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St Albans Cathedral Finds Lost Abbot

Archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) working at St Albans Cathedral have discovered the grave of John of Wheathampstead, a former Abbot of national and international renown, who died in 1465, and whose burial site had remained a mystery up until now.

Papal Bulls, Abbot Wheathampstead Burial Site / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Papal Bulls, Abbot Wheathampstead Burial Site / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

In an extremely rare development, the team also discovered three papal seals, known as ‘papal bulls’, inside the grave, issued by Pope Martin V (1417-1431). The bulls would have been attached to a vellum document by either hemp or silk cords depending on whether the role of the charter was respectively a letter of justice or grace. Traces of the cord may be preserved in the soil that adheres to the bulls, but identification requires further specialized analysis.

It is the presence of these bulls that confirm that this is the grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Professor James Clark (University of Exeter), an expert on the Abbey’s medieval history, has found that early in his career Abbot John secured three special privileges at an audience with Pope Martin and that he was remembered ever after for his great success when visiting the papal court.

Abbot Wheathampstead Burial Site

Abbot Wheathampstead Burial Site / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Born c.1390 in Wheathampstead, John was abbot at St Albans from 1420–1440. Although he resigned due to ill health, he was re-elected in 1451 and remained in office until his death in 1465. John is known to have travelled to Italy in 1423 and secured an audience with Martin V, where he made three requests to the Pope for privileges to be granted to his abbey and its monks. Pope Martin assented, and three bulls were issued to the abbot: two dated 19 November 1423 and one 24 November 1423. John died January 20, 1465, and his remains have been found in a brick lined tomb, positioned close to both the presbytery and transept and almost certainly situated within a building dating from the fifteenth century.

The archaeological dig at St. Alban’s provides a unique opportunity to explore the buried history of the Abbey. Beneath hundreds of post-medieval burials are the substantial remains of a 14th to 15th century building which historians now think may be the chapel which Abbot John built. The foundations of this chapel overlie earlier evidence for the lost Norman Apsidal chapels that formed part of the original Cathedral built by Paul of Caen in 1077.

Abbot Wheathampstead Burial Site / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Remains of Abbot John of Wheathampstead / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said, “Abbot John added a great deal to the renown and the beauty of the Abbey, and attracted many new pilgrims from Britain and overseas. He also defended the Abbey from destruction during the Wars of the Roses and was proud to say that he had preserved its treasures for future generations. It seems appropriate that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint’ project, which aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors. As John would certainly wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony.”

Papal Bull of Martin V / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Papal Bull of Martin V / Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Professor Clark said, “Not only did Abbot John raise St Albans Abbey to the pinnacle of the English church, he was also celebrated in his own right, a Renaissance man when the Renaissance was still in its infancy, a renowned churchman, scholar and politician, who was courted by princes as well as popes.”

The dig at St Albans Cathedral is taking place in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. The project aims to raise the profile of St Albans Cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain and birth place of Magna Carta. Built on the site of the martyrdom of Britain’s first saint, St Albans Abbey was the venue for the very first meeting between barons and clergy to discuss their grievances against King John in August, 1213. This historic meeting ultimately led to the articles that became Magna Carta, sealed at Runnymede two years later.

Archaeological work continues at St Albans Cathedral until early 2018 and the new Welcome Centre opens in June 2019. You can visit their website at www.stalbanscathedral.org .

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