas was even Langton’s clerk.

At some point, however, the relationship between Lovetot and Langton soured. We do know that the year Lovetot made his accusations he was indebted to Langton for nearly £1000 – so that might have had something to do with it.

Portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I

In any case, whatever his specific motivations, Lovetot attempted to ruin Langton by accusing him of using nefarious and diabolical means to gain his fortune and influence.

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Accusations

In February of 1301 Lovetot brought a number of accusations against Langton not to the attention of the king (who would have dismissed them) but to the attention of the pope. He accused Langton of a number of offences. Some of those offences involved Lovetot’s stepmother Joan de Brianzon. Lovetot accused Langton of having an elicit but public affair with de Brianzon for two years before he became bishop. He also claimed that Langton had helped his stepmother to strangle his father in his bed – presumably so they could continue their affair. He also accused Langton of misusing and abusing his ecclesiastical power: of simony, plurality, and of selling the constitution of the pope.

But his most prominent accusation was that Langton had used sorcery to gain his power and influence. Lovetot suggested that Langton had made a pact with the devil, had spoken with him frequently, and had even offered him obscene kisses. Communing with the devil to gain favours was considered the worst kind of magic at this time; so, Lovetot was suggesting that Langton used sorcery to secure his status and wealth. Lovetot also claimed that Langton’s interactions with the devil and other nefarious deeds were common and public knowledge across England.

The Trial

The pope at the time, Boniface VIII, took these charges very seriously and summoned Langton to Rome immediately for a trial. Langton and Edward I were somewhat more casual about this, and Langton did not ultimately appear in Rome until the following year. But, once he did, the pope took severe action. He ordered a commission through the Archbishop in England to look into the charges. With the help of the heads of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the archbishop was to question witnesses to determine Langton’s guilt. The pope also demanded that Langton give back everything he had taken from Lovetot after he had been summoned to Rome; Langton had evidently been using his power to make Lovetot’s life in England rather difficult after the accusations. The pope also suspended Langton from his see and ordered him to await the results of the commission.

The commission caused an upheaval in court. Edward I wrote to just about everyone he could think of in Rome in hopes of getting help for his favourite. He wrote to various Roman officials, to Boniface VIII’s nephew, to the pope’s other relations, to the pope’s secretary, and even to the pope himself. The queen too joined in the letter-writing campaign pleading that the entire realm would be endangered if Langton were long absent. The pope in turn wrote to Edward I asking that the king not treat Lovetot harshly. The king ignored that one and actually arrested Lovetot for a time upon his return to England and wrote back to the pope telling him what a disreputable, traitorous, untruthful person Lovetot was.

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The commission finished in 1303, and none of the charges against Langton were upheld. The various witnesses and personal reports about him said that there were some rumours about him, but that they all came from his rivals. Any accounts that were more negative were dismissed as coming from personal animosity against Langton. To avoid looking like Langton had benefited from too much favour, the pope did order that he do some penance, but then Langton was restored to his see and brought fully back into everyone’s favour.

If you want to read about this trial in detail, check out Alice Beardwood’s article “The Trial of Walter Langton, Bishop of Lichfield, 1307-1312.” It focuses mostly on a later trial but addresses this one too.

Politics and Witch Hunts

The accusations levied against Langton of communing with the devil (amongst other things) were obviously either personally or politically motivated. For some reason, Lovetot wanted to see Langton disgraced and cast out of the favour of the king. In this case these accusations were ineffective. Langton was just too important to the king to be hurt by them, and they really only served to cement him in the king’s favour and hurt Lovetot.

These kinds of accusations and the results were common in England at this time. A few years after Langton, Adam Stratton, the chamberlain of the exchequer, was accused of using sorcery to amass a large fortune and secure a lot of power in the court. Another royal favourite Piers Gaveston was also later accused of having bewitched the king who was inordinately fond of him. You can find many more examples of these kinds of accusations in William Jones’s article “Political Uses of Sorcery in Medieval Europe.”

These kinds of accusations were obviously not motivated by fear over magic. That did exist at the time, of course, but it was not nearly as widespread as it would become. Suggesting that someone had engaged in sorcery and witchcraft was just an easy way to cast doubt on their character and potentially discredit them. It was a handy weapon for any members of the aristocracy who were jealous of someone else’s wealth and power.

The fact that Langton was not at all hurt by the accusation that he had communed with, spoken to, and even kissed the devil shows the amount of skepticism with which such accusations were treated. As long as you stayed on the good side of the right people, being accused of sorcery and communing with the devil at this time in England was not really a problem. It was just politics.

Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.

Click here to read more from Kathryn Walton

Top Image: Head of a Crozier with a Serpent Devouring a Flower. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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