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Where was Stephen Langton of Magna Carta born?

The British Empire in the nineteenth century saw Stephen Langton as a nationalist hero and primary author of Magna Carta. The Victorians attributed his origins to the ancient Langton family of Langton by Spilsby, sometimes called Langton by Partney in the county of Lincolnshire. There are three Langton villages in Lincolnshire which due to close proximity to each other are given further geographical descriptions, Langton by Spilsby/Partney, Langton by Wragby and Langton by Horncastle.

The twentieth century saw a different origin ascribed to Langton; he was now from Langton by Wragby and his ethnic origins were pre-conquest Anglo- Danish. This proposed origin was to be crucial for the emerging view of Langton that developed in the twentieth century. If he was a non-Norman rising up from native peasant stock he was unconnected with the barons, he could be dispensed with in the story of Magna Carta as simply a mediator with no partisanship whatsoever. He could also, on the basis of his lengthy lecturing in Paris be portrayed as hardly knowing anybody in England, out of touch and with no strong relationships.

If the opposite was true, that he was from a baronial family as the Pope had asserted, ‘ducens originem’ then the twentieth century airbrushing of Stephen out of the story would be highly questionable if not completely undermined.(1) Langton’s role of prime mover was progressively reduced to that of a mediator between King John and barons and his authorship of Magna Carta was drastically cut until only chapter one of Magna Carta about the church remained to his credit. He had absolutely no interest in anything else because his only interest was in protecting church privilege.

Langton’s place of origin is not then just a matter of a geographical quirk, the whole twentieth century dishonouring of the Archbishop starts with the ascription of his birth to what was in the twelfth century a very small settlement, Langton by Wragby. In parallel the twentieth century saw an increasingly negative view of Christianity and the Church of England in particular. It would be strange if the sometimes hostile view of the church last century did not influence the revisionist view of Langton. In short no one wanted the Archbishop to be a hero anymore.

Boswell in his Life of Johnson recorded a meeting with Bennett Langton that took place in 1752:

‘Johnson was not the less ready to love Mr Langton for his being of a very ancient family, for I have heard him say with pleasure, Langton, sir, has a grant of free warren from Henry II and Cardinal Stephen Langton, in King John’s reign was of this family.’(2)

Bennett Langton was an evangelical associate of Wilberforce and prominent in the abolition of slavery, he often hosted meetings in his home. Bennett was indeed from an ancient family which held Langton by Spilsby manor unbroken for over 700 years in the Langton name, his descent with only minor breaks could be traced back to the late twelfth century in surprising detail. Further Dr Johnson was correct, Bennett Langton did indeed possess a grant of Free Warren albeit not from the reign of Henry II but the reign of his grandson Henry III. However Cardinal Stephen Langton was not from Langton by Spilsby and not from this prominent Langton family, the names simply do not fit with the well attested ancient Spilsby Langton tree.

The Langton by Spilsby theory held sway until Sir Maurice Powicke’s biography Stephen Langton published in 1928. Powicke proposed a different solution. ‘Henry and his three sons belonged to Langton by Wragby, nearer to Lincoln, and not far from Bullington. Further search by Canon Foster confirmed this view, for among the original charters in the British Museum relating to Langton by Wragby is one of Master Simon, son of Henry Langton, concerning a toft to the west of Langton church. We may accordingly assert with confidence that Stephen, Simon and Walter were the three sons of Henry of Langton by Wragby.’(3)

Regretfully Powicke did not reproduce the defining charter in his biography of Langton. The decision to opt for Langton by Wragby may be based simply on the supposed geographically proximity to Bullington. It is the same sort of argument as the deduction that the Langtons were Anglo-Danish, descended from pre conquest inhabitants simply on the basis that Langton is an English place name. The obvious point that ‘de Langton’ is clearly not wholly English was never addressed. Despite the thinness of the argument and its non- reproduction of the charter in evidence, the Langton by Wragby identification now held sway.

Let us return to Dr Johnson’s helpful citation of evidence particularly the grant of Free Warren. As stated above the document dates from the reign of Henry III, 6th February 1246 when Simon Langton was Archdeacon of Canterbury and still a prominent if fading force in government of both church and state. The very high status giving of Free Warren is directly from the Henry III addressed to his Archbishop. The grant is ‘to Roger Langton that he and his heirs for ever shall have free warren in the demesne lands of Humbellot Langton in the county of Lincoln.’(4)

Humbellot is another alternative geographic designation like the Spilsby/Partney alternatives to distinguish the various Langton settlements. There should be a similar sounding town or village next to the relevant Langton settlement referred to. There is no such place near Langton by Wragby, no matter how long a map is searched. The outskirts of Spilsby do contain a place called Hundleby but there is a far better match than the –nd- of Hundleby. Humbellot now called Thimbleby is the next village to Langton by Horncastle. Humbellot was simply an alternative locational name to Horncastle. The Langton family including Cardinal Stephen were not from Langton by Wragby but from the Langton that is by Humbellot (Thimbleby) and that means they would usually be described as coming from Langton by Horncastle.

Powicke also referred to the marriage of Walter Langton to Denise of Anesty in 1232 and that he died in 1234. In 1235 she married Warin de Muntchesney (5). The settlement of her dower with her brother’s heir Simon Langton survives and is dated 8th July 1236.

‘Warin de Monte Carriso and Dionisia his wife and Simon Langton tenant of a third part of 16 bovates and 21 acres of land and 70 acres of wood, a mill, 6 messuages and 7/4 (sic) rent in Langton…..which was of Walter de Langton, formerly her husband…. Warin and Dionisia quit claimed….a mill in Summerhuse in the name of the dower and for ever, and the said Simon granted them ten marks by the year for the life of the said Dionesia to be taken by the hand of the said Simon and his heirs every year to the New Temple London.’

If Langton by Wragby is being talked about here, then there was a mill there in 1236. Perhaps Domesday Book records the same mill. Domesday Book does not record a mill here in 1086 which is hardly surprising as there is no river. By contrast Langton by Horncastle had a mill worth nine shillings in Domesday Book. (6) The land being settled in the agreement between Simon and the young widow was in Langton by Horncastle.

Cardinal Stephen Langton died in 1228 and the following year the creditors of his brother Walter were trying to regain their money. Two people made pledges of amercement on behalf of Walter, one was Adam of Merle the other Henry of Langton. (Fine Rolls of Henry III 1229). This is not Henry, father of Stephen and Walter for he was dead. This is Henry of Langton by Horncastle sometimes called Henry of Woodhall. Whereas Powicke thought these were neighbouring families from different villages the fact that money was involved, Henry standing pledge for Walter suggests they were the same family and Walter like Henry was from Langton by Horncastle. The alternative view would be that Henry was a helpful neighbour who just happened to have the same name.

The grant of Free Warren with the Humbellot reference, the mill of 1236 coupled with Domesday Book entries and modern maps, and the obliging Henry in 1229, supporting his relative Walter, require us to reappraise the situation and adopt a twenty first century view of Magna Carta. Stephen Langton was from Langton by Horncastle not from Langton by Wragby. He was not from an Anglo-Danish family with an unexpected unexplained rise up the social scale. He was from a land owning Norman family just as Innocent III told King John many years ago, ‘ducens originem’. The twentieth century portrayal of Langton as having little or no influence on Magna Carta lacks merit. It is based on a false premise, the reality is that Langton was baronial through and through. A new view of the origins of Magna Carta based on wider twenty first century disciplines needs to be achieved.

Copyright David Langton 8th January 2015 All rights reserved.