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St Paul’s in the time of Magna Carta - a place staunchly opposed to King John

As the nation marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - one of the most important documents in history - Collections Manager Simon Carter looks at the significant role St Paul's played in opposition to King John.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century St Paul's Cathedral was a thriving ecclesiastical hub at the heart of City life. The building, begun in 1087, had suffered set-backs but was nevertheless a magnificent Romanesque structure with a significant precinct.

As London was the greatest material base of power in England at the time, it was also the greatest potential source of opposition and St Paul’s played an important role in the strife which led up to, and followed on from, the sealing of Magna Carta. The Cathedral was the most public of the political spaces in the City; it not only provided a stage for the some of the dramatic events but directly influenced proceedings through the activities of the clergy. 

Before he became Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett had been a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral; his parents were buried in the churchyard and his example as an ecclesiastic prepared to defy the monarch was celebrated in St Paul’s after his martyrdom in 1170. This historic link is reflected in a statue of Beckett which can be found in St Paul’s churchyard today.

There was one key figure at St Paul’s responsible for continuing Beckett’s tradition in the time of King John - a Canon called Gervase of Howbridge - one of the most determined clerical supporters of the baronial movement. Close links between the barons and the high ranks of the English clergy were common, but Gervase was particularly active in his opposition to the King.

In 1212 King John led a campaign to Wales which offered an opportunity for a plot, largely in response to the financial exactions the King had imposed in 1205. Gervase was implicated in this plot with his neighbour in the City of London, Robert Fitzwalter. When the plot was exposed before it could be enacted both were outlawed and fled into exile.

As hostility to King John grew, Gervase was able to return to the Cathedral in 1213 and he was subsequently made Dean. He orchestrated a great assembly in St Paul’s at which complaints against the King were made and, at a second council at St Paul’s in the same year, King John was forced to publicly resign the English crown to Pope Innocent III.

The negotiations for Magna Carta began.

Neither side stood behind their commitments outlined in Magna Carta, and the charter was annulled. During the civil war which followed the failure of the Magna Carta, Prince Louis of France came to England to aid the barons. He was welcomed with a great procession along Cheapside from the Tower of London to the Cathedral.

The Histoie des ducs names Gervase as responsible for counselling the Canons of the Cathedral to take the course of supporting Prince Louis. He also preached to Londoners from Paul’s Cross outside the Cathedral, exhorting them to support Louis. This is the earliest evidence for activity at Paul’s Cross, the extraordinary outdoor pulpit, once located in the north churchyard, where, at the height of its popularity, up to six thousand Londoners would collect to hear sermons and receive news.

Grateful for the support he received, Louis insisted that Gervase be included in the terms of the peace treaty which followed in 1217 - he was prepared to see Gervase stripped of his ecclesiastical benefices but only if he was equally compensated with secular rents.

You can learn much more about the history of St Paul's at