It is probable that this pacification was the result of a new quarrel which John had just taken up with a new enemy the Papacy. The dispute on the question of free election, which was to range over all the central years of his reign, had just begun.
In the end of 1205 Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, had died. The king announced his intention of procuring the election of John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich, as his successor; but, though his purpose was well known, the chapter (i.e. the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury) met secretly and elected their sub-prior Reginald as archbishop. They sent him to Rome at once, to receive confirmation from Pope Innocent III, whom they knew to be a zealous champion of the rights of the Church. But John descended upon them in great wrath, and by threats compelled them to hold a second meeting, and to elect his nominee Gray, in whose name application for confirmation was also made to the pope. Innocent, however, seeing a splendid chance of asserting his authority, declared both the elections that had taken place invalid, the first because it had been clandestine, the second because it had been held under force majeure, and proceeded to nominate a friend of his own Cardinal Stephen Langton, an Englishman of proved capacity and blameless life, then resident in Rome. He was far the worthiest of the three candidates, but it was an intolerable invasion of the rights of the English crown and the English Church that an archbishop should be foisted on them in this fashion. The representatives of the chapter who had been sent to Rome were persuaded or compelled to elect him in the popes presence (December 1206).
King John was furious, and not without good reason; he refused to accept Langton, whom he declared (quite unjustly) to be a secret friend of Philip of France, and sequestrated the lands of the monks of Canterbury. On this the pope threatened to lay an interdict on himself and his realm. The king replied by issuing a proclamation to the effect that he would outlaw any clerk who should accept the validity of such an interdict and would confiscate his lands. Despising such threats Innocent carried out his threat, and put England under the ban of the Church on the 23rd of March 1208.
In obedience to the pope's orders the large majority of the English clergy closed their churches, and suspended the ordinary course of the services and celebration of the sacraments. Baptism and extreme unction only were continued, lest souls should be lost; and marriages were permitted but not inside the walls of churches. Foreseeing the wrath of the king against all who obeyed the mandate from Rome, the larger number of the bishops and many others of the higher clergy fled overseas to escape the storm. Those who were bold enough to remain behind had much to endure. John, openly rejoicing at the plunder that lay before him, declared the temporalities of all who had accepted the interdict, whether they had exiled themselves or no, to be confiscated. His treasury was soon so well filled that he could dispense with ordinary taxation. He also outlawed the whole body of the clergy, save the timid remnant who promised to disregard the papal commands.
Nothing proves more conclusively the strength of the Angevin monarchy, and the decreasing power of feudalism, than that an unpopular king like John. could maintain his strife with the pope, and suppress the discontents of his subjects, for nearly five years before the inevitable explosion came. Probably his long immunity was due in the main to the capacity of his strong-handed justiciar Geoffrey Fitz-Peter; the king hated him bitterly, but generally took his advice. The crash only came when Geoffrey died in 1213; his ungrateful master only expressed joy. "Now by God's feet am I for the first time king of England", he exclaimed, when the news reached him. He proceeded to fill the vacancy with a mere Poitevin adventurer, Peter des Roches, whom he had made Bishop of Winchester some time before. Indeed John's few trusted confidants were nearly all foreigners, such men as the mercenary captains Gerard of Athies and Engelhart de Cigogne, whom he made sheriffs and castellans to the discontent of all Englishmen. He spent all his money in maintaining bands of hired Brabancons and routiers, by whose aid he for some time succeeded in terrorizing the countryside.
There were a few preliminary outbreaks of rebellion, which were suppressed with vigour and punished with horrible cruelty. John starved to death the wife and son of William de Braose, the first baron, who took arms against him, and hanged in a row twenty-eight young boys, hostages for the fidelity of their fathers, Welsh princes who had dabbled in treason. Such acts provoked rage as well as fear, yet the measure of John's iniquities was not full till 1212. Indeed for some time his persistent prosperity provoked the indignant surprise of those who believed him to be under a curse. If his renewed war with Philip of France was generally unsuccessful, yet at home he held his own. The most astounding instance of his success is that in 1210 he found leisure for a hasty expedition to Ireland, where he compelled rebellious barons to do homage, and received the submission of more than twenty of the local kinglets. It is strange that he came back to find England undisturbed behind him.
His long-deserved humiliation only began in the Winter of 1212-1213, when Innocent III, finding him so utterly callous as to the interdict, took the further step of declaring John deposed from the throne for contumacy, and the pope handing over the execution of the penalty to the king of France. This act provoked a certain amount of indignation in England, and in the spring of 1213 the king was able to collect a large army on Barham Down to resist the threatened French invasion. Yet so many of his subjects were discontented that he dared not trust himself to the chances of war, and, when the fleet of King Philip was ready to sail, he surprised the world by making a sudden and grovelling submission to the pope.
Not only did he agree to receive Stephen Langton as archbishop, to restore all the exiled clergy to their benefices, and to pay them handsome compensation for all their losses during the last five years, but be took the strange and ignominious step of declaring that he ceded his whole kingdom to the pope, to hold as his vassal. He formally resigned his crown into the hands of the legate Cardinal Pandulf, and took it back as the pope's vassal, engaging at the same time to pay a tribute of 1,000 marks a year for England and Ireland. This was felt to be a humiliating transaction by many of John's subjects, though to others the joy at reconciliation with the Church caused all else to be forgotten. The political effect of the device was all that John had desired. His new suzerain took him under his protection, and forbade Philip of France to proceed with his projected invasion, though ship and men were all ready (May 1213).
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.