Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

As we have seen in my last post, John of Wheathampstead, abbot of St Albans, travelled in 1423/24 to Italy to attend the Council of Pavia/Siena and to visit the Pope.  Both on his way to Italy and back, he visited Cologne.  This part of his trip was of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the Cologne/Bonn area of Germany.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Cologne in 1531. The unfinished cathedral is on the right.

We know about his visits from the Annales monasterii S. Albani a Johanne Amundesham.[i]  Though it has been suggested that these Annales had actually been written by Wheathampstead himself:

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.[ii]

Irrespective of whether John of Amersham or John of Wheathampstead wrote them, they are a valuable source for his travels.  We learn that Wheathampsted had organised his journey carefully and arranged for Prior John of Blewbury to take his place.

On St Cuthbert’s Day 1423 (20 March) Wheathampstead set out from St Albans with two chaplains,  Johannes Hathfelde and Johannes Langeleye, and at least seven servants.[iii]  The first name “John” obviously was very popular.  All  were local guys, the abbot from Wheathampstead and the other two from Hatfield and (King’s) Langley respectively.  Abbot John was then probably in his early 30s.[iv]

They travelled to Dover and then crossed to Calais, where they celebrated Easter (6 April) and the abbot wrote several letters.  Their journey took them through Picardy, Flanders and Brabant to Cologne on the river Rhine.  Initially, the city seems to have been regarded as little more than a stopping post on the way to Mainz:

everywhere he went by successful routes, until he reached Mainz, which is a great and wealthy city in Germany four days journey beyond Cologne, situated beside the river Rhine.[v]

However, Cologne had much more to offer than being “beside the river Rhine”, although the river access was one of the sources of its wealth.  It[vi] was the largest city in the Holy Roman Empire and an important mercantile hub, situated on various trading routes as well the Rhine.  The archbishop was also the ruler of the state of Cologne.  Until the battle of Worringen in 1288, where archbishop Siegfried von Westerburg was beaten, the archbishop/ruler had his seat in Cologne .  As a result of the citizens winning the battle, Cologne became de facto a free city and the archbishop resided elsewhere (mostly in Bonn).  Since 1383, the city had been a member of the Hanse.

The city was also an important religious hub, which might have been more interesting to our English travellers than its economic status.  With Rome and Santiago de Compostella in Spain, Cologne was one of the three most important pilgrims’ cities in Europe, with approx. 500 000 pilgrims coming each year.  The main attractions were Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins and the relics of the Three Magi. At least since the 9th century, the city regarded itself as Sancta Colonia ‘Holy Cologne’.[vii]

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Cologne Cathedral from the west

Unfortunately, the information in the Annales about Abbot Wheathampstead and his retinue’s visit to Cologne is rather limited, so the following is very much a case of speculation and “might have been”.

We know that on their way to Italy, they stayed for two weeks.  This was presumably much longer than planned.  On their first night, the abbot had been invited to dinner with the Cardinal of Piacenza, who also happened to be in the city.  He enjoyed his meal, but the “foreign food … greatly upset him”.[viii]  Immediately after the dinner he took to his bed and remained there with a fever for two weeks.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

The shrine of the Three Magi in Cologne Cathedral

The Annales don’t mention his fellow travellers, so let’s assume that they remained healthy and could enjoy some sight-seeing.  Provided they had brought their hard hats and high-viz vests, they might have gone to have a look at the cathedral, which was at the time a construction site.  There had been a series of church buildings at the site since the early 4th century.  However, construction of the Gothic cathedral, which is the one we can see today, began in 1248.  By 1423, when the travellers from St Albans came, the choir had been completed and consecrated (in 1322), but the rest, the transepts, nave and tower etc, were still in their early stages (it was only finished in the 19th century). Inside the choir, they would have been able to admire the magnificent Shrine of the Three Magi.  Inside the shrine are relics, which were part of some loot Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa obtained in Milan.  He gave them to the then archbishop of Cologne, who had the shrine made by Nicholas of Verdun.  The popularity of these relics was the reason for the decision to replace the old, Romanesque cathedral, with the new one[ix], which is why the visitors from St Albans would have come to a construction site.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

On Cologne Town Hall, there is a statue of Nicholas of Verdun, who created the shrine of the Three Magi (on the left)

Another attraction for pilgrims to Cologne was St Ursula and her entourage of virgins.[x]  There are several versions of the legend of St Ursula.  According to one, Ursula was an early British princess, who had dedicated her life to Christ.  However, when she was to marry the son of a heathen king, she agreed, but only under the condition that her husband-to-be would convert to Christianity and that she was first given three years to go on pilgrimage to Rome.   Off she went to Italy.  On her return journey she and her companions reached Cologne, which happened to be occupied by Huns at the time.  They killed off her companions, and  then also Ursula, when she refused the advances of their leader. The number of 11,000 virgins is due to a mis-reading of the number 11.

When, in 1106, the city of Cologne was extended, a large field of Roman graves was found.  These remains of normal Roman citizens were quickly seen as the remains of St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins and used and sold as religious relics.  Where the remains were found, a convent was established in the 12th century.  Its Romanesque church became very popular with pilgrims.  It is not unlikely that Wheathampstead’s travelling companions paid this church a visit, too.

Among the many churches of Cologne, there was one which would have been of particular interest to the brothers from St Albans Abbey – one dedicated to St Alban.  The first record of this parish church is dated to 1172.  It would seem likely that the English travellers would pay their respects at a church dedicated to their “own” saint.[xi]

Unfortunately, the Annales are not only quiet about the tourist hot spots, which John of Hatfield and John of Langley might have visited, they don’t mention either where they might have stayed while in Cologne and where the abbot’s sick bed was.  It would have been likely that the abbot and his monks from a Benedictine abbey would seek the hospitality of other Benedictine houses.  Two come to mind immediately:  Great St Martin and St Pantaleon.  The churches of both still exist and are outstanding examples of Romanesque architecture.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Abbey of St Pantaleon in 1625, by Carolus Stengelius

There are several reasons, why the latter might have been more attractive to Abbot Wheathampstead and his team.  St Pantaleon played an important part in the life of the archbishopric of Cologne.  A travel report from roughly 250 years earlier has survived.  In 1181, two monks from the monastery of Grandmont in the diocese of Limoges travelled to Cologne on a relic shopping expedition.[xii]  They managed to acquire the remains of altogether three “virgins”.  As a previous archbishop had put a ban on the export of relics, they had to get a permission of the present archbishop, Philipp von Heinsberg, to be able to take them home.  The monks tell their readers that Philipp spent his evenings at St Pantaleon, where he dined and met up with friends.  Here, important issues of the archbishopric were discussed and decided on by a small circle of close confidants of the archbishop.  Documents from the time in office of other archbishops indicate that this was a common tradition.

However, the cult of St Pantaleon lost some of its interest as time went by, which led to an economic downturn for the monastery.[xiii]  Another factor was probably that as after 1288 the archbishops did no longer reside in Cologne, its function as an unofficial residence would also have been diminished, though he still came for important church events.

However, St Pantaleon would have had another big attraction to the travellers from England.  Though dedicated to St Pantaleon, it also had relics of two other saints, Marinus und Albinus.  And the latter is widely held to be none other than the Roman martyr from St Albans.  Why St Alban of Verulamium became St Albinus is not quite clear.  However, this was apparently a wide-spread phenomenon and it has been shown “that in the second half of the eighth century in north-east France, Belgium and the Rhineland Alban of Verulamium underwent a name-change”.[xiv]

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Brun, Archbishop of Cologne, who founded St Pantaleon.

The Benedictine abbey of St Pantaleon was founded c. 957 by archbishop Brun[xv], the youngest son of king Heinrich I and thus a brother of Otto I, called “the Great”.  Brun was archbishop of Cologne from 953 until his death in 965, when he was just 40 years old. He also founded other Benedictine houses and extended the old (Romanesque) cathedral, but St Pantaleon seems to have been his favourite.  According to his wishes, he was buried there.

The abbey had to thank the Empress Theophanu for its relics said to be those of St Alban.  She was a princess from Constantinople, who was married to Otto II, the son of Otto I (and thus a nephew of Archbishop Brun).  In 984, she brought the relics from Rome to Cologne and gave them to her favourite abbey – St Pantaleon (she would also be buried there).  In 1186, Heinrich von Hürne, who was at that time abbot of the abbey, donated a valuable shrine for the relics and that is where they have been ever since.[xvi]

There are differing opinions, whether the bones are really those of the man martyred in England in the beginning of the 4th century.[xvii]    Though whoever they might belong to, they are still seen as the real deal.  As the remains in the shrine in St Albans  were lost during the reformation,  St Pantaleon presented the Cathedral in England in 2002 with a bone, which was placed in the shrine, so that St Albans Cathedral now also has a part of their saint.[xviii]

Presumably, abbot John would have known the legend of the relics.  Undoubtedly, this, in connection with it being a Benedictine abbey, would have made St Pantaleon an attractive choice to seek hospitality for the abbot of a Benedictine house dedicated to St Alban.

It is known that Wheathampstead was a collector of books and was seen as a patron of the scribes and the artists who produced manuscripts. St Pantaleon had a famous library and had at least in its earlier days been a prominent place for the production of illustrated manuscripts. [xix] It is to be assumed that an abbey like this would have been of great interest to Abbot John.

Wheathampstead recovered after two weeks and, after writing a letter to his brothers in St Albans, he and his team could continue towards Siena, via Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Ulm and so on.  It was stated that Mainz was a “four days journey” on from Cologne (190 km), but, unfortunately, we don’t learn anything about where they stopped en route.  Whether they visited Bonn and possibly met archbishop Dietrich von Moers (in office 1414-1463), who spent most of his time there, is not known.[xx]

On their return journey, Abbot Wheathampstead and his retinue travelled again via Cologne, where they arrived just before the “feast of the Nativity of our Lord”.  According to the Annales, Wheathampstead and his group stayed for 7 weeks and landed back in England on 9 February 1424.  To allow sufficient time for the rest of the journey through Burgundy and across the Channel, they probably were in Cologne from late November, in time for Advent, to mid-January.  That would have allowed them to attend the Epiphany (6 January) services at the Cathedral, which would have been special as they claim to hold the relics of the three Magi.  Wheathampstead would also have been able to catch up with visiting other places of interest in Cologne.

However, he would have missed carnival.  Ash Wednesday fell in 1424 on 11 February[xxi] – just two days after he landed in England.  Then as now, carnival has been one of the most important events in the Cologne diary.[xxii]  In the middle ages the main day was the night before Ash Wednesday, which is the start of the season of lent before Easter. The word “carnival” is supposed to come from carne vale, ‘farewell meat’.

The partying did not stop at the gates of monasteries. Caesarius of Heisterbach (died after 1240) wrote about a rather boozy party of monks at Prüm on the night before Ash Wednesday in the 13th century.  During the season the strict hierarchies, secular as well as clerical, were reversed, with the lower orders making fun of their superiors.  Prof Clark has studied Wheathampstead extensively and came to the conclusion that “He was very pleased with himself. In fact, his self-esteem was almost out of control.”[xxiii]  So it is just possible that he didn’t want his monks and staff to get any wrong ideas and made sure to get home in time.  Or maybe after all the time the abbot and his companions had spent on the road, they just wanted to go home and sleep in their own beds.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence what any of the visitors from St Albans did while in Cologne.  However, the above is an overview of what the city had to offer which would have been of interest to clerical travellers like Abbot Wheathampstede, John of Hatfield and John of Langley.


[i] Annales monasterii S. Albani a Johanne Amundesham, Vol. I (A.D. 1421-1440), ed. by Henry Thomas Riley.  London, 1870, p.129+182.  I am tremendously grateful to Heather Falvey for translating the two passages for me and supporting me with her advice

[ii] ‘The Lost Abbot: Who was John of Wheathampstead?’, Alban, Britain’s first saint (22 Jan. 2018).  URL: [last accessed 24 Jan. 2018] (an interview with Prof James Clark of Exeter University)

[iii] Annales monasterii S. Albani a Johanne Amundesham, p.4; George B. Parks, The English Traveler to Italy, Vol. 1, The Middle Ages (to 1525).  Edizione di Storia e Letteratura, Roma, 1954, p.294

[iv] According to the ODNB he was born c.1392.  Clark, J.G., ‘Whethamstede, John (c.1392–1465)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 11 Dec. 2017]

[v] Annales, p.129

[vi] Lehnen, G.,   ‘Das mittelalterliche Köln  –  Rheinmetropole Köln (Cöllen) im Mittelalter‘, Köln – die Rheinmetropole und alte Römerstadt.  URL: [last accessed 4 Feb. 2018]

[vii] Haverkamp, A., ‘”Heilige Städte” im hohen Mittelalter’, Vorträge und Forschungen des Konstanzer Arbeitskreises für mittelalterliche Geschichte, Vol. 35 (1987), pp.123

[viii] Annales, p.129

[ix] Wolff, A., Cologne Cathedral:  Its History – Its Works of Art. Greven Verlag Köln, 2009 (first published 1995), pp.2-7 + p.26

[x] Rosen, W., ‘Ursula, Heilige’, Portal Rheinische Geschichte (30 Sept. 2010). URL: [last accessed 4 March 2018]; Kühn, C., ‘Kanonissenstift St. Ursula’, KuLaDig, Kultur.Landschaft.Digital (2012). URL: [last accessed 4 March 2018]; ‘St. Ursula Köln’, baukunst-nrw.  URL:–631.htm [last accessed 4 March 2018]

[xi] The medieval church was extensively rebuilt in the 17th century and nearly completely destroyed during WWII.  The ruins have been preserved as a memorial to the dead of the Second World War and the NS Dictatorship.  Krings, U., ‘Alt Sankt Alban mit den Kollwitz-Skulpturen‘, KuLaDig, Kultur.Landschaft.Digital (2004). URL: [last accessed 1 Feb. 2018]

[xii] Corsten, K., ‘Eine Reise französischer Mönche nach Köln, Bonn und Siegburg im Jahre 1181’, Annalen des historischen Vereins für den Niederrhein insbesondere das alte Erzbistum Köln, Vol. 116 (1930), pp.29-60

[xiii] Samerski, S., ‘Die Kölner Pantaleonsverehrung’, Forschungen zur Volkskunde, Vol. 51 (2005); Wolf, G., ‚ ‘Erzbischof Brun I. von Köln und die Förderung gelehrter Studien in Köln’, Satura mediaevalis: Gesammelte Schriften ; Hrsg. zum 65. Geburtstag (Band 2): Ottonenzeit. Heidelberg, 1995, pp.219-228; ‚Benediktinerabtei Sankt Pantaleon‘, in: KuLaDig, Kultur.Landschaft.Digital (2011). URL: [last accessed 6 Jan. 2018]

[xiv] Laynesmith, M.D., ‘Translating St Alban: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon Cults’, Studies in Church History, Vol.53 (June 2017), pp.68-69

[xv] Joachim Schäfer, ‘Bruno I. von Köln‘, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon (20 Sept. 2017).  URL: [last accessed 6 Feb. 2018]

[xvi] ‚Kirchenführer:  Hl. Albanus‘, St Pantaleon Köln.  URL: [last accessed 14 Feb. 2018]

[xvii] Reichenbach favours the identification of them with the English St Alban:  Klaus Martin Reichenbach, ‚22. Juni‘, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon, Florilegium Martyrologii Romani (2004).  URL: [last accessed 5 Feb. 2018].  On the other hand, Schäfer states that they are the remains of a St Albin of Rome and that the identity of the English saint was transferred onto him to distinguish him from the St Albanus of Mainz:  Schäfer, J., ‘Albin von Rom’, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon (2 Sept. 2015).  URL: [last accessed 5 Feb. 2018]. Biddle in the ODNB says that they “are still identified as belonging to St Alban”: Biddle, M., ‘Alban (d. c.303?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 25 March 2018]

[xviii] ‘Relic of St Alban returns’, BBC News (29 June 2002).  URL: [last accessed 3 Feb. 2018].  Dean Jeffrey John explained in a sermon of 2010 what this means for the Cathedral:  John, J., ‘The Alban Relic – Preached at the Sunday Eucharist, Albantide 2010’, St Albans Cathedral (June 2010).  URL: [last accessed 3 Feb. 2018]

[xix] ‘The Lost Abbot: Who was John of Wheathampstead?’; ‘Theophanu und die Folgen: Die griechisch-lateinische Kultur und die Handschriften von St. Pantaleon zu Köln’, Das Evangeliar der Äbtissin Hitda – eine ottonische Prachthandschrift aus Köln. Primus Verlag, Darmstadt, 2011, pp.15-29

[xx] Niesen, J., ‚Dietrich von Moers‘, Bonner Personen Lexikon. Bouvier-Verlag, Bonn, 3rd edition 2011, pp.113-114

[xxi] ‘Datum und Wochentag für Aschermittwoch berechnen‘, Rechner-Club.  URL: [last accessed 27 March 2018]

[xxii] ‚Der Karneval von seinen Anfängen bis zur Reform‘, Karneval.  URL: [last accessed 27 March 2018]; Frick, M.E., ‚Karneval, Fasnacht und Fasching im Mittelalter‘, curiositas – Interessantes und Kurioses aus dem Mittelalter (Jan. 2018).  URL: [last accessed 27 March 2018]

[xxiii] ‘The Lost Abbot: Who was John of Wheathampstead?’

One thought on “Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

  1. Pingback: Digging deeper at St Albans | Dottie Tales

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