Last month a unique and remarkable discovery came to light during an archaeological dig taking place as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project at St Albans Cathedral. A 15th century skeleton was uncovered and, in an extremely rare development, was found to be accompanied by three papal bulls issued by Pope Martin V (1417-31), indicating that this was no ordinary burial.
Knowing that this was likely to be a person of some significance, the Cathedral sought the help of James Clark, Professor of History at Exeter University and an expert on the medieval history of the Abbey. Within hours he identified the skeleton as that of Abbot John of Wheathampstead due to the presence of the bulls which signify three special privileges made by the Pope to St Albans Abbey.
Cathedral Guide Laura Bloom spoke to Professor Clark, who has studied the life of Abbot Wheathampstead for 25 years, to find out more about this fascinating figure from the Cathedral’s history.
LB What were your thoughts when you first realised this was Abbot Wheathampstead?
JC The immediate feeling is quite strange because, as a historian, when you have been writing about someone for a while, they stop being real. There’s a lot I know about this man so to finally see him face to face was both amazing and unnerving. Ever since I started my PhD in 1992 I have been living with John of Wheathampstead and I’ve spent a good deal of my professional career handling the books he owned and reading his manuscripts. You’re getting to know someone through all the other attributes except through the self.
LB What does the discovery mean for your research?
JC It’s wonderful. I have three or four projects about St Albans moving forward in parallel so it’s good timing. There is more to be done on Wheathampstead, especially in relation to the interesting story of how he obtained the three papal bulls he was found with.
LB Why are the papal bulls so significant?
JC Abbot John visited Italy in 1423, hoping to secure an audience with the pope. Whilst there he became so ill that Pope Martin V sent his own physicians to tend to him; at one point officials administered Extreme Unction as one of the Last Rites. Though he came close to death, the Abbot went on to make a full and miraculous recovery. Rejoicing in his return to health, Abbot John was determined to secure some benefit from his visit and requested three special privileges for the abbey which would mark it out from its rivals. Pope Martin V willingly granted the privileges which allowed the abbey to exercise greater independence in its religious life and in the management of its income. On his return, the monks congratulated Abbot John for his achievement and to the end of his long life they celebrated him for these three papal bulls. In his obituary, it was said that he should be remembered for his ‘three-fold’ character, a gesture to the recollection of the three privileges he had won for the Abbey so long before.
LB What were some of the other highlights of Abbot John’s life?
JC Wheathampstead was a builder in London, Oxford and St Albans – even today you can still see a trace of his work in the St Albans saltire on the wall outside Worcester College, Oxford. He was also a cultural patron of international reputation; a patron of writing in both Latin and English and of the scribes and artists who made the finest medieval manuscripts. He was an avid collector of books and also a writer himself. He compiled a vast encyclopaedia on historical, literary and political topics. He also wrote poetry, lively and colourful although much of it makes for difficult reading now. It is also worth emphasising that he was a public figure at a fascinating point in history, between the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and the height of the Wars of the Roses (1455-85). This is a man who knew personally Kings Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and their queens Katharine de Valois, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville (the ‘White Queen’). The final significant public act that Wheathampstead coordinated was a royal visit. In 1458 Henry VI came to St Albans with his entire household and visited all the holy places in St Albans, including the outlying chapels and nunneries. That spectacle of the nation’s great and good all coming to St Albans typifies the status of the place at that time. It’s one of the last moments Henry VI is lucid enough to make a royal progress.
LB Finally, what do we know about what Abbot John of Wheathampstead was really like?
JC I have to say I doubt he would have been very likeable. He was very pleased with himself. In fact, his self-esteem was almost out of control. The main annal of his own life is a reverse piece of ghost writing – it purports to be by another monk (it would not be very good monastic humility to write an autobiography!) but it appears to have been written by John himself. Yet, he was also a man of some vision. He was drawn towards the wider world beyond his own monastery and especially to the society and culture of mainland Europe. He was well aware that there were new movements in art, literature and learning passing out of Italy and across Europe – what we now see as the beginnings of the Renaissance – and he was eager for England to join them despite the fact that the descent into civil war threatened to isolate the kingdom for a generation.
Few of the abbots of St Albans are as colourful as Wheathampstead. We already knew much about him and his place his time. With this discovery we have a piece of the jigsaw few would ever have imagined we would have.
The discovery of John of Wheathampstead comes at a momentous time for St Albans Cathedral. The Alban, Britain’s First Saint project currently underway will raise the profile of the oldest site of continuous Christian Worship in Britain and transform the visitor welcome. Abbot John was proud to say he had he had preserved the Cathedral’s treasures for future generations so it is appropriate that he has appeared as we are trying to do the same.
You can read more about John of Wheathampstead and his life at Professor James Clark’s Blog: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/medievalstudies/