St Albans Cathedral archaeological dig uncovers the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead

Abbot Wheathampstead's burial site - Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Abbot Wheathampstead's burial site - Canterbury Archaeological Trust - Credit: Archant

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.

Abbot Wheathampstead's remains at St Albans Cathedral - Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Abbot Wheathampstead's remains at St Albans Cathedral - Canterbury Archaeological Trust - Credit: Archant

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.

Abbot Wheathampstead Papal Bulls -Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Abbot Wheathampstead Papal Bulls -Canterbury Archaeological Trust - Credit: Archant

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.

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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.

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.