13th July 1205.
Nowadays Archbishops of Canterbury play largely a nominal role in society: in medieval times they were integral to the running of the country.
Now the Archbishop is selected from a largely uninspiring bunch of little consequence; then the appointment could have serious national consequences.(1)
From the 6th century conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the Reformation, the pope controlled the English Church, and though in theory the cathedral or abbey chapter had a voice in the selection of the Archbishop, in truth, as the role became more important, it was popes and kings who made the decision.
After the 11thc Gregorian reforms there was a marked move to reduce secular power over church business, including episcopal appointments, with more power ostensibly given to cathedral or abbey chapters.
However archiepiscopal selections were another matter, which we see following the death Today of Archbishop Hubert Walter in 1205, which led to a dispute between the Pope and King John over a successor.
The King wanted John de Grey, Bishop of Norwich, whilst the monks at Canterbury wanted their sub-prior Reginald, which resulted in a mission to Rome to resolve matters.
In the event the Pope in 1207, chose Stephen Langton, only for him to be banished by the King.
The result an Interdict was placed on England so no church services could take place, followed by the King’s Excommunication, thus automatically absolving his right to his subjects’ allegiance.
It resulted in a barons’ revolt, invasion by the French King, Louis VIII and Magna Carta.
By the 19th century with a national church, elections tended to be more ‘club-able’ and on the whim of the Prime Minister, a time of the interchange between Public School Heads and the Primacy, with the likes of Tait, Benson and Fisher.
A time of the Tory Benjamin Disraeli’s reluctant appointment of Tait in 1868, at Victoria’s insistence, but taken in the face of a general election.(2)
Then the Liberal, William Gladstone appointed his friend, though a Tory, E.W.Benson, another favourite of the Queen.
In 1903 Archbishop, Randall Davidson was nominated by Arthur Balfour and set to be the longest serving Primate since the Reformation, and also the first to take retirement.(3)
In 1945 Churchill appointed Fisher ex Repton School Head, in preference to Bell of Chichester, who had criticized the bombing campaign. Three years before Temple had been appointed, despite Churchill thinking him insufficiently bellicose.
By 1960 Archbishop Fisher had been persuaded to resign, but told Prime Minister, Macmillan that he didn’t favour Ramsey, who had told the PM, that as Fisher ‘had been his old headmaster, he knew his deficiencies’, to which Macmillan replied: ‘well he is not going to be my headmaster’, and duly appointed him.
(1) Crown Nominations Commission now cull out a name which goes to the Prime-Minister and Queen, which the canons of Canterbury ratify.
(2) Archbishop Tait lost five of his seven children to scarlet fever, also another son and his wife, whilst in office.
(3) End Column, C Howse, Daily Telegraph, Saturday, October 6th 2012.
Ref: As Good as Gold/As Clever as the Devil, The Impossible Life of Mary Benson: Atlantic Rodney Bell 2011.