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Was Stephen Langton of Magna Carta English?


Stephen Langton, Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson, Alfred the Great, Henry V, William Shakespeare, and not forgetting Queen Elizabeth I; all have claims to be the greatest Englishman ever. Some of the not-so-great, have sought the spotlight by declaring Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. Other scriptwriters have wanted to disclaim Stephen Langton from the leading role in Magna Carta. My family has Trafalgar medals. Now, I’m waiting for Nelson to lose credit for the great sea battle, because he got shot too soon and lost command.


Winston Churchill was half American and that connection helped the transfer of American knowledge, troops, and equipment to Britain. If Stephen Langton too, was partly of non-English extraction, did imported European and Eastern ideas help to create Magna Carta? If Langton had foreign roots then Magna Carta is a mix of both English and European factors. If Langton was entirely an English poor boy made good, then Magna Carta may simply be a parochial work of self-interested barons.


All Langton families not just the Archbishop’s family have remained defined by the last biography of Stephen Langton, published almost a hundred years ago by Maurice Powicke in 1928. He makes the simple assertion that having an English place name surname equates to being from the pre-conquest native population which was Anglo-Danish. Presumably by contrast, French surnames such as D’Aubigny and Mandeville would indicate a Norman origin. Powicke writes:

‘The use of a common place-name suggests that the Langtons were of Anglo-Danish, not of foreign stock, and had gradually accumulated some property.’(1)


The parallel a few years earlier of George Saxe-Coburg otherwise known as His Majesty George V changing the family name to Windsor, where they had accumulated some property clearly escaped his notice.

At the time that Powicke penned his seemingly self-evident deduction early last century, there was no way to affirm or refute his claim. Now, however, we live in the 21st Century and we have DNA analysis. The hypothesis behind Powicke’s Langton assertion is: having a place name surname indicates pre conquest origins. If this is true then people with place name surnames should belong to predominantly British DNA genetic groups and these have become known in the last ten years.


The British Isles are a genetic cul-de-sac. Invaders come in from the east, but the Atlantic Ocean blocks the exit to the west for those under attack. The only slight escape route is to brave the English Channel from south west England and reach Britany in France. Judging by its name that is what some managed to do. Being the last outpost of Western Europe, one suspects, the fate of the majority of conquered males was death or enslavement, certainly no opportunity to breed. The remnants of the original British population are group G which has its highest density in Wales. The remnant such as it was, survived by taking the only other alternative to the sea, which is take to the hills. Recently Richard III has been revealed to belong to group G and not to match with the R1b of the royal Plantagenet descent, Duke of Beaufort. Perhaps Richard’s real father was Welsh and the famous Battle of Bosworth Field for the throne of England was actually fought between two Welshmen, the other being Henry Tudor.


The British Isles are genetically homogenous; there is little difference between the English, Welsh, Irish and Scots. All four countries have the same majority genetic group, where the male Y chromosome is R1b. In Ireland it is a concentrated 90% R1b, whilst in England it is lower but still dominant at 70%. The next largest English group is i1, which originally came from Scandinavia particularly southern Norway and Sweden. The occurrences of i1 are higher in the east of England where there was significant Viking settlement than in the more Anglo-Saxon west. An i1 result is indicative of Viking descent or descent from the Normans who were also originally from Scandinavia. Besides these two big groups, there are a few smaller ones making up the remaining English 10%. We have already mentioned the remnants of Group G, but there are much later arrivals Group E, Middle Eastern in origin is about 2% in England and is the group of both Einstein and Hitler. Group i2 is from continental Europe, the remains of some skeletons having been found in Continental caves. Finally amongst the latest arrivals are J1 and J2 which made the journey all the way from the Middle East.


If Stephen Langton’s Langton place name does indicate origin from pre conquest DNA then he and indeed all other Langtons should be predominantly R1b. The Lost Langtons organisation has collected over 25,000 Langton records and analysed all available Langton DNA samples.

Let us start in Lincolnshire. We may not have the Langton’s DNA from Stephen’s birthplace, (Langton by Wragby as identified by Powicke but in fact Langton by Horncastle), but there is another famous Lincolnshire Langton family. Holding their manor in an unbroken chain for an astonishing 700 years are the Langtons of Spilsby, sometimes called Langton by Partney. Descended from Osbert de Langeton the family can rightly boast of; Dr Johnson’s friend Bennett Langton, the slavery abolitionist and Dr William Langton, President of Magdalen College Oxford and Sir John Langton Sheriff of Lincolnshire. They were one of the families that rebelled against Henry VIII in the Pilgrimage of Grace, an unfortunate error of judgement, but no heads were lost; not their’s anyway. So were they group R1b? No, not at all! Then were they i1? No, not that either! They were from the continental i2 group. It seems they probably brought their DNA with them to Langton by Spilsby in 1066AD and just adopted the Langton name may be in an attempt to fool everybody! That is of course, just one result and perhaps other Langtons will come up with that native R1b. We need to try elsewhere to reverse this unfortunate start.


In Lancashire, home of the Beatles situated in north west England lived the famous Baron Langtons of Newton, a family originally coming from Leicestershire. Baron Langton’s men famously stole Richard III’s banner when he was merely Duke of York. As part of Lord Stanley’s army they probably took part in the charge that killed Richard. After the Battle of Bosworth, Richard’s banner was displayed in Wigan Parish Church for decades to mock the last of the Plantagenet line. So were Baron Langton’s group that attacked the last and possibly only group G king from group r1b? No, they are not! Then were they i1? Again, No! They too are i2 from Continental Europe. The search for a truly native British Langton is getting in serious trouble. However, like Lincolnshire there is more than one group of Langtons in Lancashire. There was another famous group in the North of Lancashire who were amongst the first to fall out with King John and they are not i2. However they are not R1b either, they are the late arriving Middle Eastern J2 people. The minority groups have opened up a 3-0 lead in DNA matters Langton.


Yorkshire is by far the largest English county and there are two Langton locations; Langton by Malton and Langton on Swale (Great and Little Langton). The paper trail however shows three seemingly long established groups of Langtons with DNA, that is one more than the number of villages. Two of them are the dominant R1b, the other belongs to group E from the Middle East. Perhaps in the light of a variety of explanations for this numeric disturbance we should ignore these, but I’m inclined to include them. This means the gap has narrowed into a 4-2 lead for the minority groups over R1b. The dominant group is back in contention and may make a second half come back, but time is running out.


There are just four more locations left, Nottinghamshire is once more i2, Middlesex is i1 and the remaining two are both R1b in Staffordshire and South Lincolnshire/Maidenhead. However, there is one further unplaced DNA sequence left over, my own ultra rare J2 group giving a final tally of 7-4 in favour of the minority groups. Instead of R1b having 70% of the total, the minority groups have 64% and R1b is left languishing on only 36%.

The hypothesis, that having a place-name surname indicates native Anglo-Danish ancestry is a fail, as least as far as the Langton name is concerned. Whilst a different place name surname might produce a triumph for R1b the Langton research is as far as I am aware the only study of this calibre. We will have to see if anyone else can replicate this effort; until such time the Langton study stands alone. Does a common place name indicate pre conquest male ancestry? Twenty first century DNA science and analysis shows the reverse is true, having the common place name Langton indicates comparatively recent arrival from the Continent with probable Norman ancestry and DNA.


If Stephen Langton’s unknown group is consistent with this pattern then he is unlikely to be R1b and he is more likely to be of Norman origin. In records the surname consistently begins with the French ‘de’ Langton meaning ‘of’ Langton. The adoption of Langton as a surname was because they held land there. Most Langtons were therefore of foreign extraction, junior members of baronial families and typically knights. We know that Stephen’s brother Walter was a knight in the Albigensien crusade in Southern France where he was captured, imprisoned and ransomed.


Stephen may well have gone to study at the nascent University of Paris in part because he had continental relatives. It opens the door to Stephen’s ideas about kingship being imported rather than home grown. Langton disseminated these ideas to the barons and Magna Carta was the result. Rather than just a parochial baronial text it is a truly European document with ideas from Paris and elsewhere. Almost removed from some historical accounts of Magna Carta, the conclusion is that without Stephen Langton and the church Magna Carta wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened.


1) Powicke Stephen Langton P8


Copyright David Langton 03 May 2015 all rights reserved.