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Magna Carta – The Great Archbishops

Magna Carta – The Great Archbishops

With the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, we thought it an opportune time to highlight some of Canterbury’s links to this great historical event. Whilst the Cathedral is the resting place for many Archbishops, perhaps the oddest placed tomb is that of Stephen Langton, resting as he is with his feet outside the Cathedral’s walls.

Stephen Langton, born c. 1150 was a theologian and scholar. He studied in Paris until he was made cardinal-priest of St Chrysogonus in 1206, appointed by Pope Innocent III whom he had known in Paris. After the death of Hubert Walter in 1205, the Pope suggested Stephen Langton as his successor. Langton was consecrated on 17th June 1207. King John did not approve of Langton’s appointment however, and he banned Langton from taking up his post at Canterbury. Eventually in 1213 Langton was allowed back to England and John promised to recognize him as Archbishop of Canterbury, to love and honour the church, and to pass good laws in line with this.

This period of détente did not last. King John it seemed had no intention to keep his promises to rule with justice and his relationship with his Barons deteriorated. The Barons saw an ally in Stephen Langton; someone who was not afraid to speak out against the King and who had shown that he would not cow to the King’s demands. Stephen Langton was a crucial figure in the negotiations of the King’s agreement with the Barons, which led to Magna Carta.

Tomb of Archbishop Langton below the Chapel Altar
Tomb of Archbishop Langton below the Chapel Altar

Unfortunately, Archbishop Langton’s role in Magna Carta did not bring him the personal triumph and political clout it had promised. Magna Carta and Langton’s involvement in it angered the Pope, his one time champion, and Langton found himself suspended from his office as Archbishop. He did return to the office two years later and played a significant role in public affairs under King John’s successor, Henry III. Langton died in 1228.

The tomb in which Archbishop Langton has been laid to rest is very simple.  It is made of Caen stone, with a Purbeck marble lid. There is a simple cross carved on top that stretches the length of the coffin lid. The simple nature of the tomb is not a measure of Langton’s importance or the opinions of others of him; it was just a popular style at the time. (A similar one can be seen in the northern side of the Western Crypt by the chapels of St Margaret and St Stephen.) It wasn’t until later in the 13th century that tombs with effigies on top, depicting the deceased became more popular, and what we expect to see today when thinking of medieval tombs.

As mentioned above though, the strangeness of Archbishop Langton’s tomb is not its simplicity but its location.

Tomb of Lady Margaret Holland and her two Husbands, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset and Prince Thomas of Lancaster
Tomb of Lady Margaret Holland and her two Husbands, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset and Prince Thomas of Lancaster

Many of the tombs or memorials in Canterbury Cathedral are oddly placed. For example, the tomb of Priory Eastry was put into an alcove too small for his effigy and the space around his feet was carved out to allow for them to fit. However, none of the other tombs have their occupants breaching the Cathedral walls! The reason for this odd positioning is due to a remodeling of St Michael’s chapel in 1437-1440. St Michael’s chapel is in the South West Transept. Its refurbishment included moving the tombs of Prior Oxenden (1331-1338)and Prior Hathbrand (1338-1370) and removing an apse in which Archbishop Langton had been laid to rest. The changing of the footprint of the chapel was to make way for the new triple tomb, commissioned by Lady Margaret Holland depicting her and her first and second husbands in the centre of the chapel. This involved carving out enough space in the wall for Langton’s tomb to sit without being in the way of the altar. It seems an odd choice- why was it not just moved to the sides like the tombs of Oxenden and Hathbrand? There is no clear evidence why this was the case, but it has meant that whilst the resting place of the two priors is uncertain, we know exactly where Archbishop Stephen Langton rests to this day.

Langton is still seen today as an important scholar and one of the most important churchmen of the Middle Ages. He has been attributed with being the first to divide the Bible into chapters and was instrumental in bringing about Magna Carta, adding a respectability and clout to the Barons’ demands. I feel that the odd placement of his tomb does not show a lack of respect, but instead ensures he remains a unique part of the Cathedral’s history.

Tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter
Tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter

Hubert Walter, Stephen Langton’s predecessor, died ten years before Magna Carta. However, his term as Archbishop set much of the background for Magna Carta. Hubert Walter was an Archbishop known for his involvement in the crusades, his defence of King Richard from losing his throne to his brother and his role in creating the foundations of our political and legal bureaucracy as it is today. His importance is shown by the fact that he was buried in the Trinity Chapel and his tomb can be found on the southern ambulatory.

Hubert Walter was laid to rest in a chest tomb of Purbeck, much in the form of a metal reliquary of the time. The gabled roof bears a series of carved heads, four on the north side and one at each end, each one within a quatrefoil within a lozenge, and linked by circular mouldings. This stands on a series of plain roughened mouldings, beneath which the main part of the side of the chest is covered by a free-standing arcade (six niches, north side only), composed of small round columns with diminutive capitals topped by round trefoil arches. The bases of the columns and of the chest have a series of round mouldings and the whole rests on a rounded plinth with further round mouldings.

The heads of the medallions are not identified. There was a popular story that Saladin was one of them, but more likely is Professor Christopher Wilson’s suggestion that they represent the various classes – bishops, monks, clerks, justices, etc. – with whom Walter dealt in the running of the church and country.

In 1890 the tomb, hitherto thought to be Archbishop Theobald’s, was opened and a firm identification made. There was another tomb inside the large external reliquary, which was very simple and along the same lines as Stephen Langton’s. Inside this tomb, to the surprise of the excavators was found a veritable treasure trove of items still intact. Silver, vestments and a crozier (article to follow next week).

Both Walter and Langton were integral to the background of Magna Carta, showing how very central the Archbishop of Canterbury was to the political running of England at the time. Their influence and advice were equally utilised and feared by the reigning monarchs. In the case of Archbishop Walter, he has been laid to rest in a location befitting of his influence. Archbishop Langton’s resting place is a little more modest- but certainly no less interesting!


Cathedral Main Building (2)




Mills, D. MA. Stephen Langton-The Archbishop of Magna Carta, Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, September 1961.

Madylene Beardmore- Inventory Administrator.

Please contact the Inventory Administrators at for further information

For more information on the events and activities happening to celebrate the sealing of Magna Carta please see the website here.

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