Rare seals identify significant remains at St Albans Abbey

15 December 2017

CANTERBURY ARCHAEOLOGICAL TRUST

Papal bull: one of the three seals that identified the human remains of John of Wheathampstead, an Abbot of St Albans in the fifteenth century

Papal bull: one of the three seals that identified the human remains of John of Wheathampstead, an Abbot of St Albans in the fifteenth century

THE grave of a significant figure in the early history of St Albans Abbey has been found after being lost for centuries.

Experts say that three extremely rare papal seals, known as “bulls” found in a brick-lined tomb beside the abbey, now the cathedral, show that the accompanying human remains are those of John of Wheathampstead, a former Abbot, who died in 1465. The seals were attached to documents granting special privileges presented to Abbot John by Pope Martin V during an audience in Rome in 1424.

Dr Paul Bennett, director of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, which unearthed the grave, said: “John was a really special man; he was a man of letters and learning, he wrote books and poetry, and he lived an extremely long and active life. We are told he was reserved to the point of shyness, and yet he fought various law cases, even one against the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele.”

Abbot John’s tomb was lost when the chapel where he was buried was demolished in the late 17th century to make way for a cemetery.

“Finding three bullae in one grave is unique,” Dr Bennett said. I am not aware of any other. I have found one during my entire life in archaeology, there are bullae in the library in Canterbury — and elsewhere — but they are rare. We don’t know what they specifically related to, but once we do the research in the papal archive, we will find out. They will have a record of John of Wheathampstead’s visit to Rome and what he was presented with.”

The dig is taking place before the construction of a welcome centre, part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project, which seeks to raise the profile of the cathedral.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, described the finds as “wonderful”. He said: “Abbot John added a great deal to the renown and 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. 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.”

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