A major discovery has been made by archaeologists working at St Albans Cathedral following development work.
The grave of former Abbot John of Wheathampstead, who died in 1465, has been located after an archaeological dig.
The dig at St Albans Cathedral is 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. The project aims to raise the profile of St Albans Cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain and birth place of Magna Carta.
In an extremely rare development, the team from Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) also discovered three papal seals, known as ‘papal bulls’, inside the grave, 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 (University of Exeter), who is an expert on the Abbey’s medieval history, has 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.
Professor Martin Biddle, working with the team from CAT and who led the excavation work for the Cathedral’s new Chapter House in 1978, commented: “The finding of three leaden seals is a unique discovery in archaeology.”
The archaeological dig provides a unique opportunity to explore the buried history of the Abbey. For a hundred years from 1750 until around 1852 the area served as the parish graveyard where whole families were buried together often victims of devastating epidemics such as the great cholera outbreak of the 1830’s. Beneath these post-medieval burials are the substantial remains of a 14th to 15th century building which historians now think may be the chapel which 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.”
Archaeological work continues at St Albans Cathedral until early 2018 and the new Welcome Centre opens in June 2019.