Digging deeper at St Albans

Digging deeper at St Albans

John Whetehamstede found at
St Albans Abbey

Most mornings, still half asleep, I have a look at Facebook on my phone to see whether anything monumental has happened overnight.  Most mornings I am disappointed, but the other morning I was suddenly wide awake:  Another cleric had been found, but not just any old cleric!  This one is John Whetehamstede, well-known to anyone interested in the late medieval period and the Wars of the Roses as an eye witness to the two battles of St Albans.

Digging deeper at St Albans

St Albans Cathedral seen from the east

Recently, there have been quite a few cases where the remains of historical persons, who had been missing for centuries, were refound.  Probably the most famous was Richard III, who was found in 2012 in Leicester.  Then there were several clerics, who had gone missing:  Siegfried von Westerburg, a 13th-century archbishop of Cologne, who was found again in Bonn Minster. And about 30 clerics, among them several archbishops of Canterbury, whose coffins were dug up at St Mary-at-Lambeth.  And now its abbot Whethamstede’s turn.

Let’s start at the beginning though.  St Albans is the site with the longest tradition of Christian worship in the UK, as it was here that Britain’s first saint, St Alban, was martyred 1700 years ago.  Its cathedral, the former abbey church, decided that they had to make their unique story more widely known.  So they initiated the ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project’.   Part of their plans is a new welcome centre in Sumpter Yard.  This is in an area to the east of the south transept, the Monks’ Graveyard, which – after the Dissolution – served as the parish graveyard.  (You can find a plan of St Albans Cathedral here.)  Before any building work could start, the site has been investigated since late 2016 by experts from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Not unexpectedly, they found many burials from the time when the site was used as a parish cemetery.  There was also a number of artefacts, which might have fallen out of the pockets of the grave diggers, like an intact clay pipe and several coins.

Next to the present church, in the corner between the transept and the presbytery, traces of original Norman apse-ended chapels were found, part of the structure built for abbot Paul de Caen.  As this is the abbot that Robert the Mason worked for, about whom I have written before, I found this fascinating and would like to find out more about it.

Above these Norman traces, they found the foundations of a large rectangular structure from the 14th to 15th century.  It is thought that this building was destroyed shortly after the Dissolution.  Inside was a brick-lined tomb with the remains of its original incumbent.  Buried with the remains were three papal seals or “bulls”, issued by Pope Martin V (1417-1431).  These gave the archaeologists an indication that this must be the grave of the 15th-century abbot John Whetehamstede.  While it is pretty rare to be buried with one of these seals, to be buried with three of them is unique.

The abbot’s real name was John Bostok.  He was born c.1392 in the village of Wheathampstead, near St Albans, hence the name by which he is known. After attending the grammar school at St Albans, he entered St Albans Abbey as a novice at an early age, and was incepted as doctor of theology in 1417.  Only three years later, he was elected abbot of St Albans.  He resigned in 1440 and retired to Wheathampstead.  However, after his successor John Stoke died in January 1452, he was persuaded to return and remained as abbot until his death on 20 January 1465.

Digging deeper at St Albans

West front of the former abbey church in 1805, showing Whethamstede’s west window

During his abbacy, he undertook an extensive rebuilding project.  He began the restoration of the chapter house (it was only finished during the time of his successor), rebuilt the lay chapel of St Andrew on the northern side of the abbey church, the infirmary and the bakehouse.  He is also credited with the west window, though this was replaced during the restoration process of the 19th century, and we can only see it in old pictures.  The cloister windows were glazed during his abbacy.  We also know that he had the Lady Chapel adorned with paintings and inscriptions.    The building which was found during the present dig was probably also initiated by him.   Unfortunately, none of these buildings remain in the shape they were in the 15th century.

Digging deeper at St Albans

One of Whethamstede’s west doors

However, not all is lost.  The grand oak doors, which he had made for the west front, are displayed inside the church, and the Waxhouse Gate still offers a short-cut from the city to the cathedral.  This gate was built on the boundary between the monastic precinct and the town.

Digging deeper at St Albans

Waxhouse Gate, St Albans

To keep the town safe, he completed two more bars at the entrances to the medieval town.  That’s why the duke of York and his party had to camp outside prior to the first battle of St Albans in 1455.

In addition to all these building projects, he reorganised the financial administration and acquired more properties.  However, he is primarily remembered as an educationist, who wanted to make better provision for the studies of his monks.  Therefore, he had a large number of new books produced for his new library, which he himself described as ‘the best in the whole country’.[i]  He also is held responsible for building the library of Gloucester College (now Worcester College) in Oxford and giving it various books.[ii]

During the 1420s, he became associated with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, and they became friends. When Gloucester died in 1447, he arranged for his remains to be buried in his abbey church.  Duke Humphrey’s chantry chapel is in the best position, right next to the shrine of St Alban.

Digging deeper at St Albans

Chantry chapel of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester

As already mentioned, Whethamstede’s remains could be identified by the three papal bulls found with him.   Here is the description of the seals by the archaeologists:

The bullae themselves consist of circular lead discs approximately 40mm in diameter. Only the obverse side is particularly clear in these examples, with the name of the pope (written as Martinus) semi-legible. Also visible is the legend PP.V, with the PP standing for Pastor Pastorum (Shepherd of Shepherds). The bullae 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 bullae, but identification requires further specialized analysis.[iii]

In the spring of 1423, the abbot was sent to the Council of Pavia as a representative of the Benedictine order.  Here he clashed with Richard Flemming, bishop of Lincoln, as the abbey of St Albans claimed complete exemption from the episcopal jurisdiction from Lincoln.[iv]  They were later reconciled and St Albans retained its exemption.  Whethamstede first moved with the council on to Siena and then went to Rome to visit the Pope.  Soon after his arrival, he got seriously ill, but St Bernard appeared to him in a dream promising that he would survive.   After his recovery, he presented the Pope with three requests, which were all granted with papal bulls:

  1. a limitation of feasting in Lent
  2. the use of a portable altar in the Mass, in its houses in London and at Oxford
  3. the full exercise of the power formerly given by Pope Boniface IX, freely to let its lands for a yearly rent

These were quite significant privileges, distinguishing St Albans from other Benedictine houses.  It must be these three papal bulls, which were buried with him.

After another period at the council of Siena, he returned home.  It appears that he had not fully recovered his health, because he rested for 7 weeks over the Advent and Christmas period in Cologne. [v]  His return to St Albans, in February 1424, was celebrated with a great feast.[vi]

It is known that Whetehamstede built his own chantry in 1429, which was thought to be outside the south aisle of the Presbytery to the monks’ cemetery and demolished during the Dissolution.  During an excavation of the area in 1846, it was assumed that they had found his chantry, but there was only an empty tomb.  So, where was Whetehamstede?   Several suggestions were made, some more outlandish than others.   It was suggested that he was reburied inside the church, when the chantry was to be demolished.  According to another theory, his coffin was for a time standing in the watching loft, no doubt to allow the abbot to keep a watchful eye on Saint Alban even after death.

It now seems that the excavations of the 19th century did not find his chantry chapel after all.  He was buried all along in a building in the corner between south transept and presbytery, the traces of which were uncovered during the present dig.  The archaeologists hope to excavate more of this building as well as the Norman chapel underneath.

While the mystery of abbot Whethamstede’s remains has been solved, the dig opened up (pardon the pun) another one.[vii]  Among the burials of the period 1750 to 1850, was that of a child.  Around its right hand and trailing down its leg they found blue rosary beads.  At the time, the former abbey church was used as the local parish church, so why was a Catholic child buried in a Church of England parish cemetery?  Was the child a visitor, who happened to die in St Albans?  It seems likely that this will remain a mystery, at least for the time being.

Abbot Whethamstede’s remains will eventually be reburied.  The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said that “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”.[viii]


[i] Quoted in ODNB

[ii] ‘The Library’, Worcester College, University of Oxford.  URL:  http://www.worc.ox.ac.uk/visiting/library [last accessed 30 Dec. 2017]

[iii] Lane & Holman

[iv] This is recorded in detail in: Annales monasterii S. Albani a Johanne Amundesham, Vol. I (A.D. 1421-1440), ed. by Henry Thomas Riley.  London, 1870, pp.73-82

[v] Ibid., pp.153-183

[vi] Ibid., p.4

[vii] ‘St Albans Cathedral rosary bead remains ‘mystery’’, BBC News Beds, Herts & Bucks (24 Dec. 2017).  URL:  http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-42335953 [last accessed 27 Dec. 2017]

[viii] ‘St Albans Cathedral Finds Lost Abbot’

Further Reading

‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project is Underway!’, Alban, Britain’s First Saint (8 Dec. 2016).  URL:  https://albanbritainsfirstsaint.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/alban-britains-first-saint-project-is-underway/ [last accessed 11 Dec. 2017]

‘St Albans Cathedral Finds Lost Abbot’, Alban, Britain’s First Saint (7 Dec. 2017).  URL:  https://albanbritainsfirstsaint.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/st-albans-cathedral-finds-lost-abbot/ [last accessed 8 Dec. 2017]

Adams, M., ‘Digging through the dirt to uncover the history of St Albans Cathedral’, Herts Advertiser (27 Oct. 2017).  URL:  http://www.hertsad.co.uk/news/digging-through-the-dirt-to-uncover-the-history-of-st-albans-cathedral-1-5254925 [last accessed 11 Dec. 2017]

Adams, M., ‘St Albans Cathedral archaeological dig uncovers the lost grave of Abbot Wheathampstead’, Herts Advertiser (7 Dec. 2017).  URL:  http://www.hertsad.co.uk/news/st-albans-cathedral-archaeological-dig-uncovers-the-lost-grave-of-abbot-wheathampstead-1-5312692 [last accessed 8 Dec. 2017]

Clark, J.G., ‘Whethamstede, John (c.1392–1465)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 11 Dec. 2017]

Clark, J.G., ‘An abbot returns’, Exeter Centre for Medieval Studies (8 Dec. 2017).  URL:  https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/medievalstudies/2017/12/an-abbot-returns/ [last accessed 30 Dec. 2017]

Lane, R. & Holman, J., ‘Monks’ Cemetery, St Albans Cathedral’, Canterbury Archaeology Trust Ltd.  URL:  http://www.canterburytrust.co.uk/news-2/projectdiaries/monks-cemetery-st-albans-cathedral/ [last accessed 8 Dec. 2017]

Niblett, R. & Thompson, I., Alban’s Buried Towns:  An Assessment of St Albans’ Archaeology up to AD 1600. Oxbow Books, 2005

Page, W., ‘The City of St Albans’, originally published in 1908 within Volume 2 of The Victoria History of the County of Hertfordshire, ed. by W. Page. Pages 469-515 reprinted and published by The Fraternity of the Friends of Saint Albans Abbey, St Albans

Roberts, E., The Hill of the Martyr, an Architectural History of St Albans Abbey.  The Book Castle, Copt Hewick, 2008 (original work published 1993)

Wilkinson, P., ‘Rare seals identify significant remains at St Albans Abbey’, Church Times (15 Dec. 2017).  URL:  https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/15-december/news/uk/rare-seals-identify-remains [last accessed 26 Dec. 2017]

One thought on “Digging deeper at St Albans

  1. Pingback: Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne | Dottie Tales

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