St Albans Cathedral archaeological dig uncovers the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead
PUBLISHED: 16:27 07 December 2017 | UPDATED: 16:43 07 December 2017
In a discovery worthy of TV’s Time Team, archaeologists working at St Albans Cathedral have discovered the burial site of a “lost” abbot, together with three rare papal seals.
The grave is that of John of Wheathampstead, a former Abbot of national and international renown, who died in 1465, and whose burial site has remained a mystery to this day.
Archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) also found the collection of seals, known as papal bulls, inside the grave, which had been issued by Pope Martin V (1417-1431).
It is the presence of these bulls that confirm that this is the grave of Abbot Wheathampstead.
Professor James Clark, an expert on the Abbey’s medieval history from Exeter University, 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.
Professor Martin Biddle, who led the excavation work for the Cathedral’s new Chapter House in 1978, has been working with the CAT team and said: “The finding of three leaden seals is a unique discovery in archaeology.”
The excavations at St Albans Cathedral are 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 dig has provided a unique opportunity to explore the buried history of the Abbey. From 1750 until around 1852 the area served as the parish graveyard where whole families were buried together.
Many of these were victims of devastating epidemics such as the great cholera outbreak of the 1830s.
• Born in c1390 in Wheathampstead and died on 20 January 1465.
• Abbot at St Albans 1420–1440. He resigned due to ill health but was re-elected in 1451 and remained in office until his death in 1465.
• He travelled to Italy in 1423 and secured an audience with Martin V. 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.
• At his death, Abbot Wheathampstead was remembered for securing these three bulls from Pope Martin and details of them were recorded in the Abbey Book of Benefactors.
• In his obituary, entered into the same book, it was said that he should be remembered for his ‘three-fold’ character which may be interpreted as a gesture to the recollection of the three privileges he had won for the Abbey so long before.
• His relics 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 15th century.
Beneath these post-medieval burials are the substantial remains of a 14th to 15th century building which historians now think may be the chapel built by 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.
The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said: “It is a wonderful thing to have found the grave and relics of John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a reminder of some of the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence on the church at a time when, not unlike today, it was faced with threats of division and decline”.
He added: “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, along with his fellow Abbots in the Presbytery of the Cathedral and Abbey Church. We trust he prays for us, as we do for him.”
Annie Brewster, ex-Mayor of St Albans, portfolio holder for the district’s ceritage and councillor for Wheathampstead said: “This is amazing news about Abbot John who was born in the village circa 1390.
“His parents and two of his five siblings are buried in Wheathampstead’s St Helen’s Church and, in the inscription he wrote for them, he describes himself as ‘the brother of the pastor of the flock of the English protomartyr’ referring to Britain’s first saint, Alban. He was very much the English church’s international ambassador of his day.”
Archaeological work continues at St Albans Cathedral until early 2018 and the new Welcome Centre opens in June 2019.