St Albans Cathedral brings visitors face-to-face with abbot from 1400s

PUBLISHED: 14:59 07 September 2020

A facial reconstruction of John of Wheathampstead. Picture: Liverpool John Moores University and Facelab

A facial reconstruction of John of Wheathampstead. Picture: Liverpool John Moores University and Facelab

Archant

This is the face of the 15th century abbot of Wheathampstead - digitally reconstructed using state-of-the-art modern technology.

The skeleton of John of Wheathampstead. Picture: Canterbury Archaeological Trust.The skeleton of John of Wheathampstead. Picture: Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

The chapel of Abbot John of Wheathampstead (c1390-1465) remained undiscovered for 480 years until it was unexpectedly uncovered in December 2017 during excavations for St Albans Cathedral’s new Welcome Centre.

Three papal bulls that Pope Martin V had given him 40 years before were found with his skeleton, attached to the documents confirming the papal privileges he gained in 1423.

Work on reconstructing his face has been carried out under the supervision of Professor Clark and Dr Emma Pomeroy from the University of Cambridge and James Holman of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The reconstruction itself was performed by Professor Caroline Wilkinson of FaceLab, craniofacial identification and forensic reconstruction specialists, based at Liverpool John Moores University, and funded by the Friends of St Albans Cathedral.

To launch Heritage Open Days 2020, a new free trail has been created for Cathedral visitors to walk in Abbot John’s footsteps, as well as a brand-new exhibition which allows visitors to look into the eyes of this medieval monk. Visitors will discover a man of letters, of vision, and of international renown – and for the first time, be able to see him face-to-face.

The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John Dean of St Albans said: “The reconstruction of Abbot John of Wheathampstead’s face brings him startlingly to life, and immediately invites us to read his character from his features. He has an impish look, but also looks like a man who was not to be trifled with – as befits one of the most powerful ecclesiastical fixers of his day. I hope that seeing him in his human reality will raise interest in his life, and in the central role St Albans Abbey has played in this country’s history.”

Professor James Clark from Exeter University said: “Few contemporary portraits of the monks of medieval England are known to survive. This facial reconstruction of John of Wheathampstead offers the first accurate representation of a monastic figure in England before 1500.”

You may also want to watch:

John of Wheathampstead was one of the most important and influential Abbots of St Albans. Unusually, he held the office of Abbot twice, from 1420 to 1440, retiring through ill-health, and then from 1452 to 1465.

He was a strong Abbot who introduced internal reforms, promoted the Abbey’s property interests through much litigation and secured papal privileges for the Abbey.

He instigated many building and decoration projects during his abbacies, both in the abbey church and in the monastic buildings. Some are still visible today.

He was a widely read scholar who promoted learning among the monks and book production in the monastery. He wrote and copied books on many subjects, including an encyclopaedia, the Granarium. John was among the first to promote the new humanist writings in England and corresponded with scholars in Italy.

He was also one of the leading Benedictine abbots in England and represented the English clergy at international conferences (eg Pavia 1423). He met and corresponded with the Pope.

He cultivated the acquaintance of those in power: the King (Henry VI – a minor until 1437), the Protector (Duke Humphrey of Gloucester) and leading nobles. They visited the Abbey and their relationship was often marked by conferring on them membership of the Fraternity of St Alban. People of lower status were also invited to join the Fraternity after a gift or particular service to the Abbey.

In due course, Abbot John’s body will be laid to rest again at St Albans Cathedral, with proper prayer and ceremony.

Heritage Open Days run from Friday September 11 until Sunday September 20.


If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Herts Advertiser. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Herts Advertiser