What does the Magna Carta demonstrate about the power of the Catholic Church during this time?

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The vital role played by the Church in the Magna Carta has tended to be minimized by successive generations of historians. The traditional historical narrative is that of a group of sturdy English noblemen laying down the law to a tyrant king, establishing a precedent of constitutional liberty which persists to this day. The Church is usually omitted from the picture altogether.

And yet Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and England's most senior cleric, played as crucial a part as anyone in drawing up and enforcing the Magna Carta. One doesn't have to look very far in the document to see his influence. Clause One states "that the English Church is to be free, and to have its full rights and its liberties intact". That Langton was able to get such a clause inserted into the Magna Carta is testimony to the extraordinary political power that the Church enjoyed in Medieval Europe.

To a large extent, the underlying principles of the Magna Carta were shaped by Christian theology, especially those theological ideas which saw the Church's role as placing limits on the authority of kings. Archbishop Langton was himself an enthusiastic devotee of such ideas. He regularly preached against the evils of tyrant kings ruling without restraint and crushing their subjects beneath the weight of unjust taxation. The parallels with King John were hard to avoid making.

Langton's boldness in thus expressing himself was no doubt related to the enormous power and influence which the Church wielded in the England of his day, and which found its ultimate expression in the Magna Carta's assertive language of liberty.

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