Easter 2020 will be the first Easter in the history of the Church when Catholics in most parts of the world will not be able to attend Mass. The situation is unprecedented. It is not, however, entirely unprecedented in England. Even during the dark days of Elizabethan persecution, there was always somewhere the faithful could gather to hear Mass; to find a precedent for the current situation, where the Church itself has suspended the public celebration of Mass, we need to go back over 800 years to the reign of King John.
On 23 March 1208 (coincidentally, the same day in 2020 that the government imposed a “lockdown” on the UK), under instructions from Pope Innocent III, the English bishops suspended the celebration of Mass throughout the kingdom, as well as the other sacraments. That year there would be no Easter liturgy, and the suspension went on for six long years. The suspension of 1208-1214 had nothing to do with a pandemic or with public health; it was, instead, the product of ecclesiastical politics, and was imposed on England by the Pope to punish King John.
Following the death of Archbishop Hubert Walter in 1205, King John tried to force the chapter of Canterbury Cathedral to elect a successor favorable to the King, but Pope Innocent III summoned the chapter to Rome where they elected Stephen Langton in 1207. The King refused to accept Archbishop Langton, prompting the Pope to instruct the English bishops to impose an interdict. The Mass was suspended (although a handful of indulgenced altars were exempted), along with the other sacraments. Funerals could not take place, nor could anyone be buried in consecrated ground. Churchyards were closed, and even bishops who died during this period were buried by the roadside. Churches were forbidden to ring their bells – and given that church bells at this time served to mark the time as well as sounding warnings to the community, the loss of bells was a major disruption to medieval life.
There were only two general exceptions to the interdict. Priests were still permitted to baptize children, hear the confessions of the dying and absolve them. In this respect the interdict differed from the present prohibitions, which extend to the sacraments of baptism, reconciliation and anointing of the sick. The rationale of the medieval Church in allowing these two sacraments to continue was that the English people should still be allowed access to salvation, even if they were excluded from the grace of the other sacraments. However, in contrast to the period of the interdict, under the present restrictions funerals can still continue under certain strict limitations.
Medieval people lived in fear of the penalty of excommunication, which was widely regarded as a kind of living death. The chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall, who later excised any description of the English interdict from his chronicle, described with horror an earlier interdict imposed on France in 1200:
O what a horrible and miserable spectacle it was to see in every city the sealed doors of the churches, Christians shut out from entry as though they were dogs, the cessation of divine office, the withholding of the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, the people no longer flocking to the famous celebrations of saints’ days, the bodies of the dead not given to burial according to Christian rites, of whom the stink infected the air and the horrible sight filled with horror the minds of the living.
For King John, who was not a king renowned for his piety, the interdict represented an opportunity to force the bishops into exile while seizing the revenues of their sees. Even individual priests were attacked, imprisoned and forced out of the country by the king’s supporters, while John redirected Peter’s Pence (the tax paid to Rome) to the royal coffers. John even expelled the monks of Canterbury Cathedral, anticipating the behaviour of Henry VIII in the 16th century. It was only when the pope formally deposed John in 1212 and instructed the King of France to carry out the deposition that John relented; yet as a result of John’s dishonesty and backsliding the interdict was not finally lifted until July 2 1214.
While the interdict was a terrible punishment endured by the people of England for the behaviour of their king, it left a number of important legacies. Before the interdict, it had been common for clergy to preside over trials by ordeal or by combat. When priests were forbidden to officiate over these, it became necessary to summon juries to decide guilt or innocence, and historians have argued that the development of trial by jury was a result of the interdict. Furthermore, the interdict largely ended aggressive royal interference in the appointment of bishops and heads of religious houses (at least until the Reformation). In the religious sphere, the interdict intensified the cult of the saints and of relics. Deprived of the sacraments, people increasingly flocked to shrines. In contrast to the current lockdown, people were still allowed into churches in order to make offerings, so pilgrimage largely continued.
The interdict of 1208-1214 was very different from the current suspension of public celebrations of the Mass and the subsequent closure of churches: it was punitive, and it did not take place in the context of measures to protect public health. But the effect of the interdict on people’s life of faith was much the same as a lockdown, and in response to the interdict Catholics found new and inventive ways to express their faith. In particular, the interdict seems to have produced a flourishing of lay popular devotion as people sought to feed themselves spiritually in the absence of the sacraments. Yet our current situation is crucially different from an interdict: we still have our priests and their intercession; and we still have the Mass, even if it can only be celebrated behind closed doors.