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The reburial of John of Wheathampstead at St Albans Cathedral

John of Wheathampstead

On Saturday 30 July, Ross and I attended a special Evensong service at St Albans Cathedral held for the reburial of John Bostock (born c 1390), better known as John of Wheathampstead, a fifteenth century abbot of St Albans Abbey.

The reburial marked the end of a journey for the abbot which began with the discovery of his remains in 2017 during archaeological excavations prior to construction of the new cathedral Welcome Centre as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project.

Abbot John was elected to his post at St Albans twice during his lifetime. His first term spanned 1420 to 1440 when ill health led to his resignation, but he was unanimously re-elected as abbot in 1451 and remained in position until his death in 1465. An education at Gloucester College, Oxford inspired in John a love of learning and especially of books.

He was recorded to be a man respected for his intellect but also for his ability to meet the needs of the community in his role as abbot. In 1423 John was chosen by the Archbishop of Canterbury to travel to Italy as representative for the English clergy at the general meeting of the Roman church in Pavia. Never a man to neglect his duties he left a clear set of rules to be followed by the monks of St Albans in his absence, the details of which show a hearteningly familiar collection of frustrations that the abbot must have struggled with on a routine basis. These included not staying up late, no chatting in the vestry, not showing visitors the abbey treasures without prior arrangement and no chatting with women or visiting the local nunneries without permission to do so!

The trip to Italy did not go according to plan. An outbreak of plague forced the delegation to be moved more than 200 miles south to Siena, and once there the meeting proved frustrating to John who decided to travel an extra 150 miles to Rome to seek an audience with Pope Martin V himself. Unfortunately, upon his arrival in Rome John became exceedingly sick, his condition deteriorating so quickly that the pope thought him unlikely to recover. But recover he did, and when he finally met with Pope Martin he presented him with gifts and a request for three privileges to be conferred upon St Albans Abbey. The pope readily agreed to all of them. The privileges meant that the monks of St Albans no longer had to adhere to the custom of fasting throughout Lent, were allowed the use of a portable altar, and had permission to lease their properties under new terms. The documents were each sealed with an official lead bull of Pope Martin V which Abbot John appears to have retained throughout his life as a memento of the special favours granted to the abbey.

It would appear that upon his death John requested the bulls should be buried with him, as it was their discovery that led to the initial identification of his remains in 2017. Prior to this, the location of Abbot John’s grave had been a mystery – the place he would have occupied in a tomb adjacent to the shrine of St Alban in the cathedral presbytery was instead used for the internment of his friend Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester who died in 1447. The 2017 excavation revealed John was instead buried in a small brick and flint built tomb within a lost chapel that lay south-west of the presbytery.

John of Wheathampstead

Osteological analysis by Dr Emma Pomeroy (The University of Cambridge) demonstrated contemporary accounts of an elderly man in failing health at the time of his death. Evidence was recorded for the ossification of the cartilage of the ribcage and thyroid which, although not unusual in an individual of his age, was extensive and likely to have led to some restriction in his breathing. Also present was evidence for bruxism (tooth grinding) that may be consistent with historical allusions to the abbot being of a nervous disposition, or could potentially be related to stress, though it is not possible to know the cause for certain. He had also suffered significant tooth loss, perhaps related to a rich monastic diet. In general, however, he was in relatively good health for his age, with only minor signs of joint degeneration, and was of slightly above average stature for the time at 172cm, 5’6” tall. The high level of bone preservation also enabled facial reconstruction to be carried out by Face Lab, led by Professor Caroline Wilkinson (Liverpool John Moores University), best known for the facial reconstruction of King Richard III.

John of Wheathampstead

The service at the cathedral was dedicated to Abbot John, and a sermon by the present Dean of St Albans the Very Reverend Jo Kelly-Moore mentioned his achievements and his legacy to the Abbey that he dedicated his life to serving. His remains were contained in a specially commissioned, modestly decorated metal ossuary, placed within which were replicas of the papal bulls that he had carried with him for forty years in life, and which had followed him into the grave. Covering the sealed ossuary was a purple pall, decorated with Johns symbols of the lamb and the eagle. His remains now reside in the tomb he should originally have occupied, resting beside the coffin of his great friend Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

Jess Twyman, Senior Archaeologist

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